Understanding the 2013 Boulder Flood: Assessing Extreme Precipitation Events and Future Climates in the Community Earth System Model (CESM)

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Sunday, 4 January 2015
Ryan E. Adams, California University of Pennsylvania/SOARS, California, PA; and R. Neale

The Boulder flood of September 2013 resulted in significant structural damage, inundated communities, and accelerated land erosion in central and northern Colorado. This exceptional event led to approximately 11,000 people being evacuated in the area as more than 17 inches of rain fell in parts of Boulder County, Colorado in seven days. This storm resulted from persistent southerly flow and high precipitable water values which were responsible for the record-breaking precipitation. This study assessed the factors associated with extreme precipitation events in both observations and climate model simulations. Satellite-based observed precipitation from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), and ERA-Interim Reanalysis of precipitable water and low-level winds were used in this study.

Probability distribution functions (PDFs) were calculated for daily values of observational and reanalysis variables: precipitation, precipitable water, and low-level winds. Each of the PDFs were compared with equivalent variables in the CESM simulations and analyzed over three regions of different areal extent occupying the eastern Rocky Mountains. The PDF calculations were found to be sensitive to the choice of the spatial region with fewer high precipitable water events in the northern domain and a greater number of high precipitable water events in the more southerly domain. The similarities between observational and present-day CESM PDFs enabled us to study changes to PDF distributions in future climate simulations. They predict a significant increase in precipitable water over the Boulder flood region. Given the importance of high precipitable water in the 2013 Boulder flood precipitation event, the potential for more frequent and stronger flooding events is significant.