Estimating River Channel Bathymetry in Large Scale Flood Inundation Models

Jeffrey Neal*, Laurence Hawker, James Savage, Michael Durand, Paul Bates, Christopher Sampson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Flood inundation modeling across large data sparse areas has been increasing in recent years, driven by a desire to provide hazard information for a wider range of locations. The sophistication of these models has steadily advanced over the past decade due to improvements in remote sensing and modeling capability. There are now several global flood models (GFMs) that seek to simulate water surface dynamics across all rivers and floodplains regardless of data scarcity. However, flood models in data sparse areas lack river bathymetry because this cannot be observed remotely, meaning that a variety of methods for approximating river bathymetry have been developed from uniform flow or downstream hydraulic geometry theory. We argue that bathymetry estimation in these models should follow gradually varying flow theory to account for both uniform and nonuniform flows. We demonstrate that existing methods for bathymetry estimation in GFMs are only accurate for kinematic water surface profiles and are unable to simulate unbiased water surface profiles for reaches with diffusive or shallow water wave properties. The use of gradually varied flow theory to estimate bathymetry in a GFM reduced model error compared to a target water surface profile by 66% and eliminated bias due to backwater effects. For a large-scale test case in Mozambique this reduced flood extents by 40% and floodplain storage by 79% at the 5 years return period. The wet bias associated with uniform flow derived channels could have significant implications for modeling the role floodplains play in attenuating river discharges, potentially overstating their role.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020WR028301
Number of pages22
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
Early online date20 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
J. Neal and L. Hawker were supported by NERC Grants NE/S003061/1 and NE/S006079/1. P. Bates was supported by a Royal Society Research Merit award. The authors would like to thank Brett Sanders for providing the gradually varied flow solver code.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • bathymetry inversion
  • flooding
  • global flood modeling
  • gradually varied flow


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