CW3E Publication Notice

Dropsonde Observations of Total Integrated Water Vapor Transport within North Pacific Atmospheric Rivers

Spetember 14, 2017

F. Martin Ralph, director of CW3E, along with collaborators, recently published a paper in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Hydrometeorology: Ralph, F. M., S. Iacobellis, P. Neiman, J. Cordeira, J. Spackman, D. Waliser, G. Wick, A. White, and C. Fairall, 2017: Dropsonde Observations of Total Integrated Water Vapor Transport within North Pacific Atmospheric Rivers. J. Hydrometeor., 18, 2577-2596,

This study uses vertical profiles of water vapor, wind, and pressure obtained from 304 aircraft dropsondes across 21 ARs, in the midlatitudes as well as the subtropics, which were deployed during various experiments since the winter of 1998, including CALJET (Ralph et al. 2004), Ghostnets (Ralph et al. 2011), WISPAR (Neiman et al. 2014), CalWater-2014, CalWater-2015 (Ralph et al. 2016), and AR Recon-2016. Dropsondes provide the best measurements to date of horizontal water vapor transport in atmospheric rivers (ARs) and can document AR structure. Different methods of defining AR edges, using either integrated vapor transport (IVT) or integrated water vapor (IWV), were compared.

The study found that total water vapor transport (TIVT) in an AR averaged nearly 5×108 kg s-1, which is 2.6 times larger than the average discharge of liquid water from the Amazon River. The mean AR width was 890 ± 270 km. Subtropical ARs contained larger IWV but weaker winds than midlatitude ARs, although average TIVTs were nearly the same. Mean TIVTs calculated with an IVT-threshold versus an IWV- threshold produced results that differed by only 4% on average, although they did vary more between midlatitudes and subtropical regions. In general, important AR characteristics such as width and TIVT are less dependent on latitude when the IVT-threshold is used, and the IWV threshold often was not crossed on the warm side of subtropical ARs, so IVT represents a more robust threshold across a wider range of conditions than IWV.

Results were summarized in a schematic to illustrate the AR structure in 3 dimensions (see below). This schematic was used in the AR definition that was recently published in the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology.

Figure 1: Schematic summary of the structure and strength of an atmospheric river based on dropsonde measurements analyzed in this study, and on corresponding reanalyses that provide the plan-view context. (a) Plan view including parent low pressure system, and associated cold, warm, stationary and warm-occluded surface fronts. IVT is shown by color fill (magnitude, kg m-1 s-1) and direction in the core (white arrow). Vertically integrated water vapor (IWV, cm) is contoured. A representative length scale is shown. The position of the cross-section shown in panel (b) is denoted by the dashed line A-A’. (b) Vertical cross-section perspective, including the core of the water vapor transport in the atmospheric river (orange contours and color fill) and the pre-cold-frontal low-level jet (LLJ), in the context of the jet-front system and tropopause. Water vapor mixing ratio (green dotted lines, g kg-1) and cross-section-normal isotachs (blue contours, m s-1) are shown. Magnitudes of variables represent an average mid-latitude atmospheric river with lateral boundaries defined using the IVT threshold of 250 kg m-1 s-1. Depth corresponds to the altitude below which 75% of IVT occurs. Adapted primarily from Ralph et al. 2004 and Cordeira et al. 2013.