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Record Russian Rain Runoff Responsible for Rapid River Rise

Posted On: August 23, 2013 - By: Curtis Seaman


Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with that title.  Last time we looked at flooding in Russia, it was in the western parts – generally near Moscow and primarily along the Oka River – and caused by rapid melting of record spring snowfall. This time, flooding is occurring in Russia’s Far East, primarily along the Amur River, caused by heavy rainfall related to monsoon wind patterns in the region – record levels of flooding not seen before in the 160 years Russians have settled in the area.

Unfortunately, this natural disaster is affecting more than just Russia. In China, many people are dead or missing as the result of flooding. (The figure of “hundreds dead or missing” includes flooding caused by typhoons Utor and Trami in southeastern China, flash flooding in western China, and the subject of today’s post: river flooding in northeastern China and far east Russia.) The Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang have been hit particularly hard with persistent, heavy rains since late July, as have areas just across the border in Amur Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia.

A few more facts: Heilongjiang is the Chinese name for the Amur River. It translates to English as “Black Dragon”. The Mongols called it Kharamuren (“Black Water”), which, I assume, the early Russian settlers shortened to Amur. It is the longest undammed river in the Eastern Hemisphere and the home to the endangered Amur leopard and Amur tiger. Since 1850, the Amur River has been the longest piece of the border between China and Russia. Now, in 2013, the Amur River has reached the highest levels ever recorded.

Backing up a bit, here’s what the area looked like according to “Natural Color” or “pseudo-true color” VIIRS imagery back in the middle of July:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:27 UTC 14 July 2013

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:27 UTC 14 July 2013

As always, click on the image, then on the “2368×1536” link below the banner to see the full resolution version. Here’s what the same area looked like about a month later:

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:14 UTC 21 August 2013

VIIRS false color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 03:14 UTC 21 August 2013

Notice anything different? The Amur River has overflowed its floodplain and is over 10 km (6 miles) wide in some places. Just downriver (northeast) from Khabarovsk, the flooded area is up to 30 km (18 miles) wide!

Pay attention to Khabarovsk. Back in 1897, the Amur River crested there with a stage of 6.42 m (about 21 feet in American units), which was the previous high water mark. On 22 August 2013, the river stage reached 7.05 m (23 feet) and was expected to keep rising to 7.8 m (25.6 feet) by the end of August. The map below (in Russian) shows the local river levels on 22 August 2013. It came from this website.

Amur River levels at various locations in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia on 22 August 2013.

Amur River levels at various locations in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia on 22 August 2013.

Note that Khabarovsk in Cyrillic is Хабаровск (the black dot in the lower left), and Amur is Амур. The blue numbers represent the river stage in cm. Red numbers indicate the change in water level (in cm) over the last 24 hours. The colored dots indicate how high the river level is above flood stage according to the color scale (also in cm). The river at Khabarovsk is more than 4 meters (13 feet) above flood stage.

Not impressed by comparing a “before” and “after” image? Here’s an animation over that time period (14 July to 21 August 2013), with images from really cloudy days removed:

Animation of VIIRS false-color composites of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03

Animation of VIIRS false-color composites of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03. Click on the image, then on the "1184x768" link below the banner to view the animation.

You have to click through to the full resolution version before the loop will play. In order to not make the world’s largest animated GIF, the I-band images in the loop have been reduced in resolution by a factor of 2, making them the same resolution as if I had used M-5, M-7 and M-10 to make this “Natural Color” composite.

The Day/Night Band is not known for its ability to detect flooding at night, but it also saw how large the Amur River has become:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken 17:27 UTC 20 August 2013

This image was taken on 20 August 2013, which just so happens to be the night of a full moon. The swollen rivers are clearly visible thanks to the moonlight (and general lack of clouds).

Khabarovsk is a city of over 500,000 people and would require a major evacuation effort if the river reached the expected 7.8 m level. Over 20,000 people have already been evacuated in Russia alone (and over a million people in China) according to this report. Oh, and at least two bears.

This heavy rain and flooding makes it all the more surprising that, a little further north and west in Russia, there have been numerous, massive wildfires. Check out this “True Color” image from VIIRS, taken on 16 August 2013:

VIIRS"True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 03:12 UTC 16 August 2013.

VIIRS"True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 03:12 UTC 16 August 2013.

See the supersized swirling Siberian smoke spreading… OK, I’ll quit with the alliteration. Here’s the smoke plume on the very next overpass (about 90 minutes later) seen on a larger scale:

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 04:52 UTC 16 August 2013.

VIIRS "True Color" composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 04:52 UTC 16 August 2013.

A strong ridge of high pressure with its clockwise flow is trapping the smoke over the region. In this image you can see quite a few of the smoke sources where the fires are still actively burning. Look in the latitude/longitude box bounded by 98 °E to 105 °E and 59 °N to 61 °N. By the way, that’s Lake Baikal on the bottom of the image, just left of center.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the area covered by smoke is roughly 500,000 km2. (Of course it is complicated by the fact that the smoke is mixing in with the clouds, so it is hard to define a true boundary for the smoke on the north and west sides.) That puts it in the size range of Turkmenistan, Spain and Thailand. If that’s not a good reference for you, how’s this? The smoke covers an area larger than California and smaller than Texas.

These fires have burned for more than a month. This article from NASA includes a MODIS image from 25 July 2013 containing massive smoke plumes and shows that areas of central Russia (particularly north of the Arctic Circle) have had a record heatwave this summer. And here are a few more images of the smoke from MODIS over the past few weeks.

Heatwaves and fires and floods? Russia is all over the map. Literally. I mean, look at a map of Asia – Russia is all over that place. It even spreads into Europe!


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