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Hydroclimatic Aspects of the 2011 Assiniboine River Basin Flood

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  • 1 * University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Environment Canada, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • | 2 Environment Canada, Downsview, Ontario, Canada
  • | 3 Environment Canada, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • | 4 University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
  • | 5 Environment Canada, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • | 6 McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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Abstract

In the spring and early summer of 2011, the Assiniboine River basin in Canada experienced an extreme flood that was unprecedented in terms of duration and severity. The flood had significant socioeconomic impacts and caused over $1 billion (Canadian dollars) in damage. Contrary to what one might expect for such an extreme flood, individual precipitation events before and during the 2011 flood were not extreme; instead, it was the cumulative impact and timing of precipitation events going back to the summer of 2010 that played a key role in the 2011 flood. The summer and fall of 2010 were exceptionally wet, resulting in above-normal soil moisture levels at the time of freeze-up. This was followed by record high snow water equivalent values in March and April 2011. Cold temperatures in March delayed the spring melt, resulting in the above-average spring freshet occurring close to the onset of heavy rains in May and June. The large-scale atmospheric flow during May and June 2011 favored increased cyclone activity in the region, which produced an anomalously large number of heavy rainfall events over the basin. All of these factors combined generated extreme flooding. Japanese 55-year Reanalysis Project (JRA-55) data are used to quantify the relative importance of snowmelt and spring precipitation in contributing to the unprecedented flood and to demonstrate how the 2011 flood was unique compared to previous floods. This study can be used to validate and improve flood forecasting techniques over this important basin; the findings also raise important questions regarding floods in a changing climate over basins that experience pluvial and nival flooding.

Denotes Open Access content.

Corresponding author address: Julian Brimelow, Environment Canada, Eastgate Offices, 9250 49th Street, Edmonton, AB T6B 1K5, Canada. E-mail: julian.brimelow@ec.gc.ca

Abstract

In the spring and early summer of 2011, the Assiniboine River basin in Canada experienced an extreme flood that was unprecedented in terms of duration and severity. The flood had significant socioeconomic impacts and caused over $1 billion (Canadian dollars) in damage. Contrary to what one might expect for such an extreme flood, individual precipitation events before and during the 2011 flood were not extreme; instead, it was the cumulative impact and timing of precipitation events going back to the summer of 2010 that played a key role in the 2011 flood. The summer and fall of 2010 were exceptionally wet, resulting in above-normal soil moisture levels at the time of freeze-up. This was followed by record high snow water equivalent values in March and April 2011. Cold temperatures in March delayed the spring melt, resulting in the above-average spring freshet occurring close to the onset of heavy rains in May and June. The large-scale atmospheric flow during May and June 2011 favored increased cyclone activity in the region, which produced an anomalously large number of heavy rainfall events over the basin. All of these factors combined generated extreme flooding. Japanese 55-year Reanalysis Project (JRA-55) data are used to quantify the relative importance of snowmelt and spring precipitation in contributing to the unprecedented flood and to demonstrate how the 2011 flood was unique compared to previous floods. This study can be used to validate and improve flood forecasting techniques over this important basin; the findings also raise important questions regarding floods in a changing climate over basins that experience pluvial and nival flooding.

Denotes Open Access content.

Corresponding author address: Julian Brimelow, Environment Canada, Eastgate Offices, 9250 49th Street, Edmonton, AB T6B 1K5, Canada. E-mail: julian.brimelow@ec.gc.ca
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