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Exploring a spatial statistical approach to quantify flood risk perception using cognitive maps


Modern flood risk management strategies have evolved from flood resistance to a holistic approach incorporating prevention, protection and preparedness with the aim of reducing the likelihood and/or impact of flooding. This evolution has been driven by a trend of increasingly damaging and frequent flood events due to climate change. Populations at risk are required to be an active participant within modern flood risk management plans, resulting in management plan effectiveness being partially dependent on the relevant population’s flood risk perception. Thus, understanding how at-risk populations perceive their own flood risk, and how this compares to the reality of the situation, is a significant component of flood risk management. This paper compares subjective risk perception to an objective measure of risk within a specific case study area, where 305 residents were surveyed on their perception of flood risk. As part of the survey, respondents were asked to delineate the areas of the study area that they perceived would be at risk of inundation during a severe flood event. Using spatial statistical indicators, including Fuzzy Kappa comparison, it was possible to quantify the divergence between subjective and objective measures of risk extent, enabling an assessment of the ‘correctness’ of subjective perceived risk. This novel approach identified significant deviations between risk perception and objective risk measures at an individual level. The paper concludes by considering potential policy implications.

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  1. 1.

    Known as, and referred to locally and most frequently in the Irish media as, Hurricane Charlie rather than the official designated name of Hurricane Charley assigned by the World Meteorological Organisation.

  2. 2.

    Various events and activities have influenced flood awareness over the intervening period, including: a High Court case which found that the ‘natural’ flood was overwhelmingly the significant cause of the flooding (Superquinn Ltd versus Bray UDC 1998); a major €2billion planned development (yet to proceed) incorporating floodplain lands, currently a golf course; consultation about the flood relief scheme; flood warnings and precautionary evacuation (e.g. September 2008); preparation of an emergency flood plan and subsequent ‘dry run’ flood drill evacuation (April 2009); the emergence of a community flood action group.

  3. 3.

    The scheme involves, in summary, riverworks within the river channel to make it hydraulically efficient and ‘containment’ within defences built along the riverbanks to contain all the flow from a 1 in 100-year flood event.

  4. 4.

    The probabilistic terms from which respondents in their study could choose from included: (1) a 100-year flood; (2) a 1 in 100 flood; (3) a flood with a 1 % annual exceedance probability; and, (4) a flood with a 1 in 100 chance of being equalled or exceeded every year.

  5. 5.

    See area statistics from Census 2011 at: It should be noted that the study area does not conform exactly to the area covered by Census 2011.

  6. 6.

    Georeferening an image means to establish its location in terms of map projections or coordinate systems (Hackeloeer et al. 2014).

  7. 7.

    Negative Fuzzy Kappa values are possible depending on spatial autocorrelation of the compared maps.

  8. 8.

    Although counter-intuitive, this negative coefficient is accounted for by the categorical representation of risk perception used in our survey (1 = ‘major risk’; 2 = ‘minor risk’; 3 = ‘no risk’).


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This paper is an output of The FloodPAP Project: an examination of issues relating to Flood-risk Perception, Awareness and Policy. This paper could not have been accomplished without the extensive manual and digital processing input of Richard Geoghegan, Sean Judge and Ilda Dreoni. The authors are very grateful for their assistance. The authors also wish to thank the two anonymous referees for helpful comments provided. Finally, the authors would like to thank the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin, for providing the funding necessary to initiate this project, and also the Irish Research Council for funding knowledge exchange activities associated with this project.

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Correspondence to Eoin O’Neill.

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O’Neill, E., Brennan, M., Brereton, F. et al. Exploring a spatial statistical approach to quantify flood risk perception using cognitive maps. Nat Hazards 76, 1573–1601 (2015).

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  • Risk perception
  • Flooding
  • Cognitive maps
  • Fuzzy Kappa