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  • View in gallery

    The study area with the drainage areas for the stream gauges, the location of the rain, and stream gauges used in this study, state boundaries, and a few local geographic features.

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    Probability-plot correlation coefficient () for the warm season maximum streamflows assuming a LP3 and Gumbel probability distributions. The number in the x axis are Schoharie Creek at Prattsville (1), Esopus Creek at Allaben (2), Esopus Creek at Coldbrook (3), Wallkill River at Gardiner (4), East Branch Delaware River at Margaretville (5), Mill Brook near Dunraven (6), Tremper Kill near Andes (7), West Branch Delaware River upstream from Delhi (8), West Branch Delaware River at Walton (9), and Neversink River near Claryville (10).

  • View in gallery

    Seasonal variations of (a) extreme daily precipitation and (b) streamflow (including only values equal to or greater than the 95th percentile). The 95th percentile was calculated for each station and month, separately; boxplots represent data from all stations. The horizontal line in each boxplot is the median while the solid dot is the mean.

  • View in gallery

    Magnitude of events as a function of season and return period for (a) precipitation and (b) streamflow. Boxplots represent variations in frequency statistics from 12 rain gauges and 10 stream gauges used in this study. The horizontal line in each boxplot represents the median and the dark dot represents the mean.

  • View in gallery

    Flood flow magnitude as a function of return period and analysis data time period. (a) Average of stream gauges flood flow analyses and (b) relative difference flood flow in percentage [(30-yr based flood flow – long-term-based flood flow)(long-term-based flood flow)−1 × 100]. These results are based on flood frequency estimates from the following six streamflow gauges: Schoharie Creek at Prattsville, Esopus Creek at Coldbrook, Wallkill River at Gardiner, Millbrook near Dunraven, Tremper Kill near Andes, and Neversink River near Claryville.

  • View in gallery

    Example of nonparametric analysis for the Ellenville precipitation record. Magnitudes of every 4-day precipitation event on record during (a) cold and (b) warm seasons; the 95th percentile value (horizontal line); and the top-five historical events (blue circles). The number of extreme (i.e., >=95th percentile) events per year in the (c) cold and (d) warm seasons; 11-yr-centered mean line (bold); year(s) of maximum smoothed value (blue circles).

  • View in gallery

    Eleven-year smoothed centered running means of number of 4-day precipitation events per year equaling or exceeding the 95th percentile value for the entire record at 12 precipitation stations. Results from (a) annual, (b) cold season, and (c) warm season analyses are shown. The y axes are not shown. In each panel left vertical dashed line shows 1985; right vertical dashed line shows 2006. Blue circles on time series indicate year(s) of maximum value. (top to bottom) The 12 stations include the following: West Point, Mohonk, Port Jervis, Arkville, Delhi, Deposit, Ellenville, Liberty, Middletown, Rosendale, Slide, and Walton.

  • View in gallery

    As in Fig. 7, but for streamflow. (top to bottom) The 9 gauge stations include the following: 01350000, 1362200, 1362500, 01371500, 01413500, 01414500, 01415000, 01423000, and 01435000.

  • View in gallery

    Regional mean number of 95th percentile 4-day precipitation values per year. For each year, the number of 95th percentile values per year, averaged over all stations available, is shown (solid line with diamonds) along with the 11-yr running mean (bold line) and a (blue) circle indicating the year with the highest smoothed value. (a) Values from all months, (b) cold season values only, (c) warm season values only, and (d) the number of stations per year are shown.

  • View in gallery

    As in Fig. 9, but for daily streamflow.

  • View in gallery

    Regional annual mean number of 95th percentile 30-day events for (a) cold season precipitation, (b) warm season precipitation, (c) cold season streamflow, and (d) warm season streamflow. Each panel includes regional annual mean values (solid line with diamonds); 11-yr running mean (bold line); and maximum running mean values (blue circles).

  • View in gallery

    As in Fig. 11, but for 60-day events.

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A Seasonal Shift in the Frequency of Extreme Hydrological Events in Southern New York State

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  • 1 Institute for Sustainable Cities, City University of New York, New York, New York
  • | 2 Institute for Sustainable Cities, City University of New York, and Department of Geography, Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York, New York
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Abstract

The recent sequence of extreme hydrological events across the eastern United States (e.g., Hurricane Irene in August 2011, Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012), which led to unprecedented flooding including in various parts in the study region, the Catskill Mountains, and Hudson River Valley in southern New York State, have raised the question of whether the frequency of extreme events across the region is changing. In this study variations in the frequency of extreme precipitation and streamflow events available from historical records are analyzed. This study finds that there has been a marked increase in the frequency of warm season (June–October) extreme hydrologic events during the last two decades, with an accelerated rate of increase since the mid-1990s. The most recent decade has the highest frequency of extreme warm season events in the last 100 years across the study region. No such trend is observed between November and May; in fact the frequency of 4-day extreme precipitation events during the cold period has declined during the last two decades.

Corresponding author address: Adão H. Matonse, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, 71 Smith Ave., Kingston, NY 12401. E-mail: amatonse@hunter.cuny.edu

Abstract

The recent sequence of extreme hydrological events across the eastern United States (e.g., Hurricane Irene in August 2011, Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012), which led to unprecedented flooding including in various parts in the study region, the Catskill Mountains, and Hudson River Valley in southern New York State, have raised the question of whether the frequency of extreme events across the region is changing. In this study variations in the frequency of extreme precipitation and streamflow events available from historical records are analyzed. This study finds that there has been a marked increase in the frequency of warm season (June–October) extreme hydrologic events during the last two decades, with an accelerated rate of increase since the mid-1990s. The most recent decade has the highest frequency of extreme warm season events in the last 100 years across the study region. No such trend is observed between November and May; in fact the frequency of 4-day extreme precipitation events during the cold period has declined during the last two decades.

Corresponding author address: Adão H. Matonse, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, 71 Smith Ave., Kingston, NY 12401. E-mail: amatonse@hunter.cuny.edu

1. Introduction

In August and September of 2011, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dropped large amounts of rain across various parts of the eastern US, including our study region that includes the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River Valley of southern New York State. Prior to fall 2011, the most recent flooding event approaching such magnitudes in this region occurred in April 2005, when the Delaware River basin was hit by heavy rain that led to a total of 20 New York Counties being declared federal disaster areas. This event forced more than 1000 residents to evacuate their homes and approximately $35 million (U.S. dollars) in recovering cost mostly from flood damage (Suro and Firda 2006). Peak water surface elevations exceeding the 100- to 500-yr flood mark were registered in some areas across the region. More recently, in late October 2012, our region was affected by Hurricane Sandy, although the worst impacts of that storm in the northeast occurred as a result of storm surge along the coasts of New Jersey and New York State.

In light of the public perception within our study region of a recent increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation and hydrological events, we examine the hypothesis that there has been a change in the frequency of extreme events in this region. We employ a suite of parametric and nonparametric statistics to precipitation and stream gauge records, some of which extend back over a century.

Historically, the occurrence of extreme weather and climate events such as these storms has been associated with losses of human life, waterborne disease outbreaks, water quality issues, and high cost for damage recovery (Curriero et al. 2001; Easterling et al. 2000; Karl and Easterling 1999; Kunkel et al. 1994; Weniger et al. 1983; Towler et al. 2010). Despite their common association with physical processes, the severity of flood impacts are also a function of human development, land use patterns, exposure, and vulnerability (Allen et al. 2012; Kunkel 2003b; Changnon and Demissie 1996). Pielke and Downton (2000) indicate that differences in flood damage at a regional scale appear more correlated with differences in precipitation while differences in flood damage at a local scale are more related to other factors. Apart from direct catastrophic damage, tropical storms, floods, and droughts can affect human welfare indirectly through low yields/failed crops, waterborne disease outbreaks resulting in humanitarian crises with a higher number of lives lost. Such threats are likely to occur disproportionately in developing countries given the limited resources for mitigation and adaptation (Arnell et al. 2001; Curriero et al. 2001; Manabe et al. 2004; Huntington 2006). Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has emphasized the importance of new approaches to address the management of risks associated with extreme events as these may be directly affected by climate change (Allen et al. 2012).

A number of studies have shed light on trends in extreme events across the globe (for example, Knutson and Manabe 1998; Dai et al. 1997; Kunkel 2003a). Results from instrumental records and climate model simulations suggest that human-induced climate change is responsible for more intense precipitation over many extratropical regions, including the United States (Min et al. 2011; Groisman et al. 2005). At regional scales the results are highly variable with zonally averaged precipitation showing an increase by 7%–12% between 30° and 85°N, while an increase by 2% between 0° and 55°S and a decrease in other regions (Folland et al. 2001; Zhang et al. 2007). Analyses of multiday extreme precipitation events (Kunkel et al. 1999) and 1-day duration with a 20-yr return period (Zhang et al. 2001) found no statistically significant long-term trend for Canada. However, other studies found statistically significant trends including, in the average annual precipitation (Zhang et al. 2000), precipitation events exceeding a 2-month return period (Stone et al. 2000) for most areas in Canada, and precipitation of 5-yr return period associated with tropical cyclones (Kunkel et al. 2010). Across the United States, a number of studies have identified trends in extreme events during the last few decades (e.g.: Kunkel et al. 1999; Karl et al. 1995; Karl and Knight 1998; Novotny and Stefan 2007; Burns et al. 2007), though their analysis periods all end prior to 2005. Novotny and Stefan (2007) analyzed 36 stream gauge records distributed across five major river basins in Minnesota and found that peak flows due to rainfall and the number of days with high extreme flows in summer are increasing after 1980 but found no trend in snowmelt related runoff. In most studies the observed changes in precipitation are occurring in conjunction with increasing air temperature; for example Burns et al. (2007) studied the Catskill Mountain region in New York and found a 0.6°C increase in mean annual temperature associated with 136 mm increase in yearly cumulative precipitation in the past 50-yr period.

Two recent studies of precipitation and drought over the Catskill Mountains region demonstrate that the period since the 1970s has been particularly wet when viewed in the context of station observations since the early twentieth century (Seager et al. 2012), as well as in the context of longer-term hydrological variations based on tree ring reconstructions (Pederson et al. 2012). These studies show that both the drought of the 1960s and the subsequent wet period (which continues until today) were caused by internal atmospheric variability (Seager et al. 2012) and that periods of more extensive drought have occurred in earlier centuries (Pederson et al. 2012). Assuming that tree ring growth index and streamflow are both integrators of the available moisture and energy Devineni et al. (2013) applied a hierarchical Bayesian regression (HBR) model to tree-ring chronologies from different species to reconstruct the average concurrent summer streamflow in five basins across the upper Delaware River basin (which is part of our study region). Focusing on the summer months of June, July, and August they studied the frequency and recurrence of 1960s-like severe droughts at each basin in past centuries. They used the HBR model to generate a thousand realizations of a 247-yr simulation. From a count of the number of events exceeding the duration and severity of the 1960s at each gauge they estimated the median return period of the 1960s drought in the region to be around 80 years. A Mann–Kendall test on the time series revealed lack of evidence of a trend in the occurrence of the 1960s-like droughts. Thus, based on climatology and hydrology data reconstruction, the implication is that water resources in this region are vulnerable to significant drought events beyond what has been experienced during the last 100 years. In any case, the relationship between drought and flood events and climate change and how they directly affect society and sustainable development remains uncertain. Reducing uncertainty will require (among other things) more data on extreme events covering longer periods of record to become available; as well as a better understanding of the physical processes and evidence linking extreme events to climate change (Allen et al. 2012).

2. Study area and data description

a. Study area

The study area encompasses the mid–Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain regions in southern New York State. Fig. 1 shows a map of the study area with the drainage areas for the stream gauges, and the location of the rain gauges and stream gauges used in this study.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

The study area with the drainage areas for the stream gauges, the location of the rain, and stream gauges used in this study, state boundaries, and a few local geographic features.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

The Catskill Mountain region is part of the Allegheny Plateau consisting mainly of sedimentary bedrock (Burns et al. 2007) and contains rugged topography through which numerous tributaries drain naturally into the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. The study area, located between 80 and 250 km north of New York City, extends through Delaware, Greene, Orange, Ulster, Schoharie, and Sullivan counties of New York State. The climate of the region is humid continental with mean daily winter temperatures ranging between −5° and 0°C and mean daily summer temperatures ranging between 15° and 20°C. The temperature of the Catskill Mountain region is strongly impacted by elevation that rises to approximately 1200 m from the Hudson River. Regional hydrology is influenced by snow and snowmelt during winter and early spring particularly at higher elevations (Frei et al. 2002; Matonse et al. 2012). Average annual precipitation from the stations included in this study ranges from 1005 to 1580 mm. Average daily streamflow for the selected gauges ranges from 1.6 to 31 m3 s−1.

b. Data description

Historical long-term precipitation records from rain gauge stations across our region were obtained from Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC) at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Daily total precipitation for the entire period of record at each station is used to evaluate historical variations in extreme values. A total of 12 rain gauge stations with historical precipitation records met our criteria for inclusion in this study (Table 1): stations must have at least 30 yr of continuous data with no extended gaps, and must be currently active. Three stations have >100 yr of data. All trace precipitation was set to zero as these have no effect on the maximum precipitation time series.

Table 1.

List of precipitation stations used in this study, including the average total annual rainfall, and average totals for August and September.

Table 1.

Historical daily average and annual peak streamflow records are obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) surface water website (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/sw) for all stream gauge stations used in this study. Ten USGS gauges are selected in the Greater Catskill and mid–Hudson Valley watersheds for use in this analysis (Table 2). The selection is based on the following two criteria: 1) the gauge is presently active and has 30 or more years of annual maximum streamflow records; and 2) the streamflow at the site is natural or is minimally impacted by regulation. No processing was performed to replace missing values.

Table 2.

List of USGS gauges used in this study, including the drainage area, gauge elevation, basin slope, and average annual streamflow.

Table 2.

3. Methods

A suite of parametric and nonparametric statistics is applied to precipitation and streamflow records to evaluate extreme events. All analyses are performed for annual, warm season, and cold season separately. Annual analyses include data from all months of a calendar year. Warm season analyses include data from 1 June through 31 October, and cold season analyses include data from 1 November through 31 May 31st. These seasonal definitions effectively separate events associated with snow (i.e., melt and rain-on-snow events) from those associated only with heavy rain. For much of the nonparametric analysis, our definition of “extreme event” includes all events with magnitudes greater than or equal to the 95th percentile of the empirical distribution of all events at a given station. This definition is applied to each station individually; then, for some parts of the analysis, results from all stations are averaged.

Parametric statistics include hydrologic frequency analysis (HFA) using annual-maximum series (AMS) (El Adlouni and Ouarda 2010). In addition, HFA is also employed using seasonal-maximum time series from warm season and cold season separately. HFA provides the magnitude of events as a function of average return period (also known as recurrence interval). For this study we estimated return periods from 2 to 100 yr.

a. Annual streamflow HFA

For annual streamflow HFA, at each gauge location annual peak discharges are fitted to a log-Pearson type III distribution (LP3) (Stedinger et al. 1993; Interagency Advisory Committee on Water Data 1982—Bulletin 17B). This distribution is chosen because it has been recommended by the Interagency Advisory Committee on Water Data (1982) as a uniform technique for developing flood flow frequency analysis in the United States. Peak streamflows are used in this study for developing annual streamflow frequency analysis while daily average streamflows are applied to compare annual and seasonal flood flow estimates. Our application of the LP3 model followed the description in Stedinger et al. (1993) with the return period T calculated using Eq. (1):
e1
where p is the cumulative probability of the pth quantile, and xp, which represents the streamflow event that will be exceeded on average once every T years [also called the 100(1-p) percent exceedance event]. To implement the LP3 distribution the AMS series are transformed to a logarithmic space resulting in a three parameter lognormal distribution. Assuming the log-transformed series follow a normal distribution the pth quantile can be estimated from Eq. (2):
e2
where QT is the discharge associated with return period T, μ is the mean of the log-transformed annual maximum peak streamflow, σ is the standard deviation, and Kp(γ) is the frequency factor. The frequency factor represents the pth quantile of a standard Pearson type-3 distribution with skew coefficient γ, mean zero, and variance 1. For the selected quantile the corresponding streamflow estimate is calculated as
e3

b. Warm season streamflow HFA

To determine the most appropriate probability distribution to be used for the warm season maximum flows, a probability-plot correlation-coefficient (PPCC) (Vogel and Kroll 1989) is calculated by fitting the log-Pearson type III (LP3) and the extreme value type I or Gumbel distributions. The Gumbel distribution is among the extreme value (EV) distributions described by Gumbel (Gumbel 1958; Stedinger et al. 1993). The Gumbel distribution, which is further discussed in section 3c, is used to describe a large number (n) of annual maximum streamflow values assuming these are independent and identically distributed random variables. This distribution is unbounded above and is characterized by an “exponential-like” upper tail.

The PPCC test statistic that provides a measure of the linearity probability plot is . The metric is defined as the product moment correlation coefficient between the ordered observations and the order statistic means for each distribution function assumed.

At all sites the PPCC statistic for the LP3 distribution is higher than for the Gumbel distribution (Fig. 2) indicating that the LP3 is a better fit to warm season streamflow time series. Based on these results we adopt the LP3 distribution assumption for warm season maximum streamflow.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Probability-plot correlation coefficient () for the warm season maximum streamflows assuming a LP3 and Gumbel probability distributions. The number in the x axis are Schoharie Creek at Prattsville (1), Esopus Creek at Allaben (2), Esopus Creek at Coldbrook (3), Wallkill River at Gardiner (4), East Branch Delaware River at Margaretville (5), Mill Brook near Dunraven (6), Tremper Kill near Andes (7), West Branch Delaware River upstream from Delhi (8), West Branch Delaware River at Walton (9), and Neversink River near Claryville (10).

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

c. Annual and warm season precipitation HFA

For precipitation frequency analysis of 24-h rainfall AMS are assumed to follow a Gumbel distribution (Stedinger et al. 1993). The Gumbel distribution has been most often used with precipitation AMS and was applied for developing a rainfall frequency atlas in the United states including for our region of study (Hershfield 1961; El Adlouni and Ouarda 2010; Frederick et al. 1977; Smith 1993).

The Gumbel Distribution represents a good approximation for annual maxima 24-h rainfall. Its pdf has the following form:
e4
and the cdf
e5
The cdf can be inverted to obtain as
e6
To solve for the rainfall values associated with a return period defined by p we estimated parameters α and ξ using the sample estimators of first and second moments according to the following relationship:
e7
and
e8
where and s are the sample mean and standard deviation.

The same Gumbel distribution that is used for annual maximum precipitation is also applied to warm and cold season analyses.

d. Nonparametric data analysis and event definition

Prior to applying nonparametric statistics, we use daily total precipitation data to calculate 4-day, 30- and 30-day antecedent, and 60-day events. Here, 4-day events represent individual storms. We chose the 4-day-averaging period because precipitation from many storms occurs over a period between one and two days for smaller storms to three or four days for larger storms (e.g., both Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee resulted in precipitation over 4 days at most stations used in this study). An event is defined as any series of consecutive days (including only one day) with precipitation. Thus, 4-day events include all events in which precipitation occurred on one, two, three, or four consecutive days. All events included in this analysis are nonoverlapping. The procedure used to calculate multiday precipitation totals is described below using the 4-day averaging period as an example, but other averaging periods are calculated in an equivalent fashion. Also, time series for individual seasons are calculated in an equivalent fashion by including only days during the season in question.

The procedure used to calculate 4-day events is as follows:

  • First, calculate the total precipitation over all 4-day intervals, including overlapping intervals, which is equivalent to the 4-day running sum of the daily precipitation time series.
  • Second, identify all 4-day events in the resultant time series by eliminating all zero running sum values. Thus, an “event” is any group of four consecutive days with nonzero total precipitation. By this definition, events that last less than four days are still included as part of a 4-day event, and are not excluded from the analysis.
  • Third, we exclude overlapping events so that the final dataset is made up of discrete individual events. Two overlapping events might include, for example, a 4-day event ending on 20 January (which is the total precipitation for 17–20 January) and a 4-day event ending on 21 January (which is the total precipitation for 18–21 January). For all such overlapping events, only the one with the largest precipitation amount is retained for analysis; others are set to zero, and are therefore no longer considered in the analysis. This procedure results in a time series for each station, and for each period of analysis. Extreme events are defined from these time series as any event greater than or equal to the 95th percentile of the empirical distribution of all 4 day values, which is calculated for each station, and each season, individually. While this explanation uses 4-day events as an example, we perform the identical procedure for 30- and 60-day events.

4. Results and discussion

a. Historical climatology of extreme precipitation and streamflow

Climatologies of extreme precipitation and streamflow events for each month are presented using boxplots of daily total precipitation (Fig. 3a) and daily mean streamflow (Fig. 3b). In these and all subsequent boxplots, the lower and higher ends of the boxes represent the 25th (Q1) and 75th (Q3) quartiles, respectively; the whiskers represent the lowest and highest data values within the lower [Q1 − 1.5(Q3 − Q1)] and upper [Q3 + 1.5(Q3 − Q1)] limits. The horizontal lines in the boxplots represent the median, and the dots the mean. Each panel shows the distribution of daily events, including values from all stations that match or exceed the 95th percentile value for each month (i.e., the 95th percentile values for each station are calculated individually). The seasonal cycle of extreme precipitation events is unimodal, with the largest events tending to occur between August and October (Fig. 3a), including but not limited to the direct influence of tropical storms and hurricanes in this region.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Seasonal variations of (a) extreme daily precipitation and (b) streamflow (including only values equal to or greater than the 95th percentile). The 95th percentile was calculated for each station and month, separately; boxplots represent data from all stations. The horizontal line in each boxplot is the median while the solid dot is the mean.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

In contrast, streamflow events exhibit a bimodal distribution, in particular for the largest events (outliers) with peak values occurring between March and April as well as between August and October (Fig. 3b). Spring time extreme streamflow events result largely from snowmelt and rain-on-snow events, while late summer/fall extreme streamflow events are associated with rain. Over basins in which snow accumulation is significant compared to the amount of water in extreme rainfall events, the largest flood events tend to be snow related during spring. These include colder basins, which are generally smaller in size and at higher elevations. The selection of basins in this study includes examples of these colder basins, which have large streamflow events during the cold season (November through May) as well as basins in which the peak flood events occur during the warm season (June through October).

The magnitudes of streamflow events resulting from precipitation during either season are also influenced by antecedent conditions. During spring antecedent conditions include the mass of water stored in the snowpack as well as the thermal states of the snowpack and underlying surface (Leathers et al. 1998; Todhunter 2001). During late summer/fall, the most important antecedent condition affecting the magnitude of extreme streamflow events is the amount of moisture in the near-surface soil layers, which determines the amount of saturation excess runoff.

We also compare the magnitudes of events associated with various recurrence intervals during the cold and warm seasons (Fig. 4). For all precipitation return periods between 2 and 100 yr, warm season events are larger than cold season events (Fig. 4a). For example, the 100-yr precipitation event during the warm season varies at different stations between approximately 14 and 20 cm day−1, while in the cold season the 100-yr event is smaller, varying between approximately 8 and 13 cm day−1 at the same group of stations. In contrast, for streamflow the relative magnitude between the seasons is a function of return period: the magnitude of frequent (i.e., small) streamflow events is smaller during the warm season; but the magnitudes of streamflow events at larger return periods are comparable in the two seasons (Fig. 4b). For example, the magnitude of the 2-yr cold season flood flow varies between 40 and 250 m3 s−1 at different stations, while the largest warm season 2-yr return period event for any station is only ∼100 m3 s−1. This reflects the fact that, when examining relatively frequent events, warm season flow is dominated by base flow, while cold season flow is strongly influenced by snowmelt and is therefore of a greater magnitude.

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

Magnitude of events as a function of season and return period for (a) precipitation and (b) streamflow. Boxplots represent variations in frequency statistics from 12 rain gauges and 10 stream gauges used in this study. The horizontal line in each boxplot represents the median and the dark dot represents the mean.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

b. Has the frequency of extreme events changed during the period of record?

In this section we examine variations in the frequency of extreme events during the periods of record for stations in this region. Two approaches are applied for this analysis: one based on parametric frequency analysis of streamflow and a second based on nonparametric statistics of precipitation and streamflow.

1) Parametric statistics

Using time series of annual peak flows from gauges with the longest records, we compare flood flow frequencies from five overlapping 30-yr periods [1940–70 (hereafter called the 1950s); 1950–80 (1960s); 1960–90 (1970s); 1970–2000 (1980s); and 1980–2011 (1990s)]. Average annual peak flows from these periods exhibit an increasing pattern over time (Table 3). Our objective is to detect temporal changes in flow magnitudes associated with different return periods using these overlapping periods that begin 10 yr apart from each other.

Table 3.

Average annual peak flow for the long-term historical and five 30-yr periods for each of the six gauge stations included to study changes in flood frequency estimates over time.

Table 3.

In our study region, 30-yr flood frequency estimates vary over time, as demonstrated by Fig. 5a. In general, streamflow events were large during the 1950s and 1960s; smallest during the 1970s and 1980s; and have increased to their highest magnitudes on record in recent decades (Fig. 5a). Boxplots showing the range of values for all stations indicate that flood magnitude is a function of both the period used for the analysis and gauge location across the region (Fig. 5b). These variations can be attributed to differences in weather patterns and other watershed hydrological characteristics including the size of the gauge contributing area. The 1970s-based estimates have the smallest relative flood magnitudes by an average 5%–25% where the difference increases proportional to the return period. The period 1980–2011 has the largest flood estimates for all return periods by approximately 10%. In any case, it is difficult to identify trends at time scales less than 30 yr using this sort of analysis. Hence, we turn to the nonparametric analysis in the next section.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Flood flow magnitude as a function of return period and analysis data time period. (a) Average of stream gauges flood flow analyses and (b) relative difference flood flow in percentage [(30-yr based flood flow – long-term-based flood flow)(long-term-based flood flow)−1 × 100]. These results are based on flood frequency estimates from the following six streamflow gauges: Schoharie Creek at Prattsville, Esopus Creek at Coldbrook, Wallkill River at Gardiner, Millbrook near Dunraven, Tremper Kill near Andes, and Neversink River near Claryville.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

2) Nonparametric statistics

For each precipitation and streamflow gauge station we calculate the magnitude of the 95th percentile events of different durations (4-, 30-, and 60-day total precipitation or daily mean streamflow) using all events from the period of record and then make a yearly count of how many events exceed the 95th percentile threshold value. (Note that the number of 95th percentile events is a function of the total number of events, which depends on whether one is considering precipitation or streamflow, the extent of available record, and on the duration of the event being analyzed. The important aspect of the results presented in this section are the changes over time.)

Starting with 4-day events, an example of such an analysis for one precipitation station (Ellenville in Orange County) is shown in Fig. 6. Figs. 6a and 6b show scatterplots of 4-day precipitation for each season (with one diamond for each event); the 95th percentile value is indicated by the horizontal line. Warm season extreme (95th percentile) events are greater than cold season extreme events at this station (and, in fact, at all stations), which is consistent with the unimodal pattern of monthly precipitation (Fig. 3b). The time series of the number of extreme events per year in each seasonal period are shown in Figs. 6c and 6d. Superimposed on the annual time series is the smoothed (11-yr centered mean) time series, which we use to represent decadal-scale fluctuations in the frequency of extreme events. The maximum smoothed value (or values, if two or more years had the same maximum value) is indicated with a circle. For this station, one can see that while there are significant interannual variations, it appears that the frequency of extreme events during the cold season peaked near 1980, while the frequency of extreme events during the warm season has increased and reached historical highest values on record during the most recent decade.

Fig. 6.
Fig. 6.

Example of nonparametric analysis for the Ellenville precipitation record. Magnitudes of every 4-day precipitation event on record during (a) cold and (b) warm seasons; the 95th percentile value (horizontal line); and the top-five historical events (blue circles). The number of extreme (i.e., >=95th percentile) events per year in the (c) cold and (d) warm seasons; 11-yr-centered mean line (bold); year(s) of maximum smoothed value (blue circles).

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

To provide an overview of the variation of the frequency of extreme events at all stations, 11-yr running mean time series (such as shown for the Ellenville station in Figs. 6c,d) from all precipitation stations are shown in Fig. 7 for annual values (Fig. 7a), cold season (Fig. 7b), and warm season (Fig. 7c). Also indicated on each panel are maximum smoothed value(s) (blue circles), and the years 1985 (left vertical dashed line) and 2006 (the most recent year for which 11-yr-centered running means can be calculated; right vertical dashed line).

Fig. 7.
Fig. 7.

Eleven-year smoothed centered running means of number of 4-day precipitation events per year equaling or exceeding the 95th percentile value for the entire record at 12 precipitation stations. Results from (a) annual, (b) cold season, and (c) warm season analyses are shown. The y axes are not shown. In each panel left vertical dashed line shows 1985; right vertical dashed line shows 2006. Blue circles on time series indicate year(s) of maximum value. (top to bottom) The 12 stations include the following: West Point, Mohonk, Port Jervis, Arkville, Delhi, Deposit, Ellenville, Liberty, Middletown, Rosendale, Slide, and Walton.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

Annual time series (Fig. 7a) indicate an increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events in recent years. The maximum smoothed value on record at all stations occurs during the post-1985 period. At 9 of 12 stations the maximum value is 2006, which means that the most recent period has the most frequent extreme events. Nine stations display an increasing trend since 1985; seven stations show an accelerated rate of increase since the mid1990s.

The same analysis is performed using data from only the cold (Fig. 7b) and warm (Fig. 7c) seasons independently. Since 1985, a consistent seasonal shift appears in these records. The frequency of cold season extreme precipitation events at most stations either decreased or displayed no visual trend. At all stations except one (Delhi), the highest smoothed cold season value occurs prior to 1985. In contrast, the frequency of warm season extreme precipitation events has increased in all stations except Arkville during this post-1985 period; at many stations the frequency of extreme events has continued to increase, or has increased at an accelerated rate, since the mid-1990s. All stations experienced the maximum warm season value after 1985. In fact, 10 of 12 stations experienced the highest value in 2006 (the most recent 11-yr period). Thus, the frequency of extreme warm season precipitation events in this region has increased during the last 1–2 decades to levels unprecedented in the historical record.

During the pre-1985 period, no obvious or consistent long-term trend is observed, although a number of possible cold season decadal-scale variations may be gleaned from these records. For example there is evidence of decadal-scale periods of more frequent cold season extreme events centered around 1950 and around 1980, although not all stations are in agreement. It should be noted that the 1950s results are limited by the reduced number of stations with data covering that period (see period of record in Tables 1 and 2). A period of less frequent extreme events appear to have occurred in the 1960s, the time of the most extreme drought of the twentieth century in this region. During the warm season, no consistent or obvious regional-scale variations prior to 1985 are revealed by this analysis.

Recent increases in the frequency of extreme streamflow values (Fig. 8) are even more pronounced than for precipitation. Smoothed annual values (Fig. 8a) peak in 2006 at some stations and in the 1970s at others; at one station, annual values peaked in the 1940s. Cold season results (Fig. 8b) differ markedly from warm season results (Fig. 8c). Most cold season smoothed values peak during the 1970s; at only one station do cold season values increase and peak during the post-1985 period. However, at all stations, warm season values increase during the post-1985 period and increase most consistently since 1995; at all stations warm season highest values occur in 2006 (which is the center value of the most recent 11-yr period).

Fig. 8.
Fig. 8.

As in Fig. 7, but for streamflow. (top to bottom) The 9 gauge stations include the following: 01350000, 1362200, 1362500, 01371500, 01413500, 01414500, 01415000, 01423000, and 01435000.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

During the pre-1985 period, a consistent regional-scale warm season signal appears at these stations: the 1960s had less frequent extreme streamflow events, and the 1970s had more frequent extreme events. These are consistent with the precipitation results described above.

To provide a single time series that represents regional-scale variations in the frequency of extreme events, results from individual stations are combined for precipitation (Fig. 9) and streamflow (Fig. 10). These are produced by calculating the mean, for each year, of the number of extreme events at all available stations. The dry 1960s are apparent during both seasons (Figs. 9b,c). However, the wet 2000s are only apparent during the warm season (Fig. 9c). A consistent increase in extreme precipitation frequency since the 1980s is apparent during the warm season (and in the annual mean records) but not during the cold season (Fig. 9b). The mean number of warm season extreme precipitation events per year has increased from approximately 0.6 during the early 1980s to approximately 1.8 during the most recent decade. Also shown is the time series of number of stations per year included in the regional mean (Fig. 9d).

Fig. 9.
Fig. 9.

Regional mean number of 95th percentile 4-day precipitation values per year. For each year, the number of 95th percentile values per year, averaged over all stations available, is shown (solid line with diamonds) along with the 11-yr running mean (bold line) and a (blue) circle indicating the year with the highest smoothed value. (a) Values from all months, (b) cold season values only, (c) warm season values only, and (d) the number of stations per year are shown.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

Fig. 10.
Fig. 10.

As in Fig. 9, but for daily streamflow.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

The regional mean frequency of extreme streamflow events was relatively high during the 1970s and low during the 1960s in both the cold and warm seasons (Figs. 10c,d). During the warm season only (Fig. 10c) the occurrence of extreme streamflow has increased considerably since the mid-1990s, and has reached historical highest values in the most recent decade. The regional mean frequency of extreme events during the warm period has increased from approximately six per year in the mid-1990s to approximately sixteen per year during the most recent decade. This pattern is not unique to our region: for example, Novotny and Stefan (2007) studied streamflow in Minnesota and found similar results of increasing trend in summer peak rainfall events as well as in the number of days with higher flows starting from the 1980s while observing no trend in snowmelt related (cold season) streamflow events.

We applied the same nonparametric analysis to 30- and 60-day precipitation and streamflow events, with results similar to those discussed above. Cold season extreme event frequencies peak in the 1970s and 1980s (Figs. 11a,c and 12a,c), and warm season frequencies peak in the most recent decade (Figs. 11b,d and 12b,d). Stone et al. (2000) found a similar increasing trend in precipitation events exceeding a 2-month return period for most areas in Canada.

Fig. 11.
Fig. 11.

Regional annual mean number of 95th percentile 30-day events for (a) cold season precipitation, (b) warm season precipitation, (c) cold season streamflow, and (d) warm season streamflow. Each panel includes regional annual mean values (solid line with diamonds); 11-yr running mean (bold line); and maximum running mean values (blue circles).

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

Fig. 12.
Fig. 12.

As in Fig. 11, but for 60-day events.

Citation: Journal of Climate 26, 23; 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00810.1

5. Summary and conclusions

Anecdotal evidence of a recent increased frequency of extreme hydrologic events in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River Valley of southern New York State are evaluated by applying parametric and nonparametric statistics to precipitation and streamflow time series. The periods of record for these stations varies between approximately 50 and 120 yr. Thus, for some stations we are able to analyze the changing frequencies of extreme events since the late nineteenth century.

In our region, the seasonal cycle of extreme (i.e., ≥95th percentile) precipitation events is unimodal, peaking between August and October. In contrast, extreme streamflow events exhibit a bimodal distribution, peaking in March and April as well as between August and October. Spring time extreme streamflow events result largely from snowmelt and rain-on-snow events, while late summer/fall extreme streamflow events are associated with liquid precipitation only.

Parametric results of regional mean peak streamflow frequency estimates from five overlapping 30-yr periods reveal an increasing pattern in flood flows from the 1970s to 1990s for all return periods, in particular for flow magnitudes of 25 yr or greater return period. Flood flow magnitude is a function of station location as well as the particular 30-yr period included for analysis. Temporal variations in flood flow magnitude also depend on the return period of interest. The Interagency Advisory Committee on Water Data (1982) recommends a minimum of 25-yr record to perform flood frequency estimates corresponding to a 100-yr or larger return period (Pilgrim and Cordery 1993) but with an assumption of invariance in climate. The assumption of stationarity in hydrological processes has become a major topic of discussion in recent years (Galloway 2011; Hirsh 2011; Vogel et al. 2011; Milly et al. 2008). Our 30-yr-based results appear to support those who advocate for a new, nonstationarity based approach to modeling fundamental hydrological processes including flood flow frequency analysis. Among all 30-yr periods in this analysis 1950–80 provides estimates most similar to long-term flood flow estimates; 1960–90 and 1980–2011 reveal to be the driest and wettest periods, respectively.

Nonparametric analysis demonstrates that in our region extreme warm season hydrological events have been more frequent during the last decade than at any time on record. The frequency of 4-day precipitation and daily streamflow extreme warm period events during the first decade of the twenty-first century has risen by 150%–200% in the last two decades, to levels 40%–70% higher than at any earlier time on record. Based on 30- and 60-day results, the wettest years on record are the 2000s during the warm season and the 1980s during the cold season.

The causes of the increasing frequency of extreme hydrological events are uncertain and outside the scope of this paper. However, various studies have linked such changes globally to changes in atmospheric composition, including water vapor (Min et al. 2011; Kunkel et al. 2013a) and regionally to extratropical and tropical cyclones, mesoscale convective systems, and North American Monsoon (Kunkel et al. 2013a, 2012, 2010). It remains unclear whether this recent increase in extreme events is part of a trend that will continue, or just a short-term fluctuation. However, these results are consistent with an increase in the frequency of extreme climatic events in the northeastern United States as indicated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s climate extremes index (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/cei/graph/ne/4/09-11, accessed 15 April 2013) and twenty-first-century predictions based on climate model results (Kunkel et al. 2013b).

Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for providing funding for part of the research that let to this manuscript. This paper does not necessarily reflect the official views of NYSERDA and no endorsement should be inferred. Thanks to Donald Pierson, Elliot Schneiderman, and David Lounsbury of the NYC DEP water quality modeling group for their inputs and technical support; and to Neil Pederson, Rajith Mukundan, and David Smith for their input that helped improve this manuscript.

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