When working with extreme hydro-meteorological events, flood in particular, it is common procedure to classify each event by its return period/recurrence interval. This probabilistic measure has the quality to provide a standard and homogeneous measure of the different events that eventually happened in diverse geographical areas, given their relative frequency. So, a 100-year flood is a potentially devastating event both for a flood prone area, and for an area where flood events are extremely rare.

My problem is now how to set a reasonable threshold to group events characterized by a "similar" return period. For instance, let's assume I want to set three classes: mild, middle, and severe flood events, what would be a reasonable return period cut? Is there any similar procedure for structural engineering/water infrastructure design? It would be lovely if you could also provide some references justifying your choice.


One existing classification for return period events is minor and major flows, which basically classifies floods into those that the storm network (pipes and small conveyance network) is designed to handle, typically in the 2-10 year event range, and those more major floods which will overwhelm the stormwater infrastructure and are mainly conveyed by overland topography and larger flow channels/watercourses (>10 year event). The definition of major and minor return periods depends on the level of design in your are of study, but that is one classification. This distinction in major/minor flows is common and you can find lots of resources, one example is in the Ontario Drainage Manual.

Given that you want a small/medium/large classification, I would put minor flows (say 5 year and smaller, based on the study area) into the small category, everything above a minor flow to the 100 year event into the medium category, and everything 100 year or larger (i.e. 100 year and regulatory event) into the large flood category. The 100 year as you mentioned is a very common standard for a large flood event. The Regulatory event is typically the largest observed flood on record or similar estimate for a larger than 100 year flood event.

Hope that helps!

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Rob, thanks for your answer. Do you think this could be reasonable also in the case of least developed or developing countries? $\endgroup$ – Nemesi Feb 15 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ Good question, I think it would still be reasonable although I am not as familiar with drainage works in developing areas. The definition of minor flows may be modified to whatever stormwater works do exist, otherwise the definitions for larger storms remain the same. $\endgroup$ – Rob Feb 16 at 15:24

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