Stationarity in precipitation records has been the gold standard when designing hydraulic infrastructure systems. Stationarity means there is no variance in quantity over time. However, a growing body of evidence indicates climate change is altering precipitation patterns, with heavy precipitation increasing across the United States. Florida is a case in point right now with heavy tropical rains causing flash flooding. 

Traditionally, most hydraulic infrastructure has been built using stationarity models, which means there could be substantial underestimation or overestimation for storm management. Underestimation could result in flooding, whereas overestimation could result in the inefficient use of limited infrastructure funding. While there has been a lot of research on climate change and the impact on streamflow, there has been limited study of the impact streamflow has on the watershed size and function. Researchers Mohamed M. Morsy, Binata Roy, Yawen Shen, Alexander B. Chen, Faria T. Zahura, and Jonathan L. Goodall wanted to better understand how climate change could affect precipitation and watersheds going forward.

Their study, “Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Peak Stream Discharge for Watersheds of Varying Sizes in the Coastal Plain of Virginia,” published in the Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, used Virginia as a case study, employing 29 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather stations to understand rainfall across the state. The authors first observed historical precipitation data and validated that against NOAA Atlas 14 and reported precipitation intensity-duration-frequency curves. Since the NOAA data does not account for climate change, which could lead to an underestimation of flood risk, they also used a hydrodynamic model to account for climate change. Learn more about how their findings can help transportation and water resource engineers incorporate changing rainfall impacts into assessments of current infrastructure and design of future infrastructure at The abstract is below.


Civil infrastructure systems have traditionally been designed assuming stationarity in precipitation. However, climate change is making this assumption invalid, affecting both existing infrastructure designed assuming stationarity and the design of new infrastructure. Although many studies have analyzed potential increases in precipitation due to climate change, fewer have attempted to translate these changes into the impact of stream discharge in a way that could be incorporated into infrastructure design. Therefore, this study aimed to assess the potential impact of climate change on both rainfall and peak discharge to aid in bridge and road infrastructure design. Results showed that the median increase in model-derived rainfall intensity across the selected rainfall stations in Virginia was 10%–30% for the midcentury (centered on 2045) and 10%–40% for the end of the century (centered on 2085), with the higher increase for the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) scenario compared with the RCP4.5 scenario. A regression analysis was performed to relate peak discharge to watershed size for midcentury and end-of-century periods for the study area. In terms of peak discharge, smaller watersheds (<25 km2) had a percent increase for a given return period that was independent of the watershed size. Considering both RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios, for a 100-year return period, the increase was 39% and 49%, respectively, for the midcentury periods and 36% and 52%, respectively, for the end-of-century periods. For larger watersheds (>25 km2), the increase in peak discharge decreased as the watershed size increased, suggesting a dampening effect for larger watersheds in this coastal plain region of Virginia. For a watershed size of 1,700 km2, the largest watershed included in the analysis, the percent increase in peak discharge for a 100-year return period was 14% and 39% during the midcentury, and 16% and 40% at the end of the century, for the two emission scenarios. These findings and the general methodology used in the study can aid transportation and water resources engineers in incorporating changing rainfall impacts into assessing current infrastructure and designing future infrastructure. They can also help to prioritize resources for more costly hydraulic analyses of potentially vulnerable infrastructure.

Learn more about accounting for increasing precipitation in your designs at