CW3E Publication Notice

Predictability of Horizontal Water Vapor Transport Relative to Precipitation: Enhancing Situational Awareness for Forecasting Western U.S. Extreme Precipitation and Flooding

March, 2016

Lavers, D.A., D.E. Waliser, F.M. Ralph and M.D. Dettinger, 2016: Predictability of horizontal water vapor transport relative to precipitation: Enhancing situational awareness for forecasting western U.S. extreme precipitation and flooding. Geophysical Research Letters, 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL067765 (Please click here for personal use pdf file)

The following paper has just appeared in Geophysical Research Letters. It was motivated by the critical role of horizontal vapor transport in determining the strength and distribution of extreme precipitation in the Western U.S., and by the fact that this transport is the defining characteristic of atmospheric rivers, which are key to many extreme events in the region. The work was carried out primarily at CW3E in response to interest from State and local water agencies to explore new methods to predict extreme precipitation events. While the findings are based on U.S. West Coast domains, the results are applicable to other west coasts of mid latitude continents where cool season orographic precipitation is a key process. The results support the use of water vapor transport as a variable to monitor for earlier awareness of extreme hydrometeorological events.

(e) The average interannual predictability (r2) across the 30°N–50°N, 125°W–120°W region. (f) The predictability throughout the forecast horizon calculated using all winter forecasts (n = 2796) at 38°N, 122°W. From Lavers et al. (2016).

Contacts: David Lavers ( and F. Martin Ralph (


The western United States is vulnerable to socioeconomic disruption due to extreme winter precipitation and floods. Traditionally, forecasts of precipitation and river discharge provide the basis for preparations. Herein we show that earlier event awareness may be possible through use of horizontal water vapor transport (integrated vapor transport (IVT)) forecasts. Applying the potential predictability concept to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction global ensemble reforecasts, across 31 winters, IVT is found to be more predictable than precipitation. IVT ensemble forecasts with the smallest spreads (least forecast uncertainty) are associated with initiation states with anomalously high geopotential heights south of Alaska, a setup conducive for anticyclonic conditions and weak IVT into the western United States. IVT ensemble forecasts with the greatest spreads (most forecast uncertainty) have initiation states with anomalously low geopotential heights south of Alaska and correspond to atmospheric rivers. The greater IVT predictability could provide warnings of impending storminess with additional lead times for hydrometeorological applications.