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What Is an "Atmospheric River"?

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A flooded playground in San Jose, California, on February 22. Blame the high water on an atmospheric river. Image Credit: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

 
Storms make for attention-grabbing headlines, and almost every disaster has a meteorological term that makes a hazardous situation sound 10 times as terrifying. A derecho tore through the Mid-Atlantic back in 2012 and had such a profound psychological impact on the affected residents that you could cause mass hysteria by just mentioning the term. Then came the dreaded polar vortex, an ever-present large-scale wind pattern that encircles the North Pole and occasionally gets wavy and injects bitterly cold air into southern Canada and the United States. It was nothing new—but it sounded scary, so the name took off.

The recent deluges in California highlighted the latest captivating weather-y buzzword: an “atmospheric river.” Like its counterparts, this scary-sounding phenomenon is not as uncommon as it seems. It's responsible for almost all of the rain on the West Coast this winter.

Clouds outline the atmospheric river stretching from Hawaii to California in the storm that affected the West Coast on February 17, 2017. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
So what is it? An atmospheric river is a long, narrow band of deep tropical moisture that can span thousands of miles in length. They occur from the tropics to the mid-latitudes. Atmospheric rivers aren’t actual rivers, of course, but it’s a pretty good description of a feature that resembles a river on satellite imagery and can bring torrents of water to the unlucky communities caught beneath one as the system comes ashore.

These ribbons of tropical moisture are the result of sprawling low-pressure systems that form just far enough south that their counter-clockwise circulation scoops up water vapor from the tropics and transports it northward. The storms that cause atmospheric rivers to form in the first place are usually able to generate enough upward lift to create precipitation. Mountains can play a role—they're very effective at wringing moisture out of the atmosphere as wind travels up the side of their terrain. Whether it’s rain or snow, any precipitation that forms within that band of elevated moisture levels can be quite heavy, producing steep rainfall totals and many feet of snow in extreme cases.

NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission captured three weeks of heavy rainfall slamming into the West Coast between February 1 and February 20, 2017. Watch it happen in the video below.

California has a reputation for calm, sunny weather, but the state never really has it easy when it comes to dealing with nature’s temper tantrums. For the past couple of years, the state has been mired in a devastating drought, a cycle of dryness that was finally broken this winter as one storm after another roared in from the Pacific and drenched the state with unmanageable amounts of heavy rain. The driving force that gave each storm its bulk was an atmospheric river. Without it, there wouldn’t have been much moisture for the storm systems to work with.

An atmospheric river that affects the West Coast—and California in particular—is usually nicknamed the “Pineapple Express” since the source of the tropical moisture is the area around Hawaii. Though they go without a popular nickname, these features are also common over the eastern half of the United States during the warm season. Many of the major flash floods that occur in the eastern U.S. during the summer months are the result of intense thunderstorms tapping into the bountiful moisture present in an atmospheric river flowing over the region.

All weather is the result of nature trying to balance out inequality, and atmospheric rivers, just like every other weather condition, serve this purpose. Wind blows from areas of high air pressure to areas of lower pressure in an attempt to erase the inequality of more air molecules over one spot than another. The jet stream is the direct result of sharp temperature differences between the tropics and the poles. Hurricanes exist to transport heat from the tropics to the poles. Atmospheric rivers exist to take moisture out of the tropics and spread it around the world. Though they can seem difficult to enjoy, we’d be in some pretty big trouble without them. In 1998, a study by MIT scientists reported that 90 percent of all the moisture transfer between the tropics and the rest of the world each year occurs within these narrow bands of evaporated paradise.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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