Exploring the application of topographic indices in urban areas as indicators of pluvial flooding locations

Christa Kelleher, Lauren McPhillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


In urban areas, the presence of impervious surfaces limits natural drainage and routes water to stormwater infrastructure with finite capacity, making these areas especially prone to flooding. Though large floods are responsible for endangering lives and causing extensive damage, there is growing evidence that more frequent floods with shallow water depths, termed nuisance flooding, can have a high cumulative cost and many direct and indirect damages. To determine whether locations of nuisance flooding may be linked to topography, we took a parsimonious, spatially distributed approach to explore whether high topographic index values co-occur with citizen-reported nuisance flooding. We obtained nuisance flood reports from the municipal data service 311 for several watersheds in New York City and Baltimore, USA. Our analysis tested two topographic indices (TI)—topographic wetness index (TWI) and sink depth—both calculated from high-resolution (~1 m) digital elevation models. Generally, our findings suggest that not all but many locations of reported flooding tend to coincide with deep sinks or large TWI. However, nuisance flooding reports most commonly coincided with deep sinks and high TWI when using a maximum, instead of coincident, TI value extracted around each reported location of flooding, an approach we used due to the uncertainty in location accuracy of flooding reports. Overall, our results show promise for application of topographic indices, typically applied in more natural settings, as indicators of nuisance flooding areas in urbanized environments. Although limitations to this approach exist, the application of TIs and crowd-sourced reporting in tandem could provide a useful starting point for mapping flood-prone areas in many cities with technologically adept community members and ample geospatial data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)780-794
Number of pages15
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 30 2020


  • crowd-sourced data
  • nuisance flooding
  • pluvial flooding
  • spatial indicators
  • topographic indices
  • urban hydrology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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