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F. M. Ralph and M. D. Dettinger

Strong winter storms battered the U.S. West Coast from Western Washington to Southern California in December 2010, producing as much as 250–670 mm (10–26 in. of rain) in mountainous areas (Fig. 1). A common denominator among these events is that the synoptic weather patterns produced a series of strong atmospheric rivers (AR) that transported large amounts of water vapor from over the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. West Coast (Fig. 2). These ARs fueled the heavy rain and flooding, and provided beneficial increases in snowpack. For example, the Southern Sierra snowpack increased from 27% of 1

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Christine M. Albano, Michael D. Dettinger, and Adrian A. Harpold

Abstract

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) significantly influence precipitation and hydrologic variability in many areas of the world, including the western United States. As ARs are increasingly recognized by the research community and the public, there is a need to more precisely quantify and communicate their hydrologic impacts, which can vary from hazardous to beneficial depending on location and on the atmospheric and land surface conditions prior to and during the AR. This study leverages 33 years of atmospheric and hydrologic data for the western United States to 1) identify how water vapor amount, wind direction and speed, temperature, and antecedent soil moisture conditions influence precipitation and hydrologic responses (runoff, recharge, and snowpack) using quantile regression and 2) identify differences in hydrologic response types and magnitudes across the study region. Results indicate that water vapor amount serves as a primary control on precipitation amounts. Holding water vapor constant, precipitation amounts vary with wind direction, depending on location, and are consistently greater at colder temperatures. Runoff efficiencies further covary with temperature and antecedent soil moisture, with precipitation falling as snow and greater available water storage in the soil column mitigating flood impacts of large AR events. This study identifies the coastal and maritime mountain ranges as areas with the greatest potential for hazardous flooding and snowfall impacts. This spatially explicit information can lead to better understanding of the conditions under which ARs of different precipitation amounts are likely to be hazardous at a given location.

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A. L. Westerling, A. Gershunov, T. J. Brown, D. R. Cayan, and M. D. Dettinger

A 21-yr gridded monthly fire-starts and acres-burned dataset from U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs fire reports recreates the seasonality and interannual variability of wild fire in the western United States. Despite pervasive human influence in western fire regimes, it is striking how strongly these data reveal a fire season responding to variations in climate. Correlating anomalous wildfire frequency and extent with the Palmer Drought Severity Index illustrates the importance of prior and accumulated precipitation anomalies for future wildfire season severity. This link to antecedent seasons' moisture conditions varies widely with differences in predominant fuel type. Furthermore, these data demonstrate that the relationship between wildfire season severity and observed moisture anomalies from antecedent seasons is strong enough to forecast fire season severity at lead times of one season to a year in advance.

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F. M. Ralph, E. Sukovich, D. Reynolds, M. Dettinger, S. Weagle, W. Clark, and P. J. Neiman

Abstract

Extreme precipitation events, and the quantitative precipitation forecasts (QPFs) associated with them, are examined. The study uses data from the Hydrometeorology Testbed (HMT), which conducted its first field study in California during the 2005/06 cool season. National Weather Service River Forecast Center (NWS RFC) gridded QPFs for 24-h periods at 24-h (day 1), 48-h (day 2), and 72-h (day 3) forecast lead times plus 24-h quantitative precipitation estimates (QPEs) from sites in California (CA) and Oregon–Washington (OR–WA) are used. During the 172-day period studied, some sites received more than 254 cm (100 in.) of precipitation. The winter season produced many extreme precipitation events, including 90 instances when a site received more than 7.6 cm (3.0 in.) of precipitation in 24 h (i.e., an “event”) and 17 events that exceeded 12.7 cm (24 h)−1 [5.0 in. (24 h)−1]. For the 90 extreme events {>7.6 cm (24 h)−1 [3.0 in. (24 h)−1]}, almost 90% of all the 270 QPFs (days 1–3) were biased low, increasingly so with greater lead time. Of the 17 observed events exceeding 12.7 cm (24 h)−1 [5.0 in. (24 h)−1], only 1 of those events was predicted to be that extreme. Almost all of the extreme events correlated with the presence of atmospheric river conditions. Total seasonal QPF biases for all events {i.e., ≥0.025 cm (24 h)−1 [0.01 in. (24 h)−1]} were sensitive to local geography and were generally biased low in the California–Nevada River Forecast Center (CNRFC) region and high in the Northwest River Forecast Center (NWRFC) domain. The low bias in CA QPFs improved with shorter forecast lead time and worsened for extreme events. Differences were also noted between the CNRFC and NWRFC in terms of QPF and the frequency of extreme events. A key finding from this study is that there were more precipitation events >7.6 cm (24 h)−1 [3.0 in. (24 h)−1] in CA than in OR–WA. Examination of 422 Cooperative Observer Program (COOP) sites in the NWRFC domain and 400 in the CNRFC domain found that the thresholds for the top 1% and top 0.1% of precipitation events were 7.6 cm (24 h)−1 [3.0 in. (24 h)−1] and 14.2 cm (24 h)−1 [5.6 in. (24 h)−1] or greater for the CNRFC and only 5.1 cm (24 h)−1 [2.0 in. (24 h)−1] and 9.4 cm (24 h)−1 [3.7 in. (24 h)−1] for the NWRFC, respectively. Similar analyses for all NWS RFCs showed that the threshold for the top 1% of events varies from ∼3.8 cm (24 h)−1 [1.5 in. (24 h)−1] in the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) to ∼5.1 cm (24 h)−1 [3.0 in. (24 h)−1] in the northern tier of RFCs and ∼7.6 cm (24 h)−1 [3.0 in. (24 h)−1] in both the southern tier and the CNRFC. It is recommended that NWS QPF performance in the future be assessed for extreme events using these thresholds.

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F. M. Ralph, T. Coleman, P. J. Neiman, R. J. Zamora, and M. D. Dettinger

Abstract

This study is motivated by diverse needs for better forecasts of extreme precipitation and floods. It is enabled by unique hourly observations collected over six years near California’s Russian River and by recent advances in the science of atmospheric rivers (ARs). This study fills key gaps limiting the prediction of ARs and, especially, their impacts by quantifying the duration of AR conditions and the role of duration in modulating hydrometeorological impacts. Precursor soil moisture conditions and their relationship to streamflow are also shown. On the basis of 91 well-observed events during 2004–10, the study shows that the passage of ARs over a coastal site lasted 20 h on average and that 12% of the AR events exceeded 30 h. Differences in storm-total water vapor transport directed up the mountain slope contribute 74% of the variance in storm-total rainfall across the events and 61% of the variance in storm-total runoff volume. ARs with double the composite mean duration produced nearly 6 times greater peak streamflow and more than 7 times the storm-total runoff volume. When precursor soil moisture was less than 20%, even heavy rainfall did not lead to significant streamflow. Predicting which AR events are likely to produce extreme impacts on precipitation and runoff requires accurate prediction of AR duration at landfall and observations of precursor soil moisture conditions.

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Daniel R. Cayan, Susan A. Kammerdiener, Michael D. Dettinger, Joseph M. Caprio, and David H. Peterson

Fluctuations in spring climate in the western United States over the last 4–5 decades are described by examining changes in the blooming of plants and the timing of snowmelt–runoff pulses. The two measures of spring's onset that are employed are the timing of first bloom of lilac and honeysuckle bushes from a long-term cooperative phenological network, and the timing of the first major pulse of snowmelt recorded from high-elevation streams. Both measures contain year-to-year fluctuations, with typical year-to-year fluctuations at a given site of one to three weeks. These fluctuations are spatially coherent, forming regional patterns that cover most of the west. Fluctuations in lilac first bloom dates are highly correlated to those of honeysuckle, and both are significantly correlated with those of the spring snowmelt pulse. Each of these measures, then, probably respond to a common mechanism. Various analyses indicate that anomalous temperature exerts the greatest influence upon both interannual and secular changes in the onset of spring in these networks. Earlier spring onsets since the late 1970s are a remarkable feature of the records, and reflect the unusual spell of warmer-than-normal springs in western North America during this period. The warm episodes are clearly related to larger-scale atmospheric conditions across North America and the North Pacific, but whether this is predominantly an expression of natural variability or also a symptom of global warming is not certain.

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F. Martin Ralph, Michael D. Dettinger, Mary M. Cairns, Thomas J. Galarneau, and John Eylander

Since the term “atmospheric river” (AR) first appeared in modern scientific literature in the early 1990s, it has generated debate about the meaning of the concept. A common popular definition is something along the lines of a “river in the sky,” albeit as a river of water vapor rather than of liquid. This general concept has come into regular use in the western United States and in some other regions affected by ARs, partly due to its use by media, and due to the intuitive nature of the concept. However, over the last 20 years there have been varying perspectives

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Michael D. Dettinger, Daniel R. Cayan, Henry F. Diaz, and David M. Meko

Abstract

The overall amount of precipitation deposited along the West Coast and western cordillera of North America from 25° to 55°N varies from year to year, and superimposed on this domain-average variability are varying north–south contrasts on timescales from at least interannual to interdecadal. In order to better understand the north–south precipitation contrasts, their interannual and decadal variations are studied in terms of how much they affect overall precipitation amounts and how they are related to large-scale climatic patterns. Spatial empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs) and spatial moments (domain average, central latitude, and latitudinal spread) of zonally averaged precipitation anomalies along the westernmost parts of North America are analyzed, and each is correlated with global sea level pressure (SLP) and sea surface temperature series, on interannual (defined here as 3–7 yr) and decadal (>7 yr) timescales. The interannual band considered here corresponds to timescales that are particularly strong in tropical climate variations and thus is expected to contain much precipitation variability that is related to El Niño–Southern Oscillation; the decadal scale is defined so as to capture the whole range of long-term climatic variations affecting western North America.

Zonal EOFs of the interannual and decadal filtered versions of the zonal-precipitation series are remarkably similar. At both timescales, two leading EOFs describe 1) a north–south seesaw of precipitation pivoting near 40°N and 2) variations in precipitation near 40°N, respectively. The amount of overall precipitation variability is only about 10% of the mean and is largely determined by precipitation variations around 40°–45°N and most consistently influenced by nearby circulation patterns; in this sense, domain-average precipitation is closely related to the second EOF. The central latitude and latitudinal spread of precipitation distributions are strongly influenced by precipitation variations in the southern parts of western North America and are closely related to the first EOF. Central latitude of precipitation moves south (north) with tropical warming (cooling) in association with midlatitude western Pacific SLP variations, on both interannual and decadal timescales. Regional patterns and zonal averages of precipitation-sensitive tree-ring series are used to corroborate these patterns and to extend them into the past and appear to share much long- and short-term information with the instrumentally based zonal precipitation EOFs and moments.

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D. W. Stahle, R. D. Griffin, D. M. Meko, M. D. Therrell, J. R. Edmondson, M. K. Cleaveland, L. N. Stahle, D. J. Burnette, J. T. Abatzoglou, K. T. Redmond, M. D. Dettinger, and D. R. Cayan

Abstract

Ancient blue oak trees are still widespread across the foothills of the Coast Ranges, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada in California. The most extensive tracts of intact old-growth blue oak woodland appear to survive on rugged and remote terrain in the southern Coast Ranges and on the foothills west and southwest of Mt. Lassen. In the authors' sampling of old-growth stands, most blue oak appear to have recruited to the canopy in the middle to late nineteenth century. The oldest living blue oak tree sampled was over 459 years old, and several dead blue oak logs had over 500 annual rings. Precipitation sensitive tree-ring chronologies up to 700 years long have been developed from old blue oak trees and logs. Annual ring-width chronologies of blue oak are strongly correlated with cool season precipitation totals, streamflow in the major rivers of California, and the estuarine water quality of San Francisco Bay. A new network of 36 blue oak chronologies records spatial anomalies in growth that arise from latitudinal changes in the mean storm track and location of landfalling atmospheric rivers. These long, climate-sensitive blue oak chronologies have been used to reconstruct hydroclimatic history in California and will help to better understand and manage water resources. The environmental history embedded in blue oak growth chronologies may help justify efforts to conserve these authentic old-growth native woodlands.

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Paul J. Neiman, F. Martin Ralph, Benjamin J. Moore, Mimi Hughes, Kelly M. Mahoney, Jason M. Cordeira, and Michael D. Dettinger

Abstract

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are a dominant mechanism for generating intense wintertime precipitation along the U.S. West Coast. While studies over the past 10 years have explored the impact of ARs in, and west of, California’s Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, their influence on the weather across the intermountain west remains an open question. This study utilizes gridded atmospheric datasets, satellite imagery, rawinsonde soundings, a 449-MHz wind profiler and global positioning system (GPS) receiver, and operational hydrometeorological observing networks to explore the dynamics and inland impacts of a landfalling, flood-producing AR across Arizona in January 2010. Plan-view, cross-section, and back-trajectory analyses quantify the synoptic and mesoscale forcing that led to widespread precipitation across the state. The analyses show that a strong AR formed in the lower midlatitudes over the northeastern Pacific Ocean via frontogenetic processes and sea surface latent-heat fluxes but without tapping into the adjacent tropical water vapor reservoir to the south. The wind profiler, GPS, and rawinsonde observations document strong orographic forcing in a moist neutral environment within the AR that led to extreme, orographically enhanced precipitation. The AR was oriented nearly orthogonal to the Mogollon Rim, a major escarpment crossing much of central Arizona, and was positioned between the high mountain ranges of northern Mexico. High melting levels during the heaviest precipitation contributed to region-wide flooding, while the high-altitude snowpack increased substantially. The characteristics of the AR that impacted Arizona in January 2010, and the resulting heavy orographic precipitation, are comparable to those of landfalling ARs and their impacts along the west coasts of midlatitude continents.

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