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A Pacific Moisture Conveyor Belt and Its Relationship to a Significant Precipitation Event in the Semiarid Southwestern United States

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  • 1 Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin—Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
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Abstract

In this study the term moisture conveyor belt (MCB) is defined as an elongated band of enhanced poleward water vapor fluxes (WVFs) above the PBL that is rooted in the Tropics. This new terminology is illustrated through an exemplary detailed case study of an MCB over the northeastern Pacific during 9–13 November 2003 that provides the moisture for a significant precipitation event in the dry southwestern United States. The analysis of the involved moisture transports and dynamics comprises both Eulerian and Lagrangian approaches, and is based upon output from a simulation with the University of Wisconsin-Nonhydrostatic Modeling System, as well as analysis data, surface observations, and satellite images.

The formation of the MCB is related to a quasi-stationary upper-level cutoff low (COL) resulting from a wave-breaking event over the North Pacific. A pronounced upper-tropospheric baroclinic zone and a strong, inertially unstable subtropical jet (STJ) are found to the east of the COL, where at later stages an elongated tropical cloud plume developed in association with a marked flare-up of ITCZ convection. Part of the extratropical air that subsides to the west of the COL becomes involved in this convection; another part feeds the so-called dry slot at the base of the COL. The actual MCB consists of midlevel trajectories that curve anticyclonically away from the moist tropical easterlies and cause a northeastward-directed WVF maximum at around 700 hPa over the subtropical northeast Pacific and a marked humidity gradient toward the subsided extratropical air. At late stages, frontogenetic circulations lead to WVF convergence involving air from the midlevel subtropical troposphere. At the surface, cyclogenesis and thermal contrasts are weak, and northeasterly trade winds prevail, which clearly distinguishes this MCB from a classical extratropical warm conveyor belt. Other important differences are the high elevation of the WVF maximum, as well as the quasi-horizontal track and origin above the PBL of most moist trajectories. Three precipitation regions with different influence factors can be distinguished. 1) Close to the COL center, moist tropical air is overrun by the dry slot, resulting in convective instability and extreme hail in the Los Angeles, California, area. 2) To the north and east, quasigeostrophic forcing and midlevel warm frontogenesis generate ascent, where the northern branch of the MCB circulates around the COL. 3) Along the anticyclonic shear side of the STJ, convection forms within potentially unstable MCB air benefiting from the inertial instability at the outflow level. It is suggested that this set of circumstances is quite similar to those that conspire to produce heavy precipitation events in subtropical West Africa.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Peter Knippertz, Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, D-55099 Mainz, Germany. Email: knippertz@uni-mainz.de

Abstract

In this study the term moisture conveyor belt (MCB) is defined as an elongated band of enhanced poleward water vapor fluxes (WVFs) above the PBL that is rooted in the Tropics. This new terminology is illustrated through an exemplary detailed case study of an MCB over the northeastern Pacific during 9–13 November 2003 that provides the moisture for a significant precipitation event in the dry southwestern United States. The analysis of the involved moisture transports and dynamics comprises both Eulerian and Lagrangian approaches, and is based upon output from a simulation with the University of Wisconsin-Nonhydrostatic Modeling System, as well as analysis data, surface observations, and satellite images.

The formation of the MCB is related to a quasi-stationary upper-level cutoff low (COL) resulting from a wave-breaking event over the North Pacific. A pronounced upper-tropospheric baroclinic zone and a strong, inertially unstable subtropical jet (STJ) are found to the east of the COL, where at later stages an elongated tropical cloud plume developed in association with a marked flare-up of ITCZ convection. Part of the extratropical air that subsides to the west of the COL becomes involved in this convection; another part feeds the so-called dry slot at the base of the COL. The actual MCB consists of midlevel trajectories that curve anticyclonically away from the moist tropical easterlies and cause a northeastward-directed WVF maximum at around 700 hPa over the subtropical northeast Pacific and a marked humidity gradient toward the subsided extratropical air. At late stages, frontogenetic circulations lead to WVF convergence involving air from the midlevel subtropical troposphere. At the surface, cyclogenesis and thermal contrasts are weak, and northeasterly trade winds prevail, which clearly distinguishes this MCB from a classical extratropical warm conveyor belt. Other important differences are the high elevation of the WVF maximum, as well as the quasi-horizontal track and origin above the PBL of most moist trajectories. Three precipitation regions with different influence factors can be distinguished. 1) Close to the COL center, moist tropical air is overrun by the dry slot, resulting in convective instability and extreme hail in the Los Angeles, California, area. 2) To the north and east, quasigeostrophic forcing and midlevel warm frontogenesis generate ascent, where the northern branch of the MCB circulates around the COL. 3) Along the anticyclonic shear side of the STJ, convection forms within potentially unstable MCB air benefiting from the inertial instability at the outflow level. It is suggested that this set of circumstances is quite similar to those that conspire to produce heavy precipitation events in subtropical West Africa.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Peter Knippertz, Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, D-55099 Mainz, Germany. Email: knippertz@uni-mainz.de

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