The Paroxysmal Precipitation of the Desert: Flash Floods in the Southwestern United States

James A. Smith, Mary Lynn Baeck, Long Yang, Julia Signell, Efrat Morin, David C. Goodrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The 14 September 2015 Hildale, Utah, storm resulted in 20 flash flood fatalities, making it the most deadly natural disaster in Utah history; it is the quintessential example of the “paroxysmal precipitation of the desert”. The measured peak discharge from Maxwell Canyon at a drainage area of 5.3 km2 was 266 m3/s, a value that exceeds envelope curve peaks for Utah. The 14 September 2015 flash flood reflects features common to other major flash flood events in the region, as well as unique features. The flood was produced by a hailstorm that was moving rapidly from southwest to northeast and intensified as it interacted with complex terrain. Polarimetric radar observations show that the storm exhibited striking temporal variability, with the Maxwell Canyon tributary of Short Creek and a small portion of the East Fork Virgin River basin experiencing extreme precipitation. Periods of extreme rainfall rates for the 14 September 2015 storm are characterized by KDP signatures of extreme rainfall in polarimetric radar measurements. Similar KDP signatures characterized multiple storms that have produced record and near-record flood peaks in Colorado Plateau watersheds. The climatology of monsoon thunderstorms that produce flash floods exhibits striking spatial heterogeneities in storm occurrence and motion. The hydroclimatology of flash flooding in arid/semiarid watersheds of the southwestern United States exhibits relatively weak dependence on drainage basin area. Large flood peaks over a broad range of basin scales can be produced by small thunderstorms like the 14 September 2015 Hildale Storm, which pass close to the outlet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10218-10247
Number of pages30
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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