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2019
Martin, AC, Cornwell G, Beall CM, Cannon F, Reilly S, Schaap B, Lucero D, Creamean J, Ralph FM, Mix HT, Prather K.  2019.  Contrasting local and long-range-transported warm ice-nucleating particles during an atmospheric river in coastal California, USA. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. 19:4193-4210.   10.5194/acp-19-4193-2019   AbstractWebsite

Ice-nucleating particles (INPs) have been found to influence the amount, phase and efficiency of precipitation from winter storms, including atmospheric rivers. Warm INPs, those that initiate freezing at temperatures warmer than -10 degrees C, are thought to be particularly impactful because they can create primary ice in mixed-phase clouds, enhancing precipitation efficiency. The dominant sources of warm INPs during atmospheric rivers, the role of meteorology in modulating transport and injection of warm INPs into atmospheric river clouds, and the impact of warm INPs on mixed-phase cloud properties are not well-understood. In this case study, time-resolved precipitation samples were collected during an atmospheric river in northern California, USA, during winter 2016. Precipitation samples were collected at two sites, one coastal and one inland, which are separated by about 35 km. The sites are sufficiently close that air mass sources during this storm were almost identical, but the inland site was exposed to terrestrial sources of warm INPs while the coastal site was not. Warm INPs were more numerous in precipitation at the inland site by an order of magnitude. Using FLEXPART (FLEXible PARTicle dispersion model) dispersion modeling and radar-derived cloud vertical structure, we detected influence from terrestrial INP sources at the inland site but did not find clear evidence of marine warm INPs at either site. We episodically detected warm INPs from long-range-transported sources at both sites. By extending the FLEXPART modeling using a meteorological reanalysis, we demonstrate that long-range-transported warm INPs were observed only when the upper tropospheric jet provided transport to cloud tops. Using radar-derived hydrometeor classifications, we demonstrate that hydrometeors over the terrestrially influenced inland site were more likely to be in the ice phase for cloud temperatures between 0 and -10 degrees C. We thus conclude that terrestrial and long-range-transported aerosol were important sources of warm INPs during this atmospheric river. Meteorological details such as transport mechanism and cloud structure were important in determining (i) warm INP source and injection temperature and (ii) ultimately the impact of warm INPs on mixed-phase cloud properties.

DeFlorio, MJ, Waliser DE, Guan B, Ralph FM, Vitart F.  2019.  Global evaluation of atmospheric river subseasonal prediction skill. Climate Dynamics. 52:3039-3060.   10.1007/s00382-018-4309-x   AbstractWebsite

Subseasonal-to-Seasonal (S2S) forecasts of weather and climate extremes are being increasingly demanded by water resource managers, operational forecasters, and other users in the applications community. This study uses hindcast data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) S2S forecast system to evaluate global subseasonal prediction skill of atmospheric rivers (ARs), which are intense lower tropospheric plumes of moisture transport that often project strongly onto extreme precipitation. An aggregate quantity is introduced to assess AR subseasonal prediction skill, defined as the number of AR days occurring over a week-long period (AR1wk occurrence). The observed pattern of seasonal mean AR1wk occurrence strongly resembles the general pattern of daily AR frequency. The ECMWF S2S forecast system generally shows positive (negative) biases relative to reanalysis in the mid-latitude regions in summer (winter) of up to 0.5-1.0 AR days in AR1wk occurrence in regions of highest AR activity. ECMWF AR1wk occurrence forecast skill outperforms a reference forecast based on monthly climatology of AR1wk occurrence at week-3 (14-20days) lead over a number of subtropical to midlatitude regions, with slightly better skill evident in wintertime. The magnitude and subseasonal forecast skill of AR1wk occurrence are shown to vary interannually, and both quantities are modulated during certain phases of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, Arctic Oscillation, Pacific-North America teleconnection pattern, and Madden-Julian Oscillation.

Ralph, FM, Rutz JJ, Cordeira JM, Dettinger M, Anderson M, Reynolds D, Schick LI, Smallcomb C.  2019.  A scale to characterize the strength and impacts of atmospheric rivers. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 100:269-290.   10.1175/bams-d-18-0023.1   AbstractWebsite

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) play vital roles in the western United States and related regions globally, not only producing heavy precipitation and flooding, but also providing beneficial water supply. This paper introduces a scale for the intensity and impacts of ARs. Its utility may be greatest where ARs are the most impactful storm type and hurricanes, nor'easters, and tornadoes are nearly nonexistent. Two parameters dominate the hydrologic outcomes and impacts of ARs: vertically integrated water vapor transport (IVT) and AR duration [i.e., the duration of at least minimal AR conditions (IVT >= 250 kg m(-1) s(-1))]. The scale uses an observed or predicted time series of IVT at a given geographic location and is based on the maximum IVT and AR duration at that point during an AR event. AR categories 1-5 are defined by thresholds for maximum IVT (3-h average) of 250, 500, 750, 1,000, and 1,250 kg m(-1) s(-1), and by IVT exceeding 250 kg m(-1) s(-1) continuously for 24-48 h. If the AR event duration is less than 24 h, it is downgraded by one category. If it is longer than 48 h, it is upgraded one category. The scale recognizes that weak ARs are often mostly beneficial because they can enhance water supply and snowpack, while stronger ARs can become mostly hazardous, for example, if they strike an area with antecedent conditions that enhance vulnerability, such as burn scars or wet conditions. Extended durations can enhance impacts. Short durations can mitigate impacts.

2018
Cannon, F, Hecht CW, Cordeira JM, Ralph FM.  2018.  Synoptic and mesoscale forcing of Southern California extreme precipitation. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres. 123:13714-13730.   10.1029/2018jd029045   AbstractWebsite

Southern California water resources are heavily dependent on a small number of extreme precipitation events each winter season, which dictate the region's highly variable interannual accumulations. In the Santa Ana River Watershed, on average, three extreme events per year contribute half of annual precipitation, yet there are relatively few studies of the synoptic to mesoscale processes that drive precipitation during these events. This study uses an ingredient-based approach in identifying the contributions of orographic forcing, dynamical forcing, and convective instability to extreme precipitation in the watershed in 107 storms that produced roughly 50% of all precipitation from 1981 to 2017. The influence of dynamical forcing and convective instability on event precipitation distributions is investigated relative to the dominant influence of orographic forcing that is typically found in landfalling atmospheric rivers. Case studies of two high-impact events from the 2017 winter season demonstrate differences in the roles of synoptic ascent and mesoscale convective features in modifying precipitation location, rate, and accumulation over the watershed. The 17 and 18 February 2017 case study included a narrow cold-frontal rainband that produced high-intensity short-duration precipitation over low elevations of the watershed. In the 107 extreme event records, similar modification of the precipitation distribution toward non-orographic rainfall was related to significant changes in the synoptic-scale circulation that favored enhanced dynamics and upstream ascent associated with frontogenesis. Variability in precipitation mechanisms is of primary interest to weather forecasters and water managers as it modifies event impacts and predictability.

Oakley, NS, Cannon F, Munroe R, Lancaster JT, Gomberg D, Ralph FM.  2018.  Brief communication: Meteorological and climatological conditions associated with the 9 January 2018 post-fire debris flows in Montecito and Carpinteria, California, USA. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. 18:3037-3043.   10.5194/nhess-18-3037-2018   AbstractWebsite

The Thomas Fire burned 114078 ha in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, southern California, during December 2017-January 2018. On 9 January 2018, high-intensity rainfall occurred over the Thomas Fire burn area in the mountains above the communities of Montecito and Carpinteria, initiating multiple devastating debris flows. The highest rainfall intensities occurred with the passage of a narrow rainband along a cold front oriented north to south. Orographic enhancement associated with moist southerly flow immediately ahead of the cold front also played a role. We provide an explanation of the meteorological characteristics of the event and place it in historic context.

Nardi, KM, Barnes EA, Ralph FM.  2018.  Assessment of numerical weather prediction model reforecasts of the occurrence, intensity, and location of atmospheric rivers along the west coast of North America. Monthly Weather Review. 146:3343-3362.   10.1175/mwr-d-18-0060.1   AbstractWebsite

Atmospheric rivers (ARs)-narrow corridors of high atmospheric water vapor transport-occur globally and are associated with flooding and maintenance of the water supply. Therefore, it is important to improve forecasts of AR occurrence and characteristics. Although prior work has examined the skill of numerical weather prediction (NWP) models in forecasting atmospheric rivers, these studies only cover several years of reforecasts from a handful of models. Here, we expand this previous work and assess the performance of 10-30 years of wintertime (November-February) AR landfall reforecasts from the control runs of nine operational weather models, obtained from the International Subseasonal to Seasonal (S2S) Project database. Model errors along the west coast of North America at leads of 1-14 days are examined in terms of AR occurrence, intensity, and landfall location. Occurrence-based skill approaches that of climatology at 14 days, while models are, on average, more skillful at shorter leads in California, Oregon, and Washington compared to British Columbia and Alaska. We also find that the average magnitude of landfall integrated water vapor transport (IVT) error stays fairly constant across lead times, although overprediction of IVT is common at later lead times. Finally, we show that northward landfall location errors are favored in California, Oregon, and Washington, although southward errors occur more often than expected from climatology. These results highlight the need for model improvements, while helping to identify factors that cause model errors.

Viale, M, Valenzuela R, Garreaud RD, Ralph FM.  2018.  Impacts of atmospheric rivers on precipitation in southern South America. Journal of Hydrometeorology. 19:1671-1687.   10.1175/jhm-d-18-0006.1   AbstractWebsite

This study quantifies the impact of atmospheric rivers (ARs) on precipitation in southern South America. An AR detection algorithm was developed based on integrated water vapor transport (IVT) from 6-hourly CFSR reanalysis data over a 16-yr period (2001-16). AR landfalls were linked to precipitation using a comprehensive observing network that spanned large variations in terrain along and across the Andes from 27 degrees to 55 degrees S, including some sites with hourly data. Along the Pacific (west) coast, AR landfalls are most frequent between 38 degrees and 50 degrees S, averaging 35-40 days yr(-1). This decreases rapidly to the south and north of this maximum, as well as to the east of the Andes. Landfalling ARs are more frequent in winter/spring (summer/fall) to the north (south) of similar to 43 degrees S. ARs contribute 45%-60% of the annual precipitation in subtropical Chile (37 degrees-32 degrees S) and 40%-55% along the midlatitude west coast (37 degrees-47 degrees S). These values significantly exceed those in western North America, likely due to the Andes being taller. In subtropical and midlatitude regions, roughly half of all events with top-quartile precipitation rates occur under AR conditions. Median daily and hourly precipitation in ARs is 2-3 times that of other storms. The results of this study extend knowledge of the key roles of ARs on precipitation, weather, and climate in the South American region. They enable comparisons with other areas globally, provide context for specific events, and support local nowcasting and forecasting.

Dettinger, MD, Ralph FM, Rutz JJ.  2018.  Empirical return periods of the most intense vapor transports during historical atmospheric river landfalls on the US West Coast. Journal of Hydrometeorology. 19:1363-1377.   10.1175/jhm-d-17-0247.1   AbstractWebsite

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) come in all intensities, and clear communication of risks posed by individual storms in observations and forecasts can be a challenge. Modest ARs can be characterized by the percentile rank of their integrated water vapor transport (IVT) rates compared to past ARs. Stronger ARs can be categorized more clearly in terms of return periods or, equivalently, historical probabilities that at least one AR will exceed a given IVT threshold in any given year. Based on a 1980-2016 chronology of AR landfalls on the U.S. West Coast from NASA's Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications, version 2 (MERRA-2), datasets, the largest instantaneous IVTsgreater than 1700 kg m(-1) s(-1)have occurred in ARs making landfall between 41 degrees and 46 degrees N with return periods longer than 20 years. IVT values with similar return periods are smaller to the north and, especially, to the south (declining to similar to 750 kg m(-1) s(-1)). The largest storm-sequence IVT totals have been centered near 42.5 degrees N, with scatter among the top few events, and these large storm-sequence totals depend more on sequence duration than on the instantaneous IVT that went into them. Maximum instantaneous IVTs are largest in the Pacific Northwest in autumn, with largest IVT values arriving farther south as winter and spring unfold, until maximum IVTs reach Northern California in spring.

Martin, A, Ralph FM, Demirdjian R, DeHaan L, Weihs R, Helly J, Reynolds D, Iacobellis S.  2018.  Evaluation of atmospheric river predictions by the WRF model using aircraft and regional mesonet observations of orographic precipitation and its forcing. Journal of Hydrometeorology. 19:1097-1113.   10.1175/jhm-d-17-0098.1   AbstractWebsite

Accurate forecasts of precipitation during landfalling atmospheric rivers (ARs) are critical because ARs play a large role in water supply and flooding for many regions. In this study, we have used hundreds of observations to verify global and regional model forecasts of atmospheric rivers making landfall in Northern California and offshore in the midlatitude northeast Pacific Ocean. We have characterized forecast error and the predictability limit in AR water vapor transport, static stability, onshore precipitation, and standard atmospheric fields. Analysis is also presented that apportions the role of orographic forcing and precipitation response in driving errors in forecast precipitation after AR landfall. It is found that the global model and the higher-resolution regional model reach their predictability limit in forecasting the atmospheric state during ARs at similar lead times, and both present similar and important errors in low-level water vapor flux, moist-static stability, and precipitation. However, the relative contribution of forcing and response to the incurred precipitation error is very different in the two models. It can be demonstrated using the analysis presented herein that improving water vapor transport accuracy can significantly reduce regional model precipitation errors during ARs, while the same cannot be demonstrated for the global model.

Nash, D, Waliser D, Guan B, Ye HC, Ralph FM.  2018.  The role of atmospheric rivers in extratropical and polar hydroclimate. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres. 123:6804-6821.   10.1029/2017jd028130   AbstractWebsite

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are narrow, long, transient, water vapor-rich corridors of the atmosphere that are responsible for over 90% of the poleward water vapor transport in and across midlatitudes. However, the role of ARs in modulating extratropical and polar hydroclimate features (e.g., water vapor content and precipitation) has not been fully studied, even though moistening of the polar atmosphere is both a key result and amplifier of Arctic warming and sea ice melt, and precipitation is key to the surface mass balance of polar sea ice and ice sheets. This study uses the Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications, Version 2 reanalysis to characterize the roles of AR water vapor transport on the column-integrated atmospheric water vapor budget in the extratropical and polar regions of both hemispheres. Meridional water vapor transport by ARs across a given latitude (examined for 40 degrees, 50 degrees, 60 degrees, and 70 degrees) is strongly related to variations in area-averaged (i.e., over the cap poleward of the given latitude) total water vapor storage and precipitation poleward of that latitude. For the climatological annual cycle, both AR transport (i.e., nonlocal sources) and total evaporation (i.e., local sources) are most correlated with total precipitation, although with slightly different phases. However, for monthly anomalies, the water budget at higher latitudes is largely dominated by the relationship between AR transport and precipitation. For pentad and daily anomalies, AR transport is related to both precipitation and water vapor storage variations. These results demonstrate the important role of episodic, extreme water vapor transports by ARs in modulating extratropical and polar hydroclimate. Plain Language Summary The term atmospheric river (AR) was coined by scientists Zhu and Newell in the early 1990s with the main result highlighting the importance of relatively infrequent, long conduits of strong moisture transport being responsible for most of the poleward transport of moisture across the midlatitudes and into the polar regions. While it is generally understood that this moisture is critical to the water and energy budgets of high latitudes, there have been no studies that have ever quantified the relationship between AR poleward moisture transports and the hydroclimate features of high latitudes. After a long hiatus in the consideration of the role of ARs on global climate since those of Zhu and Newell, this study quantifies the connections between water vapor transport by ARs across specific latitudes (e.g., 40 degrees) and the hydroclimate poleward of this latitude. The findings show there are strong, time scale-dependent (e.g., daily and monthly) connections between ARs and high-latitude hydroclimate features. For example, the findings show a strong relationship between AR water vapor transport at a given latitude and the area-averaged total precipitation of the region poleward. This and other results in this study indicate the importance of ARs in shaping our global weather and climate.

DeFlorio, MJ, Waliser DE, Guan B, Lavers DA, Ralph FM, Vitart F.  2018.  Global assessment of atmospheric river prediction skill. Journal of Hydrometeorology. 19:409-426.   10.1175/jhm-d-17-0135.1   AbstractWebsite

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are global phenomena that transport water vapor horizontally and are associated with hydrological extremes. In this study, the Atmospheric River Skill (ATRISK) algorithm is introduced, which quantifies AR prediction skill in an object-based framework using Subseasonal to Seasonal (S2S) Project global hindcast data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) model. The dependence of AR forecast skill is globally characterized by season, lead time, and distance between observed and forecasted ARs. Mean values of daily AR prediction skill saturate around 7-10 days, and seasonal variations are highest over the Northern Hemispheric ocean basins, where AR prediction skill increases by 15%-20% at a 7-day lead during boreal winter relative to boreal summer. AR hit and false alarm rates are explicitly considered using relative operating characteristic (ROC) curves. This analysis reveals that AR forecast utility increases at 10-day lead over the North Pacific/western U.S. region during positive El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions and at 7-and 10-day leads over the North Atlantic/U.K. region during negative Arctic Oscillation (AO) conditions and decreases at a 10-day lead over the North Pacific/western U.S. region during negative Pacific-North America (PNA) teleconnection conditions. Exceptionally large increases in AR forecast utility are found over the North Pacific/western United States at a 10-day lead during El Nino + positive PNA conditions and over the North Atlantic/United Kingdom at a 7-day lead during La Nina + negative PNA conditions. These results represent the first global assessment of AR prediction skill and highlight climate variability conditions that modulate regional AR forecast skill.

Guan, B, Waliser DE, Ralph FM.  2018.  An intercomparison between reanalysis and dropsonde observations of the total water vapor transport in individual atmospheric rivers. Journal of Hydrometeorology. 19:321-337.   10.1175/jhm-d-17-0114.1   AbstractWebsite

A recent study presented nearly two decades of airborne atmospheric river (AR) observations and concluded that, on average, an individual AR transports similar to 5 x 10(8) kg s(-1) of water vapor. The study here compares those cases to ARs independently identified in reanalyses based on a refined algorithm that can detect less well-structured ARs, with the dual-purpose of validating reanalysis ARs against observations and evaluating dropsonde representativeness relative to reanalyses. The first comparison is based on 21 dropsonde-observed ARs in the northeastern Pacific and those closely matched, but not required to be exactly collocated, in ERA-Interim (MERRA-2), which indicates a mean error of -2% (-8%) in AR width and +3% (-1%) in total integrated water vapor transport (TIVT) and supports the effectiveness of the AR detection algorithm applied to the reanalyses. The second comparison is between the 21 dropsonde ARs and similar to 6000 ARs detected in ERA-Interim (MERRA-2) over the same domain, which indicates a mean difference of 5% (20%) in AR width and 5% (14%) in TIVT and suggests the limited number of dropsonde observations is a highly (reasonably) representative sampling of ARs in the northeastern Pacific. Sensitivities of the comparison to seasonal and geographical variations in AR width/TIVT are also examined. The results provide a case where dedicated observational efforts in specific regions corroborate with global reanalyses in better characterizing the geometry and strength of ARs regionally and globally. The results also illustrate that the reanalysis depiction of ARs can help inform the selection of locations for future observational and modeling efforts.

2017
Oakley, NS, Lancaster JT, Kaplan ML, Ralph FM.  2017.  Synoptic conditions associated with cool season post-fire debris flows in the Transverse Ranges of southern California. Natural Hazards. 88:327-354.   10.1007/s11069-017-2867-6   AbstractWebsite

The Transverse Ranges of southern California often experience fire followed by flood. This sequence sometimes causes post-fire debris flows (PFDFs) that threaten life and property situated on alluvial fans. The combination of steep topography, highly erodible rock and soil, and wildfire, coupled with intense rainfall, can initiate PFDFs even in cases of relatively small storm rainfall totals. This study identifies common atmospheric conditions during which damaging PFDFs occur in the Transverse Ranges during the cool season, defined here as November-March. A compilation of 93 PFDF events during 1980-2014 triggered by 19 precipitation events is compared against previous studies of the events, reanalysis, precipitation, and radar data to estimate PFDF trigger times. Each event was analyzed to determine common atmospheric features and their range of values present at and preceding the trigger time. Results show atmospheric rivers are a dominant feature, observed in 13 of the 19 events. Other common features include low-level winds orthogonal to the Transverse Ranges and other conditions favorable for orographic forcing, a strong upper level jet south of the region, and moist-neutral static stability. Several events included closed low-pressure systems or narrow cold frontal rain bands. These findings can help forecasters identify more precisely the synoptic-scale atmospheric conditions required to produce PFDF-triggering rainfall and thus reduce uncertainty when issuing warnings.