Extreme rainfall, vulnerability and risk: A continental-scale assessment for South America

Charles J. Vörösmarty, Lelys Bravo De Guenni, Wilfred M. Wollheim, Brian Pellerin, David Bjerklie, Manoel Cardoso, Cassiano D'Almeida, Pamela Green, Lilybeth Colon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Extreme weather continues to preoccupy society as a formidable public safety concern bearing huge economic costs. While attention has focused on global climate change and how it could intensify key elements of the water cycle such as precipitation and river discharge, it is the conjunction of geophysical and socioeconomic forces that shapes human sensitivity and risks to weather extremes. We demonstrate here the use of high-resolution geophysical and population datasets together with documentary reports of rainfall-induced damage across South America over a multi-decadal, retrospective time domain (1960-2000). We define and map extreme precipitation hazard, exposure, affected populations, vulnerability and risk, and use these variables to analyse the impact of floods as a water security issue. Geospatial experiments uncover major sources of risk from natural climate variability and population growth, with change in climate extremes bearing a minor role. While rural populations display greatest relative sensitivity to extreme rainfall, urban settings show the highest rates of increasing risk. In the coming decades, rapid urbanization will make South American cities the focal point of future climate threats but also an opportunity for reducing vulnerability, protecting lives and sustaining economic development through both traditional and ecosystem-based disaster risk management systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20120408
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2002
StatePublished - Nov 13 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate change
  • Extreme weather
  • Flooding
  • Risk
  • Vulnerability
  • Water security

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Mathematics
  • General Engineering
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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