Urbanization exacerbated the rainfall and flooding caused by hurricane Harvey in Houston

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Category 4 landfalling hurricane Harvey poured more than a metre of rainfall across the heavily populated Houston area, leading to unprecedented flooding and damage. Although studies have focused on the contribution of anthropogenic climate change to this extreme rainfall event1,2,3, limited attention has been paid to the potential effects of urbanization on the hydrometeorology associated with hurricane Harvey. Here we find that urbanization exacerbated not only the flood response but also the storm total rainfall. Using the Weather Research and Forecast model—a numerical model for simulating weather and climate at regional scales—and statistical models, we quantify the contribution of urbanization to rainfall and flooding. Overall, we find that the probability of such extreme flood events across the studied basins increased on average by about 21 times in the period 25–30 August 2017 because of urbanization. The effect of urbanization on storm-induced extreme precipitation and flooding should be more explicitly included in global climate models, and this study highlights its importance when assessing the future risk of such extreme events in highly urbanized coastal areas.

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Fig. 1: Storm total rainfall by hurricane Harvey.
Fig. 2: Key variables for diagnosing the effects of urbanization on hurricane Harvey.
Fig. 3: Modelling of the annual maximum peak discharge records.
Fig. 4: Examination of the effects of urbanization on the modelled annual maximum discharge.

Data availability

The data related to the statistical modelling are available in Supplementary Information. The additional data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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This material is based in part on work supported by the National Science Foundation under CAREER grant AGS-1349827 (to G.V.), NSF grant EAR-1520683 (to J.A.S. and G.A.V.), NSF grant AGS-1522492 and grant CBET-1444758 (to J.A.S.), and award NA14OAR4830101 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce. G.A.V. was supported in part by The Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks A. Sharma and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

W.Z. and G.V. designed the experiments and performed the analyses. All authors interpreted the results and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Gabriele Villarini.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Effect of urbanization on the storm total rainfall during hurricane Harvey.

The map (the black outlines mark urban areas of Houston) shows the difference (Urban BEM minus NoUrban) in accumulated precipitation for 25 August 0 h to 30 August 0 h 2017 between the ‘Urban BEM’ and ‘NoUrban’ WRF experiments. The stippled regions represent areas for which these differences are statistically different from zero (that is, there are no effects of urbanization in terms of rainfall) at the P = 0.05 significance level based on Student’s t test.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Accumulated precipitation in each ensemble member of the WRF experiments.

an, Accumulated precipitation (colour scale) for 25 August 0 h to 30 August 0 h 2017 in each member of the ‘Urban BEM’ (ag) and ‘NoUrban’ (hn) WRF experiments initialized between 23 August 0 h and 24 August 12 h at 6-h intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Key variables for diagnosing the impacts of urbanization on hurricane Harvey.

al, Friction velocity (ac), roughness length (df), Bowen ratio (gi) and boundary layer height (jl) are shown for the ‘Urban BEM’ (top panels) and ‘NoUrban’ (middle panels) experiments with WRF and their differences (bottom panels).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Accumulated precipitation for hurricane Harvey in observations and different urbanization schemes and settings of WRF experiments.

ad, Accumulated precipitation (colour scale) is shown for 25 August 0 h to 30 August 0 h 2017 in observations (a), and in the ‘Urban BULK’ (b), ‘Urban BEM’ (c) and ‘NoUrban’ (in which urban land-use types are replaced by croplands; d) WRF experiments.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Basin boundaries of the five watersheds considered in this study.

The ID number for each basin is also shown. The percentage of impervious area is indicated by the grey scale.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Worm plots for the fitted models of annual maximum peak discharge records.

ae, Worm plots for the fitted models shown to evaluate the goodness of fit as shown in Fig. 3. For a satisfactory fit, the data points should be within the two grey lines (95% confidence interval).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Information related to the WRF simulations.

a, Land-use map in the Houston area. The low-residential, high-residential and commercial land-use categories are coloured in orange, red and dark red, respectively. (DevOpen, developed open space; EH Wetland, emergent herbaceous wetlands.) b, Three spatial domains d01, d02 and d03 in the WRF simulations with spatial resolution of 12 km, 4 km and 1.33 km, respectively.

Extended Data Table 1 Summary of the characteristics of the five watersheds studied and of the WRF physics options
Extended Data Table 2 Summary of the modelling results for the five basins considered in this study

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Zhang, W., Villarini, G., Vecchi, G.A. et al. Urbanization exacerbated the rainfall and flooding caused by hurricane Harvey in Houston. Nature 563, 384–388 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0676-z

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