Atmospheric Rivers and Flooding over the Central United States

David A. Lavers IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

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Gabriele Villarini IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

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Abstract

This paper undertakes a hydrometeorological analysis of flood events in the central United States. Vertically integrated horizontal water vapor transport over 1979–2011 is calculated in the ECMWF Interim Re-Analysis (ERA-Interim) and used in an algorithm to identify episodes of high moisture transport, or atmospheric rivers (ARs), over the central United States. The AR events are almost evenly divided among the seasons (143 during the winter, 144 during the spring, and 124 during the fall), with a minimum (40) during the summer. The annual maxima (AM) floods from 1105 basins over the period 1980–2011 are used as a measure of the hydrologic impact of the AR events. Of these basins, 470 (or 42.5%) had more than 50% of their AM floods linked to ARs. Furthermore, 660 of the 1105 basins (59.7%) had 5 or more of their top 10 AM floods related to ARs, indicating that ARs control the upper tail of the flood peak distribution over large portions of the study area. The seasonal composite average of mean sea level pressure anomalies associated with the ARs shows a trough located over the central United States and a ridge over the U.S. East Coast, leading to southerly winds and the advection of moisture over the study region. Based on the findings of this study, ARs are a major flood agent over the central United States.

Corresponding author address: David A. Lavers, The University of Iowa, IIHR, 207 C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory, Iowa City, IA 52242. E-mail: david-lavers@uiowa.edu

Abstract

This paper undertakes a hydrometeorological analysis of flood events in the central United States. Vertically integrated horizontal water vapor transport over 1979–2011 is calculated in the ECMWF Interim Re-Analysis (ERA-Interim) and used in an algorithm to identify episodes of high moisture transport, or atmospheric rivers (ARs), over the central United States. The AR events are almost evenly divided among the seasons (143 during the winter, 144 during the spring, and 124 during the fall), with a minimum (40) during the summer. The annual maxima (AM) floods from 1105 basins over the period 1980–2011 are used as a measure of the hydrologic impact of the AR events. Of these basins, 470 (or 42.5%) had more than 50% of their AM floods linked to ARs. Furthermore, 660 of the 1105 basins (59.7%) had 5 or more of their top 10 AM floods related to ARs, indicating that ARs control the upper tail of the flood peak distribution over large portions of the study area. The seasonal composite average of mean sea level pressure anomalies associated with the ARs shows a trough located over the central United States and a ridge over the U.S. East Coast, leading to southerly winds and the advection of moisture over the study region. Based on the findings of this study, ARs are a major flood agent over the central United States.

Corresponding author address: David A. Lavers, The University of Iowa, IIHR, 207 C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory, Iowa City, IA 52242. E-mail: david-lavers@uiowa.edu
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