Current estimates of global flood exposure are made using datasets that distribute population counts homogenously across large lowland floodplain areas. When intersected with simulated water depths, this results in a significant mis-estimation.
Here, we use new highly resolved population information to show that, in reality, humans make more rational decisions about flood risk than current demographic data suggest. In the new data, populations are correctly represented as risk-averse, largely avoiding obvious flood zones. The results also show that existing demographic datasets struggle to represent concentrations of exposure, with the total exposed population being spread over larger areas. In this analysis we use flood hazard data from a ~90 m resolution hydrodynamic inundation model to demonstrate the impact of different population distributions on flood exposure calculations for 18 developing countries spread across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The results suggest that many published large-scale flood exposure estimates may require significant revision.