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Improving flood-frequency analysis with a 4,000-year record of flooding on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, Tennessee

May 21, 2021

This comprehensive field study applied paleoflood hydrology methods to estimate the frequency of low-probability floods for the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The study combined stratigraphic records of large, previously unrecorded floods with modern streamflow records and historical flood accounts. The overall approach was to (1) develop a flood chronology for the Tennessee River near Chattanooga using stratigraphic analyses and geochronology from multiple sites at multiple elevations in the study area; (2) estimate peak flow magnitudes associated with elevations of flood evidence using a one-dimensional hydraulic model; (3) combine the information obtained from steps 1 and 2 to develop a history of timing and magnitude of large floods in the study reach; and (4) use all available information (including paleoflood, gaged, and historical records of flooding) to estimate flood frequency using a standardized statistical approach for flood-frequency analysis.

The stratigraphy, geochronology, and hydraulic modeling results from all paleoflood sites along the Tennessee River were distilled into an overall chronology of the number, timing, and magnitude of large unrecorded floods. In total, 30 sites were identified and the stratigraphy of 17 of those sites was closely examined, measured, and recorded. Flood-frequency analyses were done using the U.S. Geological Survey software program PeakFQ v7.2 that follows the Guidelines for Determining Flood Flow Frequency—Bulletin 17C.

Resolving stratigraphic and chronologic information from all 17 sites yielded information for eight unique large floods in the last 3,500–4,000 years for the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. Two of these floods had discharges of 470,000 cubic feet per second (ft3/s), slightly greater than the 1867 historical peak at the Chattanooga streamgage (459,000 ft3/s). One flood with a discharge of 1,100,000 ft3/s was substantially greater than any other flood on the Tennessee River during the last several thousand years. This large flood occurred only a few hundred years ago, likely in the mid-to-late 1600s. Two additional floods in the last 1,000 years had estimated magnitudes of about 420,000 and 400,000 ft3/s. The remaining three unique floods identified in the paleoflood record were much smaller (less than 240,000 ft3/s) and occurred about 3,000–800 years ago.

Flood-frequency analyses show that the addition of paleoflood information markedly improves estimates of low probability floods—most clearly shown by substantial narrowing of the 95-percent confidence limits. For the most plausible flood scenario, the 95-percent confidence interval for the 1,000-year quantile estimate derived from incorporating the four most recent paleofloods is about 480,000–620,000 ft3/s compared to about 380,000–610,000 ft3/s for the gaged and historical record alone, a reduction in the uncertainty of the estimate by 38 percent. Similarly, uncertainty for all flood quantile estimates from 100 to 10,000 years was reduced by 22–44 percent by the addition of the paleoflood record to the flood-frequency analyses.

Publication Year 2021
Title Improving flood-frequency analysis with a 4,000-year record of flooding on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, Tennessee
DOI 10.3133/sir20205138
Authors Tessa M. Harden, Jim E. O'Connor, Meredith L. Carr, Mackenzie Keith
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5138
Index ID sir20205138
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center; Oregon Water Science Center