Google Research

Satellite observations indicate increasing proportion of population exposed to floods

  • Albert Kettner
  • Beth Tellman
  • Catherine Kuhn
  • Colin Doyle
  • Dan Slayback
  • G. Robert Brakenridge
  • Jonathan Sullivan
  • Tyler Allen Erickson
Nature, vol. 596 (2021), pp. 80-86


Flooding affects more people than any other environmental hazard and hinders sustainable development. Investing in flood adaptation can reduce loss of life and livelihoods. However, where and how floods occur and who is exposed is changing due to rapid urbanization, new flood mitigation infrastructure, and increasing human settlements in floodplains. Previous studies estimating population exposed to floods are limited by lack of observational data, relying instead on global models with high uncertainty. Here we use nearly two decades of daily satellite imagery at 250m resolution (MODIS) to develop new estimates of flood extent and population exposure for 913 large flood events from 2000-2018, estimating 2.23 million km2 of flooded area and 290 million people directly affected. We find the at least 86 million people newly settled in a location where satellites observed inundation in the past 20 years. This represents a 20% increase in the proportion of population exposed to floods, ten times higher than previous estimates. Near-future climate change projections (2030), indicate the proportion of population exposed to floods will continue to expand. Our findings can aid prioritization of global flood adaptation investment and inform adaptation strategies, from insurance to managed retreat, at local scales. As satellite coverage and resolution increase, we anticipate observation of flood events to aid understanding where floods change and how to adapt. This flood event database will contribute to improved accuracy of global and local flood models, vulnerability assessments, efficacy of adaptation intervention, and understanding interactions of land change, climate, and floods.

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