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Quantitative paleoflood hydrology

June 27, 2020

This chapter reviews the paleohydrologic techniques and approaches used to reconstruct the magnitude and frequency of past floods using geological evidence. Quantitative paleoflood hydrology typically leads to two phases of analysis: (1) documentation and assessment of flood physical evidence (paleostage indicators), and (2) relating identified flood evidence to flood discharge, based on hydraulic calculations. Most paleoflood studies rely on stratigraphic sequences of fine-grained flood deposits found in slack-water and eddy environments in bedrock rivers to enable the estimates of paleodischarges for floods of past few centuries or millennia. Geochronology, commonly based on techniques such as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon, enable paleoflood age estimates. Such paleoflood discharge and age information can vastly improve flood frequency estimates, particularly for large and rare floods for which quantile estimates are typically poorly constrained by short historical records. The inclusion of such physical evidence of flooding into flood frequency assessments has been aided by new techniques of frequency analysis that can efficiently employ such data. Consequently, paleoflood analysis is supporting probability risk management of critical infrastructure such as nuclear facilities, dams, or bridges. Paleoflood studies also support understanding of the recurrence of geomorphically effective flows and assessment of non-stationarity in the frequency of large floods due to climate, land-use, or other environmental changes.