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Understanding Rainfall Return Periods

Article · August 2013

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Richard Ybañez
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ts Vol. 1 (2013), No. 2, pp. 3-4, ISSN 2362 7409

Understanding Rainfall Return PeriodsI

Rich Ybañeza,b,∗
a Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards, Department of Science and Technology, Philippines
b National Institute of Geological Sciences, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City

Keywords: Rainfall return period, Habagat

1. Introduction

When talking about typhoons and tropical storms which have


hit the Philippines in the past, like Ondoy, Sendong, Milenyo,
and Reming, one of the common phrases we hear from news
outlets and scientists is “that storm was a 50-year rainfall” or
“malakas yung ulan noon kasi 100-year rainfall yun.” But what
exactly does this phrase mean, and more importantly, imply?
First of all, this is what is called as the rainfall return fre-
quency or period. There are 5-, 10-, 25-, 50-, and 100-year
rainfall return periods. Generally, the higher the return period,
the larger the accumulated rainfall will be, but it will also be less
likely to occur. Unfortunately, because of the unpredictability
of nature, theres more to understand than this. We must under-
stand first, how these numbers come to be.
It is already common knowledge that every year, around
Figure 1: Accumulation of Typhoon Occurrences in and near the PAR from
20 typhoons will enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility 1972-2001. Joint Typhoon Warning Center.
(PAR), and around 9 will make landfall over Luzon, Visayas,
or Mindanao. The others will just pass over the Philippine Sea
then move on to Taiwan or China. This number of 20 and 9
was determined by observation of these typhoons over several
decades. It is a statistical average, so sometimes we get 19 or
21 typhoons, and sometimes more than 9 will make landfall. Figure 2: Average precipitation in Quezon City based on a 12 year record.
The same way that these typhoons are observed and a statis- WeatherBase.com
tical estimate produced for forecasting the number of typhoons
a year, rainfall rate and duration data for every day, every year,
over several years are collated, correlated, and analyzed. One forecasting and disaster preparation. Finally, we come to the
thing we get would be the dry and wet seasons for the Philip- rainfall return period.
pines. We know that, in general, the dry months are from De- Something else that was observed from rainfall per month
cember to May, and the wet season is from June to November; over several years, besides identifying the rainiest month, is
with the rainiest month being August (after two years of Haba- that there are certain years that receive very high rainfall. For
gat in August, everyone probably knows this by now). example, according to data from the Philippine Atmospheric,
Again, this may not prove true every year. Certain condi- Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PA-
tions may change the rainiest month in 2014 to July or Septem- GASA) analysed by the National Hydraulic Research Center
ber, but on average, the rainiest month is still August. It is not (NHRC) in the University of the Philippines Diliman, Tropical
100% sure for every year, but this product of statistics aids in Storm Ondoy was a 180-year rainfall event.
From this graph, we can see that the 2-year return period is at
120mm over 6 hours. This means every 2 years, we can expect
I Published online on 22 August 2013 at this amount of rain to fall in this area. For the 10-year return pe-
http://blog.noah.dost.gov.ph/2013/08/22/understanding-rainfall-return- riod, 225mm of rain can fall over a 6-hour period. This is much
periods//
∗ The author is a faculty at the Volcano-Tectonics Laboratory, National In- more rainfall, but occurs only around every 10 years. Return pe-
stitute of Geological Sciences, University of the Philippines Diliman. riods are usually only determined up to the 100-year frequency
Email address: rtly42@yahoo.com (Rich Ybañez) (nearly 350mm in this graph), so Ondoy had to be projected
3
Figure 3: Rainfall return period computed from maximum rainfall over 6 and
12 hours with data from TS Ondoy. Science Garden Station (PAGASA) and
NHRC

using existing data as well as the fresh data from Ondoy itself.
Again, as with the number of typhoons per year, and the
rainiest month of the year, the rainfall return period is deter-
mined by statistical means and is not a 100% certainty. Just
because we encountered nearly 250mm of rain this year, does
not mean we wont experience it again in another 10 years. It
just means that observing the past decades, it probably wont.
But it may, and it may happen in 9, 8, or even 5 years.
According to the NHRC, Ondoy was a 180-year rainfall re-
turn period. But only three years later in 2012, we experienced
the rains of Habagat which competed with the rainfall intensity
of Ondoy, catching everyone off guard. We were told in 2009
that Ondoy was a strong but rare tropical storm and should not
occur again in at least another 100 years.
It is important to understand that Habagat 2012, and 2013 as
well, were caused by weather anomalies and sheer bad luck.
Habagat 2012 was caused by Typhoon Haikui in southeast
China being rendered nearly stagnant for several days by high
pressure systems in central China. This year, Tropical Storm
Maring was nearly stagnant southeast of Taiwan and northeast
of Batanes, causing a pull in the southwest monsoon. These
rains were caused not by the usual passage of a tropical storm
through the Philippines, but weather systems being in the wrong
place, at the wrong time.
Rainfall return periods are produced by observing the past,
and while we can say with some confidence that these numbers
are accurate, nature is always unpredictable. Some experts say
that with climate change, rainfall return periods should be ad-
justed. 10-year rains can become 5-year, and 100-year become
75-year rainfall return periods. Regardless of what the statistics
result in, one thing we can be sure in taking from history is that
very strong rainfall can occur in the Philippines, and that we
should always be prepared for it. We should always be prepared
for strong rains, and should never be complacent in anticipating
the next years rainfall season.

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