and flood wave diffusion

Victor M. Ponce

August 2013


Diffusion produces normalcy; lack of diffusion results in chaos. Mother Nature engineered diffusion into every physical process to assure stability and thus, make life possible. Diffusion is present in floods; typical flood waves diffuse, i.e., attenuate or dissipate, albeit ever so slightly most of the time. The essence of flood hydrology is to calculate the amount of diffusion in a flood wave. Thus, flood diffusion is of paramount importance in hydrologic engineering practice.


Flood wave diffusion exists in all flows with Vedernikov number less than 1 (Ponce 1991). For hydraulically wide channels with Chezy friction, the condition V = 1 is equivalent to Froude number F = 2. For hydraulically wide channels with Manning friction, the condition V = 1 is equivalent to Froude number F = 1.5. Thus, in practice, all [turbulent] flood flows diffuse for Froude numbers F < 1.5. Under natural conditions, it is extremely rare to find flows with Froude numbers greater than 1 (Jarrett 1984). Thus, it may be reasonably assumed that, given enough time and space, all flood flows will diffuse, i.e., attenuate until they eventually become part of the equilibrium flow (Lighthill and Whitham 1955). Diffusion is a natural law and flood flows follow this natural law.


The amount of flood wave diffusion is directly controlled by the hydraulic diffusivity of the diffusion wave equation (Ponce 1989). The diffusion wave equation is an extension of the kinematic wave equation that adds a diffusion term, i.e., a second-order term. The diffusion coefficient, or kinematic hydraulic diffusivity, originally due by Hayami (1951), is:

  ν =   _____  

              2 So

in which qo = unit-width discharge, and So = equilibrium channel slope.

Ponce (1990) extended the diffusion wave equation into the realm of dynamic waves. Following Dooge and his collaborators (Dooge et al. 1982), Ponce (1991) expressed the hydraulic diffusivity in terms of the Vedernikov number, effectively creating a dynamic hydraulic diffusivity:

  ν =   _____  (1 - V 2) 

              2 So

Equation 2 shows that flood wave diffusion occurs only for Vedernikov numbers V < 1. Note that flood wave diffusion is directly proportional to unit-width discharge and inversely proportional to channel slope. For steep slopes, typically greater than 0.01, diffusion is small and almost negligible; conversely, for mild slopes, typically smaller than 0.0001, diffusion is large. Theoretically, as channel slope approaches zero (0), diffusion approaches infinity (∞).


In engineering hydrology, flood wave diffusion increases with drainage area. This observation is supported by Eqs. 1 and 2. The greater the drainage area, the smaller the prevailing overall channel slope and, thus, the greater the runoff diffusion and associated flood wave diffusion.

For comparison purposes, Table 1 lists the characteristics of the world's four greatest rivers, showing mean channel slopes varying between 0.00027 and 0.00087. As expected, local values exhibit a wider range in values of channel slope, from greater than 0.10 for certain steep mountain streams (Fig. 1), to around 0.00001 for large rivers in tropical and subtropical regions (Fig. 2).

Table 1.  Characteristics of the world's greatest rivers.
River Continent Drainage area
(1000 km2)
Mean discharge
Maximum headwater elevation
Total length
Mean channel slope
Nile Africa 3,349 5,100 1,820 6,648 0.00027
Amazon South America 6,915 219,000 5,597 6,399 0.00087
Yangtze Asia 1,800 31,900 5,486 6,299 0.00087
Missouri-Mississippi North America 2,980 16,200 2,864 5,968 0.00048

Fig. 1   Rachichuela Creek, La Leche river basin, Lambayeque, Peru, featuring a slope So = 0.14 and, thus, a very small amount of wave diffusion.

Fig. 2   Upper Paraguay river near Porto Murtinho, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, featuring a slope So = 0.00002 and, thus, a very large amount of wave diffusion.


An increase in flood wave diffusion with drainage area effectively means that the peak discharge per unit of drainage area will be inversely related to the drainage area. This factual observation was discovered early by Jarvis and Creager, as quoted in Creager et al. (1945). Despite the passage of time, the Creager curves, shown in Fig. 3, remain the most comprehensive collection to date of flood peak data vs. drainage area. Diffusion is explicit in the Creager curves; only by diffusion can the reduction of peak discharge per unit of drainage area be explained.

Fig. 3   Creager curves.

According to the Creager formula, the flood peak discharge Q is:

  Q =   46 C A 0.894 A -0.048


in which C = a coefficient that varies in the range 30 ≤ C ≤ 100. As shown in Fig. 4, the indicated range of C effectively envelopes most of the data compiled by Creager. The C = 100 value includes all maximum, i.e., infrequent floods, while C = 30 value corresponds to the more frequent floods. While Creager did not estimate flood frequency in his formula, the lower value of C may be loosely associated with 2- to 5-yr return periods, while the higher value of C may be tied to the 50- to 100-yr return periods and higher. An online calculator for the Creager formula is given in CREAGER.


The Creager curves are reinterpreted in light of the prevailing theory of flood wave diffusion. Experience shows that greater flood wave diffusion corresponds with larger drainage areas, confirming Hayami's diffusion-analogy model of flood propagation (Hayami, 1951). Thus, the trend of the Creager curves admirably reflects the flood wave diffusion that is inherently present in Nature.


  Creager, W. P., J. D. Justin, and J. Hinds. 1945. Engineering for Dams. Vol. 1, General Design, Wiley, New York.

  Dooge, J. C. I., W. B. Strupczewski, and J. J. Napiorkowski. 1982. Hydrodynamic derivation of storage parameters of the Muskingum model. Journal of Hydrology, 54, 381-387.

  Hayami, S. 1951. On the propagation of flood waves. Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University, Bulletin No. 1, December.

  Jarrett, R. D. 1984. Hydraulics of high-gradient streams. Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, 110(11), 1519-1539, November.

  Lighthill, M. J., and G. B. Whitham. 1955. On kinematic waves. I. Flood movement in long rivers. Proceedings, Royal Society of London, Series A, Vol. 229, 281-316.

  Ponce, V. M. 1990. Generalized diffusion wave equation with inertial effects. Water Resources Research, 26(5), 1099-1101, May.

  Ponce, V. M. 1991. New perspective on the Vedernikov number. Water Resources Research, 27(7), 1777-1779, July.