The effect of local topography on severe tropical convective rainfall development.


The occurrence of severe convective rainfall is common over the tropical rainforest region. While the basic mechanism of the development of severe convective rainfall over the tropics is well understood in previous studies, the effect of local topography may yield a unique development process.

One part of my PhD project is to look at how local topography modifies severe rainfall events over the western Peninsular Malaysia. This was examined via a case study of severe rainfall that took place on 2nd May 2012. On that day, heavy rainfall caused flash floods and landslides over Klang Valley (red box in Fig. 1). Although the total rainfall on the 2nd May was above the Apr-May average, it was not extremely high.


Fig. 1. The study area, specifically over the western Peninsular Malaysia. The red box is Klang valley area.

Looking at observational data was not enough to understand the processes involved in the development of severe rainfall event on 2nd May 2012 and therefore a simulation study was conducted using the UK Met Office Unified Model (1.5km horizontal resolution).

One theory which could explain  the rainfall event on 2nd May 2012 is the influence of a series of rainfall events that developed earlier. There were rainfall events over the Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra Island in the early evening of 1st May 2012 along the Titiwangsa mountains (Peninsular Malaysia) and Barisan Mountains (Sumatra Island). These rainfall events influenced the development of rainfall over the Malacca Strait overnight. The rainfall event over the strait strengthened by the morning of 2nd May. In the afternoon of 2nd May, the western peninsula had the right atmospheric conditions to develop convective rainfall, and the rainfall over the strait influenced the intensification of rainfall over the western peninsula. Thus, we believe that the local topography has a large impact on the development of the 2nd May rainfall event.

So, how do we test the hypothesis? One way is to perform sensitivity experiments. Four sensitivity experiments were conducted, modifying the orography of both the peninsula and Sumatra, and removing Sumatra altogether (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2. Sensitivity experiments on the local orography and Sumatra Island. Control run on the first panel, flatPM (flat peninsula to sea level), flatSI (flat Sumatra), flatALL(both peninsula and Sumatra are flat), and noSI (Sumatra is removed)

The results show that orography influenced and modified the development of late evening rainfall over both landmasses on both days. On 2nd May, total rainfall in the experiments are as follows:
1. flatPM : Klang valley received less rainfall than control,
2. flatSI : Klang valley received less rainfall than control but more than flatPM,
3. flatALL : Klang valley received more rainfall than control, flatPM and flatSI experiments,
4. noSI : Klang valley received triple the amount of rainfall of the control and other experiments.
These results hint the complex relationship between local topography and rainfall. Moreover, both the peninsula and Sumatra are important for the development of the morning rainfall over the Malacca Strait, regardless of the orographic variability.

Whilst looking at one case study is not enough to draw a general conclusion, this will definitely be a step forward on broadening the information that we already have. A more robust conclusion would require further studies to be taken.

(This PhD project is supervised by Pete Inness and Christopher Holloway, and funded by MARA Malaysia).