Paleofloods stage a comeback

Geological and botanical archives can preserve evidence of exceptional floods going back centuries to millennia. Updated risk guidelines offer a new opportunity to apply lessons from paleoflood hydrology to judge the odds of future floods.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Estimating flood risk by combining gauge, historic and paleoflood data.


  1. 1.

    Thompson, H. J. Weatherwise 25, 162–173 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Smith, J. A., Cox, A. A., Baeck, M. L., Yang, L. & Bates, P. Water Resour. Res. 54, 6510–6542 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Harden, T. M., O’Connor, J. E., Driscoll, D. G. & Stamm, J. F. USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5131 (USGS, 2012).

  4. 4.

    Kochel, R. C. & Baker, V. R. Science 215, 353–361 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Wilhelm, B. et al. WIREs Water 6, e1318–e1320 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Munoz, S. E. et al. Nature 556, 95–98 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Mertz, B. et al. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 1921–1942 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Baker, V. R. Geomorphology 101, 1–13 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    International Atomic Energy Agency Seismic Hazards in Site Evaluation for Nuclear Installations No. SSG-9 (IAEA, 2010).

  10. 10.

    Stedinger, J. R. & Griffis, V. W. J. Hydrol. Eng. 13, 199–204 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    England, J. F. Jr et al. Guidelines for Determining Flood Flow Frequency—Bulletin 17C (USGS, 2018).

  12. 12.

    Veilleux, A. G., Cohn, T. A., Flynn, K. M., Mason, R. R. Jr. & Hummel, P. R. USGS Fact Sheet 2013–3108 (USGS, 2014).

  13. 13.

    Levish, D. R. Ancient Floods, Modern Hazards: Principles and Applications of Paleoflood Hydrology (eds House, P. K. et al.) 175–190 (AGU, 2002).

  14. 14.

    Díez-Herrero, A., Laín-Huerta, L. & Llorente-Isidro, M. A Handbook on Flood Hazard Mapping Methodologies (Geological Survey of Spain, 2009).

  15. 15.

    Nathan, R. & Weinmann, E. The Australian Rainfall and Runoff : A Guide to Flood Estimation (eds Ball, J. et al.) Book 8 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).

  16. 16.

    Ministry of Water Resources of the People’s Republic of China Regulation for Calculating Design Flood of Water Resources and Hydropower Projects SL44–2006 (China Water & Power Press, 2006).

  17. 17.

    Lee, T. et al. J. Korean Soc. Civ. Eng. 37, 247–253 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Khider, D. et al. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 34, 1570–1596 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Morrison, T. in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir 185–200 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998).

  20. 20.

    Brooks, G. R. & St. George, S. in Geomorphic Approaches to Integrated Floodplain Management of Lowland Fluvial Systems in North America and Europe (eds Hudson, P. & Middelkoop, H.) 87–117 (Springer, 2015).

Download references


We appreciate support from the US National Science Foundation (award 1830640, ‘Paleohydrological assessment of extreme flooding events’). The final version of this Comment was improved by suggestions from L. Davis, D. Lam, T. Liu and A. Díez Herrero. Discharge data for the Red River of the North was kindly provided by F. Unduche (Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation). We also acknowledge use of the USGS PeakFQ program ( This Comment is a contribution to the PAGES Floods Working Group (

Author information




S.S.-G. developed the concept for this opinion piece, led the writing, and created the illustration; A.M.H. identified case studies in the paleoflood literature and edited the manuscript; J.A. conducted the flood frequency analysis and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott St. George.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

St. George, S., Hefner, A.M. & Avila, J. Paleofloods stage a comeback. Nat. Geosci. 13, 766–768 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


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