Flood timescales: Understanding the interplay of climate and catchment processes through comparative hydrology

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Abstract

[1] We analyze the controls on flood duration based on the concept of comparative hydrology. Rather than modeling a single catchment in detail, we compare catchments with contrasting characteristics in order to understand the controls in a holistic way. We analyze the hydrographs of 9223 maximum annual flood events in 396 Austrian catchments ranging from 5 to ∼10,000 km2 as a function of climatic controls such as storm type (synoptic and convective storms, rain-on-snow, snowmelt), and catchment controls such as soils, soil moisture, geology, and land form. The ratio of the flood volume and the flood peak is used as a measure of the flood duration or flood timescale. The results indicate that, spatially, the median flood timescales range from 16 h in the hilly catchments, where convective storms prevail, to 104 h in the lowland catchments where substantial inundation into the floodplain occurs. The range is even larger for different flood types, from 7 h for flash floods in the hilly catchments to 200 h for snowmelt floods in an Alpine area with deeply weathered rocks and deep soils. The results also indicate that the catchment area is not the most important control on the flood timescales. For the range of catchments considered here, climate is very important through storm type and antecedent soil moisture, and geology is very important through soil characteristics. The concept of comparative hydrology is also used to interpret the interplay of the processes controlling the flood duration at timescales from hours to millennia. It is argued that the flood timescale is a rich fingerprint of the hydrological processes in a catchment because it integrates a range of climate and catchment characteristics by a time parameter.

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