Jan 26, 2021

Contribution of historical precipitation change to US flood damages

Frances V. Davenport, Marshall Burke, and Noah S. Diffenbaugh
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Study key findings & significance

  • 36 percent of the costs of flooding in the US from 1988 to 2017 were a result of intensifying precipitation, consistent with predictions of global warming.
  • The cumulative impact of precipitation change from 1988 to 2017 due to human-caused warming totals $73 billion (95% CI 39 to $91 billion).
  • The study helps to resolve a long-standing debate about the role of climate change in the rising costs of flooding and provides new insight into the financial costs of global warming overall.

Author quotes

The fact that extreme precipitation has been increasing and will likely increase in the future is well known, but what effect that has had on financial damages has been uncertain. Our analysis allows us to isolate how much of those changes in precipitation translate to changes in the cost of flooding, both now and in the future.

Frances Davenport, a PhD student in Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth)

Previous studies have analyzed pieces of this puzzle, but this is the first study to combine rigorous economic analysis of the historical relationships between climate and flooding costs with really careful extreme event analyses in both historical observations and global climate models, across the whole United States. By bringing all those pieces together, this framework provides a novel quantification not only of how much historical changes in precipitation have contributed to the costs of flooding, but also how greenhouse gases influence the kinds of precipitation events that cause the most damaging flooding events.

Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation Professor at Stanford Earth

This counterfactual analysis is similar to computing how many games the Los Angeles Lakers would have won, with and without the addition of LeBron James, holding all other players constant.

Marshall Burke, study co-author, economist, and associate professor of Earth system science at Stanford


Precipitation extremes have increased across many regions of the United States, with further increases anticipated in response to additional global warming. Quantifying the impact of these precipitation changes on flood damages is necessary to estimate the costs of climate change. However, there is little empirical evidence linking changes in precipitation to the historically observed increase in flood losses. We use >6,600 reports of state-level flood damage to quantify the historical relationship between precipitation and flood damages in the United States. Our results show a significant, positive effect of both monthly and 5-d state-level precipitation on state-level flood damages. In addition, we find that historical precipitation changes have contributed approximately one-third of cumulative flood damages over 1988 to 2017 (primary estimate 36%; 95% CI 20 to 46%), with the cumulative impact of precipitation change totaling $73 billion (95% CI 39 to $91 billion). Further, climate models show that anthropogenic climate forcing has increased the probability of exceeding precipitation thresholds at the extremely wet quantiles that are responsible for most flood damages. Climate models project continued intensification of wet conditions over the next three decades, although a trajectory consistent with UN Paris Agreement goals significantly curbs that intensification. Taken together, our results quantify the contribution of precipitation trends to recent increases in flood damages, advance estimates of the costs associated with historical greenhouse gas emissions, and provide further evidence that lower levels of future warming are very likely to reduce financial losses relative to the current global warming trajectory.