Atmospheric rivers as drought busters on the U.S. west coast

Dettinger, M.D., 2013: “Atmospheric rivers as drought busters on the U.S. west coast.” Journal of Hydrometeorology, v. 14, pp. 1721–1732, doi: 10.1175/JHM-D-13-02.1.

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) have, in recent years, been recognized as the cause of the large majority of major floods in rivers all along the U.S. West Coast and as the source of 30%–50% of all precipitation in the same region. The present study surveys the frequency with which ARs have played a critical role as a common cause of the end of droughts on the West Coast. This question was based on the observation that, in most cases, droughts end abruptly as a result of the arrival of an especially wet month or, more exactly, a few very large storms. This observation is documented using both Palmer Drought Severity Index and 6-month Standardized Precipitation Index measures of drought occurrence for climate divisions across the conterminous United States from 1895 to 2010. When the individual storm sequences that contributed most to the wet months that broke historical West Coast droughts from 1950 to 2010 were evaluated, 33%–74% of droughts were broken by the arrival of landfalling AR storms. In the Pacific Northwest, 60%–74% of all persistent drought endings have been brought about by the arrival of AR storms. In California, about 33%–40% of all persistent drought endings have been brought about by landfalling AR storms, with more localized low pressure systems responsible for many of the remaining drought breaks.

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Characteristics of landfalling atmospheric rivers inferred from satellite observations over the eastern North Pacific Ocean

Matrosov, S.Y., 2013: “Characteristics of landfalling atmospheric rivers inferred from satellite observations over the eastern North Pacific Ocean.” Monthly Weather Review, v. 141, pp. 3757-3768, doi: 10.1175/MWR-D-12-00324.1.

Narrow elongated regions of moisture transport known as atmospheric rivers (ARs), which affect the West Coast of North America, were simultaneously observed over the eastern North Pacific Ocean by the polar-orbiting CloudSat and Aqua satellites. The presence, location, and extent of precipitation regions associated with ARs and their properties were retrieved from measurements taken at 265 satellite crossings of AR formations during the three consecutive cool seasons of the 2006–09 period. Novel independent retrievals of AR mean rain rate, precipitation regime types, and precipitation ice region properties from satellite measurements were performed. Relations between widths of precipitation bands and AR thicknesses (as defined by the integrated water vapor threshold of 20 mm) were quantified. Precipitation regime partitioning indicated that “cold” precipitation with a significant amount of melting precipitating ice and “warm” rainfall conditions with limited or no ice in the atmospheric column were observed, on average, with similar frequencies, though the cold rainfall fraction had an increasing trend as AR temperature decreased. Rain rates were generally higher for the cold precipitation regime. Precipitating ice cloud and rainfall retrievals indicated a significant correlation between the total ice amounts and the resultant rain rate. Observationally based statistical relations were derived between the boundaries of AR precipitation regions and integrated water vapor amounts and between the total content of precipitating ice and rain rate. No statistically significant differences of AR properties were found for three different cool seasons, which were characterized by differing phases of El Niño–Southern Oscillation.

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Atmospheric rivers and flooding over the central United States

Lavers, D.A., and G. Villarini, 2013: “Atmospheric rivers and flooding over the central United States.” Journal of Climate, v. 26, pp. 7829-7836, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-13-00212.1.

This paper undertakes a hydrometeorological analysis of flood events in the central United States. Vertically integrated horizontal water vapor transport over 1979–2011 is calculated in the ECMWF Interim Re-Analysis (ERA-Interim) and used in an algorithm to identify episodes of high moisture transport, or atmospheric rivers (ARs), over the central United States. The AR events are almost evenly divided among the seasons (143 during the winter, 144 during the spring, and 124 during the fall), with a minimum (40) during the summer. The annual maxima (AM) floods from 1105 basins over the period 1980–2011 are used as a measure of the hydrologic impact of the AR events. Of these basins, 470 (or 42.5%) had more than 50% of their AM floods linked to ARs. Furthermore, 660 of the 1105 basins (59.7%) had 5 or more of their top 10 AM floods related to ARs, indicating that ARs control the upper tail of the flood peak distribution over large portions of the study area. The seasonal composite average of mean sea level pressure anomalies associated with the ARs shows a trough located over the central United States and a ridge over the U.S. East Coast, leading to southerly winds and the advection of moisture over the study region. Based on the findings of this study, ARs are a major flood agent over the central United States.

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Observed impacts of duration and seasonality of atmospheric-river landfalls on soil moisture and runoff in coastal northern California

Ralph, F.M., T. Coleman, P.J. Neiman, R.J. Zamora, and M.D. Dettinger, 2013: “Observed impacts of duration and seasonality of atmospheric-river landfalls on soil moisture and runoff in coastal northern California.” Journal of Hydrometeorology, v. 14, pp. 443-459, doi: 10.1175/JHM-D-12-076.1.

This study is motivated by diverse needs for better forecasts of extreme precipitation and floods. It is enabled by unique hourly observations collected over six years near California’s Russian River and by recent advances in the science of atmospheric rivers (ARs). This study fills key gaps limiting the prediction of ARs and, especially, their impacts by quantifying the duration of AR conditions and the role of duration in modulating hydrometeorological impacts. Precursor soil moisture conditions and their relationship to streamflow are also shown. On the basis of 91 well-observed events during 2004–10, the study shows that the passage of ARs over a coastal site lasted 20 h on average and that 12% of the AR events exceeded 30 h. Differences in storm-total water vapor transport directed up the mountain slope contribute 74% of the variance in storm-total rainfall across the events and 61% of the variance in storm-total runoff volume. ARs with double the composite mean duration produced nearly 6 times greater peak streamflow and more than 7 times the storm-total runoff volume. When precursor soil moisture was less than 20%, even heavy rainfall did not lead to significant streamflow. Predicting which AR events are likely to produce extreme impacts on precipitation and runoff requires accurate prediction of AR duration at landfall and observations of precursor soil moisture conditions.

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The landfall and inland penetration of a flood-producing atmospheric river in Arizona. Part I: Observed synoptic-scale, orographic, and hydrometeorological characteristics

Neiman, P.J., F.M. Ralph, B.J. Moore, M. Hughes, K.M. Mahoney, J.M. Cordeira, and M.D. Dettinger, 2013: “The landfall and inland penetration of a flood-producing atmospheric river in Arizona. Part I: Observed synoptic-scale, orographic, and hydrometeorological characteristics.” Journal of Hydrometeorology, v. 14, pp. 460-484, doi: 10.1175/JHM-D-12-0101.1.

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are a dominant mechanism for generating intense wintertime precipitation along the U.S. West Coast. While studies over the past 10 years have explored the impact of ARs in, and west of, California’s Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, their influence on the weather across the intermountain west remains an open question. This study utilizes gridded atmospheric datasets, satellite imagery, rawinsonde soundings, a 449-MHz wind profiler and global positioning system (GPS) receiver, and operational hydrometeorological observing networks to explore the dynamics and inland impacts of a landfalling, flood-producing AR across Arizona in January 2010. Plan-view, cross-section, and back-trajectory analyses quantify the synoptic and mesoscale forcing that led to widespread precipitation across the state. The analyses show that a strong AR formed in the lower midlatitudes over the northeastern Pacific Ocean via frontogenetic processes and sea surface latent-heat fluxes but without tapping into the adjacent tropical water vapor reservoir to the south. The wind profiler, GPS, and rawinsonde observations document strong orographic forcing in a moist neutral environment within the AR that led to extreme, orographically enhanced precipitation. The AR was oriented nearly orthogonal to the Mogollon Rim, a major escarpment crossing much of central Arizona, and was positioned between the high mountain ranges of northern Mexico. High melting levels during the heaviest precipitation contributed to region-wide flooding, while the high-altitude snowpack increased substantially. The characteristics of the AR that impacted Arizona in January 2010, and the resulting heavy orographic precipitation, are comparable to those of landfalling ARs and their impacts along the west coasts of midlatitude continents.

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Future changes in atmospheric rivers and their implications for winter flooding in Britain

Lavers, D.A., R.P. Allan, G. Villarini, B. Lloyd-Hughes, D.J. Brayshaw, and A.J. Wade, 2013: “Future changes in atmospheric rivers and their implications for winter flooding in Britain.” Environmental Research Letters, v. 8, paper no. 034010, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034010.

Within the warm conveyor belt of extra-tropical cyclones, atmospheric rivers (ARs) are the key synoptic features which deliver the majority of poleward water vapour transport, and are associated with episodes of heavy and prolonged rainfall. ARs are responsible for many of the largest winter floods in the mid-latitudes resulting in major socioeconomic losses; for example, the loss from United Kingdom (UK) flooding in summer/winter 2012 is estimated to be about $1.6 billion in damages. Given the well-established link between ARs and peak river flows for the present day, assessing how ARs could respond under future climate projections is of importance in gauging future impacts from flooding. We show that North Atlantic ARs are projected to become stronger and more numerous in the future scenarios of multiple simulations from five state-of-the-art global climate models (GCMs) in the fifth Climate Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). The increased water vapour transport in projected ARs implies a greater risk of higher rainfall totals and therefore larger winter floods in Britain, with increased AR frequency leading to more flood episodes. In the high emissions scenario (RCP8.5) for 2074–2099 there is an approximate doubling of AR frequency in the five GCMs. Our results suggest that the projected change in ARs is predominantly a thermodynamic response to warming resulting from anthropogenic radiative forcing.

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The detection of atmospheric rivers in atmospheric reanalyses and their links to British winter floods and the large-scale climatic circulation

Lavers, D.A., G. Villarini, R.P. Allan, E.F. Wood, and A.J. Wade, 2012: “The detection of atmospheric rivers in atmospheric reanalyses and their links to British winter floods and the large-scale climatic circulation.” Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 117, paper no. D20106, doi: 10.1029/2012JD018027.

Atmospheric Rivers (ARs), narrow plumes of enhanced moisture transport in the lower troposphere, are a key synoptic feature behind winter flooding in midlatitude regions. This article develops an algorithm which uses the spatial and temporal extent of the vertically integrated horizontal water vapor transport for the detection of persistent ARs (lasting 18 h or longer) in five atmospheric reanalysis products. Applying the algorithm to the different reanalyses in the vicinity of Great Britain during the winter half-years of 1980–2010 (31 years) demonstrates generally good agreement of AR occurrence between the products. The relationship between persistent AR occurrences and winter floods is demonstrated using winter peaks-over-threshold (POT) floods (with on average one flood peak per winter). In the nine study basins, the number of winter POT-1 floods associated with persistent ARs ranged from approximately 40 to 80%. A Poisson regression model was used to describe the relationship between the number of ARs in the winter half-years and the large-scale climate variability. A significant negative dependence was found between AR totals and the Scandinavian Pattern (SCP), with a greater frequency of ARs associated with lower SCP values.

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The detection of atmospheric rivers in atmospheric reanalyses and their links to British winter floods and the large-scale climatic circulation

Lavers, D.A., G. Villarini, R.P. Allan, E.F. Wood, and A.J. Wade, 2012: “The detection of atmospheric rivers in atmospheric reanalyses and their links to British winter floods and the large-scale climatic circulation.” Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 117, paper no. D20106, doi: 10.1029/2012JD018027.

Atmospheric Rivers (ARs), narrow plumes of enhanced moisture transport in the lower troposphere, are a key synoptic feature behind winter flooding in midlatitude regions. This article develops an algorithm which uses the spatial and temporal extent of the vertically integrated horizontal water vapor transport for the detection of persistent ARs (lasting 18 h or longer) in five atmospheric reanalysis products. Applying the algorithm to the different reanalyses in the vicinity of Great Britain during the winter half-years of 1980–2010 (31 years) demonstrates generally good agreement of AR occurrence between the products. The relationship between persistent AR occurrences and winter floods is demonstrated using winter peaks-over-threshold (POT) floods (with on average one flood peak per winter). In the nine study basins, the number of winter POT-1 floods associated with persistent ARs ranged from approximately 40 to 80%. A Poisson regression model was used to describe the relationship between the number of ARs in the winter half-years and the large-scale climate variability. A significant negative dependence was found between AR totals and the Scandinavian Pattern (SCP), with a greater frequency of ARs associated with lower SCP values.

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Winter floods in Britain are connected to atmospheric rivers

Lavers, D.A., R.P. Allan, E.F. Wood, G. Villarini, D.J. Brayshaw, and A.J. Wade, 2011: “Winter floods in Britain are connected to atmospheric rivers.” Geophysical Research Letters, v. 38, paper no. L23803, doi: 10.1029/2011GL049783.

Damage from flooding in the winter and fall seasons has been widespread in the United Kingdom (UK) and Western Europe over recent decades. Here we show that winter flood events in the UK are connected to Atmospheric Rivers (ARs), narrow ribbons along which a large flux of moisture is transported from the subtropics to the mid-latitudes. Combining river flow records with rainfall measurements, satellite data and model simulations, we demonstrate that ARs occur simultaneously with the 10 largest winter flood events since 1970 in a range of British river basins, suggesting that ARs are persistently critical in explaining extreme winter flooding in the UK. Understanding the physical processes that determine the persistence of AR events will be of importance in assessing the risk of future flooding over north-western Europe and other mid-latitude regions.

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