|Part of a series on|
An atmospheric river (AR) is a narrow corridor or filament of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere. Other names for this phenomenon are tropical plume, tropical connection, moisture plume, water vapor surge, and cloud band.
Atmospheric rivers consist of narrow bands of enhanced water vapor transport, typically along the boundaries between large areas of divergent surface air flow, including some frontal zones in association with extratropical cyclones that form over the oceans. Pineapple Express storms are the most commonly represented and recognized type of atmospheric rivers; they are given the name due to the warm water vapor plumes originating over the Hawaiian tropics that follow various paths towards western North America, arriving at latitudes from California and the Pacific Northwest to British Columbia and even southeast Alaska.
The term was originally coined by researchers Reginald Newell and Yong Zhu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s, to reflect the narrowness of the moisture plumes involved. Atmospheric rivers are typically several thousand kilometers long and only a few hundred kilometers wide, and a single one can carry a greater flux of water than the Earth's largest river, the Amazon River. There are typically 3–5 of these narrow plumes present within a hemisphere at any given time.
In the current research field of atmospheric rivers the length and width factors described above in conjunction with an integrated water vapor depth greater than 2.0 cm are used as standards to categorize atmospheric river events.
A January 2019 article in Geophysical Research Letters described them as "long, meandering plumes of water vapor often originating over the tropical oceans that bring sustained, heavy precipitation to the west coasts of North America and northern Europe" that cause rainfall throughout the winter months."
As data modeling techniques progress, integrated water vapor transport (IVT) is becoming a more common data type used to interpret atmospheric rivers. Its strength lies in its ability to show the transportation of water vapor over multiple time steps instead of a stagnant measurement of water vapor depth in a specific air column (IWV). In addition IVT is more directly attributed to orographic precipitation, a key factor in the production of intense rainfall and subsequent flooding. For instance the water vapor image to the left shows two rivers on 5 December 2015: the first, stretching from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, caused by Storm Desmond, and the second originating from the Philippines is crossing the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of North America.
|2||Moderate||Mostly beneficial, also hazardous||≥500–750|
|3||Strong||Balance of beneficial and hazardous||≥750–1000|
|4||Extreme||Mostly hazardous, also beneficial||≥1000–1250|
The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released a five-level scale in February 2019 to categorize atmospheric rivers, ranging from "weak" to "exceptional" in strength, or "beneficial" to "hazardous" in impact. The scale was developed by F. Martin Ralph, director of CW3E, who collaborated with Jonathan Rutz from the National Weather Service and other experts. The scale considers both the amount of water vapor transported and the duration of the event. Atmospheric rivers receive a preliminary rank according to the 3-hour average maximum vertically integrated water vapor transport. Those lasting less than 24 hours are demoted by one rank, while those lasting longer than 48 hours are increased by one rank.
- February 2, 2017; lasted 24 hours
- November 19–20, 2016; lasted 42 hours
- October 14–15, 2016; lasted 36 hours and produced 5–10 inches of rainfall
- January 8–9, 2017; lasted 36 hours and produced 14 inches of rainfall
- December 29, 1996 – January 2, 1997; lasted 100 hours and caused >$1 billion in damage
Typically, the Oregon coast averages one Cat 4 atmospheric river (AR) each year; Washington state averages one Cat 4 AR every two years; the Bay Area averages one Cat 4 AR every three years; and southern California, which typically experiences one Cat 2 or Cat 3 AR each year, averages one Cat 4 AR every ten years.
Atmospheric rivers have a central role in the global water cycle. On any given day, atmospheric rivers account for over 90% of the global meridional (north-south) water vapor transport, yet they cover less than 10% of the Earth's circumference. Atmospheric rivers are also known to contribute to about 22% of total global runoff.
They are also the major cause of extreme precipitation events that cause severe flooding in many mid-latitude, westerly coastal regions of the world, including the West Coast of North America, Western Europe, the west coast of North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Iran and New Zealand. Equally, the absence of atmospheric rivers has been linked with the occurrence of droughts in several parts of the world including South Africa, Spain and Portugal.
The inconsistency of California's rainfall is due to the variability in strength and quantity of these storms, which can produce strenuous effects on California's water budget. The factors described above make California a perfect case study to show the importance of proper water management and prediction of these storms. The significance atmospheric rivers have for the control of coastal water budgets juxtaposed against their creation of detrimental floods can be constructed and studied by looking at California and the surrounding coastal region of the western United States. In this region atmospheric rivers have contributed 30–50% of total annual rainfall according to a 2013 study. The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) on November 23, 2018 confirmed that along the U.S. western coast, landfalling atmospheric rivers "account for 30%–40% of precipitation and snowpack. These landfalling atmospheric rivers "are associated with severe flooding events in California and other western states."
The USGCRP team of thirteen federal agencies—the DOA, DOC, DOD, DOE, HHS, DOI, DOS, DOT, EPA, NASA, NSF, Smithsonian Institution, and the USAID—with the assistance of "1,000 people, including 300 leading scientists, roughly half from outside the government" reported that, "As the world warms, the "landfalling atmospheric rivers on the West Coast are likely to increase" in "frequency and severity" because of "increasing evaporation and higher atmospheric water vapor levels in the atmosphere."
Based on the North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR) analyses, a team led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Paul J. Neiman, concluded in 2011 that landfalling ARs were "responsible for nearly all the annual peak daily flow (APDF)s in western Washington" from 1998 through 2009.
The front cover of the NCA4 report features a natural-color NASA image of conditions over the northeastern Pacific on February 20, 2017. The report said that this AR brought a "stunning" end to the American West's 5-year drought with "some parts of California received nearly twice as much rain in a single deluge as normally falls in the preceding 5 months (October–February)". NASA Earth Observatory's Jesse Allen created the front cover visualization with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) data on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite.
According to a May 14, 2019 article in San Jose, California's The Mercury News, atmospheric rivers, "giant conveyor belts of water in the sky", cause the moisture-rich "Pineapple express" storm systems that come from the Pacific Ocean several times annually and account for about 50 percent of California's annual precipitation. University of California at San Diego's Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes's director Marty Ralph, who is one of the United States' experts on atmospheric river storms and has been active in AR research for many years, said that, atmospheric rivers are more common in winter. For example, from October 2018 to spring 2019, there were 47 atmospheric river, 12 of which were rated strong or extreme, in Washington, Oregon and California. The rare May 2019 atmospheric rivers, classified as Category 1 and Category 2, are beneficial in terms of preventing seasonal wildfires but the "swings between heavy rain and raging wildfires" are raising questions about moving from "understanding that the climate is changing to understanding what to do about it."
Atmospheric rivers have caused an average of $1.1 billion in damage annually, much of it occurring in Sonoma County, California, according to a December 2019 study by the Scripps Institution on Oceanography at UC San Diego and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which analyzed data from the National Flood Insurance Program and the National Weather Service. Just twenty counties suffered almost 70% of the damage, the study found, and that one of the main factors in the scale of damage appeared to be the number of properties located in a flood plain. These counties were:
- Snohomish County, WA ($1.2 billion)
- King County, WA ($2 billion)
- Pierce County, WA ($900 million)
- Lewis County, WA ($3 billion)
- Cowlitz County WA ($500 million)
- Columbia County, OR ($700 million)
- Clackamas, County, OR ($900 million)
- Washoe County, NV ($1.3 billion)
- Placer County, CA ($800 million)
- Sacramento County, CA ($1.7 billion)
- Napa County, CA ($1.3 billion)
- Sonoma County, CA ($5.2 billion)
- Marin County, CA ($2.2 billion)
- Santa Clara County, CA ($1 billion)
- Monterey County, CA ($1.3 billion)
- Los Angeles County, CA ($2.7 billion)
- Riverside County, CA ($500 million)
- Orange County, CA ($800 million)
- San Diego County, CA ($800 million)
- Maricopa County, AZ ($600 million)
According to a January 22, 2019 article in Geophysical Research Letters, the Fraser River Basin (FRB), a "snow-dominated watershed"[Note 1] in British Columbia, is exposed to landfalling ARs, originating over the tropical Pacific Ocean that bring "sustained, heavy precipitation" throughout the winter months. The authors predict that based on their modelling "extreme rainfall events resulting from atmospheric rivers may lead to peak annual floods of historic proportions, and of unprecedented frequency, by the late 21st century in the Fraser River Basin."
While a large body of research has shown the impacts of the atmospheric rivers on weather-related natural disasters over the western U.S. and Europe, little is known about their mechanisms and contribution to flooding in the Middle East. However, a rare atmospheric river was found responsible for the record floods of March 2019 in Iran that damaged one-third of the country’s infrastructures and killed 76 people. This AR was named Dena, after the peak of the Zagros Mountains, which played a crucial role in precipitation formation. AR Dena started its long, 9000 km journey from the Atlantic Ocean and travelled across North Africa before its final landfall over the Zagros Mountains. Specific synoptic weather conditions, including tropical-extratropical interactions of the atmospheric jets, and anomalously warm sea-surface temperatures in all surrounding basins provided the necessary ingredients for formation of this AR. Water transport by AR Dena was equivalent to more than 150 times the aggregated flow of the four major rivers in the region (Tigris, Euphrates, Karun and Karkheh). The intense rains made the 2018-2019 rainy season the wettest in the past half century, a sharp contrast with the prior year, which was the driest over the same period. Thus, this event is a compelling example of rapid dry-to-wet transitions and intensification of extremes, potentially resulting from the climate change.
In Australia, northwest cloud bands are atmospheric rivers that originate in the tropical Indian Ocean and cause heavy rainfall in northwestern, central, and southeastern parts of the country. They are more frequent when temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean near Australia are warmer than those in the western Indian Ocean (i.e. a negative Indian Ocean Dipole).
Satellites and sensors
According to a 2011 Eos magazine article[Note 2] by 1998, the spatiotemporal coverage of water vapor data over oceans had vastly improved through the use of "microwave remote sensing from polar-orbiting satellites", such as the special sensor microwave/imager (SSM/I). This led to greatly increased attention to the "prevalence and role" of atmospheric rivers ARs. Prior to the use of these satellites and sensors, scientists were mainly dependent on weather balloons and other related technologies that did not adequately cover oceans. SSM/I and similar technologies, provide "frequent global measurements of Integrated Water Vapor (IWV) over the Earth’s oceans."
- Tropical upper tropospheric trough, a band of moisture common in tropical regions
- ARkStorm, a hypothetical storm by the same name that could affect California
- Great Flood of 1862 (massive flooding in US West)
- Pineapple Express
- "Atmospheric rivers form in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, bringing rain from the tropics to the south". ABC news. 11 August 2020. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
- Zhu, Yong; Reginald E. Newell (1994). "Atmospheric rivers and bombs" (PDF). Geophysical Research Letters. 21 (18): 1999–2002. Bibcode:1994GeoRL..21.1999Z. doi:10.1029/94GL01710. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-10.
- Zhu, Yong; Reginald E. Newell (1998). "A Proposed Algorithm for Moisture Fluxes from Atmospheric Rivers". Monthly Weather Review. 126 (3): 725–735. Bibcode:1998MWRv..126..725Z. doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1998)126<0725:APAFMF>2.0.CO;2. ISSN 1520-0493.
- Kerr, Richard A. (28 July 2006). "Rivers in the Sky Are Flooding The World With Tropical Waters" (PDF). Science. 313 (5786): 435. doi:10.1126/science.313.5786.435. PMID 16873624. S2CID 13209226. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 June 2010. Retrieved 14 December 2010.
- White, Allen B.; et al. (2009-10-08). The NOAA coastal atmospheric river observatory. 34th Conference on Radar Meteorology.
- Dettinger, Michael (2011-06-01). "Climate Change, Atmospheric Rivers, and Floods in California – A Multimodel Analysis of Storm Frequency and Magnitude Changes1". JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association. 47 (3): 514–523. Bibcode:2011JAWRA..47..514D. doi:10.1111/j.1752-1688.2011.00546.x. ISSN 1752-1688.
- Dettinger, Michael D.; Ralph, Fred Martin; Das, Tapash; Neiman, Paul J.; Cayan, Daniel R. (2011-03-24). "Atmospheric Rivers, Floods and the Water Resources of California". Water. 3 (2): 445–478. doi:10.3390/w3020445.
- Newell, Reginald E.; Nicholas E. Newell; Yong Zhu; Courtney Scott (1992). "Tropospheric rivers? – A pilot study". Geophys. Res. Lett. 19 (24): 2401–2404. Bibcode:1992GeoRL..19.2401N. doi:10.1029/92GL02916.
- Ralph, F. Martin; et al. (2006). "Flooding on California's Russian River: Role of atmospheric rivers" (PDF). Geophys. Res. Lett. 33 (13): L13801. Bibcode:2006GeoRL..3313801R. doi:10.1029/2006GL026689. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-29. Retrieved 2010-12-15.
- Guan, Bin; Waliser, Duane E.; Molotch, Noah P.; Fetzer, Eric J.; Neiman, Paul J. (2011-08-24). "Does the Madden–Julian Oscillation Influence Wintertime Atmospheric Rivers and Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada?". Monthly Weather Review. 140 (2): 325–342. Bibcode:2012MWRv..140..325G. doi:10.1175/MWR-D-11-00087.1. ISSN 0027-0644.
- Guan, Bin; Waliser, Duane E. (2015-12-27). "Detection of atmospheric rivers: Evaluation and application of an algorithm for global studies". Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. 120 (24): 2015JD024257. Bibcode:2015JGRD..12012514G. doi:10.1002/2015JD024257. ISSN 2169-8996.
- Curry, Charles L.; Islam, Siraj U.; Zwiers, F. W.; Déry, Stephen J. (January 22, 2019). "Atmospheric Rivers Increase Future Flood Risk in Western Canada's Largest Pacific River". Geophysical Research Letters. 46 (3): 1651–1661. Bibcode:2019GeoRL..46.1651C. doi:10.1029/2018GL080720. ISSN 1944-8007.
The present‐day frequency of landfalling atmospheric rivers on the Canadian west coast is projected to increase nearly fourfold by the late 21st century, with a proportionate increase in extreme rainfall events. Our work is the first to directly investigate the impact of these “rivers in the sky” on “rivers on the land” using climate model projections. Focusing on the Fraser River Basin, Canada's largest Pacific watershed, and using a business‐as‐usual industrial emissions scenario, we show that the basin transitions from one where peak flow results from spring snowmelt to one where peak flow is often caused by extreme rainfall. Our modeling suggests that extreme rainfall events resulting from atmospheric rivers may lead to peak annual floods of historic proportions, and of unprecedented frequency, by the late 21st century in the Fraser River Basin.
- Ralph, F. Martin; Rutz, Jonathan J.; Cordeira, Jason M.; Dettinger, Michael; Anderson, Michael; Reynolds, David; Schick, Lawrence J.; Smallcomb, Chris (February 2019). "A Scale to Characterize the Strength and Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 100 (2): 269–289. Bibcode:2019BAMS..100..269R. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-18-0023.1.
- "CW3E Releases New Scale to Characterize Strength and Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers". Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes. February 5, 2019. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
- "New Scale to Characterize Strength and Impacts of Atmospheric River Storms" (Press release). Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. February 5, 2019. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
- Paltan, Homero; Waliser, Duane; Lim, Wee Ho; Guan, Bin; Yamazaki, Dai; Pant, Raghav; Dadson, Simon (2017-10-25). "Global Floods and Water Availability Driven by Atmospheric Rivers". Geophysical Research Letters. 44 (20): 10, 387–10, 395. Bibcode:2017GeoRL..4410387P. doi:10.1002/2017gl074882. ISSN 0094-8276.
- Neiman, Paul J.; et al. (2009-06-08). Landfalling Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers: From Extreme Events to Long-term Consequences (PDF). The 2010 Mountain Climate Research Conference.[permanent dead link]
- Neiman, Paul J.; et al. (2008). "Diagnosis of an Intense Atmospheric River Impacting the Pacific Northwest: Storm Summary and Offshore Vertical Structure Observed with COSMIC Satellite Retrievals" (PDF). Monthly Weather Review. 136 (11): 4398–4420. Bibcode:2008MWRv..136.4398N. doi:10.1175/2008MWR2550.1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-29. Retrieved 2010-12-15.
- Neiman, Paul J.; et al. (2008). "Meteorological Characteristics and Overland Precipitation Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers Affecting the West Coast of North America Based on Eight Years of SSM/I Satellite Observations" (PDF). Journal of Hydrometeorology. 9 (1): 22–47. Bibcode:2008JHyMe...9...22N. doi:10.1175/2007JHM855.1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-29. Retrieved 2010-12-15.
- "Atmospheric river of moisture targets Britain and Ireland". CIMSS Satellite Blog. November 19, 2009.
- Stohl, A.; Forster, C.; Sodermann, H. (March 2008). "Remote sources of water vapor forming precipitation on the Norwegian west coast at 60°N–a tale of hurricanes and an atmospheric river" (PDF). Journal of Geophysical Research. 113 (D5): n/a. Bibcode:2008JGRD..113.5102S. doi:10.1029/2007jd009006.
- Lavers, David A; R. P. Allan; E. F. Wood; G. Villarini; D. J. Brayshaw; A. J. Wade (6 December 2011). "Winter floods in Britain are connected to atmospheric rivers" (PDF). Geophysical Research Letters. 38 (23): n/a. Bibcode:2011GeoRL..3823803L. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.722.4841. doi:10.1029/2011GL049783. Retrieved 12 August 2012.
- Dezfuli, Amin (2019-12-27). "Rare atmospheric river caused record floods across the Middle East". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 101 (4): E394–E400. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0247.1. ISSN 0003-0007.
- Dettinger, Michael D. (2013-06-28). "Atmospheric Rivers as Drought Busters on the U.S. West Coast". Journal of Hydrometeorology. 14 (6): 1721–1732. Bibcode:2013JHyMe..14.1721D. doi:10.1175/JHM-D-13-02.1. ISSN 1525-755X.
- Christensen, Jen; Nedelman, Michael (November 23, 2018). "Climate change will shrink US economy and kill thousands, government report warns". CNN. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
- Chapter 2: Our Changing Climate (PDF), National Climate Assessment (NCA), Washington, DC: USGCRP, November 23, 2018, retrieved November 23, 2018
- Wehner, M. F.; Arnold, J. R.; Knutson, T.; Kunkel, K. E.; LeGrande, A. N. (2017). Wuebbles, D. J.; Fahey, D. W.; Hibbard, K. A.; Dokken, D. J.; Stewart, B. C.; Maycock, T. K. (eds.). Droughts, Floods, and Wildfires (Report). Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment. 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program. pp. 231–256. doi:10.7930/J0CJ8BNN.
- Warner, M. D., C. F. Mass, and E. P. Salathé Jr., 2015: Changes in winter atmospheric rivers along the North American West Coast in CMIP5 climate models. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 16 (1), 118–128. doi:10.1175/JHM-D-14-0080.1.
- Gao, Y., J. Lu, L. R. Leung, Q. Yang, S. Hagos, and Y. Qian, 2015: Dynamical and thermodynamical modulations on future changes of landfalling atmospheric rivers over western North America. Geophysical Research Letters, 42 (17), 7179–7186. doi:10.1002/2015GL065435.
- Neiman, Paul. J.; Schick, L. J.; Ralph, F. M.; Hughes, M.; Wick, G. A. (December 2011). "Flooding in western Washington: The connection to atmospheric rivers". Journal of Hydrometeorology. 12 (6): 1337–1358. Bibcode:2011JHyMe..12.1337N. doi:10.1175/2011JHM1358.1.
- Wuebbles, D. J.; Fahey, D. W.; Hibbard, K. A.; Dokken, D. J.; Stewart, B. C.; Maycock, T. K., eds. (October 2017). Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) (PDF) (Report). Fourth National Climate Assessment. 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program. p. 470. doi:10.7930/J0J964J6.
- Paul Rogers (2019-05-14). "Rare "atmospheric river" storms to soak California this week". The Mercury News. San Jose, California. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- Kurtis Alexander (December 5, 2019). "Storms that cost the West billions in damage". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A1.
- Jill Cowan (2019-05-15). "Atmospheric Rivers Are Back. That's Not a Bad Thing". The New York Times.
- Corringham, Thomas W.; Ralph, F. Martin; Gershunov, Alexander; Cayan, Daniel R.; Talbot, Cary A. (December 4, 2019). "Atmospheric Rivers Drive Flood Damages in the Western United States". Science Advances. 5 (12): eaax4631. Bibcode:2019SciA....5.4631C. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aax4631. PMC 6892633. PMID 31840064.
- Dezfuli, Amin (2019-12-27). "Rare atmospheric river caused record floods across the Middle East". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 101 (4): E394–E400. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0247.1. ISSN 0003-0007.
- "Northwest cloudbands". Bureau of Meteorology. 5 June 2013. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
- "Indian Ocean". Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
- F. M. Ralph; M. D. Dettinger (August 9, 2011). "Storms, Floods, and the Science of Atmospheric Rivers" (PDF). Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. Vol. 92 no. 32. Washington, DC: John Wiley & Sons for the American Geophysical Union (AGU). pp. 265–272. doi:10.1029/2011EO320001.
- "Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union". evisa. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
- Les Rowntree (July 27, 2015). "When It Rains, It Pours: Historic Drought and Atmospheric Rivers". Bay Nature magazine. Retrieved November 9, 2016. Cite journal requires
- Climate change may lead to bigger atmospheric rivers - NASA