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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

January 1, 2008

The pre-cold-frontal low-level jet within oceanic extratropical cyclones represents the lower-tropospheric component of a deeper corridor of concentrated water vapor transport in the cyclone warm sector. These corridors are referred to as atmospheric rivers (ARs) because they are narrow relative to their length scale and are responsible for most of the poleward water vapor transport at midlatitudes. This paper investigates landfalling ARs along adjacent north- and south-coast regions of western North America. Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/ I) satellite observations of long, narrow plumes of enhanced integrated water vapor (IWV) were used to detect ARs just offshore over the eastern Pacific from 1997 to 2005. The north coast experienced 301 AR days, while the south coast had only 115. Most ARs occurred during the warm season in the north and cool season in the south, despite the fact that the cool season is climatologically wettest for both regions. Composite SSM/I IWV analyses showed landfalling wintertime ARs extending northeastward from the tropical eastern Pacific, whereas the summertime composites were zonally oriented and, thus, did not originate from this region of the tropics. Companion SSM/I composites of daily rainfall showed significant orographic enhancement during the landfall of winter (but not summer) ARs. The NCEP-NCAR global reanalysis dataset and regional precipitation networks were used to assess composite synoptic characteristics and overland impacts of landfalling ARs. The ARs possess strong vertically integrated horizontal water vapor fluxes that, on average, impinge on the West Coast in the pre-cold-frontal environment in winter and post-cold-frontal environment in summer. Even though the IWV in the ARs is greater in summer, the vapor flux is stronger in winter due to much stronger flows associated with more intense storms. The landfall of ARs in winter and north-coast summer coincides with anomalous warmth, a trough offshore, and ridging over the Intermountain West, whereas the south-coast summer ARs coincide with relatively cold conditions and a near-coast trough. ARs have a much more profound impact on near-coast precipitation in winter than summer, because the terrain-normal vapor flux is stronger and the air more nearly saturated in winter. During winter, ARs produce roughly twice as much precipitation as all storms. In addition, wintertime ARs with the largest SSM/I IWV are tied to more intense storms with stronger flows and vapor fluxes, and more precipitation. ARs generally increase snow water equivalent (SWE) in autumn/winter and decrease SWE in spring. On average, wintertime SWE exhibits normal gains during north-coast AR storms and above-normal gains during the south-coast AR storms. The north-coast sites are mostly lower in altitude, where warmer-than-normal conditions more frequently yield rain. During those events when heavy rain from a warm AR storm falls on a preexisting snowpack, flooding is more likely to occur. ?? 2008 American Meteorological Society.

Publication Year 2008
Title 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
DOI 10.1175/2007JHM855.1
Authors P.J. Neiman, F.M. Ralph, G.A. Wick, J.D. Lundquist, M. D. Dettinger
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Hydrometeorology
Index ID 70033582
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse