What Is an "Atmospheric River"?

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.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Is the Heat Index Real?

MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images
MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images

Complaining about the humidity is a mainstay of small talk. “It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity” is a common refrain around the South, just as “it’s a dry heat” is a go-to line in the desert Southwest. The clichés aren’t wrong on this one—a hot and humid day can have a dramatic effect on both your comfort and your health. We can measure this very real impact on your body using the heat index. 

The heat index is the temperature it feels like to your body when you factor in both the actual air temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. If the heat index is 103°F, that means that the combination of heat and humidity has a similar physical impact on your body as it would if the actual air temperature were 103°F. Even though it’s tempting to think of the heat index as an exaggerated temperature that only exists to make the heat sound worse than it really is, scientists came up with the measurements after decades of medical and meteorological research devoted to studying the impact of heat and humidity on the human body. It’s the real deal.

The dew point is an important component of the heat index. The dew point is the temperature at which the air would reach 100 percent relative humidity, or become fully saturated with moisture like on a foggy morning. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warmer air, lower dew points reflect lower moisture levels and higher dew points indicate higher moisture levels. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable, while readings reaching 70°F and even 80°F range from muggy to downright oppressive.

Measuring humidity on a hot day is important because moisture is how your body naturally cools itself off. Your sweat cools the surface of your skin through a process known as evaporative cooling. If the air is packed with moisture, it takes longer for your sweat to evaporate than it would in more normal conditions, preventing you from cooling off efficiently. The inability to lower your body temperature when it’s hot can quickly lead to medical emergencies like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is why the heat index is such an important measurement to pay attention to during the summer months.

The heat index is generally considered “dangerous” once the value climbs above 105°F, and your risk of falling ill increases the higher the heat index climbs.

Dry climates can have the opposite effect on your body, with the distinct lack of moisture in the air making it feel cooler to your body than it really is. Summers get oppressively hot in places like Arizona and Iraq, but the heat doesn’t affect residents as severely because the air is extremely dry. Dew points in desert regions can hover at or below 32°F even when the air temperature is well above 100°F, which is about as dry as it can get in the natural world.  

In 2016, a city in Kuwait measured the all-time highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in the eastern hemisphere, where temperatures climbed to a sweltering 129°F during the day on July 21, 2016. The dew point there at the same time was nearly 100 degrees cooler, leading to a heat index of just 110°F, much lower than the actual air temperature. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Extreme heat combined with extreme aridity can make your sweat evaporate too efficiently, quickly dehydrating you and potentially leading to medical emergencies similar to those you would experience in a much more humid region of the world. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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