Improving Understanding of Atmospheric Rivers: Legislation Authorized by California Governor Brown

Improving Understanding of Atmospheric Rivers: Legislation Authorized by California Governor Brown

October 12, 2015

The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) is grateful for the approval of legislation that will improve California’s ability to respond to major precipitation episodes. This legislation, recently approved, will aim to allow the state of California to better manage water supplies by expanding climate and weather research that is focused on the causes of drought and flood.

The two images below show an example of research aimed at improving forecasting ability. The two maps show the integrated water vapor (IWV) forecast from February 9, 2014. The top panel shows a CW3E simulation by a regional model (called West-WRF). The bottom panel shows a national forecast by the Global Forecasting System (GFS). The CW3E simulation offers a resolution of 9km while the national forecast is at 0.5 degrees (approximately 100km). This improved model forecast horizontal resolution will allow forecasters to better pinpoint heavy precipitation events aimed at the west coast.


Please find more at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography news page:

Southern California Storm of 18-20 July 2015: A Synopsis of Record Breaking Precipitation

California Storm of 5 January 2016: A Preliminary Synopsis of a Marginal Landfalling Atmospheric River

July 24, 2015

CW3E researcher Brian Kawzenuk provides an analyis and synopsis of an extreme precipitation event over the Southwestern United States during the 18-20 July 2015 period. Former Hurricane Dolores provided high amounts of atmospheric moisture to the Southwestern United States with allowed for multiple showers and thunderstorms to develop on 18 and 19 July 2015. Monthly precipitation records were broken in 48 hours throughout Southern California, which caused multiple landslides and flash floods.


The above loop shows MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) true-color during 15-22 July 2015.


Above is a sequence of 30-minute NEXRAD radar composite imagery from 18-20 July 2015 which shows the development of multiple thunderstorms.








Please click here for pdf file of this information.

California Storm of 10-12 December 2014: A Synopsis Including Landfalling Atmospheric River Conditions

California Storm of 10-12 December 2014: A Synopsis Including Landfalling Atmospheric River Conditions

July 10, 2015

CW3E researcher Brian Kawzenuk provides an analysis and synopsis of an Atmospheric River that made landfall along the U.S. West Coast over the 10-12 December 2014 period. The AR made initial landfall along the Oregon coast and propagated south before dissipating over southern California. Up to 350 mm of 72-hour precipitation was produced in northern California representing up to 45% of total water year to date precipitation. The precipitation from this event provided many drought-stricken California reservoirs with significant amounts of water supply and improved drought conditions throughout northern California.

Above is a sequence of 30-minute NEXRAD radar composite imagery from 10-13 December 2014 which shows the penetration of the heaviest precipitation.









The above loop shows the strong atmospheric river making landfall and the associated integrated water vapor (color bar in cm).

















Please click here for pdf file of this information.

Closed Low Event May 6-10: A Preliminary Synopsis

Closed Low Event May 6-10: A Preliminary Synopsis

May 15, 2015

CW3E researcher Nina Oakley provides a preliminary synopsis for a closed low that developed in the Pacific Northwest and moved south along the California/Nevada border over the 6-10 May period. The closed low turned east over southern California with a very cold core moving over a warm surface. The easterly flow produced orographic precipitation on the eastern side of the Sierra with minimal precipitation on the western side of the Sierra. Large areas of the Great Basin experienced precipitation amounts that were not extreme but significant for May.























Climatology of extreme daily precipitation in Colorado

CW3E Publication Notice

Climatology of extreme daily precipitation in Colorado and its diverse spatial and seasonal variability

May 5, 2015

Seasonality of the top 10 daily precipitation events measured at Colorado COOP stations that have at least 30 years of data since 1950. Circles represent totals of 10 events. Seasons shaded as winter (DJF; blue), spring (MAM; yellow), summer (JJA; red), and fall (SON; green). Terrain elevation (m; gray shading) as in legend at left; Continental Divide shown by dashed black line.

The origins of extreme precipitation events in the Western U.S. range from landfalling atmospheric rivers, to the summer monsoon, upslope storms on the Rocky Mountain Front Range, and deep convection of the Great Plains variety. This was shown by an analysis across the west of the seasonality of the top 10 wettest days for each of thousands of COOP observer sites (Ralph et al. 2014**). Each of these sites had at least ~10,000 data points, so these top 10 days represent roughly the top 0.1% of days. Some areas were universally dominated by events in one season, or two. A couple of areas stood out in the diversity of their seasonality of extreme daily precipitation, including Colorado.

The study presented in Mahoney et al. 2015* explores this local variability more deeply, explores how the devastating flood of September 2013 in Colorado’s northern Front Range is related, and describes some of the implications of the findings for flood control and other sensitive sectors. The co-authors represent a diverse group themselves, including climate, weather, hydrology, hydrometeorology expertise from several organizations, (CIRES, NOAA/PSD, Scripps/CW3E and CSU). The paper is highlighted here as it represents an example of work on extreme events in the Western U.S. that the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes is contributing to.

Abstract of Mahoney et al. 2015*: The climatology of Colorado’s historical extreme precipitation events shows a remarkable degree of seasonal and regional variability. Analysis of the largest historical daily-precipitation totals at COOP stations across Colorado by season indicates that the largest recorded daily precipitation totals have ranged from less than 60 mm/day in some areas to greater than 250 mm/day in others. East of the Continental Divide winter events are rarely among the top 10 events at a given site, but spring events dominate in and near the foothills; summer events are most common across the lower-elevation eastern plains, while fall events are most typical for the lower elevations west of the Divide. The seasonal signal in Colorado’s central mountains is complex; high-elevation intense precipitation events have occurred in all months of the year, including summer when precipitation is more likely to be liquid (as opposed to snow) which poses more of an instantaneous flood risk.

*Mahoney, K., F.M. Ralph, K. Wolter, N. Doesken, M. Dettinger, D. Gottas, T. Coleman, and A. White, 2015: Climatology of extreme daily precipitation in Colorado and its diverse spatial and seasonal variability. J. Hydrometeor. 16, 781-792.

** Ralph, F. M., M. Dettinger, A. White, D. Reynolds, D. Cayan, T. Schneider, R. Cifelli, K. Redmond, M. Anderson, F. Gherke, J. Jones, K. Mahoney, L. Johnson, S. Gutman, V. Chandrasekar, J. Lundquist, N.P. Molotch, L. Brekke, R. Pulwarty, J. Horel, L. Schick, A. Edman, P. Mote, J. Abatzoglou, R. Pierce and G. Wick, 2014: A vision for future observations for Western U.S. extreme precipitation and flooding– Special Issue of J. Contemporary Water Resources Research and Education, Universities Council for Water Resources, Issue 153, pp. 16-32.

Resilience in a Changing Climate: Sonoma County Adaptation Forum

Resilience in a Changing Climate: Sonoma County Adaptation Forum

April 15, 2015

CW3E director Marty Ralph and scientist Julie Kalansky presented at the Sonoma County Adaptation Forum on April 8th. The forum was modeled after state forums, but was the first regional adaptation forum in California. The forum focused on information and approaches to help mitigate the impacts of climate change in Sonoma County and surrounding areas. The audience of over 200 people included city and county leaders, utility managers, environmental groups and the public.

Both Marty and Julie presented in the first session of the morning entitled “Extreme Weather Science; Drought and Deluge in Sonoma County.” Jay Jasperse, Chief Engineer and Director of Groundwater Management at Sonoma County Water Agency, moderated the session. The other panelists included Tim Doherty, from NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, who discussed the impacts of sea level rise on the region, and Dr. Lisa Micheli, Executive Director of Pepperwood Preserve, who presented on the importance of downscaling climate models to understand the regional response to climate change. Marty Ralph discussed the importance of atmospheric rivers (ARs) to the water supply as well as the potential flooding risk associated with ARs. This led into an explanation of the FIRO, forecast informed reservoir operations, project for improving the water supply resilience of Lake Mendocino. At the end of his presentation he introduced the first part of an ongoing NOAA-NIDIS and Sonoma County Water Agency funded project to examine how the frequency and intensity of ARs may change in future. The link below is to an interview with Marty Ralph about atmospheric rivers and the forum that was broadcasted on North Bay Public Radio.

After Marty’s presentation, Julie presented on the second part of the study including the development of a “mega-drought” stress test for the region and working with the community to understand the all the different dimensions of drought. During Julie’s presentation, she was able to involve the audience and received feedback on the vulnerabilities to drought and the difficult decisions that surround drought. The day was a great success in bringing together scientists, decisions makers and the public to discuss how to make the community more resilient to climate change.

Sonoma County Water Agency video posted about Atmospheric Rivers

Sonoma County Water Agency (SWCA) Video posted about Atmospheric Rivers (ARs)

March 4, 2015

CW3E is pleased to be part of a recent video produced by our partners at the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and hosted by SCWA Director Shirlee Zane. This video focuses on the importance of Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) to California’s precipitation. Extremes of both drought and flood are examined for their link to ARs and impact on the Sonoma region. Emphasis is placed on the importance of understanding ARs and applying that knowledge to create better forecast information to help SCWA prepare for drought and potential flood conditions. Shirlee points out a key goal of our collaboration: “retain water without increasing flood risk”.

Rain for thirsty California

Rain for Thirsty California

December 10, 2014

(This article appeared as a science feature top story on the USGS front page; written largely by CW3E PIs Mike Dettinger and Dan Cayan)

“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” —John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1962

Heavy rains are predicted for California this week, and after the extreme drought of the past few years, California welcomes the moisture. But can there be too much of a good thing?

While drought is a significant natural hazard Californians must contend with, the natural hazards of severe weather and flooding are equally significant in the feast or famine cycle of storms in California.

Current status of atmospheric river approaching the west coast of the U.S. Credit: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), University of Wisconsin-Madison

NOAA’s National Weather Service has issued several watches, warnings, and advisories for across California. Flash floods and high winds are expected in many areas.

Drought is a familiar occurrence in California. Indeed, at a year-to-year or shorter time scale, California has a remarkably variable hydroclimate, experiencing larger year-to-year variations in precipitation than anywhere else in the U.S.

In large part, this extreme variability arises from the small number of storms that provide most of the state’s precipitation each year. If a few large storms happen to bypass California in a given winter, precipitation totals are proportionally much reduced and we risk drought. But the wet, drought-busting months are typically reflections of one or two extremely large storms, with almost half of the large drought-busting storms resulting from landfalling atmospheric rivers or “pineapple expresses.”

National Weather Service’s Current Flood Forecast for California rivers. Orange, red and purple dots indicate minor to major flooding. Green dots forecast no flooding.

Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) are constantly moving and evolving pathways of water vapor transport that are thousands of kilometers long but only about 500 km wide and that contain large quantities of water vapor and strong winds They are naturally occurring parts of the global water cycle, responsible for more than 90 percent of all atmospheric vapor transport at latitudes of the conterminous United States. When an AR reaches and encounters mountains in the West Coast states, the fast moving, moisture-laden air contained in ARs generally flows up and over the coastal and Sierra Nevada ranges, leading to almost ideal conditions for producing intense and sustained precipitation. Because of the intensity and persistence of their rains, ARs are the cause of many of the most extreme storms along the West Coast and a large majority of the floods in that region.

The Sacramento, California flood of 1862 was the result of atmospheric river storms.

Atmospheric rivers 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 percent of all precipitation in the same region. In terms of droughts in California, about 33 – 40 percent of all persistent drought endings have been brought about by landfalling AR storms, with more localized low-pressure systems responsible for most of the remaining drought breaks.

In 2010, the USGS Science Applications for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) program created an interdisciplinary scenario about large atmospheric river storms in California called ARkStorm. The ArkStorm scenario brought together experts in climate, weather, economics, geography, and other disciplines to create a hypothetical, but scientifically plausible scenario of a future large storm that is providing emergency responders, resource managers, and the public with a realistic example that they can use to determine the possible consequences of a really large AR storm might be.

A new Center at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography has established a regional effort on atmospheric rivers and other types of extreme weather and water events in the Western U.S. The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) is developing an “AR Portal” with partners across the nation, including NOAA, California Department of Water Resources, Plymouth State University, and the USGS. The portal brings together advances in AR science, monitoring and prediction, and builds heavily on data from the new AR monitoring network installed across California, and takes unique advantage of existing USGS, NOAA and other monitoring and prediction systems by developing tools tailored to the AR phenomenon.

Flooding in the Pacific Northwest: R-CAT 2 event

Flooding in the Pacific Northwest: R-CAT 2 event

November 30, 2014

Pacific Northwest Flooding (slide 3; M. Ralph and L. Schick)

CW3E director Marty Ralph and US Army Corps of Engineers researcher Larry Schick provide a summary of recent flooding in the Pacific Northwest. The heavy precipitation (ending November 28) resulted in an R-CAT 2 event (an event which produces 12-16 inches of precipitation in a 3-day period).

During this event one can see an orographic enhancement of precipitation amounts with a rain “shadow” (low amounts of precipitation) in the Seattle region (slide 2). The heavy precipitation resulted in several streamflow sites exceeding flood stage (shown above; slide 3). The Northwest River Forecast Center had an excellent forecast of peak flow on the Skagit River (slide 4).

(Please click here for powerpoint slides)

The attached ppt includes a summary of flood operations in general and at the sites on the Skagit River and near Mt. Rainier.

Forecasts are from the Northwest River Forecast Center (NWRFC): click here for water supply forecasts.

Forecasts are also from the weather service forecast office of the National Weather Service in Seattle: please click here.