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Interpreting historical, botanical, and geological evidence to aid preparations for future floods

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River flooding is among the most destructive of natural hazards globally, causing widespread loss of life, damage to infrastructure and economic deprivation. Societies are currently under increasing threat from such floods, predominantly from increasing exposure of people and assets in flood‐prone areas, but also as a result of changes in flood magnitude, frequency, and timing. Accurate flood hazard and risk assessment are therefore crucial for the sustainable development of societies worldwide. With a paucity of hydrological measurements, evidence from the field offers the only insight into truly extreme events and their variability in space and time. Historical, botanical, and geological archives have increasingly been recognized as valuable sources of extreme flood event information. These different archives are here reviewed with a particular focus on the recording mechanisms of flood information, the historical development of the methodological approaches and the type of information that those archives can provide. These studies provide a wealthy dataset of hundreds of historical and palaeoflood series, whose analysis reveals a noticeable dominance of records in Europe. After describing the diversity of flood information provided by this dataset, we identify how these records have improved and could further improve flood hazard assessments and, thereby, flood management and mitigation plans. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Water Extremes Engineering Water > Planning Water Science of Water > Methods
Compilation of different documentary flood evidence. (left) extract from the books of weekly expenditures of the City of Basel (Wochenausgabenbücher der Stadt Basel; 1401–1799; Basler Staatsarchiv; Signatur: StaBS Finanz G17) which provide indirect information about past floods such as flood‐related costs for guarding a bridge from driftwood during a flood event (top) “paid 3 lb 1 s for day and night wages for the craftsmen on the bridge”. (right) painting of the “great Rhine” flood event of 18 September 1852 by Louis Dubois (Basler Staatsarchiv; Signatur: StaBS XIII 323)
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Historical winter floods of the Elbe river (a) and occurrence rates with 90% confidence band for all floods (magnitude classes 1 to 3; b) and heavy floods only (magnitude classes 2 to 3; c). Arrows highlight the downward trends obtained from the statistical test after Cox and Lewis (significant at the one sided 90% level) for trend in the flood occurrence rate for the instrumental period (1850–2002). (Reprinted with permission from Mudelsee et al. (). Copyright 2003 Nature Publishing Group)
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Examples of flood frequency analysis using systematic (gauge) data only and systematic data with historical (a; Machado et al., ), fluvial (b; Harden et al., ), or tree ring data (c; Ballesteros‐Cánovas et al., ). The distribution functions fitted to these flood datasets are two component extreme value (TCEV) and maximum likelihood (ML). The inclusion of historical and paleoflood data modifies the specific return periods and may reduce the uncertainty in discharge for events with large return periods
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Conceptual diagram with the main characteristics of the different flood archives
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Global distribution of historical, botanical and geological flood data. Details of this regularly‐updated dataset and its interactive mapping can be found at: http://pastglobalchanges.org/ini/wg/floods/data
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Illustration of the flood‐recording riverine sedimentary environments where event‐scale palaeoflood records have been reconstructed
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Schema of the flood‐recording mechanisms of lake sediments (left) and photo of a sediment core from Lago Maggiore (Southern Alps, Italy) showing typical flood layers (right)
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Illustration of the flood‐recording mechanisms of speleothems in a cave system where water table fluctuations in caves can reach several tens of meters, depending on the hydraulic head loss in the karst system. Such flows deposit sediments on speleothems, which are preserved when flood waters recede and speleothem growth resumes
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Schematic illustration showing the most common ways that riparian trees are disturbed or damaged by floods; (a) flood‐rafted debris cause trees to form scars because of impact or abrasion, (b) floodwaters undercut bankside trees and expose the roots, and (c) tree stems become distorted or “tilted” by hydrodynamic pressure from high flows
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