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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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.
Emanuel, K. Assessing the present and future probability of hurricane Harvey’s rainfall. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 12681–12684 (2017).
Jan van Oldenborgh, G. et al. Attribution of extreme rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, August 2017. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 124009 (2017).
Risser, M. D. & Wehner, M. F. Attributable human-induced changes in the likelihood and magnitude of the observed extreme precipitation during hurricane Harvey. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 12457–12464 (2018).
Czajkowski, J., Villarini, G., Montgomery, M., Michel-Kerjan, E. & Goska, R. Assessing current and future freshwater flood risk from North Atlantic tropical cyclones via insurance claims. Sci. Rep. 7, 41609 (2017).
Smith, J. A. et al. The regional hydrology of extreme floods in an urbanizing drainage basin. J. Hydrometeorol. 3, 267–282 (2002).
Smith, J. A. et al. Extraordinary flood response of a small urban watershed to short-duration convective rainfall. J. Hydrometeorol. 6, 599–617 (2005).
Bounoua, L., Nigro, J., Zhang, P., Thome, K. & Lachir, A. Mapping urbanization in the United States from 2001 to 2011. Appl. Geogr. 90, 123–133 (2018).
Johnson, S. L. & Sayre, D. M. Effects of Urbanization on Floods in the Houston, Texas Metropolitan Area. Report No. 73-3, https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/wri733 (US Geological Survey, 1973).
Liscum, F. Effects of Urban Development on Stormwater Runoff Characteristics for the Houston, Texas, Metropolitan Area. Report No. 2001-4071, https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/wri014071 (US Geological Survey, 2001).
Khan, S. D. Urban development and flooding in Houston Texas, inferences from remote sensing data using neural network technique. Environ. Geol. 47, 1120–1127 (2005).
Zhu, L., Quiring, S. M., Guneralp, I. & Peacock, W. G. Variations in tropical cyclone-related discharge in four watersheds near Houston, Texas. Clim. Risk Manage. 7, 1–10 (2015).
Muñoz, L. A., Olivera, F., Giglio, M. & Berke, P. The impact of urbanization on the streamflows and the 100-year floodplain extent of the Sims Bayou in Houston, Texas. Int. J. River Basin Manage. 16, 61–69 (2018).
Ntelekos, A. A. et al. Extreme hydrometeorological events and the urban environment: dissecting the 7 July 2004 thunderstorm over the Baltimore MD metropolitan region. Wat. Resour. Res. 44, W08446 (2008).
Niyogi, D., Lei, M., Kishtawal, C., Schmid, P. & Shepherd, M. Urbanization impacts on the summer heavy rainfall climatology over the eastern United States. Earth Interact. 21, 1–17 (2017).
Niyogi, D. et al. Urban modification of thunderstorms: an observational storm climatology and model case study for the Indianapolis urban region. J. Appl. Meteorol. Climatol. 50, 1129–1144 (2011).
Oke, T. R. The energetic basis of the urban heat island. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 108, 1–24 (1982).
Shepherd, J. M., Carter, M., Manyin, M., Messen, D. & Burian, S. The impact of urbanization on current and future coastal precipitation: a case study for Houston. Environ. Plann. B 37, 284–304 (2010).
Baik, J.-J., Kim, Y.-H. & Chun, H.-Y. Dry and moist convection forced by an urban heat island. J. Appl. Meteorol. 40, 1462–1475 (2001).
Voogt, J. A. & Oke, T. R. Thermal remote sensing of urban climates. Remote Sens. Environ. 86, 370–384 (2003).
Shepherd, J. M. A review of current investigations of urban-induced rainfall and recommendations for the future. Earth Interact. 9, 1–27 (2005).
Sharma, A. et al. Urban meteorological modeling using WRF: a sensitivity study. Int. J. Climatol. 37, 1885–1900 (2017).
Salamanca, F., Martilli, A., Tewari, M. & Chen, F. A study of the urban boundary layer using different urban parameterizations and high-resolution urban canopy parameters with WRF. J. Appl. Meteorol. Climatol. 50, 1107–1128 (2011).
Villarini, G. et al. Flood frequency analysis for nonstationary annual peak records in an urban drainage basin. Adv. Water Resour. 32, 1255–1266 (2009).
Paciorek, C. J., Stone, D. A. & Wehner, M. F. Quantifying uncertainty in the attribution of human influence on severe weather. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/1706.03388 (2017).
Knutson, T. R. et al. Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nat. Geosci. 3, 157–163 (2010).
Sobel, A. H. et al. Human influence on tropical cyclone intensity. Science 353, 242–246 (2016).
Fang, Z., Dolan, G., Sebastian, A. & Bedient, P. B. Case study of flood mitigation and hazard management at the Texas Medical Center in the wake of tropical storm Allison in 2001. Nat. Hazards Rev. 15, 05014001 (2014).
Pielke, R. A. et al. Land use/land cover changes and climate: modeling analysis and observational evidence. WIREs Clim. Chang. 2, 828–850 (2011).
Lawrence, D. M. et al. The CCSM4 land simulation, 1850–2005: assessment of surface climate and new capabilities. J. Clim. 25, 2240–2260 (2012).
Li, D., Malyshev, S. & Shevliakova, E. Exploring historical and future urban climate in the Earth System Modeling framework: 2. Impact of urban land use over the continental United States. J. Adv. Model. Earth Syst. 8, 936–953 (2016).
Jin, S. et al. A comprehensive change detection method for updating the National Land Cover Database to circa 2011. Remote Sens. Environ. 132, 159–175 (2013).
Homer, C. et al. Completion of the 2011 National Land Cover Database for the conterminous United States—representing a decade of land cover change information. Photogramm. Eng. Remote Sens. 81, 345–354 (2015).
Chen, F. et al. The integrated WRF/urban modelling system: development, evaluation, and applications to urban environmental problems. Int. J. Climatol. 31, 273–288 (2011).
Li, D., Bou-Zeid, E., Baeck, M. L., Jessup, S. & Smith, J. A. Modeling land surface processes and heavy rainfall in urban environments: sensitivity to urban surface representations. J. Hydrometeorol. 14, 1098–1118 (2013).
Lee, S.-H. et al. Evaluation of urban surface parameterizations in the WRF model using measurements during the Texas Air Quality Study 2006 field campaign. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 2127–2143 (2011).
Chen, F., Miao, S., Tewari, M., Bao, J. W. & Kusaka, H. A numerical study of interactions between surface forcing and sea breeze circulations and their effects on stagnation in the greater Houston area. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D12105 (2011).
Kusaka, H., Nawata, K., Suzuki-Parker, A., Takane, Y. & Furuhashi, N. Mechanism of precipitation increase with urbanization in Tokyo as revealed by ensemble climate simulations. J. Appl. Meteorol. Climatol. 53, 824–839 (2014).
Holst, C. C., Tam, C.-Y. & Chan, J. C. L. Sensitivity of urban rainfall to anthropogenic heat flux: a numerical experiment. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 2240–2248 (2016).
Zhong, S. et al. Urbanization-induced urban heat island and aerosol effects on climate extremes in the Yangtze River Delta region of China. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 5439–5457 (2017).
Paul, S. et al. Increased spatial variability and intensification of extreme monsoon rainfall due to urbanization. Sci. Rep. 8, 3918 (2018).
Mesinger, F. et al. North American regional reanalysis. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 87, 343–360 (2006).
Prosdocimi, I., Kjeldsen, T. & Miller, J. Detection and attribution of urbanization effect on flood extremes using nonstationary flood-frequency models. Wat. Resour. Res. 51, 4244–4262 (2015).
DeWalle, D. R., Swistock, B. R., Johnson, T. E. & McGuire, K. J. Potential effects of climate change and urbanization on mean annual streamflow in the United States. Wat. Resour. Res. 36, 2655–2664 (2000).
Gluck, W. R. & McCuen, R. H. Estimating land use characteristics for hydrologic models. Wat. Resour. Res. 11, 177–179 (1975).
Stankowski, S. J. Population density as an indirect indicator of urban and suburban land-surface modifications. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 800, 219–224 (1972).
Villarini, G., Serinaldi, F., Smith, J. A. & Krajewski, W. F. On the stationarity of annual flood peaks in the continental United States during the 20th century. Wat. Resour. Res. 45, W08417 (2009).
López, J. & Francés, F. Non-stationary flood frequency analysis in continental Spanish rivers, using climate and reservoir indices as external covariates. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 17, 3189–3203 (2013).
Slater, L. J. & Villarini, G. Evaluating the drivers of seasonal streamflow in the US Midwest. Water 9, 695 (2017).
van Buuren, S. & Fredriks, M. Worm plot: a simple diagnostic device for modelling growth reference curves. Stat. Med. 20, 1259–1277 (2001).
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.
Nature thanks A. Sharma and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
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.
a–n, Accumulated precipitation (colour scale) for 25 August 0 h to 30 August 0 h 2017 in each member of the ‘Urban BEM’ (a–g) and ‘NoUrban’ (h–n) WRF experiments initialized between 23 August 0 h and 24 August 12 h at 6-h intervals.
a–l, Friction velocity (a–c), roughness length (d–f), Bowen ratio (g–i) and boundary layer height (j–l) 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.
a–d, 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.
The ID number for each basin is also shown. The percentage of impervious area is indicated by the grey scale.
a–e, 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).
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0676-z
- Total Storm Rainfall
- Houston Area
- Unprecedented Flood
- Flood Response
- Urban NO
Evaluating the runoff storage supply-demand structure of green infrastructure for urban flood management
Journal of Cleaner Production (2021)
Nature Communications (2020)
Effects of tropical North Atlantic sea surface temperature on intense tropical cyclones landfalling in China
International Journal of Climatology (2020)
Analysis of urban rainfall from hourly to seasonal scales using high‐resolution radar observations in the Netherlands
International Journal of Climatology (2020)
Natech or natural? An analysis of hazard perceptions, institutional trust, and future storm worry following Hurricane Harvey
Natural Hazards (2020)