Simulation results for the 1000-year flood that occurred in Nashville, TN in 2010.

Team led by U-M receives $7.5M to aid flood predictions

August 17, 2023

A University of Michigan-led team is bringing together researchers in science, technology and the humanities for better flood-risk predictions and better decision-making in response to those risks to reduce the human and economic costs of extreme flooding events, which are on the rise due to climate change.

They are supported with a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives Program.

The devastating floods that ripped through the northeast United States are among the most recent in a long string of severe flooding events occurring worldwide, which indicate that better flood predictions and safety plans are needed. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, flooding causes $8 billion in losses on average annually in the United States alone.

“Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme flooding — and particularly in urban areas. In the past four decades, 99% of U.S. counties were impacted by flooding, and since 2000, there have been 1,782 flood-related fatalities,” said Valeriy Ivanov, co-principal investigator and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

The team seeks to provide better answers to crucial questions that arise when communities are at imminent risk of flood:

  • What are the chances the flood occurs and how bad could it be?
  • Where might flooding occur in the future, particularly as the climate continues to change?
  • What information do leaders need to make decisions about evacuation?

The goal of their project is to develop a suite of methods and case studies that ultimately will help leaders decide what actions need to be taken when a flood may be coming.

“We are looking at the full pipeline, from predictions and models to the psyche of decision-makers where it will affect society,” said Xun Huan, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of mechanical engineering in CoE.

The team plans to collect data from two areas — one in Michigan and the other in Texas — and run many computer simulations to determine the possibility and impacts of floods in the current climate, and under different scenarios of future climate.

In addition to improving the accuracy of their simulations, they hope to find strategies, solutions and actions that can mitigate the impact of floods, minimizing the harm.

One key concern is measuring and communicating the uncertainties in their predictions.

Similar to weather forecasts that provide a percentage chance of rain on a given day, the team is designing a model that can provide information on the likelihood of the flood hazard and which communities may be affected. This is critical for flood resilience and preparedness as well as supporting real-time decision-making immediately before, during and after flood events.

“Uncertainty plays an important role in decision-making, where one needs to consider what scenarios might play out and how likely,” Huan said. “The importance of these considerations are further elevated when decisions have high consequences, for example when deciding whether to evacuate when faced with potential major flooding that may cause property damage and endanger people’s lives.”

Another part of the project focuses on human decision-makers and what matters to them when making difficult choices:

  • What results from the data and modeling are important for them to know?
  • How can they be expressed in a useful way?
  • How do priorities change from community to community?

To answer these questions, engineers and atmospheric scientists will team up with psychologists and anthropologists, who bring expertise not just in human decision-making but also in societal and cultural effects. With more robust predictions and best practices for communicating about them, the team will then develop casebooks to help present data to leaders when their constituencies face flood risks.

Participating investigators on the project include Richard Gonzalez, the Amos N. Tversky Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Statistics in LSA, research professor in the Research Center for Group Dynamics, and professor of integrative systems and design in CoE; and Nikola Banovic, assistant professor of computer science and engineering in CoE.

The project includes researchers from Boise State University and the University of Illinois, as well as stakeholders from Defense Department facilities in the Detroit area.

Project ideas initially started with seed funding from the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering, which enabled researchers from multiple disciplines to come together and focus on computational aspects of the flooding problem.

By Makenzie Schlessman
College of Engineering

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