For the second time in less than two years, heavy rain unleashed catastrophic flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland this Sunday.
According to the NWS, the area received between 8 and 12 inches of rain in less than four hours. On average, the area gets 4 inches of rain for the entire month of May. This massive amount of precipitation in such a short period overwhelmed streams throughout the region and turned Ellicott City’s historic Main Street into a raging river. The floodwater, which reached as high as the second floor of most buildings, damaged or destroyed numerous businesses and swept away dozens of cars and trees. Local officials say that one man, a sergeant with the National Guard, was killed while trying to rescue people from the fast flowing water.
This type of rainfall is considered a one in one thousand year event. However, that does not mean it can only happen once every thousand years. It is the recurrence interval, a statistical calculation that means an event has a one in one thousand chance (0.1%) of happening in any given year in a given location. Ellicott City experienced an eerily similar event in July 2016.
There were several drivers behind this deadly deluge. First, “training” thunderstorms developed along a stationary front. This is a situation where strong thunderstorms continuously form over the same area – like train cars traveling along a track – dumping excessive amounts of rain.
Although climate change did not cause these storms, it has altered the environment in which they form and is making them more common. As greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, the air is able to hold more water vapor. More specifically, according to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation, for every increase of 1°F, the saturation level of the atmosphere increases by about 4%. That means there is more evaporation from oceans, rivers, and lakes, and therefore more water vapor available to condense and fall as precipitation.
Another major player in Sunday’s flood was the area’s topography. Founded as a gristmill town in 1772, Ellicott City sits in a valley surrounded by several streams that feed into the Patapsco River. Just ten miles outside of Baltimore, it is a highly urbanized area with extensive amounts concrete and asphalt. These impervious surfaces leave the rainwater with no place to go but racing downhill and through the town.
All of these factors will have to be considered as Ellicott City decides how to rebuild for the second time in two years.
Torrential rain turned Main Street in Ellicott City, MD into a raging river. Credit: S. Baranoski