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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.

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Weather Watch
Thanks to Desert Dust, Eastern Europe Is Covered in Orange Snow
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Certain areas of Eastern Europe are starting to look a bit like Mars. Over the last few days, snowy places like Sochi, Russia have experienced an unusual snowfall that coated mountains in orange powder, according to the BBC.

The orange snow was the result of winds blowing sand from the Sahara east to places like Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia. The sand mixes with precipitation to form orange-tinted snow. According to the BBC, the phenomenon occurs semi-regularly, turning snow orange about once every five years, but this year is especially sandy. As a result, skiers are navigating slopes that look like they're from a different world, as you can see in the video below from The Guardian.

The Sahara rarely gets snow, but when it does, the landscape can look somewhat similar, as you can see in this image of the Atlas mountains in Morocco.

Instagram is currently filled with photos and videos from Eastern Europe featuring the odd-looking snow. Check out a few samples below.

[h/t BBC]

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Weather Watch
What Is Thundersnow?
Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images
Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images

The northeastern United States is dealing with its second major nor'easter in a week, with rain and heavy snow—and the associated power outages—cutting a path across the Mid-Atlantic and New England. But news of the adverse impacts of the snowstorm is being accompanied by an unusual buzzword: thundersnow. Thundersnow occurs during a thunderstorm that produces snow instead of rain. The mechanisms that produce rainy thunderstorms and snowy thunderstorms are largely the same, even if the air temperature is below freezing.

A band of snow can become strong enough to produce lightning through two processes known as convection and forcing. Convection occurs when an area of warm air quickly rises through cooler air above it. Convective snow is most common during lake effect snow events like those you’d find on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, since the process requires extreme vertical temperature gradients that can result from bitterly cold air flowing over a warm body of water.

Forcing is slightly different. A strengthening low-pressure system involves fast, dynamic changes in the atmosphere, especially when one of these storm systems quickly gains strength. Such a fast-developing storm can cause large amounts of lift in the atmosphere, a process that forces air to swiftly rise like you’d see during convection. This creates intense bands of snow that can grow so strong that they produce thunder and lightning. This process is responsible for the thundersnow that occurs during blizzards and nor’easters, those powerful storms that regularly hit the eastern coast of the U.S. during the winter. Thundersnow can be pretty exciting—just ask The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore:

The name “thundersnow” can be a bit misleading. One of the most enjoyable things about a snowfall is how silent it is outside when there’s a thick blanket of snow on the ground. Snow absorbs sound waves so efficiently that you can usually only hear ambient noises immediately around where you’re standing. Snow muffles the sound of thunder for the same reason. Thunder that might be audible for many miles during a rainy thunderstorm might only be audible for a few thousand feet away from where the lightning struck. Unless the lightning strikes very close to where you are, you might only see a bright flash during thundersnow without ever hearing the thunder.

While thundersnow is a fascinating phenomenon to encounter, it does involve lightning, after all, and it’s just as dangerous as any other lightning bolt you’d see in a rainy thunderstorm. If you’re ever lucky enough to experience thundersnow, the event is best enjoyed indoors and out of harm’s way.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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