Defining the hundred year flood: A Bayesian approach for using historic data to reduce uncertainty in flood frequency estimates

Brandon Parkes*, David Demeritt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Citations (Scopus)
259 Downloads (Pure)


This paper describes a Bayesian statistical model for estimating flood frequency by combining uncertain annual maximum (AMAX) data from a river gauge with estimates of flood peak discharge from various historic sources that predate the period of instrument records. Such historic flood records promise to expand the time series data needed for reducing the uncertainty in return period estimates for extreme events, but the heterogeneity and uncertainty of historic records make them difficult to use alongside Flood Estimation Handbook and other standard methods for generating flood frequency curves from gauge data. Using the flow of the River Eden in Carlisle, Cumbria, UK as a case study, this paper develops a Bayesian model for combining historic flood estimates since 1800 with gauge data since 1967 to estimate the probability of low frequency flood events for the area taking account of uncertainty in the discharge estimates. Results show a reduction in 95% confidence intervals of roughly 50% for annual exceedance probabilities of less than 0.0133 (return periods over 75 years) compared to standard flood frequency estimation methods using solely systematic data. Sensitivity analysis shows the model is sensitive to 2 model parameters both of which are concerned with the historic (pre-systematic) period of the time series. This highlights the importance of adequate consideration of historic channel and floodplain changes or possible bias in estimates of historic flood discharges. The next steps required to roll out this Bayesian approach for operational flood frequency estimation at other sites is also discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1189-1208
Number of pages20
Early online date19 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


  • Bayesian model
  • Flood frequency analysis
  • Generalised extreme value distribution
  • Historical flood estimates


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