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2014 Flood safety awareness week – Types of common floods for West Michigan

Flash flooding, Jul. 2011
Flash flooding, Jul. 2011
NOAA

The Grand Rapids Weather Examiner presents the fourth in a series from the National Weather Service (NWS) on Flood Safety. The week of March 16-22 is National Flood Safety Awareness Week. Flooding typically occurs when prolonged rain falls over several days, when intense rain falls over a short period of time, or when an ice or debris jam causes a river or stream to overflow onto the surrounding area. The most common cause of flooding is water due to rain and/or snowmelt that accumulates faster than soils can absorb it or rivers can carry it away. Approximately seventy-five percent of all Presidential disaster declarations are associated with flooding. From floodsafety.noaa.gov, here are the most common flood hazards to impact West Michigan.

2013 Grand River Flooding
Grand Rapids Weather Examiner

Flash floods are exactly what the name suggests: floods that happen in a flash! Flash floods generally develop within 6 hours of the immediate cause. Causes of flash flooding include heavy rain, ice or debris jams, and levee or dam failure. These floods exhibit a rapid rise of water over low-lying areas. In some cases, flooding may even occur well away from where heavy rain initially fell. This is especially common in the western United States where low lying areas may be very dry one minute, and filled with rushing water from upstream the next. There are many reasons that flash floods occur, but one of the most common is the result of copious amounts of rainfall from thunderstorms that cause flash flooding. This can also occur when slow-moving or multiple thunderstorms move over the same area. These sudden downpours can rapidly change the water levels in a stream or creek and turn small waterways into violent, raging rivers. Urban areas are especially prone to flash floods due to the large amounts of concrete and asphalt surfaces that do not allow water to penetrate into the soil easily. Steep, hilly, or mountainous terrain produces rapid runoff and quick stream response, since the water will travel downhill at greater speeds into rivers and over land. Rocky terrain can exacerbate the development of flash floods and raging waters since rocks and clay soils do not allow as much water to infiltrate the ground. Steep, narrow valleys generate rapidly flowing waters that can quickly rise to considerable depth. For instance, a mountain creek that is usually only 6 inches deep can swell to a 10-foot depth in less than one hour.

River flooding occurs when river levels rise and overflow their banks or the edges of their main channel and inundate areas that are normally dry. River flooding can be caused by heavy rainfall, dam failures, rapid snowmelt and ice jams. The National Weather Service issues Flood Warnings for designated River Forecast Points where a flood stage has been established. River flooding is classified as Minor, Moderate, or Major based on water height and impacts along the river that have been coordinated with the NWS and local officials. Minor river flooding means that low-lying areas adjacent to the stream or river, mainly rural areas and farmland and secondary roadways near the river flood. Moderate flooding means water levels rise high enough to impact homes and businesses near the river and some evacuations may be needed. Larger roads and highways may also be impacted. Major flooding means that extensive rural and/or urban flooding is expected. Towns may become isolated and major traffic routes may be flooded. Evacuation of numerous homes and business may be required.
There is an additional level of flooding known as record flooding. In many cases this falls into the major flood category, but it doesn't have to. A record flood is simply one where the water reaches a level higher than it ever has been recorded before. Therefore, record flooding can cause extensive damage or even no damage or other negative impacts at all.

Ice jams are common during the winter and spring along rivers, streams and creeks in the higher latitudes of the continental U.S. as well as in Alaska. Many of the record flood events along major rivers in Alaska are the result of ice jams Debris jams can occur at any time of year and have the same implications as an ice jam. As ice or debris moves downstream, it may get caught on any sort of obstruction to the water flow. When this occurs, water can be held back, causing upstream flooding. When the jam finally breaks, flash flooding can occur downstream. Typically, an ice jam is resolved when the ice melts. With debris jams, the options are to take measures to remove the jam or wait for the debris to break free. In addition to causing flooding, these jams may also have economic and ecological implications. They might delay or suspend navigation along a waterway, affect hydropower operations, or cause damage to vessels. Jams can cause riverbank erosion, impede migration of aquatic creatures and adversely impact wildlife habitats. Loss of life has also been attributed to flooding caused by ice and debris jams. Snowmelt and the breakup of river ice often occur at about the same time. Ice jams often form as a result of the sudden push exerted on the ice by a surge of runoff into the river associated with snowmelt. Ice jams can act as dams on the river that result in flooding behind the dam until the ice melts or the jam weakens to the point that the ice releases and moves downstream. A serious ice jam will threaten areas upstream and downstream of its location. Six inch thick ice can destroy large trees and knock houses off their foundations. Once an ice jam gives way, a location may experience a flash flood as all the water and debris that was trapped, rushes downstream.

Snowmelt flooding occurs when the major source of water involved in a flood is caused by melting snow. The northern tier states and mountainous areas of the U.S. are particularly susceptible to snowmelt flooding. Unlike rainfall that can reach the soil almost immediately, the snowpack can store the water for an extended amount of time until temperatures rise above freezing and the snow melts. This frozen storage delays the arrival of water to the soil for days, weeks, or even months. Once it begins to melt and does reach the soil, water from snowmelt behaves much as it would if it had come from rain instead of snow by either infiltrating into the soil, running off, or both. Flooding can occur when there is more water than the soil can absorb or can be contained in storage capacities in the soil, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
High soil moisture conditions prior to snowmelt can contribute to snowmelt flooding. Rainfall during the late fall is particularly important because there is less evapotranspiration and less time for the soil to drain and dry before it freezes. Ground frost or frozen soil is another contributor. Deep, hard ground frost prevents snowmelt from infiltrating into the soil. Cold temperatures prior to heavy snowfall and normal or above normal soil moisture contribute to this. Deep snow cover can worsen snowmelt flooding since there is more water stored and available for snowmelt. Also, when snow cover is widespread, it usually keeps air temperatures cooler and delays spring warming, which increases the potential for more rapid snowmelt. Rain falling while snow is still on the ground contributes more water for flooding and helps to melt the snowpack, thus rain-on-snow events are watched carefully. Most often, snowmelt is a relatively slow phenomenon. Snowmelt rates are usually comparable to light or moderate rainfall. Important exceptions to this can occur, especially during unusually warm periods with high dew point temperatures, and when nighttime temperatures remain above freezing. Snowmelt rates can be much higher than normal under these conditions, which can increase the risk of snowmelt flooding.

See the slideshow at the top of the page for a few images of West Michigan flooding types.

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