Geomorphological understanding of floods

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70 Scopus citations


The summer 1993 flooding of the upper Mississippi River valley reminds us that floods are the most globally pervasive, environmentally diverse and continually destructive of all natural hazards. The fact that flood damages continue to rise raises commonsense questions about conventional flood science. Like much modern environmental science, conventional flood science has followed the model of theoretical physics. It advanced from early emphasis on streamflow measurement to the use of simple formulae, and finally to the abstract theoretical sophistication of modern modeling studies. Two approaches are now used to "predict" flood phenomena: (1) beginning with the conventional database of measured properties of small common floods, a conceptual generalization is made to the idealized properties of the large, rare floods from which society is assumed to be at risk, and (2) explanation of detailed, specific flood phenomena is achieved through theoretical generalization (models) based on "first principles", which are assumed to apply to the entire class of phenomena. Unfortunately, both approaches devote almost all their attention to methodology, increasingly mathematical, without questioning basic underlying assumptions. Increasingly it is the assumptions, often unstated, that serve to embody the understanding of floods as real-world particular phenomena, rather than as conceptual generalities. Such trends lead to an unease that it is not floods that are being researched by much of conventional flood science. Rather, such flood "science" is increasingly becoming the mathematical manipulation of idealized parameters that are assumed to have flood-like properties. These idealizations of flood attributes are generalized, and the resulting predicted consequences are imposed upon society through engineering designs, flood-hazard zonations, and the like. Geomorphological understanding of floods derives a from along geological tradition of studying indices of real processes operating in the past. In contrast to the conceptual, theoretical treatment of floods as classes or generalizations, geomorphologists study particular floods revealed as a natural experience that is recorded in the sediments, landforms, and erosional scars of past floods. The strength of this approach is in its affinity to the commonsense perceptional basis that underpins human action. Geomorphological flood studies, including recent advances in paleoflood hydrology, are needed as a complement to conventional hydrological approaches. The resulting complementarity will allow the predictions of the conventional approach to be grounded in the concrete particulars of experience. Without such grounding, flood science risks continuing as an empty quest for universal ideals while humanity, paralyzed by inaction, continues to suffer from the reality of particular floods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-156
Number of pages18
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Aug 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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