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.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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