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In time and with water, everything changes.” – Leonardo da Vinci c. 1513

To me, the essence of Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless artistic works was his ability to capture the beauty of movement. He was able to take a single snap shot in time and bring his subjects to life with the stroke of a brush.

Take for example, The Last Supper where it feels as though Jesus’s disciples are all in the act of doing something with great movement. Several disciples look as though they are in heated arguments and are nearing the point of a fist fight in front of Jesus. I mean, just take a close look at Jesus’s face in the scene. Doesn’t his expression just look exasperated with his closest group of friends? That’s what you get, Jesus, for turning water into wine free of charge. You get a bunch of loud drunks with one guy pointing a finger into your face when all you want to do is eat a some unleavened bread and have nice quiet dinner DURING YOUR LAST FRICKIN’ MEAL.

Or take Mona Lisa with her famous smile and her slightly squinting penetrating gaze that seems to move and follow you across the room at the Louvre along with the hundreds of tourists carrying selfie sticks. To me, forget about the actual person, Mona Lisa, in the painting. What makes the Mona Lisa the greatest painting ever is the backdrop in the distance behind her head. Just look at those mountains and the lakes and flowing rivers. It almost feels like the Earth is also moving with her.

Leonardo da Vinci also had an obsession with the movement of water and great floods. He often drew in his sketch books the beauty of moving water along with the horrors of devastating floods. Near the end of his life, he was making sketches that looked as though they were made by an insane person obsessed with the apocalypse and the Earth being consumed by great floods. I wonder if elderly Leonardo were alive today reincarnated, would he be outside of some McDonald’s in a downtown city wearing nothing but rags holding a sign on broom stick saying “The End is Nigh. Prepare.” Probably best not to think about that possibility.

Leonardo da Vinci’s water and flood sketches:

Seriously though, If you want to read up more on the life Leonardo from a more respected and authoritative source (basically anyone but me) I would highly recommend Walter Isaacson’s biography. It’s a fantastic read, as is the case with all of Water Isaacson’s biographical works. Seriously, collect and read them all. Isaacson’s podcast is great too.

The main point of this post isn’t to be an education in the life of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s about the importance of capturing the movement of rainfall so that we can better understand regional flooding.

It’s been about two months since my last blog post where I wrote about a big update to the historical flooding archives. In the time since I’ve mostly been eating and drinking my way through the holidays. But also learning new ways to capture time and movement in the rainfall flooding maps.

I’ve gotten a bunch of kind words of encouragement about the interactive flooding maps, especially the 2018 Wettest Year on Record storymap that now has over 2000 views. But the rain maps are static totals of full calendar days. Without movement, they don’t paint the full picture like in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and sketches. So in my spare time over the past month or so I’ve been learning to write automated scripts that capture the movement of the rainfall.

I’ve done three rainfall flooding events so far:

  • October 29, 2012 – The very first flooding event on the historical flooding archives. Gotta start somewhere. Might as well be the first one.
  • June 14, 2017 – A highly isolated severe thunderstorm that occurred in the south hills and flooded Saw Mill Run in the City of Pittsburgh.
  • June 20, 2018 – A more wide spread severe thunderstorm that also occurred in the south hills that caused wide spread flooding which tragically killed one woman in Bridgeville, swept another person through a culvert pipe, and required “at least 66 swift water rescues”.

And here they are…

October 29, 2012

Dark red = 0.10 inches of rainfall in 15 minutes

June 14, 2017

Dark red = 1.5 inches of rainfall in 15 minutes

June 20, 2018

Dark red = 1.2 inches of rainfall in 15 minutes

As is evident from the images, the movement of rainfall provides a brighter and fuller picture of what happens during rainfall flooding events. Often, it is not the total amount of rainfall but the intensity (i.e. how fast the rain falls over time) that has the greatest influence on flooding in our region. To fully understand rainfall intensity means understanding movement and time.

I’ll be further developing the movement of rainfall maps going forward on this blog. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate the art of the possibility.

What if we took every flooding event in the flooding event archive and made these maps?

What if we calculated the rainfall intensities along with the total rainfall?

Is there a “trigger” point for when flooding occurs? Does it differ by watershed?

These are questions I have thought about a lot.

We can answer these questions. We have the rainfall data courtesy of 3RWW and ALCOSAN, it’s just a matter of understanding it better. Understanding the rainfall is the first step in developing possible solutions.

Join the Conversation


  1. Really important perspective. Adding that time dimension is crucial. Are our rain gauges equipped to capture both amount and intensity data adequately? And are there gauges in/near flood-prone areas?


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