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Research Water and Climate Risk

In the department of Water and Climate Risk (WCR) explicit attention is given to the interaction between the hydrological and climate systems, and how these interactions lead to risk to society, the economy, and the environment.

The focus is on water and climate extremes such as floods and droughts, to estimate impacts from these extremes on various economic sectors, and to examine which strategies can be developed to reduce impacts and risk. This requires the mapping of climate and water-related hazards, as well as the exposure of people and assets and their vulnerability, and estimating associated costs to reduce risk. Risk management and risk transfer strategies are evaluated in the context of both developed and developing countries. Model simulations, data processing, data assimilation and the integration of economic instruments, such as insurance, are key scientific strengths of the department. 

WCR focuses on three themes: (1) Climate Change and Extremes, (2) Flood, Drought and Multi Risk Assessment, and (3) Risk Management and Adaptation. Our mission is to study hydrological and climate processes, and understand how these processes lead to risks and opportunities for society, the economy, and the environment. Our interdisciplinary approach combines expertise from natural sciences with knowledge from the fields of economics, computational science, social sciences, and geography. WCR received the highest possible scientific scores from the 5-yearly national SENSE evaluation. Key research partners in the Netherlands are KNMI, PBL and Deltares. 

In our research, we use simulation models and advanced data analyses to assess risks on local to global scales, in both the global north and south. We give special attention to feedbacks between different compounding hazards and to the interaction of the physical water-climate system and society. The availability of massive datasets and quantitative methods like machine learning enable us to assess extreme events and their impacts. A unique aspect of our work is that we blend these quantitative methods with qualitative and participatory approaches to assess vulnerability and risk and to co-develop solutions with stakeholders. 

WCR is a dynamic group of more than 45 faculty members including international researchers and PhD candidates. 

The department is led by Prof. Philip J. Ward.

More information

  • Research themes

    The research in the department is broadly organised according to three themes.

    Climate extremes, attribution and forecasting

    In our climate extremes research, we use state-of-the-art climate models and innovative data-driven methods to develop customised tools (‘climate services’) to assess extreme weather risks. We focus on how climate variability and change affect the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heat waves, extreme rainfall and persistent drought. We use machine learning techniques like causal discovery and interpretable AI to understand the physical processes leading to such extreme weather events. This enables us to develop skilful seasonal to sub-seasonal (S2S) forecasts and to assess long-term climate risks. S2S forecasting is an increasingly important topic aiming at building effective early warning and early action programs. For future risk assessments, we develop and apply ‘Future Weather’ and ‘Storylines’ concepts to support the interpretation of climate risk information by decision-makers.

    We integrate fundamental climate research on extreme weather with research on societal risks, opportunities and adaptation options. Examples of our climate extremes projects are:

    • Project XAIDA : detection and attribution of extreme weather events
    • In project IMPRINT, we aim at improving S2S forecasts for droughts and heatwaves 
    • The TiPES: tipping points, early warning signals, meteorological extremes over the Mediterranean basin
    • The PERSIST project; persistent summer droughts, agriculture, and the role of global warming
    • Projects using climate modelling and climate data to simulate hydrological extremes, such as floods and droughts in the past in a paleo climate context 
    • Forecast-Based Financing (FBF) to mitigate disasters in Africa 
    • Project RECEIPT develops storylines of agricultural crop risks under climate change

    Flood, drought and multi-risk assessment

    Our research on Flood, Drought and Multi-risk focuses on interactions between natural hazards and society to understand risk processes. We develop and use state of the art datasets and models for assessing flood and drought risk on local to global scales to increase our process understanding and to assess the effectiveness of disaster risk reductions solutions. Besides flood and droughts, we developed risk assessment models for other natural hazards, including wildfires, heatwaves, wind storms, and hail . We also assess compound / consecutive events and multi-hazard risk from a systemic perspective, across different sectors. 

    Examples of our flood and drought risk projects are:

    Examples of our multi-risk projects are:

    • MYRIAD-EU: multi-risk decision-making in Europe
    • In the PERFECT STORM project: multi-risk effect of combined floods and droughts
    • In Connect4WR flood and drought management in southern Africa 
    • In a project for the World Bank, we analyse drought-flood events in East Africa

    Socio-hydrological feedbacks and risk management

    Our Risk Management and Climate Adaptation research focuses on developing and evaluating disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures and builds on our Climate Extremes and Flood, Drought & Multi-risk simulations. A focus area is to assess the dynamics in vulnerability and adaption and to address the feedbacks between the physical water system and societal responses (Socio-Hydrological feedbacks). A key tool for simulating these feedbacks is agent-based modelling (ABM), which allows us to analyse individual adaptive decisions, and interactions between stakeholders in risk management. Important for   developing ABMs is the cooperation with social scientists and economists for gathering empirical field data, for understanding decision processes underlying risk management and policy. We also apply the adaptation pathway approach, to support a participatory process with stakeholders to develop adaptation strategies and to address uncertainty in future climate change scenarios.  

    Examples of our risk management & adaptation projects are:

    • I-CISK project will innovate existing climate services by integrating local data and knowledge, perceptions and preferences of users with scientific knowledge
    • COASTMOVE project  for simulating global migration flows due to sea level rise
    • The Down2Earth: agent-based models for drought management in Eastern Africa 
    • Sea level Rise adaptation in Los AngelesHo Chi Minh City, Jakarta, ShanghaiNYC and Rotterdam 
    • DIFI project: EU Insurance model to flood insurance under climate change 
    • In RESILIO: apply forecasting weather data to automate the storage capacity of green roofs 
  • Research projects

  • List of key publications

    Aerts, J.C., Botzen, W.J., Clarke, K.C., Cutter, S.L., Hall, J.W., Merz, B., ... & Kunreuther, H. (2018). Integrating human behaviour dynamics into flood disaster risk assessment. Nature Climate Change, 8(3), 193–199.

    Bloemendaal, N., Haigh, I.D., de Moel, H., Muis, S., Haarsma, R.J. & Aerts, J.C.J.H.. Generation of a global synthetic tropical cyclone hazard dataset using STORM. Scientific Data, 7, 40 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-020-0381-2

    Couasnon, A., Eilander, D., Muis, S., Veldkamp, T.I.E., Haigh, I.D., Wahl, T., Winsemius, H.C., & Ward, P.J. ). Measuring compound flood potential from river discharge and storm surge extremes at the global scale. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 20, 489–504.  https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-20-489-2020

    Coumou, D., Di Capua, G., Vavrus, S., Wang, L. & Wang, S. (2018). The influence of Arctic amplification on mid-latitude summer circulation. Nature Communications, 9(1), 1-12.

    de Bruijn, J.A., de Moel, H., Jongman, B., de Ruiter, M.C., Wagemaker, J., & Aerts, J. C. (2019). A global database of historic and real-time flood events based on social media. Scientific Data, 6(1), 1–2.

    Di Baldassarre, Giuliano, Wanders, N., AghaKouchak, A., Kuil, L., Rangecroft, S., Veldkamp, T.I.E., Garcia, M., van Oel, P.R., Breinl, K. & van Loon, A.F. (2018). Water shortages worsened by reservoir effects. Nature Sustainability, 11, 617–622.

    Haer, T., Botzen, W.W., & Aerts, J.C. (2019). Advancing disaster policies by integrating dynamic adaptive behaviour in risk assessments using an agent-based modelling approach. Environmental Research Letters, 14(4), 044022.

    van Loon, A.F. (2015). Hydrological drought explained. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews:Water, 2(4), 359–392.

    Koks, E.E., Thissen, M., Alfieri, L., de Moel, H., Feyen, L., Jongman, B., & Aerts, J.C.J.H. (2019). The macroeconomic impacts of future river flooding in Europe. Environmental Research Letters, 14(8), 084042.

    Kornhuber, K., Coumou, D., Vogel, E., Lesk, C., Donges, J. F., Lehmann, J., & Horton, R.M. (2020). Amplified Rossby waves enhance risk of concurrent heatwaves in major breadbasket regions. Nature Climate Change, 10(1), 48–53.

    Muis, S., Verlaan, M., Winsemius, H.C., Aerts, J.C., & Ward, P.J. (2016). A global reanalysis of storm surges and extreme sea levels. Nature Communications, 7(1), 1–12.

    Muis, S., Lin, N., Verlaan, M., Winsemius, H.C., Ward, P.J. & Aerts, J.C.J.H. (2019). Spatiotemporal patterns of extreme sea levels along the western North-Atlantic coasts. Scientific Reports, 9, 3391. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-40157-w

    Nobre, G.G., Davenport, F., Bischiniotis, K., Veldkamp, T., Jongman, B., Funk, C.C., ... & Aerts, J.C. (2019). Financing agricultural drought risk through ex-ante cash transfers. Science of the Total Environment, 653, 523–535.

    Pfleiderer, P., Schleussner, C. F., Kornhuber, K. & Coumou, D. (2019). Summer weather becomes more persistent in a 2° C world. Nature Climate Change, 9(9), 666–671.

    de Ruig, L.T., Barnard, P. L., Botzen, W.W., Grifman, P., Hart, J. F., de Moel, H., ... & Aerts, J.C. (2019). An economic evaluation of adaptation pathways in coastal mega cities: An illustration for Los Angeles. Science of the Total Environment, 678, 647–659.

    de Ruiter, M.C., Couasnon, A., van den Homberg, M.J., Daniell, J.E., Gill, J.C. & Ward, P.J. (2019). Why we can no longer ignore consecutive disasters. Earth’s Future.

    Scussolini, P., Bakker, P., Guo, C., Stepanek, C., Zhang, Q., Braconnot, P., ... & Ward, P.J. (2019). Agreement between reconstructed and modeled boreal precipitation of the Last Interglacial. Science Advances, 5(11), eaax7047.

    Ward, P.J., Couasnon, A., Eilander, D., Haigh, I.D., Hendry, A., Muis, S., Veldkamp, T.I.E., Winsemius, H.C. & Wahl, T. (2018). Dependence between high sea-level and high river discharge increases flood hazard in global deltas and estuaries. Environmental Research Letters, 13, 084012. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aad400

    Zscheischler, J., Westra, S., van Den Hurk, B. J., Seneviratne, S. I., Ward, P.J., Pitman, A., ... & Zhang, X. (2018). Future climate risk from compound events. Nature Climate Change, 8(6), 469–477.

  • Data and models