Tracking Atmospheric Rivers in a Changing Climate

September 4, 2019

The .gif is an animation of weather phenomena known as “atmospheric rivers”. The animation comes from a climate model simulation ran with the Community Earth System Model (CESM).

The blue shading in the .gif is a quantity known as integrated vapor transport (IVT), which measures the movement of water vapor through the atmosphere. We developed an automated identification and tracking algorithm that detects atmospheric rivers and tracks them in the model simulation. The dark blue areas that are surrounded by a black contour are the atmospheric rivers.

Atmospheric rivers are narrow bands of highly concentrated moisture in the atmosphere. From space, they look like rivers winding through the air. They are primarily found above ocean basins, but occasionally they strike land and when they do, they can cause tremendous amounts of rain and snow. These weather systems can result in dangerous flooding, but they are also critical for water resources, especially along the West Coast of the U.S.

Climate models are used to study how and why atmospheric rivers change as the climate changes. This is the research topic of Chris Skinner’s recent NSF grant: “Elucidating the drivers and consequences of changes in atmospheric rivers from the last glacial maximum to the present day.”