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  • View in gallery

    Examples of the creation of randomized running partial-duration series. In each iteration, a year is randomly removed from the earlier series and a new year is randomly added (columns 1 and 2). Possible effects on the partial-duration precipitation series are illustrated in columns 3 and 4 and for a separate case in columns 5 and 6. See text for further description.

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    Stations with positive (black) and negative (gray) trends in 2-yr return-interval rainfall based on running 30-yr data records beginning in (a) 1960 and (b) 1950 and lengthening records beginning in (c) 1960 and (d) 1950. A gradient of dot sizes indicates resampled significance at the α = 0.10, 0.05, and 0.01 levels.

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    As in Fig. 2, but for 100-yr return-interval precipitation amounts for running 30-yr records beginning in (a) 1960 and (b) 1950.

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    As in Fig. 2, but for the (a) location, (b) scale, and (c) shape parameters of the GEV distribution fit to running 30-yr periods beginning in 1960. The numbers identify regions used in subsequent analyses: 1) Northeast, 2) western Great Lakes, 3) Northwest, 4) Four Corners, and 5) Gulf Coast.

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    Boxplots of the trends in return-period precipitation amounts for stations within the regions outlined in Fig. 4b based on lengthening series starting in (a) 1950 and (b) 1960. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return-period accumulations from left to right.

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    As in Fig. 5, but for the GEV distribution parameters. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the slope of the location, scale, and shape parameter from left to right.

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    Station time series of the (a),(d) location, (b),(e) scale, and (c),(f) shape parameters fit to GEV distributions using partial duration precipitation series for four representative stations in the (left) Northeast and (right) Great Lakes regions. The least squares fit for each is shown by the dotted line.

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    Precipitation amounts (cm) and years of occurrence of the 10 largest 1-day rainfalls at the (a) four Northeast-region stations and (b) four Great Lakes–region stations used in Fig. 7.

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    Number of stations in the (a) Northeast and (b) Great Lakes regions that recorded one of their highest five daily precipitation totals in the given month.

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    Boxplots of the percent change in return-period recurrence time for stations within the regions outlined in Fig. 4b based on the (a) 1950–2007 and (b) 1978–2007 periods relative to the return-period amounts for the 1950–79 period. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return-period accumulations from left to right.

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Time-Dependent Changes in Extreme-Precipitation Return-Period Amounts in the Continental United States

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  • 1 Northeast Regional Climate Center, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
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Abstract

Partial-duration maximum precipitation series from Historical Climatology Network stations are used as a basis for assessing trends in extreme-precipitation recurrence-interval amounts. Two types of time series are analyzed: running series in which the generalized extreme-value (GEV) distribution is fit to separate overlapping 30-yr data series and lengthening series in which more recent years are iteratively added to a base series from the early part of the record. Resampling procedures are used to assess both trend and field significance. Across the United States, nearly two-thirds of the trends in the 2-, 5-, and 10-yr return-period rainfall amounts, as well as the GEV distribution location parameter, are positive. Significant positive trends in these values tend to cluster in the Northeast, western Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest. Slopes are more pronounced in the 1960–2007 period when compared with the 1950–2007 interval. In the Northeast and western Great Lakes, the 2-yr return-period precipitation amount increases at a rate of approximately 2% per decade, whereas the change in the 100-yr storm amount is between 4% and 9% per decade. These changes result primarily from an increase in the location parameter of the fitted GEV distribution. Collectively, these increases result in a median 20% decrease in the expected recurrence interval, regardless of interval length. Thus, at stations across a large part of the eastern United States and Pacific Northwest, the 50-yr storm based on 1950–79 data can be expected to occur on average once every 40 yr, when data from the 1950–2007 period are considered.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Art DeGaetano, 1119 Bradfield Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. Email: atd2@cornell.edu

Abstract

Partial-duration maximum precipitation series from Historical Climatology Network stations are used as a basis for assessing trends in extreme-precipitation recurrence-interval amounts. Two types of time series are analyzed: running series in which the generalized extreme-value (GEV) distribution is fit to separate overlapping 30-yr data series and lengthening series in which more recent years are iteratively added to a base series from the early part of the record. Resampling procedures are used to assess both trend and field significance. Across the United States, nearly two-thirds of the trends in the 2-, 5-, and 10-yr return-period rainfall amounts, as well as the GEV distribution location parameter, are positive. Significant positive trends in these values tend to cluster in the Northeast, western Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest. Slopes are more pronounced in the 1960–2007 period when compared with the 1950–2007 interval. In the Northeast and western Great Lakes, the 2-yr return-period precipitation amount increases at a rate of approximately 2% per decade, whereas the change in the 100-yr storm amount is between 4% and 9% per decade. These changes result primarily from an increase in the location parameter of the fitted GEV distribution. Collectively, these increases result in a median 20% decrease in the expected recurrence interval, regardless of interval length. Thus, at stations across a large part of the eastern United States and Pacific Northwest, the 50-yr storm based on 1950–79 data can be expected to occur on average once every 40 yr, when data from the 1950–2007 period are considered.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Art DeGaetano, 1119 Bradfield Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. Email: atd2@cornell.edu

1. Introduction

Engineering and hydrologic design considerations have long relied on analyses of extreme-rainfall return intervals. Such “climatologies” have at their roots the work of Hershfield (1961), which in many locations still provides the foundation for these design considerations. Through time this analysis has been revised in different regions (e.g., Huff and Angel 1992; Wilks and Cember 1993; Bonnin et al. 2004); however, in each case the existence of a stationary precipitation series has been a basic assumption. Huff and Changnon (1987) were among the first to consider the influence of a nonstationary precipitation record on extreme return periods. Katz et al. (2002) acknowledge the problems with assuming a stationary precipitation record and offer a means by which such trends can be incorporated into hydrological analyses of rainfall extremes. They demonstrate that a number of change features can be incorporated into the maximum-likelihood fitting of extreme distributions but offer little insight into how return-period accumulations or the statistical distributions upon which these values are based may have changed through time.

Increasingly, the observed climatological record shows that the assumption of stationary precipitation data may not be valid. Heavy-rainfall events have become more frequent since the middle of the last century, not only in the United States (Karl and Knight 1998), but also in regions across the globe (e.g., Osborn et al. 2000; Shouraseni and Balling 2004; Suppiah and Hennessy 1998). In some cases, the extremes have changed despite decreases or flat trends in mean rainfall (Groisman et al. 2005; Goswami et al. 2006). These changes have been seen both at the daily and subdaily (Palecki et al. 2005) scales. For longer-duration events, Brommer et al. (2007) find that in the United States storms have become wetter but less frequent and collectively contribute to a smaller proportion of the total annual rainfall. In other locations, notably Canada, such trends in extreme rainfall have not been noted (Zhang et al. 2001). Trenberth et al. (2003) discuss the physical mechanisms that affect the character of precipitation in light of changes that these mechanisms will likely experience under climate change. They raise a number of issues related to the use of climate models to project future changes in precipitation character.

Despite these increases in heavy-rainfall events, some studies of the hydrologic flood record do not indicate a substantial change in extreme high streamflow with time (e.g., Lins and Slack 1999; Douglas et al. 2000). Rather, these records mainly show changes in the timing of annual peak flows, which in many parts of the United States and Canada is determined by snowmelt and land use changes within the catchments instead of precipitation intensity (e.g., Burn and Hag Elnur 2002; Hodgkins et al. 2003). Other work, however (e.g., Groisman et al. 2001), shows a significant relationship between the frequency of heavy precipitation and high-streamflow events—in particular, in the eastern United States.

Simulations using state-of-the-art coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (GCM) also indicate increases in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme-rainfall events. Kharin and Zwiers (2000) show that changes in extreme precipitation can be expected across the globe and that the relative change in extreme-precipitation amounts can be expected to be larger than the change in mean precipitation. They base their findings on transient simulations from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis global model. In later work, Kharin et al. (2007) show similar results in all but polar regions and note a particularly pronounced change in precipitation extremes (relative to the mean) in subtropical and tropical locations. They also indicate a decrease in the waiting time for extreme-precipitation events, by as much as a factor of 3 by the late twenty-first century under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions. This tendency for relatively larger increases in extreme versus mean precipitation is consistent with the model simulations of Hegerl et al. (2004) and Wehner (2004), who also showed the seasonality of such changes. Voss et al. (2002) show a higher probability of heavy rain events in GCM simulations and note that these changes are consistent with an increase in the scale parameter of the gamma distribution used to describe precipitation.

In this study, the observed precipitation record is examined for time-dependent changes in the return-period precipitation amounts (of direct interest to engineers and water resource managers) and extreme-rainfall distribution parameters. As such, the analysis bridges the gap between existing observational studies that have tended to focus on occurrences of rainfall above some extreme threshold (e.g., days with ≥5 cm of precipitation or precipitation ≥99th percentile) and modeling studies that have projected changes in model-derived extreme-precipitation return periods. Groisman et al. (1999) provide some impetus for this type of analysis by using the gamma distribution and examining changes in the distribution parameters seasonally and between wet and dry summers. They show that it is the scale parameter that is most variable both spatially and temporally. The results of the current study will provide information on the character of recent changes in extreme precipitation, serve as a basis for time-dependent maximum-likelihood analyses (e.g., Katz et al. 2002), and provide guidance to engineers and resource managers as to the impact of relying of design criteria that assume a nonchanging precipitation climatology. Even the most recent operational precipitation-extreme analyses are rooted in this assumption (Bonnin et al. 2004). For the states included in this atlas, Bonnin et al. (2004) found no evidence of a consistent linear trend in the mean or variance of the 1-day annual maximum time series. Likewise, a significant shift in the mean of these series was not detected. It is unclear as to whether this is related to the geographic areas studied or the extreme-value estimation, and/or interpolation methods used.

2. Method

a. Data

Daily precipitation data were obtained from the 1061 stations that compose the daily Historical Climatology Network (HCN) (Easterling et al. 1999). In addition to the standard quality-assurance screening the data undergo before archiving, the most extreme values were further screened for spatial consistency. Daily rainfall amounts in excess of 12.7 cm required a second precipitation total of at least 7.6 cm to be observed at a station located within 300 km of the first to be considered. In a similar way, for rainfall amounts in excess of 25.4 cm to be considered, a second total of 12.7 cm or greater was required to occur within 300 km of the first. This procedure was used by Wilks and Cember (1993) in developing an atlas of extreme-rainfall amounts for the northeastern United States. It can be argued that this relatively simple procedure may have excluded valid precipitation extremes—in particular, in data-sparse regions. This potential omission is problematic in applications in which the value of the extreme is of greatest importance, but in the current application, which looks at the temporal change in the extreme values, the omission is of somewhat less concern. Instead, it is imperative that the method of identifying the relevant extremes and computing the associated return-period accumulations and extreme-value distribution parameters not vary with time (or from analyst to analyst as would be the case if manual quality-assurance methods were applied). Thus this objective method of validating rainfall extremes was adapted. Manual evaluation of flagged events indicated that the procedure was conservative (i.e., few if any valid precipitation totals were excluded). Furthermore, the omission of this screening procedure has no influence on the results.

These daily data were used to construct extreme-value series for two interval types. First, unique partial-duration series (the 30 largest independent daily accumulations) were assembled for running 30-yr periods beginning in 1950. Independent events were required to be separated by at least 7 days. Thus, the first of these series, termed 30-yr running series, included data from 1950 to 1979 and the last of the possible 28 series encompassed the 1978–2007 period. Partial-duration series were also constructed for periods of increasing length, beginning in 1950 and, separately, 1960. The first of these lengthening series was identical to the 30-yr running series for 1950–79, and the last of the 28 lengthening series included data for 1950–2007. The 30-yr running series allow temporal changes in the extremes to be assessed without the complicating factors associated with differences in station period of record. The lengthening series are more representative of the procedures that have been followed in developing extreme-rainfall climatologies; namely, to use the longest available record (rather than a period of standard length) in computing return intervals. Likewise, the longer series are less affected by instabilities associated with the maximum-likelihood fitting of the distribution parameters (Martins and Stedinger 2000).

b. Statistical analysis

Generalized extreme-value (GEV) distributions were fit to each partial duration series using the “fgev” routine in the “evd” library of the R statistical package. The routine uses the maximum-likelihood method (Kharin and Zwiers 2005) in fitting the data. Other methods (e.g., L moments; Hosking 1990) could also be used to estimate the distribution parameters. Kharin and Zwiers (2005) demonstrate that methodological biases inherent to the different fitting techniques are small. This, in combination with the ability to incorporate time-dependent factors into the maximum-likelihood fitting of the GEV distribution (Katz et al. 2002), guided the choice of fitting technique. This latter feature is of importance for the ultimate practical implementation of the results.

The location μ, scale σ, and shape κ parameters were retained as were the precipitation amounts corresponding to the 2-, 5-, 10-, 25–50-, and 100-yr return interval for each of the twenty-eight 30-yr running series (and 28 lengthening series starting in 1950 and 18 starting in 1960). This allowed time series to be constructed for each parameter. Because the extreme amounts and distribution parameters based on overlapping 30-yr intervals (and lengthening periods of record) cannot be assumed to be independent, the significance of trends in these values was estimated using Monte Carlo techniques. A nonparametric first-difference series test was applied to the values from each of the running series as well as those from the lengthening period of record series and the test statistic retained. This test is outlined in Karl and Williams (1987).

Then new sets of 28 resampled running 30-yr and lengthening-period-of-record partial-duration series were constructed based on the set of daily precipitation data that corresponded to randomly selected years sampled without replacement from the interval 1930–2007. The GEV was fit to these new series, and the return-period precipitation accumulations and distribution parameters were retained. Last, the first-difference series test parameter from the random series was computed and retained. The above process was repeated 1000 times, yielding a distribution of test statistics (trends) with which the trend in the original unshuffled values could be compared. Resampled series were also computed using a shorter 1950–2007 pool of data, with no substantive change in results.

Figure 1 illustrates this resampling procedure for the running series. The omission of a year from either the original or a randomized series (e.g., Fig. 1) can result in more than one extreme value being altered in the partial-duration series. An initial random selection of 30 yr is given in the first column of Fig. 1, and the second column shows the subsequent selection of years in which 1997 is omitted and 1959 randomly added. The omission of 1997 results in three of the extreme values being omitted from the first partial-duration precipitation series (boldface values in column 3). To maintain the necessary 30 values in the extreme series, three new extremes are introduced to the new series. These either can occur during the newly introduced year (1959 in this case) or could represent precipitation events that occurred in one or more of the 29 yr that are common to both the earlier and later series. In Fig. 1, the 5.89- and 5.94-cm totals occurred in 1959; however, the additional 5.59-cm total was observed in 1995. This year is common to both data series. Given the three high totals that occurred in 1997, the second 5.59-cm total was the 31st-highest total in the original ranked list of extremes that included 1997. With the omission of this year and the lack of three high totals in 1959, the rank of this second 5.59-cm accumulation is elevated to the 30th-highest daily precipitation total in the new list. The last two columns in Fig. 1 represent a more common occurrence, with a single value (12.70 cm) being omitted and a single new total (8.38 cm) entering the later series.

The resampling procedure for the lengthening series is similar. In this case the original 30-yr series would increase to 31 values as the randomly selected year (1959) was added to the original list. Because 1997 is still included in the lengthening series, the 6.22-, 6.86-, and 8.46-cm precipitation totals that occurred in 1997 would remain in the partial-duration series (Fig. 1). Likewise, the 5.89- and 5.94-cm values that occurred in 1959 would also be included. However, the 5.59-cm total that occurred in 1995 would not enter the list. To compensate for the addition of these two values, despite only adding a single year, the second 5.59-cm total would also be omitted from the new 31-yr series.

Through randomization, the partial-duration series can be affected in four ways: a particularly large precipitation amount (e.g., the first-, second-, or third-largest value in the record) can be 1) in both the initial series (e.g., 1950–79) and subsequent (1951–80) series, 2) in the earlier series but not the later series, 3) in the later series but not earlier series, or 4) in neither series. For lengthening series, only cases 1 and 3 apply. These situations influence the subsequent random trend in the return-period amounts. Assuming the random series are drawn from a 78-yr record (1930–2007), as was the case at most sites, the probability that a series falls into these categories is as would be expected given the independent selection of years. Thus positive and negative trends were equally likely, yielding random series that were, on average, stationary.

To preserve the spatial correlation between the extreme series at different sites, the individual randomizations were consistent among the stations. This allowed the field significance of the findings to be assessed (Livezey and Chen 1983). Through this assessment, both the significance of obtaining the observed number of significant trends (α = 0.1, 0.05, and 0.01) and the observed number of positive and negative trends across the United States could be quantified.

3. Results

Collectively across the 1061 HCN stations there is a tendency for the precipitation accumulations associated with each return period to increase with time (Table 1). Positive trends are more prevalent in the short-return-period amounts than in those from longer 50- and 100-yr return intervals. The increase is consistent regardless of whether the running series commence in 1960 or 1950; however, the percentage of significant trends is greater for trends commencing in 1960. The percentage of increasing trends is also consistent regardless of whether the series are derived based on running 30-yr periods or a lengthening period of record.

Although there is consistently a greater proportion of positive trends than negative trends during the 1960–2007 period, only in the shorter-duration return periods (in general, return periods of 2–10 yr) is the difference in this proportion field significant (α = 0.05) given 1061 station series. The field significance of the trends computed starting in 1950 is somewhat greater with all return periods, showing significantly more positive trends than expected (α = 0.05) based on running series (Table 1a) and the trends in 2–25-yr return-period amounts being field significant in the lengthening series.

This pattern is also repeated when the number of significant positive trends is considered. There are significantly more statistically significant positive trends in both the running and lengthening series than would be expected to occur by chance. For the shorter return periods, this field significance is at the 99% level with the significance diminishing as return periods increase. Note that the field significance is only shown for positive trends to highlight these values. In almost all cases, there are correspondingly fewer negative trends than would be expected to occur by chance.

From the standpoint of the parameters of the fitted GEV distributions from which the return-period accumulations are derived, it is clear that the changes result primarily from an increase in the location parameter μ (Table 2). In both the running and lengthening series, there are significantly more (α = 0.05) positive trends in the location parameter. Likewise the proportion of significant location-parameter trends (relative to the 1061 stations) also exceeds that which would be expected by chance (α = 0.05) and matches that obtained for the return-period amount series (Table 1). These features are consistent whether the trends commence in 1950 or 1960; however, there is a greater proportion of significantly positive trends in the 1960 period.

The scale parameter σ shows little consistent change with time (Table 2). The difference in the proportion of positive and negative trends in the scale parameter is essentially what would be expected to occur randomly in the data series. There is also little tendency for the shape parameter κ to become more positive with time.

In a geographical sense, Fig. 2 shows that the changes in 2-yr return-period precipitation amount are not uniformly distributed across the United States. Rather, the positive return-period precipitation amount trends are concentrated in the Northeast (New York and New England), the Midwest (in particular, states bordering the Great Lakes), and to a smaller degree the Pacific Northwest. There is also a notable lack of positive trends in the extreme-precipitation amounts across the Intermountain region. The proportion of positive and negative trends is generally constant with latitude. Within each 5° latitude band, slightly less than two-thirds of the trends are positive, consistent with the overall proportion of positive trends (Table 1). These patterns are consistent regardless of whether fixed 30-yr periods or lengthening time series are used to define the trends. Likewise, starting decade (1950 vs 1960) has little influence. For running 30-yr series starting in 1960, significant negative trends (α = 0.05) are absent at stations north of 45°.

The spatial pattern of 100-yr return-period value trends is similar for both running (Fig. 3) and lengthening (not shown) series lengths. The reduction in the percentage of trends significant at the 95% level as compared with the 2-yr return-period analysis (Table 1) manifests itself as a general reduction in these trends across the country, as opposed to a single region.

In terms of the GEV parameters, the increases in return-period rainfall amounts in the Northeast and western Great Lakes states coincide with increases in the location parameter of the GEV distribution (Fig. 4a). Otherwise, there is little spatial consistency in the scale or shape parameters of the GEV distribution.

To investigate these regional differences in greater detail, five multistate regions were selected based on the clustering (or lack of clustering) of positive and negative trends. These areas are outlined in Fig. 4b. Although these selections were arbitrary, they highlight regional trend features and are subsets of regions analyzed by Groisman et al. (2004). Figure 5 shows boxplots of the linear trends in the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return-period precipitation amounts at all stations within each region. Lengthening series are used because these trends tend to be more conservative (smaller trends) than those obtained from running 30-yr intervals. It is unclear as to which approach is more applicable to the design considerations that are based on these values. In the lengthening series, the earliest return periods are based on data from the 1950–79 period and the latest are based on data from the entire 1950–2007 period. Thus, if a true change in the extreme-precipitation climatology occurred during this period the later return periods are still influenced by the earlier (and presumably less extreme) rainfall amounts. This effect can be quantified by comparing the 1950–2007 lengthening trends with boxplots of lengthening trends for the 1960–2007 period. The influence of the earlier data is absent in the running 30-yr analyses; however, the short data record compromises the maximum-likelihood fits of the GEV distribution at some stations, artificially inflating the trends in the higher-return-interval precipitation amounts. In addition, without strong evidence for a change in the extreme-precipitation regime, it is unreasonable to artificially truncate an already limited precipitation climatology.

The return-period slopes using the 1950–2007 period show the strong tendency for positive slopes in the 2-yr return-period amounts in the Northeast, western Great Lakes, and Northwest regions (Fig. 5a). In these regions the 2-yr return-period precipitation amounts increase at a median rate of 1% per decade. Consistent with Table 1, the tendency toward positive slopes is more pronounced in the 1960–2007 period. The magnitude of these slopes is greater—in particular, in the Northeast region, where the median slope for the 2-yr return-period accumulations is 2.5% per decade (Fig. 5b). In both the western Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions, the median slope approaches 2% per decade.

When the 100-yr return-period event is considered, the median slope across the 1950–2007 period is 4% per decade in the Northeast. For the 1960–2007 period, a change of 9% per decade in the 100-yr amount is indicated. Given that the 100-yr storm in this region is typically 14 cm, this translates to a 2.3-cm increase in the 100-yr rainfall amount due to the addition of the 18 most recent years (1960–89 vs 1960–2007). Although positive 100-yr storm trends also dominate in the other regions, the median magnitude of these trends is less, with values near 2% per decade in the 1950–2007 period and between 2% and 5% per decade in the later (and shorter) period. The trend in the 100-yr storm amount is near 0% in the Four Corners region for the 1950–2007 period, consistent with Fig. 3.

It is also evident from Fig. 5 that as return period increases the variability in the trends within each region also increases. This increase is slightly greater in the Northeast but in general is consistent among the regions and analysis periods. This can be attributed to the variability of the maximum-likelihood fit of the most-extreme values and in some cases the instabilities associated with the maximum-likelihood fit of the relatively short series (Martins and Stedinger 2000). It should be kept in mind, however, that this increased variance and the tendency for instabilities also affect the resampled slope distributions upon which the significance tests are based.

The distributions of the slopes of the GEV parameters among the individual stations in each region are similar to those of the return-period amounts (Fig. 6). For the 1950–2007 period (lengthening series), the median slopes of the location parameters are positive in the five highlighted regions (Fig. 6a), as are the slopes of the scale parameter. For the location parameter, the variation in the trends across the stations within a region is small, as indicated by the narrow interquartile ranges of the boxplots (Fig. 6). The magnitude of these trends is also small (at most 1% per decade) in each region. The scale parameter trends are more variable among the stations. The median trends are also higher, ranging from 1% per decade in the Four Corners region to 4% per decade in the western Great Lakes.

The trends in location parameter become more pronounced in the 1960–2007 period—in particular, in the Northeast and western Great Lakes regions (Fig. 6b). In these regions, a median increase of 2% per decade in μ occurs. It is these regions that contribute the majority of the significantly positive location parameter trends and the higher-than-expected number of significant trends across the United States (Table 2; Fig. 4). The character of the scale-parameter trends does not change appreciably between the two analysis periods. These trends remain predominately positive but increase in magnitude—in particular, in the Northeast and Four Corners regions. In the Northeast, the median trend is nearly 5% per decade. With the exception of the Northeast, there is little evidence of a consistent trend in the shape parameter: the median trends are near zero and the variability of the slopes among the stations is high.

To highlight the characteristics of these trends—in particular, in the Northeast and western Great Lakes regions, four stations were selected from each region. The stations (Table 3) were selected such that they were geographically representative of the region and had among the greatest slopes in their 10-, 25-, or 50-yr return-period rainfall. Limiting the stations in this manner was necessary to highlight the pattern of change through time illustrated in Fig. 7. Similar graphs using all stations within a region were also constructed (not shown) to assure that the character of the trends shown in Fig. 7 was not unique among the more comprehensive set of regional stations.

The change in the location parameter through time is well described by a linear fit. There is no evidence that the linear trends are driven by individual outlier values (statistical testing based on the first-difference series is also robust to such cases). At two of the western Great Lakes region stations, the series show some evidence of reaching a plateau when data after 1985 are included (Fig. 7d). At the other Great Lakes stations and in the Northeast, the change is more monotonic.

For the scale and shape parameters, although increasing in all but one case, the linearity of the trends is not as consistent. The lack of year-to-year variability in the location parameters is also pronounced in comparison with the scale and shape parameters. With the exception of the linear trends being increasing in all cases, it is hard to make a general statement about the individual station trends. In the western Great Lakes region, the time-dependent change in scale parameters at three of the stations tends to level off in years after 1985, much like the pattern noted for the location parameters in this region.

To assist in tying these trends to the actual rainfall climatological behavior, Fig. 8 shows the magnitudes of the 10 largest one-day precipitation events at each of the four regional stations, along with the month of occurrence. In both regions, a majority of the highest events have occurred in the post-1975 period. This feature is also pronounced when all stations in the regions are examined (not shown). At the western Great Lakes stations, there are 16 occurrences of daily rainfall ≥10 cm, of which 13 occurred after 1975. There are also 16 occurrences of ≥10 cm of daily rainfall at the Northeast stations, and 13 of these occurred after 1975. In the Great Lakes region, the four highest daily rainfall totals occurred after 1975. In the Northeast, although the highest total was observed in August 1955 (Hurricane Diane), the next five highest rainfall amounts occur in the post-1975 period.

The consistency of the positive and significantly positive rainfall return-period-amount trends across the Northeast and western Great Lakes regions raises the possibility that extreme-rainfall events may have become more widespread through time, with an individual storm producing rainfall extremes at a greater number of stations. There is little evidence of this in the Northeast (Fig. 9a). Yet during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, 37 of the 69 stations in the Northeast region recorded one of their five highest daily rainfall totals in the 1950–2007 period. Similar widespread events occurred in the 1950s, however, and there is little evidence in Fig. 9 that these types of occurrences have changed through time.

In the western Great Lakes region, although the most-widespread event occurred in the 1950s, there is some evidence that widespread extreme events have become more frequent since the late 1970s. Prior to 1970, 11 months had extreme-rainfall events that are among the five highest at six or more stations. Since 1970, this occurs in 14 months. When the occurrence of four or more stations with extremes is considered, there are 16 occurrences prior to 1970 and 41 in the post-1970 period. A more detailed analysis of this change is beyond the scope of this paper. However, this cursory examination highlights an area for further research.

4. Conclusions

Recent changes in the occurrence of rainfall events of >5.08 cm documented for many portions of the United States appear to have influenced the GEV distribution fit to partial-duration precipitation series from stations across the United States. This affects the magnitude of precipitation associated with different preselected recurrence intervals. These statistics are commonly used in engineering design specifications and in various regulatory capacities. The changes are most pronounced in the Northeast and in states surrounding the western Great Lakes. Across the country the number of positive trends in the location parameter of the GEV distribution is greater than would be expected to occur by chance (α = 0.05) in lengthening series computed over the 1950–2007 (and 1960–2007) time period. This manifests itself as a trend in the amount of rainfall associated with each recurrence interval or equivalently as a decrease in the return interval associated with specific precipitation amount. Figure 10 presents the collective results in terms of the return-interval length. Here the probability (return period) of the rainfall amount associated with specific return periods based on the 1950–79 data period is computed using GEV distributions fit to the 1950–2007 and separately 1978–2007 periods. This allows the recurrence interval of the old (1950–79) extremes to be cast in terms of the newer data record. In each of the regions, with the exception of the Four Corners, the trends in the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return intervals are consistent (both between region and return interval), amounting to a 20% reduction in the recurrence time for each event. Thus, in terms of the median, for the 1950–2007 data record, the 2-yr storm (based on 1950–79 data) can be expected to occur on average once in 1.8 yr. Likewise, the “50-yr storm” can be expected to occur on average once every 40 yr, and an 80-yr return interval would be expected for the 100-yr storm. In general since 1980, the addition of each year of new data has decreased the return interval by approximately 0.75%.

Based on 30-yr running series, this reduction in return interval is even more pronounced (Fig. 10b). In the Northeast, the median decrease of both the 50- and 100-yr recurrence interval is nearly 40%. Thus what would be expected to be a 100-yr event based on 1950–79 data occurs with an average return interval of 60 yr when data from the 1978–2007 period are considered. The reduction for recurrence intervals for the 2-yr storm in the Northeast as well as the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr storms in the western Great Lakes and Northwest regions is approximately 30%. Even in the Four Corners region, the decrease for the 100-yr-storm recurrence interval is near 20%. Note that these estimates are variable—in particular, in the western regions. Thus, given the short data records and instabilities associated with the maximum-likelihood fits, these changes are given only to illustrate the potential magnitude of the changes if the earlier portion of the data record is omitted.

These results are consistent with other studies based on both observations (e.g., Karl and Knight 1998; Groisman et al. 2005) and GCM simulations (e.g., Kharin et al. 2007; Hegerl et al. 2004). The concentration of positive (and significantly positive) trends in return-period rainfall amounts and the location parameter of the GEV distribution in the Northeast, Gulf Coast, and upper Midwest regions of the United States are consistent with the areas that Groisman et al. (2005) identify as having experienced disproportionate changes in heavy and very heavy precipitation. These areas are also highlighted as having experienced significant changes in 99.7th-percentile precipitation (Groisman et al. 2004). Groisman et al. also identify the western coast of Canada as experiencing such a change, a result that supports the changes noted in this study in coastal Washington and Oregon. Collectively, there is also good agreement between those regions that show significant changes in return-interval precipitation amounts in this study and the regional heavy-rainfall results of Karl and Knight (1998).

In GCM simulations, these general areas are also highlighted. For instance, in work summarized in Groisman et al. (2005), the largest changes in Canadian Climate Centre and Hadley Climate Model doubled-CO2 (carbon dioxide) simulations of 99.7th-percentile precipitation are across the northern United States, with relatively larger increases in the Northeast, western Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest. There is also a dearth of positive trends in the Intermountain region, a feature also noted in this study. In transient simulations, Kharin and Zwiers (2005) also show these regions as having the largest positive changes in the GEV distribution location parameter. They also show little change in the GEV scale parameter across the northern United States, a result that is supported by the observational data presented in this study. In terms of the 20-yr recurrence interval, the model simulations show an increase of between 5% and 10% in the amount of precipitation associated with this event in 2090 relative to 2000 depending on emissions scenario. Alternately, based on the model simulations an event with a 20-yr recurrence interval in 2000 would be expected to occur on average once every 7–13 yr by 2090. The results presented here suggest a 0.75% reduction in return interval for every year of additional data that is included in the extreme series that is used to derive the return periods. Simply extending this observed trend through 2090 would result in the current 20-yr storm occurring on average once every 7 yr in agreement with the model simulation for 2090.

Given the observed changes in the occurrence of extreme precipitation across the United States, GCM simulations of these changes, and the results of this study that relates the changes in extreme-precipitation threshold exceedances observed by others to return-period rainfall amounts and recurrence times, the assumption of a stationary precipitation climatology should be revisited. Future work to update these extreme-precipitation climatologies for practical applications related to engineering design and environmental and public safety regulations must factor in procedures for addressing both this nonstationarity and the inherent uncertainty associated with projecting these changes into the future. Katz et al. (2002) provide some guidance for fitting time-dependent extreme-value distributions. The recent precipitation record indicates that the location parameter has tended to exhibit the most consistent change over the last 28 yr. The time-dependent change in μ has been fairly linear, although at a limited number of stations there is a tendency for the change to plateau in recent years.

It is fortunate that in the regions of the United States where the most recent extreme-rainfall climatologies have been developed (Bonnin et al. 2004) the trends in the GEV distribution parameters and corresponding return-period precipitation amounts, although predominately positive, have lacked statistical significance. This result is in agreement with an examination of trends in the annual maximum precipitation series in these regions (Bonnin et al. 2004). However, as such analyses are expanded to other regions of the country, it is imperative that the changes documented in this work be addressed. In a similar way, in those regions with existing analyses, a procedure to reassess regularly the assumption of stationarity should be implemented.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by NOAA Contract EA133E07CN0090, the NY State Agricultural Experiment Station, and the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority.

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Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Examples of the creation of randomized running partial-duration series. In each iteration, a year is randomly removed from the earlier series and a new year is randomly added (columns 1 and 2). Possible effects on the partial-duration precipitation series are illustrated in columns 3 and 4 and for a separate case in columns 5 and 6. See text for further description.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Stations with positive (black) and negative (gray) trends in 2-yr return-interval rainfall based on running 30-yr data records beginning in (a) 1960 and (b) 1950 and lengthening records beginning in (c) 1960 and (d) 1950. A gradient of dot sizes indicates resampled significance at the α = 0.10, 0.05, and 0.01 levels.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

As in Fig. 2, but for 100-yr return-interval precipitation amounts for running 30-yr records beginning in (a) 1960 and (b) 1950.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

As in Fig. 2, but for the (a) location, (b) scale, and (c) shape parameters of the GEV distribution fit to running 30-yr periods beginning in 1960. The numbers identify regions used in subsequent analyses: 1) Northeast, 2) western Great Lakes, 3) Northwest, 4) Four Corners, and 5) Gulf Coast.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Boxplots of the trends in return-period precipitation amounts for stations within the regions outlined in Fig. 4b based on lengthening series starting in (a) 1950 and (b) 1960. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return-period accumulations from left to right.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 6.
Fig. 6.

As in Fig. 5, but for the GEV distribution parameters. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the slope of the location, scale, and shape parameter from left to right.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 7.
Fig. 7.

Station time series of the (a),(d) location, (b),(e) scale, and (c),(f) shape parameters fit to GEV distributions using partial duration precipitation series for four representative stations in the (left) Northeast and (right) Great Lakes regions. The least squares fit for each is shown by the dotted line.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 8.
Fig. 8.

Precipitation amounts (cm) and years of occurrence of the 10 largest 1-day rainfalls at the (a) four Northeast-region stations and (b) four Great Lakes–region stations used in Fig. 7.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 9.
Fig. 9.

Number of stations in the (a) Northeast and (b) Great Lakes regions that recorded one of their highest five daily precipitation totals in the given month.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Fig. 10.
Fig. 10.

Boxplots of the percent change in return-period recurrence time for stations within the regions outlined in Fig. 4b based on the (a) 1950–2007 and (b) 1978–2007 periods relative to the return-period amounts for the 1950–79 period. Within each regional grouping, boxplots show the 2-, 50-, and 100-yr return-period accumulations from left to right.

Citation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 48, 10; 10.1175/2009JAMC2179.1

Table 1.

Percentage of return-period precipitation amount trends having the indicated sign (positive or negative) and significance level. For the positive trends, field significance at the 95% level is indicated by boldface type. Trends are shown based on both running and lengthening series.

Table 1.
Table 2.

As in Table 1, but for the GEV distribution parameters.

Table 2.
Table 3.

Representative stations used to highlight trends in the GEV distribution parameters in the Northeast and western Great Lakes (Lakes) regions. Here, ID indicates identifier number.

Table 3.
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