Return Periods – Are They Still Useful For Floods?

By Yuanchao Xu 18 August, 2020

CWR's Xu breaks down how flood return periods are calculated & shares why they are definitely still useful

A return period refers to the repeat interval between extreme weather events such as floods but climate change is exacerbating floods and the result is more frequent & more intense floods
The impacts from these floods are not a simple “see you earlier”, they bring new challenges to existing infrastructure; China has been battling these challenges with a serious flood since June
Despite the fluctuations, return periods are still useful as they are much more than just a time; they are key to engineering & building corresponding & resilient infrastructure

A return period refers to the repeat interval between extreme weather events such as earthquakes, floods etc. It is also used to measure the intensity of such events (e.g., the water level when a flood occurs): the longer the return period, the more intensive it is. A flood with a 50-year return period  means the flood occurs every 50 years. We show how return periods are calculated below. However, in reality such events are usually not on time and in fact are happening at a faster and more intense rate due to climate change. So, are they still useful?

First, let’s look at how to calculate a return period. According to the China Meteorological Administration, a return period is calculated based on the following equation:

For example: Assuming we have a sample of flood intensity of five years, respectively 5, 6, 8, 3, 2. Here is how we calculate the return period for an event with a flood intensity 6.

As the result shows, the return period is 3 years. However, as time passes by more records will be added to the sample. Assuming the flood intensity for the next two years is 9 and 7 respectively. The new calculation for an event with a flood intensity 6 is:


For the same event, the return period is shortened as more intensive events are recorded. In other words, for the same return period, the event intensity becomes higher. In reality, we usually have decades of records, but the pattern is the same. Unfortunately, recent facts show that we are moving to the more intensive direction.

Recent facts show that floods are more frequent & more intense…

In 2018, the floods in upper reaches of Yellow river and Yangtze river broke 13 rivers’ record water level. Typhoon Mangkhut in the same year also broke the intensity record of typhoons in Hong Kong. And most recently, in June 2020, Southeast China has suffered again serious floods. 433 rivers are above dangerous levels and already more than 33.85 million people have been affected across 27 provinces & regions. Global water gurus, Biswas & Tortajada look at China’s floods here.

It is likely that more events will return earlier than expected if the climate emergency continues as is. However, this is not a simple “see you earlier”. It brings new challenges to existing infrastructures. As more intensive events are recorded, the intensity of the same return period becomes higher. A dam/seawall designed for floods with a 50-year return period today may not be able to stop floods with the same return period in 20 years.

…still, return periods are useful as it’s more than just a time

So, while floods are happening more frequently and more intensely, return periods are still useful. Actually, they are very important for engineering. For example, a flood with a 50-year return period will result in the water level to be 5 meters high and thus dams or other infrastructure will be built to withstand a 5m rise. A return period is so much more than just time.

Climate change will make this worse & bring more water

Apart from these unexpected climate fluctuations, the baseline projection is also showing that climate change will bring us more water. According to CWR’s latest report Yangtze Water Risks, Hotspots & Growth, projections of the entire Yangtze river basin indicate a hotter future with more rain. The fluctuations based on this trend will become even more intensive and more likely to break current records.

In recent years many actions have been taken to deal with climate change as the world tries to achieve a less than two degree target by the end of this century. However, while these actions may be a solution for the rising temperature, they may not be that effective for extreme flood events. The black swan theory basically tells us that we are exposed to extreme outliers all the time and there is no way to prevent them from happening. But holistic adaptation plans and actions can help us be more prepared when it occurs.


Further Reading

  • Counting the Costs of Floods in China – With China in the midst of one of its worst flood episodes in history, Asit K Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at the significant social and economic costs of floods, and what can be done about them
  • China: Gaps in Rainy Day Funding – Given increasing economic losses & negative impacts on food production due to extreme weather, China Water Risk’s Hu highlights gaps in flood control investment and expands on how the Chinese government expects to finance rainy days ahead
  • Societal Relevance of Flood Risk Modelling – Economic losses due to flooding amounted USD19 billion and will grow. Wouter Jan Klerk from Deltares shares cases from Vietnam, China & the Netherlands showing why flood risk modelling is a must for robust growth
  • Thirsty And Underwater: Rising Risks In Greater Bay Area – How will water & climate risks, including rising sea levels & droughts, threaten the already water-stressed Greater Bay Area (GBA)? CWR’s Tan & Mirando explain in their latest CLSA report and highlight companies’ failure in climate risk disclosures
  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand

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Yuanchao Xu
Author: Yuanchao Xu
Yuanchao uses his analytical proficiencies towards the assessment and visualization of water risks for China Water Risk. Prior to joining, Yuanchao was based in Europe completing the Erasmus Mundus Master Program where he specialsed in hydro-informatics and water management. He applied his skills in climate forecasting and water resource modelling to the EUPORIAS project with DHI (Danish Hydraulic Institute) which resulted in a conference paper on seasonal climate forecasting. Building on this work, he went on to develop hyfo, an open-source R programme for climate scientists and modellers to analyse and visualize data. Yuanchao’s bachelor degree was from the China Agricultural University where he specialized in heat energy and power engineering. During his time there, he also patented a testing instrument for hydraulic machinery. He has studied and worked in Beijing, Nice, Newcastle and Copenhagen.
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