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Find out more**The benchmark atlas of precipitation extremes in the United States, Rainfall Frequency Atlas of
**

the United States by Hershfield (1), also known as Technical Paper 40 (TP-40), is now almost 40 years old.

Despite its publication date, the use of this atlas remains widespread in the Northeastern United States. In

response to concern that the data and techniques used in the development of TP-40 were grossly outdated,

the Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC) published the Atlas of Precipitation Extremes for the

Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada by Wilks and Cember (2). Although the NRCC atlas

is based on a similar network of observing stations and follows a format similar to TP-40, it incorporates

considerably more data and more rigorous statistical analyses that were possible when TP-40 was

developed more than four decades ago.

Nationally, TP-40 is based on stations with an average record length of only 22.6 years according

to Hershfield (1). Although at the time this represented the most extensive climatological data base

available, it severely limited the extrapolation of rainfall extremes beyond that associated with the 50-year

return period. In most present-day extreme value analyses, statisticians caution against extrapolation

beyond twice the available record length (i.e. 46 years for a 23 year record).

Rainfall extremes for the Northeastern U.S. stations included in the Wilks and Cember (2) NRCC

atlas are based on an average of 51.3 years of data, with the smallest record encompassing 30 years. Thus

extrapolation beyond the 50-year return period is more robust. The spatial density of stations

(approximately 1 station per 800 km

2

) is also considerably higher than that used in TP-40. Hershfield (1)

reports that his longest return periods are based on data from 1600 stations nationwide.

Although, extreme value statistics can be derived from the empirical distribution of rainfall values

(e.g. the 50-year storm is the highest total in a 50-year record), a distribution is commonly fit to the

observed data. This fitted distribution serves two purposes. It smooths sampling errors at low return

periods (e.g. 10 year) and allows extrapolation to return periods beyond those encompassed by the observed

data. Any number of extreme value distributions can be fit to an observed precipitation record. However,

it is the accuracy of the right tail of the distributions that is most important to the development of return

periods, since the largest and rarest events are characterized by this portion of the selected distribution.

Both of these methods were used in the development of TP-40. The 1-10-year return period

values are were derived empirically, by fitting freehand curves through plots of the highest observed daily

rainfall totals. The length of available data records at most stations, dictated that longer return periods (i.e.

= 20 yr) be extrapolated. Here, history and convenience generally dictated the use of the Gumbel

distribution. Limitations in computing power in the early 1960’s, required that the distribution used in

creating TP-40 be constrained to one in which the distribution parameters could be easily estimated from

the data. Wilks (3) gives the moments estimators for the Gumbel distribution location and scale

parameters.

Conversely, the NRCC extreme rainfall atlas uses the Beta-P distribution to compute rainfall

accumulations for both short and long return periods. Wilks (4) selected this distribution based on its

ability (relative to eight other distributions) to estimate the four highest observed precipitation extremes in a

set of long-term precipitation series. Unlike the Gumbel distribution, the parameters for the Beta-P

distribution must be fit numerically. Wilks and Cember (2) employed the maximum likelihood method of

Levenberg and Marquardt given by Press et al. (5) to fit the distribution at each station.

In this paper extreme rainfall values derived using the TP-40 and NRCC atlas methodologies are

compared for several Northeastern U.S. cities. Since potential differences between these two analyses can

arise both due to differences in statistical methodology and record length, these two variables are examined

separately. Particular attention is paid to the effect of record length given that both precipitation atlases

assume a stationary climate record. However, recent findings by Karl and Knight (6) and Kunkel et al. (7)

show that the frequency of heavy rain events has increased since the publication of TP-40. In fact,

Changnon (8) cautions that design standards based on TP-40 are likely to be sub-optimal based on the

wetter (referring to higher extremes) conditions observed in the latter half of this century.

In the next section a brief description of the Gumbel and Beta-P distributions is given. The two

distributions are then compared based on their goodness-of-fit on the extreme right tail and the sampling

characteristics of extrapolations beyond the data on the right tail. In light of these comparisons, return

period estimates based on the two distributions and varying record lengths are compared in Section 4.

DISTRIBUTIONS

Beta-P distribution

The Beta-P distribution is described by Mielke and Johnson (9). The probability density function for this

distribution is

where x is the partial duration precipitation amount. The distribution has three parameters. Both α and θ are

dimensionless shape parameters and β is a scale parameter having units of cm in the present application.

One convenient feature of the Beta-P distribution is that it is analytically integrable, so that its cumulative

distribution function can be written in closed form. This allows Beta-P probabilities to be obtained using

Gumbel

The Gumbel (10) distribution is frequently called the extreme value distribution. It is also known as the

Fisher-Tippett type I distribution. The probability density function for the Gumbel distribution is

Here, x and β are location and scale parameters, respectively. Like the Beta-P distribution, the Gumbel is

analytically integrable, allowing its cumulative distribution function to be written as

The Gumbel parameters can be estimated based on the sample mean and standard deviation. Wilks (3)

gives these estimates as:

f (x;α, β, θ) ·

αθ

β

x

β

¸

¸

_

,

θ −1

1 +

x

β

¸

¸

_

,

θ

¸

1

]

1

1

− α+1 ( )

F(x;α, β,θ) ·1 − 1 +

x

β

¸

¸

_

,

θ

¸

1

]

1

1

−α

f (x;β,ξ) ·

1

β

exp −exp −

(x − ξ)

β

¸

1

]

1

−

(x −ξ)

β

¹

'

¹

¹

;

¹

F(x;β, ξ) · exp −exp −

(x −ξ)

β

¸

1

]

1

¹

'

¹

¹

;

¹

ˆ

β ·

s 6

π

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

and

where γ = 0.57721.

DISTRIBUTION COMPARISONS

Goodness of fit on the right tail

Quantile-quantile (Q-Q) plots (e.g. Graedel et al. (11)) were used to qualitatively examine the degree of fit

on the extreme right tail for both distributions. Data from Baltimore, Maryland were used by Wilks (4) in

this comparison given the availability of a relatively long data record (1900-1990) at the time of

publication. Wilks (4) reports that similar results were obtained for nine other northeastern U.S. stations

and three sites in South Carolina.

Figure 1 shows the Q-Q plots for Baltimore 1-day partial duration precipitation amounts. The

vertical axes represent quantiles based on the observed data, while the horizontal axes give the

corresponding cumulative probabilities given by the fitted cumulative distribution function. Thus the ith

smallest data value, x

i

,corresponds to a point on the Q-Q plot given by the coordinate pair

with N=91 years for the Baltimore record and F given by equation 2 or 4.

FIGURE 1 Quantile-quantile plots for the Beta-P and Gumbel distributions fitted to Baltimore 1-day

partial duration data. Vertical axes are observed amounts (cm) and horizontal axes are the corresponding

amounts obtained by inverting the cumulative distribution functions. The 1:1 lines are also shown

ˆ

ξ · x − γ

ˆ

β

QQ

i

· F

−1

i

N +1

¸

1

]

1

, x

i

¸

¸

_

,

(6)

(7)

0

10

20

0

10 20

Beta-P

0

10

20

0

10 20

Gumbel

Fitted Precipitation,

0

10

20

0

10 20

Beta-P

0

10

20

0

10 20

Gumbel

Fitted Precipitation, cm

+

If one of the distributions fit the observed data perfectly, all of the points would fall on the 1:1

line. This is clearly not the case for either distribution in Figure 1. However, it is also evident that

comparatively the fit afforded by the Beta-P distribution is considerably better than that associated with the

Gumbel distribution, particularly for the four highest precipitation amounts. Although the Beta-P estimates

for these values do not fall on the 1:1 line, they nonetheless lie closer to the line than the Gumbel estimates.

Perhaps more importantly, the Beta-P estimates are unbiased, while the Gumbel estimates show a strong

tendency toward underestimation of the observed values.

Accuracy of extrapolated right tail quantiles

The analysis described in the previous section gives no indication of the performance of the

distributions in extrapolating beyond the observed data record. To investigate this feature , Wilks (4)

applied a resampling procedure to seven stations in the northeastern and southeastern U.S with at least 60

years of data. For each station 1000 bootstrap samples of size 30 and 50 years were selected with

replacement. Bootstrap samples of 70 years were also selected from the 91-year Baltimore and Central

Park records. The Gumbel and Beta-P distributions were then fit to each bootstrap sample. This allowed

the precipitation amounts from the fitted distributions corresponding to the empirical cumulative

probabilities of the largest observations in the full data sets to be computed. For example, the distributions

fit to the 30-, 50- and 70 year bootstrap samples for Baltimore were extrapolated to find the precipitation

amounts corresponding to the cumulative probabilities of the 4 highest amounts in the 91-year record.

The Baltimore results based on 50-year bootstrap samples are shown in Figure 2. Boxplots with

whiskers portraying the 5th and 95th percentiles of the extrapolated tail values for each of the 4 highest tail

amounts are superimposed over the actual tail data. These four largest daily amounts in the Baltimore

record are shown by the circled x's with the light curves indicating a subjective smoothing of the tail of the

empirical distribution. Ideally, the boxplot medians should fall near the sketched curves, with relatively

little spread of the distributions around these points.

FIGURE 2 Modified boxplots (whiskers show 5th and 95th percentiles) portraying the distributions of

extrapolated quantiles corresponding to the four largest partial duration 1-day precipitation amounts at

Baltimore (F = 0.989, 0.978, 0.967, and 0.957). Quantiles have been extrapolated from 1000 bootstrap

samples of size 50. Circled x’s are the actual data values, and the light curves represent subjective

smoothing of the empirical distribution.

Beta-P Gumbel

2 0

2 5

1 0

1 5

The right tail of the partial-duration Baltimore data is clearly well represented by the Beta-P

distribution. The Beta-P extrapolations display very low bias as evidenced by the correspondence of the

boxplot medians with the largest observed precipitation totals. Conversely, the Gumbel distribution

seriously underestimates the tail values, despite showing smaller sampling variations. These results are

representative of the other stations and sample sizes investigated by Wilks (4).

The Wilks (4) analyses show the Gumbel distribution employed by TP-40 has a tendency to

underestimate precipitation amounts on the right tail. Based on Figure 2, the magnitude of underestimation

varies from approximately 20% near the 100-year return period accumulation to 18% for 50-year event and

decreases further to about 8% for the 25-year rainfall amount. This tendency has also been observed in

practice by others such as Angel and Huff (12).

COMPARISON OF RAINFALL EXTREMES FOR NORTHEAST CITIES

In light of the Wilks (4) statistical comparison, rainfall extremes based on these two

methodologies were computed for six Northeastern cities. In addition to documenting the differences

resulting from the choice of distribution, the extremes are also compared for varying record lengths to

quantify the effect of the additional 40 years of data that has become available since the publication of TP-

40. Table 1 lists the stations used and their available periods of record. At three stations, records from

adjacent stations were spliced to form a longer single-station data series.

TABLE 1 Stations used in comparing rainfall return period amounts based on TP-40 and the NRCC atlas

Station Record Spliced Records

Boston, Massachusetts (airport) 1921-2000 None

New York, New York (Central Park) 1878-2000 None

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (airport) 1927-2000 Philadelphia (Shawmont) 1927-1948

Baltimore, Maryland (city) 1897-2000 Baltimore (airport) 1999-2000

Buffalo, New York (airport) 1923-2000 None

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (airport) 1927-2000 Pittsburgh (city) 1927-1952

These results are summarized in Figure 3 which gives the rainfall totals associated with the 100-

and 50-year return periods for records ending in various years (x-axis). Perhaps the most striking feature in

Figure 3 is the large disparity between the extreme rainfall totals given by the two distributions. Using the

total available data record (i.e. data ending in 2000), the difference averages 16% for the 100-year event

and 8% for the 50-year accumulation, with the Gumbel distribution giving a consistently lower value. This

bias agrees with that of the bootstrap analysis conducted by Wilks (4). Between the individual stations the

difference varies only a small amount ranging from 17% for the 100-year total at Baltimore to 13% at

Pittsburgh.

The influence of data record length produces an interesting pattern in 1-day extreme rainfall across

the region. New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore (Fig. 3b-d), show a distinct increase in the magnitude of

the 100-year event from the time of publication of TP-40 until the present. At Boston, the magnitude of the

100-year event decreases sharply from 1965 to 1980 before increasing through 2000. The increase does not

appear to be related to the distribution, as values from the Gumbel and Beta-P distributions exhibit similar

temporal characteristics. At the two stations with the longest records (Baltimore and New York, Fig. 3b

and 3d) the precipitation extremes show a relatively steady increase as the 45 years of additional data are

included in the analysis. At Baltimore, the increase amounts to 3.48 cm from a 1894-1955 data record to a

1894-2000 record using the Beta-P distribution. A smaller change occurs at Central Park with an increase

of approximately 1.14 cm from that given by the record available at the time time of publication of TP-40.

Precipitation extremes at Philadelphia show a relatively steady increase as the ending date of the record

progresses from 1965 to 1980. After this point the addition of data, has little effect on the 100-year

precipitation extreme, but an increase is still noted in the 50-year return period amounts. As the

Philadelphia record increases from 1922-1960 to 1922-2000, the 100-year rainfall amount increases by 1.65

cm while the 50-year amount increases 1.52 cm.

The temporal pattern at Boston is contaminated by a relatively short record and the occurrence of

the highest observed precipitation total in 1955. Only 35 years of data were available at Boston in 1955,

and thus the combination of this relatively short record and high precipitation total inflated the 100-year

precipitation amount ending in 1955 using both the Gumbel and Beta-P distributions. As the number of

data points increased and rainfall failed to exceed the 17.93 cm 1955 total, the computed 100-year event

decreased to a minimum in 1980.

The increase in the 100- and 50-year precipitation accumulations since 1980 is likely due an

increase in heavy rain event frequency at Boston. Over the last 15 years, the Boston record shows that.

daily rainfalls of 5.08 cm or greater have occurred in 93% of the years. Storms with daily rainfall totals in

excess of 7.62 and 10.16 cm have occurred in 47 and 27% of these years, respectively. In contrast, during

the period from 1920-1984, the probability of =5.08, =7.62 and =10.16 cm daily rainfalls was 78, 27 and

11%, respectively. Over the period encompassed by TP-40 (1920-1957), =5.08 cm rainfalls occurred in

71% of the years. During subsequent years (1958-1999), =5.08 cm rainfalls have occurred in 88% of the

years. It is also interesting to note that in the 79-year Boston record (1920-1999), five of the highest 10

precipitation totals have occurred in the last 16 years.

The highest daily precipitation total at Boston (and most other eastern Massachusetts stations) occurred

on August 19, 1955 in association with Hurricane Diane. This is near the end of the record reportedly used

to compute TP 40. However, it is questionable as to whether this total was actually used. Table 2

illustrates this inconsistency. Using the Gumbel distribution, 24-hour rainfall extremes were computed for

Boston based on data from 1920-1954 and separately for data from 1920-1957. Clearly the values

computed based on the 1920-1954 period are in better agreement with the smoothed 17.78 cm value

displayed graphically in TP-40. Including the 17.93 cm daily rainfall total in the analysis, results in

considerable inflation of the rainfall extremes (based on the TP-40 methodology). These higher values can

be attributed to the fact that the short (37-year) record happened to contain this high precipitation total.

TABLE 2 Comparison of extreme rainfall events using data from the periods 1920-1954 and 1920-1957 at

Boston

Return 24-hour Rainfall Extreme (cm)

Period 1920-1954 1920-1957

2 yr 8.18 8.36

5-yr 10.57 11.15

10-yr 12.22 13.08

25-yr 14.55 15.80

50-yr 16.38 17.88

100-yr 18.19 19.96

Figure 3 Plots of the 50- and 100-year extreme precipitation amounts given by the Beta-P and Gumbel

distribution when based on records ending in the years indicated on the x-axis. Values are shown for a)

Boston, b) New York, c) Philadelphia, d) Baltimore e) Buffalo and f) Pittsburgh. Thick lines indicate the

100-year values and the thinner lines show the 50-year total. The Bs and Js correspond to the Beta-P

distribution. with Hs and Fs denoting the Gumbel values.

At the two inland stations (Fig. 3 e and 3f), the temporal pattern of 100 and 50-year rainfall events

does not exhibit the strong increases that characterize the coastal sites. Although the 50-year rainfall event

at Buffalo (Fig. 3e) increases by 2.03 cm when based on the 1922-2000 period as opposed to 1922-1955,

there is essentially no change (0.03 cm) in the 100-year value derived from these two periods. Likewise at

Pittsburgh (Fig. 3f), ignoring the high return period values associated with the 1927-1960 period, the 100-

and 50-year events based on the 1927-1965 period are within 0.25 cm of those using the 1927-2000

interval.

While these analyses show clear differences between rainfall extremes based on the different

distributions and data records, they give little indication as to the accuracy of the extreme estimates. To

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

19501955196019651970197519801985199019952000

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

Ending Year of Record

B

B B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

J

J

J

J

J

J

J J

J J

H

H H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

F

F

F

F

F

F

F F

F F

1955196019651970197519801985199019952000

13.5

15.5

17.5

19.5

21.5

23.5

25.5

Ending Year of Record

b a

B

B

B

B

B

B B

B

B

J

J

J

J J J J

J

J

H

H

H

H

H

H H

H

H

F

F

F

F F F F

F

F

1960 1965 19701975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Ending Year of Record

c

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

J J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

F F

F

F

F

F F

F

F

F

1955196019651970197519801985199019952000

13

15

17

19

21

23

25

Ending Year of Record

d

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

B

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

J

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

F

F

F F

F

F

F

F

F

F

1955196019651970197519801985199019952000

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

Ending Year of Record

e

B

B

B B

B

B

B

B

B

J

J

J J

J

J

J

J

J

H

H

H H

H

H

H

H

H

F

F

F F

F

F

F

F

F

19601965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000

8

8.5

9

9.5

10

10.5

11

11.5

12

Ending Year of Record

f

demonstrate that the Gumbel-based values and older data period clearly underestimate the observed

climate, Figure 4 summarizes the number of years with 1-day precipitation exceeding the 10, 25, 50 and

100-year accumulations given by the Gumbel distribution using data ending in 1955 and the Beta-P

distribution for records ending in 1993. Thus, this comparison simulates the differences between TP-40

and the NRCC atlas. In Figure 4, the solid horizontal lines indicate the number of return period

exceedences that are expected in given record length (i.e. N/R, where R is the return period). The bars

show the number of times the TP-40 (dark) and NRCC atlas (light) return period values were exceeded. Of

the 26 return periods shown in Figure 4, the number of TP-40 exceedences is greater than expected in

almost two-thirds (17) of the cases. Such an occurrence supports the previous findings that the TP-40

methodology and the omission of more recent data, result in an underestimation of extreme events.

Conversely, the number of NRCC atlas exceedences is greater than expected in only 5 instances of which

all occur for return periods of 25 years or less.

Arguably the comparison presented in Figure 4 is compromised to some degree by rounding of the

expected exceedences. A simple way to mitigate this imprecision is to restrict the comparison to cases in

which the return periods exceedences are greater than expected by two or more. Eleven of the 26 TP-40

return periods meet this requirement, while only four NRCC atlas exceedences are of this magnitude. In

only one case does the number of TP-40 extreme exceedences fail to meet expected number (by = 2

occurrences). Three such cases (each for the 10- or 25-year return period) occur based on the NRCC atlas.

This suggests that the NRCC atlas is somewhat more conservative than TP-40 for less rare precipitation

events.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This work was supported by NOAA Cooperative Agreement NA67RJ0146. The contributions of

text and figures by Dan Wilks are also gratefully acknowledged.

REFERENCES

1. Hershfield, D.M. Rainfall Frequency Atlas of the United States. U.S. Department of Commerce,

Weather Bureau Technical Paper 40, 1961.

2.Wilks, D.S. and. R.P. Cember. Atlas of Precipitation Extremes for the Northeastern United States and

Southeastern Canada. Northeast Regional Climate Center Publication RR 93-5, Cornell

University, Ithaca, NY, 1993.

3. Wilks, D.S. Statistical Methods in the Atmospheric Sciences. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, 1995.

4. Wilks, D.S. Comparison of 3-Parameter Probability Distributions for Representing Annual Extreme and

Partial Duration Precipitation Series. Water Resources Research, Vol. 29, 1993, pp. 3543-3549.

5. Press. W.H., B.P. Flannery, S.A. Teukolsky, and W.T. Vettering. Numerical Recipes: The Art of

Scientific Computing. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

6. Karl, T.R. and R.W. Knight. Secular Trends of Precipitation Amount, Frequency, and Intensity in the

United States. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., Vol. 79, 1998, pp.231-242.

7. Kunkel, K.E., K. Anslager and D. Easterling. Trends in Heavy Precipitation Events over the

Continental U.S. Preprints, Tenth Conf. on Applied Climatology, Reno, NV, Amer. Meteor. Soc.,

1997, pp. 267-270.

8. Changnon, S.A. Comments on “Secular Trends of Precipitation Amount, Frequency, and Intensity in

the United States”. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., Vol. 79, 1998, pp. 2550-2552.

9. Mielke, P.W., Jr., and E.S. Johnson. Some Generalized Beta Distributions of the Second Kind Having

Desirable Application Features in Hydrology and Meteorology. Water Resources Research, Vol.

10, 1974, pp. 223-226.

10. Gumbel, E.J. Statistics of Extremes, Columbia University Press, New York,1958.

11. Graedel, T.E., V.A. Myers and E.P. Auciello. Five- to 60-minute precipitation frequency for the eastern

and central United States, NOAA Tech Memo. NWS HYDRO-35, 1977.

12. Angel, J.R. and F.A. Huff. Development of New Rainfall Frequency Relations for Nine Midwestern

States. Preprints, 7th Conference on Applied Climatology, Salt Lake City. American

Meteorological Society, Boston, MA, 1991, pp. 131-135.

Figure 4 Bar graphs of observed exceedences of the 10-, 25-, 50- and 100-year extreme precipitation

amounts given by the TP-40 (dark) and NRCC atlas (light) methodologies and data records. The expected

number of exceedences (given the length of record through 1999) is shown by the heavy lines. Values are

shown for a) Boston, b) New York, c) Philadelphia, d) Baltimore e) Buffalo and f) Pittsburgh.

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

a

c

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

c

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

b

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

d

PHL

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

e

10-year 25-year 50-year 100-year

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

E

x

c

e

e

d

e

n

c

e

s

Return Period

f

TRB

TRB

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