‘Rivers in the sky’ or ‘atmospheric rivers’ refer to narrow bands of concentrated moisture or water vapor floating in the atmosphere. This strange weather phenomenon plays a major role in transporting water around our planet, originating from the tropics, extending for thousands of miles across oceans to more temperate regions, and holding up an amount of water that’s more than 15 times the amount that flows through the Mississippi River.
Atmospheric rivers rarely mean anything good. They bring on heavy downpours of rain that result in widespread flooding and destructive landslides. This is a well-known fact. And California is one of its most recent victims. What’s new, however, is knowing that atmospheric rivers do more than just drench us. According to a recently released study, atmospheric rivers also bring extremely powerful winds.
Before arriving at this conclusion, Duane Waliser and Bin Guan, authors of the study, looked into how exactly these atmospheric rivers affected winds and rains on our planet’s surface. They did so by applying a new algorithm to weather data from 1997 – 2014.
What they found was that aside from being extremely wet, the atmospheric rivers were quite windy too. This didn’t shock them that much, though, because transporting water across the oceans necessarily requires the presence of wind. What surprised them was the intensity of the wind which was twice the speed of an average storm.
Based on their findings, the most destructive storms in Europe were supposedly strengthened by the presence of atmospheric rivers. There were 19 storms in Europe that resulted in damages worth a billion dollars or more. Of these 19 storms, they were able to associate 14 with atmospheric rivers. And in the U.S., it was also an atmospheric river that caused the fall of a historic sequoia tree in a California state park.
Right now, California is still experiencing the effects of an atmospheric river hovering above. Sure, the enormous volume of rain it caused has significantly relieved the dry spell which they’ve been suffering through for the last five years. But now, the rain doesn’t seem to want to stop. And it’s causing a host of new problems.
It has already put Oroville in a crisis over their dam which is in danger of collapsing. In the coming days, San Diego is likely to feel the peak of one of many atmospheric river-type storms that’s expected to affect the state. Strong winds and heavy rains are being anticipated, along with all the risks that come with it including falling trees, flashfloods, mudslides, mudflows and damaged power lines. Other parts of the state are also experiencing record amounts of rainfall. And more storms are coming.
Atmospheric rivers cause enough damage as it is. But now with climate change in the picture, it looks like they’re bound to become even more destructive. The good news is, we’re now aware of how devastating atmospheric rivers can truly be. With this knowledge, it is hoped that we will be better prepared for this type of phenomenon.
Details of the study have recently been published in the journal “Nature Geoscience“.