Mixed populations and annual flood frequency estimates in the western United States: The role of atmospheric rivers

Nancy A. Barth, Gabriele Villarini, Munir A. Nayak, Kathleen White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

76 Scopus citations


The Bulletin 17B framework assumes that the annual peak flow data included in a flood frequency analysis are from a homogeneous population. However, flood frequency analysis over the western United States is complicated by annual peak flow records that frequently contain annual flows generated from distinctly different flood generating mechanisms. These flood series contain multiple zero flows and/or potentially influential low floods (PILFs) that substantially deviate from the overall pattern in the data. Moreover, they often also contain extreme flood events representing different hydrometeorologic agents. Among the different flood generating mechanisms, atmospheric rivers (ARs) are responsible for large, regional-scale floods. The spatial and fractional contribution of ARs in annual peak flow data is examined based on 1375 long-term U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) streamgage sites with at least 30 years of data. Six main areas in which flooding is impacted by ARs at varying degrees were found throughout the western United States. The Pacific Northwest and the northern California coast have the highest fraction of AR-generated peaks (∼80–100%), while eastern Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico have nearly no impacts from ARs. The individual regions of the central Columbia River Basin in the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada, the central and southern California coast, and central Arizona all show a mixture of 30–70% AR-generated flood peaks. Analyses related to the largest flood peaks on record and to the estimated annual exceedance probabilities highlight the strong impact of ARs on flood hydrology in this region, together with marked regional differences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)257-269
Number of pages13
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • atmospheric rivers
  • flood frequency
  • mixed populations
  • western United States


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