How Is a Flood Formed?

By Wanda Thibodeaux; Updated April 24, 2017
Floodwaters cover a road.

According to the ThinkQuest website, floods are the most dangerous aspect of thunderstorms, killing an average of 140 people every year. They also cause extensive damage to property, especially residential dwellings. For these reasons, members of the public find it desirable to prevent floods before they happen whenever possible. Although it is not possible to predict or stop all floods around the globe, understanding how floods form reduces the risk that lives and property will be lost.

Basic Formation Principles

There are several types of floods, but every type of flood follows three principles. The first principle is that the amount of water in a given area (flood region) is too large for the region to accommodate--floods thus form when water percentages exceed capacity. The second principle is that weather influences the water percentage present in a flood region. Lastly, geographical factors determine how the flood behaves.

Coastal Flooding

When storms such as hurricanes form over the water, they create waves that, in the deep ocean, are harmless. As the waves near shore, however, the water in the waves has nowhere to go except up onto the shore. These waves (storm surges) crash onto the shore very quickly, flooding the coastal area. Additionally, the lower the barometric pressure, the higher the tides are near the shore and the greater the chances of flooding are.

Riverine Flooding

Riverine flooding occurs when a stream or river can't hold all the water flowing into it. Usually the extra water comes from melting snows or larger-than-normal amounts of precipitation, which is why riverine flooding is a concern in the spring. When the water flowing into the river exceeds the volume of the riverbed, it spills up onto and over the riverbank. This type of flooding can last for weeks and is slow-moving.

Dam Flooding

Dams (including ice jams) contribute to flooding in two ways. First, the water flowing against a dam may build up behind the dam until it spills out of a riverbed, lake or other large body of water. The region behind the dam thus may flood. Secondly, when a dam doesn't work right, water suddenly rushes back into an area from which dam operators (or animals) had withheld it. The amount of water that flows into the region in front of the dam usually exceeds the amount of water that region can disperse quickly, so flooding occurs.

Alluvial Floods

In an alluvial fan, which is an area at the base of a hilly or mountainous area in which sediment and debris has collected, water pathways aren't clear. When a pathway becomes blocked, water that flows down the hill or mountain spills over the blockage (as in dam flooding) and cuts a new path as it seeks a lower geographical level. These kinds of floods thus are dangerous because it is so hard to predict precisely what new path the water will take and where the resulting floods may occur.

About the Author

Wanda Thibodeaux is a freelance writer and editor based in Eagan, Minn. She has been published in both print and Web publications and has written on everything from fly fishing to parenting. She currently works through her business website,, which functions globally and welcomes new clients.