Blog: The life of a statistician working in the flood risk sector

Predicting the unpredictable

Dr Ross Towe, KTP Research Associate

Ross Towe

Over the last year, I have been working with the JBA Trust and Lancaster University as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) Associate on a research project that aims to improve statistical models used for flood risk assessment.  The KTP Associate role has given me a great insight into how the development of statistical models can help the assessment of flood risk at both a national and local scale.

Working with JBA has enabled me to continue to develop my research skills and be involved in some of the exciting challenges facing the flood risk sector.  Since starting the KTP, my project has focussed on improving statistical models employed to estimate the probabilities of extreme river flood flows, including geographically widespread flood events, dealing with the fact that data may not always be available at the same time at every river flow gauging station.  A further development has been to use information about rainfall to improve the predictions of extreme river flows.

As a result of the impact of storms Desmond and Eva in the winter of 2015-16, understanding flood risk has become a highly topical issue. Due to this heightened interest, I have also been providing analysis for a governmental scientific advisory group that is currently reviewing flood resilience at a national level. Some of the initial results have provided analytical evidence that there is, on average, a greater-than-50% chance somewhere in England and Wales of there being at least one extreme river flow that might overtop or breach flood defences in any given year, even though such events may only have a 1% chance of happening at any one specific location, when viewed in isolation.

I presented the interim findings of the KTP project at the Extreme Value Analysis Conference in June 2015 at Michigan University and at the KTP Associates Conference in May 2015.  At the recent NERC course ‘Statistics for Environmental Evaluation’ I led a workshop to explore the standard statistical methods used for flood risk analysis and explained how environmental scientists can use statistics in their research projects.  All the presentations and workshop resources are available on the research project page.

As part of the KTP, I also attended two week-long residential training courses on management and leadership. These residential courses have given me a chance to meet other KTP associates, who undertake projects ranging from software development, farming and marketing. These training courses will lead onto me working towards a qualification from the Chartered Management Institute.

The next few months are busy with lots of upcoming conferences and workshops, which gives me a great opportunity to present my research to a number of different audiences. First of all is the KTP Associates Conference in Coventry, which gives me a chance to hear how my fellow KTP Associates are getting on.  I will also be presenting some of the results from the KTP at the International Environmetrics Society Conference in Edinburgh and at the STOR-i Multivariate and Spatial Extremes workshop at Lancaster University.