Like Clockwork Above Orange…

Ok, so maybe I’ll have some issues with copyright infringement here.  If the name of the post changes, then you’ll know.  Otherwise, no, this is not a new attempt at the Anthony Burgess novel nor is it an attempt to rewrite the script of the Kubrick movie.  Alas, this is a tale of flooding and soil moisture.  Yes, perhaps a little less dramatic than some setting in a futuristic dystopia.  Anyway, I’ll get to why I titled the post as I did eventually.  So, let’s get to it.

At the end of November and early in December, many locations in the Tennessee Valley received a fairly substantial rainfall.  The first image below shows the rainfall total for a 5-day period ending at 12Z on 2 December 2015.


Image 1. NEXRAD Level-III KHTX (Hytop, AL) Storm Total Precipitation for the period beginning 0843 UTC 27 Nov, and ending 1204 UTC 2 Dec 2015.

This image (Image 1) is centered on northern Alabama and surrounding locations.  Notice that amounts around 2.5 to 4 inches were common across much of the area.

So, let’s see what transpired during this event, and how soil moisture (per the SPoRT LIS) and streamflows responded during this more flood-prone time of the year.  The next image below shows the SPoRT LIS 0-200 cm Relative Soil Moisture (RSM) on the morning (12Z) of November 30th.  Values around 55% were common after the initial bout of rainfall (~1.5-2 inches) on the morning of the 30th.  Local use of the data at the NWS Office in Huntsville indicates that the risk for areal and stream flooding increases significantly once 0-200 cm RSM values surpass 55% coincident with >2.00 inches of rainfall.  As can be seen in the image below, values had reached 55% after the first round of rainfall.  All that was needed was an additional 2 or more inches of rainfall in about two days or less to put some streams at risk of flooding.


Image 2.  Close-up view of NE Alabama and adjacent areas, showing SPoRT LIS 0-200 cm Relative Soil Moisture, 1200 UTC 30 Nov 2015.  Urban areas and lakes are masked (black).  The stream basins that eventually went into flood include some of those in and around Huntsville and between Huntsville and Scottsboro. 

The area did receive the additional ~2 inches of rainfall.  In fact,  take a look at the rainfall that occurred over subsequent days, from 12Z on Nov 30th through 12Z on December 1st, in the next two images below.  Again, we’re focusing on northern Alabama here (sorry about the multiple scales and domains used in the series of images).


Image 3.  24-Hour StageIV Precipitation ending 12 UTC 1 December 2015. 


Image 4.  24-Hour StageIV Precipitation ending 12 UTC 2 December 2015. 

Additional rainfall totals in our basins of interest was about 2-3 inches.  So, how did rivers and streams in basins with >55% 0-200 RSM respond after the 2nd batch of heavy rainfall?  Well, several streams in these basins reached minor flood stage.  I won’t show all of the stream hydrographs here, but will show a representative case: the hydrograph from the Paint Rock River as measured at Woodville, AL (Image 5).


Image 5.  Paint Rock River hydrograph, as measured at Woodville, from about 18 UTC 28 November to 08 UTC 3 December 2015.  The blue dotted-line shows the river stage, the yellow, orange and red lines indicate action, minor and major flood stages, respectively.  Notice that the river rose above minor flood stage at about 00 UTC 2 December. 

In the hydrograph above, notice the sharp rise that took place on the 30th, eventually leading to the rise above minor flood stage on the evening of December 1st.  Forecasters here who are used to using the SPoRT LIS data in this manner had relatively high confidence in at least a minor flooding situation along this river and perhaps a couple of other rivers in the area.  As noted the the Area Forecast Discussion from the HUN office during the afternoon of November 30th, “LIS DATA OUTPUT FROM NASA SPORT WAS SHOWING SOIL MOISTURES OF AROUND 50 TO 60 PERCENT, WHICH COUPLED WITH AN EXPECTED ADDITIONAL 2 INCHES OF RAINFALL SHOULD LEAD TO A MAJORITY OF THE RAIN OCCURRING AS RUNOFF AND LEAD(ing) TO MINOR FLOODING…”

So, the use of these data for this purpose at NWS HUN has become routine, and important rainfall and soil moisture thresholds are now fairly well established.  Until a more robust and objective statistical study is conducted, involving inputs of soil moisture and rainfall and outputs of stream rises, we’ll continue to rely on these crude thresholds…which suffice in most cases for our purposes.  But, the river rises in some of our basins here, given these inputs of rainfall and soil moisture has become like clockwork, leading to increased confidence in eventual river stages, and importantly, when flood stage is likely to be reached (the thin orange line on the graph).  Thus, “Like Clockwork Above Orange”.  Ok, maybe that’s pretty corny, but it’ll have to work for now.


3 thoughts on “Like Clockwork Above Orange…

  1. Thanks for this outstanding case study, Kris. It looks like the soil moisture values exceeded the 55% threshold in south/eastern Madison and western Jackson County; other areas were below that threshold. Was this part of the North Alabama (that you describe in your write-up) the only area to see river flooding from this event? For example, soil moisture in Colbert County is in the 40% range. Was there any flooding reported there?

    Mainly just curious to see whether the soil moisture threshold verifies for areas where flooding is/was not expected.

  2. Hey Brad, thanks for the comment. Yes, this was the only part of Alabama that experienced flooding. Indian Creek in western Madison County also experienced minor flooding briefly where soil moisture values were also high…but the urban environment is also a factor there. Big Wills creek in Fort Payne in central DeKalb County also experienced flooding briefly on the 2nd, but thresholds for this site may be a little lower due to the terrain in this very narrow basin.

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