New study: Proportion of world population exposed to floods grows tenfold in 15 years

Flooding affects more people than any other environmental disaster in the world. Between 2000 and 2019 alone, an estimated $651 billion in flood damages occurred globally.

As climate change projections indicate that the proportion of the population exposed to floods will only increase in the next decade, a lack of observational data and a reliance on traditional flood models — which have high uncertainty — limit researchers’ ability to have a clear picture of the scale and human impact of recent floods.

New research led by Arizona State University PhD geography alumna Elizabeth Tellman uses satellite data to provide one of the clearest pictures to date of how floods are changing and who is at most risk.

In the study “Satellite imaging reveals increased proportion of population exposed to floods,” published in Nature, Tellman and her team used satellite imagery to analyze 913 large flood events around the world from 2000 to 2018, evaluating flood extent and population exposure.

Read more on ASU News. The paper’s abstract follows.

Flooding affects more people than any other environmental hazard and hinders sustainable development. Investing in flood adaptation strategies may reduce the loss of life and livelihood caused by floods. Where and how floods occur and who is exposed are changing as a result of rapid urbanization, flood mitigation infrastructure and increasing settlements in floodplains. Previous estimates of the global flood-exposed population have been limited by a lack of observational data, relying instead on models, which have high uncertainty. Here we use daily satellite imagery at 250-metre resolution to estimate flood extent and population exposure for 913 large flood events from 2000 to 2018. We determine a total inundation area of 2.23 million square kilometres, with 255–290 million people directly affected by floods. We estimate that the total population in locations with satellite-observed inundation grew by 58–86 million from 2000 to 2015. This represents an increase of 20 to 24 per cent in the proportion of the global population exposed to floods, ten times higher than previous estimates. Climate change projections for 2030 indicate that the proportion of the population exposed to floods will increase further. The high spatial and temporal resolution of the satellite observations will improve our understanding of where floods are changing and how best to adapt. The global flood database generated from these observations will help to improve vulnerability assessments, the accuracy of global and local flood models, the efficacy of adaptation interventions and our understanding of the interactions between landcover change, climate and floods.

Michelle Schwartz