How technology has improved flood modeling

innovations in US flood mapping

Guest author and SpatialKey data partner, JBA Risk Management, explains how flood data and mapping innovations can help insurers succeed in the U.S. private flood insurance market. 

Flood is a complex natural catastrophe, with great variations across small spatial areas, producing extremely localized effects. Sometimes, one property may be badly flooded while its neighbor two doors down is spared. As a result, managing this risk is often seen as a challenge by U.S. insurers. In fact, although 90 percent of all natural disasters in the U.S. involve flooding according to the Insurance Information Institute, it could still be regarded as the least understood natural peril. 

Until recently, the complexities of flood behavior have been too intricate to fully represent using broad-scale modeling techniques. Likewise, existing flood data in the U.S. was not detailed enough to enable insurers to see the full picture of the hazard. Flood data has many other pitfalls, from being badly out of date to not providing full details on the different types and severities of flooding.

However, through continued advances in technology and data availability, we’re now able to achieve a more detailed analysis. Technology is rapidly progressing and it’s incredible to think how much more we can achieve now than we could just a couple of decades ago. 

Lessons from Donkey Kong: Using technology from the computer gaming industry

A key part of the flood mapping process is hydraulic modeling, and at JBA, we run our hydraulic models using technology that was primarily developed for the computer gaming industry. You only have to consider how far the video game industry has come, from Donkey Kong to Fortnite, to understand that the hydraulic models we can develop today have experienced the same advances. 

Using Donkey Kong as an example, it was originally released as an arcade game in the early 1980s and was a major breakthrough in the video game industry. However, although it was technologically advanced for its day, the difference in resolution between the 1980’s Donkey Kong and today’s version is striking.

Donkey kong Although 1980's Donkey Kong was advanced for its time, the difference is striking when compared with today's version (below).  

Donky kong

Advancements in modern video gaming, such as today's Donkey Kong, illustrate the detail and clarity that can also be realized with up-to-date flood maps, like JBA's. Donkey Kong Images ©Copyright Nintendo

So, it stands to reason that our hydraulic models, which run on very similar technology, are now also much more sophisticated, and the resulting flood maps are more detailed and informative than ever before.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite data

We have also seen advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning which are being used to fill knowledge gaps in our input data, as well as satellite technology, enabling us to access better data in terms of elevation, land use, and river information. For example, we’ve trained machines to analyze elevation data to identify the location of all the levees in the U.S. We are using similar algorithms to check the hydraulic model outputs for unusual patterns, which might indicate quality issues that we can then address much more quickly and effectively than ever before. 

Over recent years, satellite technology and other techniques have improved, which means the quantity and quality of data such as land use information, river, and rainfall information as well as elevation data have increased significantly. We’ve progressed from using contour lines on maps to having light detection and ranging (LIDAR) data to sub-centimeter accuracy to describe the topography of an area. 

As a result, we can take advantage of these science and technology improvements to achieve a lot more detail in the flood mapping process. This can help insurers to better understand flood risk in the U.S., and allow them to capitalize on latent opportunities in the private flood insurance market.

Be sure to join us for the next article in this series where we discuss high-resolution data and the impact of urbanization on U.S. flood maps.

Check out this eBook to learn how recent advancements in flood data and analytics are helping insurers gain renewed confidence in their U.S. flood risk assessment and selection: 

Download the eBook: Innovations in US flood mapping

Matt Reid is Managing Director of JBA Risk Management Inc. Working previously as Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Risk Management Solutions, Matt brings over 30 years of experience to his role at JBA. He is responsible for building JBA’s presence in the U.S., which plays a vital part in the company’s global business development.

Topics: flood data, Flood risk, private flood

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