Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Large increases in flood magnitude in response to modest changes in climate

Abstract

RECENT examinations of the possible hydrological response to global warming have emphasized changes in average conditions, rather than individual flooding events1–5. Historical accounts suggest, however, that such events may have had a considerable regional impact6–9 even in the face of any relatively modest climate change8. Here I present a 7,000-year geological record of overbank floods for upper Mississippi river tributaries in mid-continent North America, which provides concrete evidence for a high sensitivity of flood occurrence to changing climate. During a warmer, drier period between about 3,300 and 5,000 years ago, the largest, extremely rare floods were relatively small—the size of floods that now occur about once every fifty years. After ~3,300 years ago, when the climate became cooler and wetter, an abrupt shift in flood behaviour occurred, with frequent floods of a size that now recurs only once every 500 years or more. Still larger floods occurred between about AD 1250 and 1450, during the transition from the medieval warm interval to the cooler Little Ice Age. All of these changes were apparently associated with changes in mean annual temperature of only about 1–2 °C and changes in mean annual precipitation of 10–20%.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1

    Rind, D. et al. Nature 358, 119–122 (1992).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Mimikou, M. A. et al. in Hydrology for the Water Management of Large River Basins (eds Van de Ven, F. H. M. et al.) 173–182 (Int. Assoc. Hydrol. Sci. Publ. No. 201, 1991).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Rind, D. J. geophys. Res. 93, 5385–5412 (1988).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Gleick, P. H. Rev. Geophys. 27, 329–344 (1089).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Lettenmaier, D. P. & Gan, T. Y. Water Resources Res. 26, 69–86 (1990).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Folland, C. K. et al. in Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (eds Houghton, J. T. et al.) 195–238 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Lamb, H. H. Climate: Present, Past and Future—Vol. 2, Climatic History and the Future 143–145 (Methuen, London, 1977).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Zhang, D. in Quaternary Geology and Environment in China (ed. Liu, T.) 208–213 (Science Press, Beijing, 1991).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Grove, J. M. Arct. Alp. Res. 4, 131–138 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Knox, J. C. in Flood Geomorphology (eds Baker, V. R. et al.) 279–300 (Wiley, New York, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Bryson, R. A. Geogr. Bull. 8, 228–269 (1966).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Bernabo, J. C. & Webb, III, T. Quat. Res. 8, 64–96 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Bartlein, P. J. et al. Quat. Res. 22, 361–374 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Chumbley, C. A. et al. Science 249, 272–274 (1990).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Davis, A. M. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geog. 67, 204–213 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Keen, K. L. & Shane, L. C. K. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 102, 1646–1657 (1990).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    King, J. E. Ecol. Monogr. 51, 43–62 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Maher, L. J. in Quaternary History of the Driftless Area (eds Knox, J. C. et al.) 119–135 (Wisconsin Geology & Natural History Survey, 1982).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Winkler, M. G. et al. Quat. Res. 25, 235–250 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Wright, Jr. H. E. et al. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 74, 1371–1396 (1963).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Baker, R. G. et al. Quat. Res. 37, 379–389 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Lane, E. W. & Carlson, E. J. Proc. 5th int. Assoc. Hydraul. Res. Congr. 37–48 (1953).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Wolman, M. G. & Eiler, J. P. Trans. Am. geophys. Un. 39, 1–14 (1958).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Fahnestock, R. K. U.S. Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 422-A (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963).

  25. 25

    Kellerhals, R. J. Waterways, Harbors Coastal Eng. Div., Am. Soc. Civ. Eng. 93, 63–84 (1967).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Scott, K. M. & Gravlee, G. C. Jr U. S. Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 422-M (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968).

  27. 27

    Knox, J. C. Quat. Res. 23, 287–300 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Stuiver, M. & Reimer, P. J. Radiocarbon 28, 1022–1030 (1986).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Guidelines for Determining Flood Flow Frequency Bull. 17B (U.S. Water Resources Council, Washington DC, 1981).

  30. 30

    Dunne, T. & Leopold, L. B. Water in Environmental Planning 646–649 (Freeman, San Francisco, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Knox, J. Large increases in flood magnitude in response to modest changes in climate. Nature 361, 430–432 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1038/361430a0

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing