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Floodplains and climate change

August 1, 2022

Floodplains are landscape features that are periodically inundated by water from adjacent rivers (Opperman et al. 2010). Ecologically, functional floodplains are characterized by three primary elements: connectivity, flow regime, and spatial scale. Water quantity flowing over floodplains can vary greatly. Based on a flood’s effects on the floodplain, three flood categories have been defined: floodplain-activation floods, floodplain-maintenance floods, and floodplainresetting floods (Box 1). Several physical parameters determine the types of ecosystems on floodplains and the species they will support; these include temperature, water depth, water velocity, and hydrologic connectivity (Opperman et al. 2010). Natural ecosystems commonly found on floodplains include annual vegetation, forests, seasonal wetlands, and permanent ponds or wetlands (Whipple et al. 2012). Floodplains provide many valuable ecosystem services: attenuation of flood flows which reduces flood risk, filtration of surface water, recreation, fisheries, agriculture, biodiversity, food availability, and groundwater recharge, which contributes to more-sustained and cooler dry-season flows (Opperman et al. 2010).

Box 1

Floodplain-activation flood

A small magnitude flood that occurs relatively frequently and produces characteristic ecological benefits such as food-web productivity and habitat creation for native fish spawning and rearing.

Floodplain-maintenance flood

A higher magnitude flood that, in addition to providing ecological benefits, results in geomorphic changes including bank erosion and deposition on the floodplain.

Floodplain-resetting flood

A very high-magnitude flood that occurs rarely and results in extensive geomorphic changes, such as the scouring of floodplain surfaces and changes in channel location due to avulsion.


Publication Year 2022
Title Floodplains and climate change
Authors Annika Keeley, Shruti Khanna, Nicole Kwan, Bryan G. Matthias, Catarina Pien, Marissa L. Wulff
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype State or Local Government Series
Series Title IEP Technical Report
Series Number 99
Index ID 70237270
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center