Iowa Studies heavy Rainfalls

By: University of Iowa Email
By: University of Iowa Email

Heavy rains have become more frequent in the upper Midwest over the past 60 years, according to a study from the University of Iowa. The trend appears to hold true even with the current drought plaguing the region, the study's main author says.

The fact that temperatures over the country's midsection are rising, too, may be more than coincidence.The hotter the surface temperature, which has been the trend in the Midwest and the rest of the world, the more water that can be absorbed by the atmosphere. And the more water available for precipitation means a greater chance for heavy rains, explains Gabriele Villarini, assistant professor in engineering at the UI and lead author of the paper, published in the Journal of Climate, the official publication of the American Meteorological Society.

“We found that there is a tendency toward increasing trends in heavy rainfall in the northern part of the study region, roughly the upper Mississippi River basin,” says Villarini, in the civil and environmental engineering department and an assistant research engineer at the IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. “We tried to explain these results in light of changes in temperature. We found that the northern part of the study region—including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois—is also the area experiencing large increasing trends in temperature, resulting in an increase in atmospheric water vapor.“

Villarini notes the current drought affecting the Midwest and other regions of the country has occurred too recently to be included in his study, whose data goes from about 1950 to 2010.

“I’m not looking at the average annual rainfall. I’m studying heavy rainfall events,” he says. “We may currently be in deficit for overall rainfall, but we may also be in the normal range when it comes to the number of heavy rainfall days.”

Each rain gauge station has a record of at least 50 years. The data cover much of the 20th century and the first decade of this century. For the purposes of the study, heavy rainfall was defined as days in which rainfall exceeded the 95th percentile of the at-site rainfall distribution.

Villarini notes that while his study focused on changes in temperature and the frequency of heavy rainfall over the central United States, other published results have shown rainfall increases to be linked to changes in irrigation over the Ogallala Aquifer, which runs from Nebraska to northern Texas. Based on those studies, he says it is reasonable to assume that changes in land use, land cover and agricultural practice would affect the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere as well.

His colleagues in the study are James Smith, professor at Princeton University; and Gabriel Vecchi, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The paper is titled, “Changing Frequency of Heavy Rainfall over the Central United States.” It was first published in January.

The research was funded by NASA and the Willis Research Network.

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