Weather & Climate

Atmospheric Rivers

Atmospheric Rivers


caption Click for Larger Image. Atmospheric Rivers (AR) are relatively narrow regions in the atmosphere that are responsible for most of the horizontal transport of water vapor outside of the tropics. Examples of strong ARs are shown to the right using satellite data.

Examples (right) of AR events that produced extreme precipitation on the US West Coast, and exhibited spatial continuity with the tropical water vapor reservoir as seen in SSM/I satellite observations of IWV. (From Ralph et al. 2011, Mon. Wea. Rev.)

The color scale used in these images represents the total amount of water vapor between the ocean surface and space. The data are from passive microwave sensors onboard polar orbiting satellites, which measure vertically integrated water vapor (IWV), i.e., the total amount of vapor in the atmosphere from the surface to space (g/cm2).

ARs move with the weather and are present somewhere on the earth at any given time. In the strongest cases ARs can create major flooding when they make landfall. On average ARs are 400-600 kilometers wide. For comparison, a strong AR transports an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to 10-20 times the average flow of liquid water at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

While ARs come in many shapes and sizes, those that contain the largest amounts of water vapor, the strongest winds, and stall over watersheds vulnerable to flooding, can create extreme rainfall and floods. These events can disrupt travel, induce mud slides, and cause catastrophic damage to life and property. A well-known example of a type of strong AR that can hit the U.S. west coast is the "Pineapple Express," due to their apparent ability to bring moisture from the tropics near Hawaii to the U.S. west coast.

Learn about a scenario for an Atmsopheric River Storm prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Not all ARs cause damage – most are weak, and simply provide beneficial rain or snow that is crucial to water supply. In short, ARs are a primary feature in the entire global water cycle, and are tied closely to both water supply and flood risks, particularly in the Western U.S. The improved understanding of ARs and their importance has emerged from roughly a decade of scientific studies that have made use of new satellite, radar, aircraft and other observations and major numerical weather model improvements.

What are they, in more scientific terms?

ARs are the water-vapor rich part of the broader warm conveyor belt (e.g., Browning, 1990; Carlson, 1991), that is found in extratropical cyclones ("storms"). They result from the action of winds associated with the storm drawing together moisture into a narrow region just ahead of the cold front where low-level winds can sometimes exceed hurricane strength.

The term AR was coined in a seminal scientific paper published in 1998 by researchers Zhu and Newell at MIT (Zhu and Newell 1998). Because they found that most of the water vapor was transported in relatively narrow regions of the atmosphere (90% of the transport occurred typically in four to five long, narrow regions roughly 400 km wide), the term atmospheric river was used.

A number of formal scientific papers have since been published building on this concept (see the publication list), and forecasters and climate researchers are beginning to apply the ideas and methods to their fields. The satellite images at right show strong ARs as seen by satellite.

The advent of these specialized satellite observations have revealed ARs over the oceans and have revolutionized understanding of the global importance of ARs (more traditional satellite data available in the past could not clearly detect AR conditions). The interpretation of these satellite images, which represent only water vapor, not winds, was confirmed using NOAA research aircraft data over the Eastern Pacific Ocean and wind profilers along the coast (Ralph et al. 2004). The event shown in the image was documented by Ralph et al. (2006), which concluded this AR produced roughly 10 inches of rain in two days and caused a flood on the Russian River of northern California.

It was also shown that all floods on the Russian River in the seven year period of study were associated with AR conditions. As of late 2010 there have been a number of papers published on major west coast storms where the presence and importance of AR conditions have been documented. These are provided in an informal list of the "Top Ten ARs" of the last several years on the U.S. West Coast.

It is now recognized that the well-known "Pineapple express," storms (a term that has been used on the U.S. West Coast for many years) correspond to a subset of ARs, i.e., those that have a connection to the tropics near Hawaii. In some of the most extreme ARs, the water vapor transport is enhanced by the fact that they entrain (draw in) water vapor directly from the tropics (e.g., Bao et al 2006, Ralph et al. 2011).

Can we forecast atmospheric rivers?

  • National Weather Service forecasters located along the west coast are now familiar with the concept of atmospheric rivers and can identify these phenomena in current numerical forecast models. This provides them the capability to give advanced warning of potential heavy rain sometime 5 to 7 days in advance. They have also learned to monitor polar orbiter microwave satellite imagery that provides advanced warning of the presence and movement of these phenomena in the Pacific. During the last two winters, with the development of atmospheric river observatories, forecasters have been able to monitor the strength and location of these rivers as they make landfall and thus improve short-term rainfall forecasts for flash flooding. There are still challenges to predicting rainfall totals in these events as models still struggle with the details of the duration and timing of AR's as they make landfall.

Why are ARs capable of producing extreme rainfall on the U.S. West Coast?

AR conditions are conducive to creating heavy orographic precipitation (Ralph et al., 2005; MWR) because:

  • they are rich in water vapor,
  • they are associated with strong winds that force the water vapor up mountain sides,
  • the atmospheric conditions do not inhibit upward motions (because the atmospheric static stability is nearly neutral up to about three km MSL, on average)
  • once the air moves upward, the water vapor condenses and can form precipitation

What is the role of atmospheric rivers in creating floods?

  • Research has shown there were 42 ARs that impacted CA during the winters from 1997 to 2006, and the resulting seven floods that occurred on the Russian River watershed northwest of San Francisco during this period were all associated with AR conditions.
  • A major flood in California, known as the "New years Day Flood" in 1997 cause over $1 Billion in damages and had a well-defined AR.
  • Less formally, ARs are known to result in an order of magnitude larger post-storm stream flow "bumps" (increases) than other California storms, in the Merced and American Rivers.
  • The Pacific Northwest also regularly experiences this type of storm. Case in point is the landfalling AR of early November 2006 that produced heavy rainfall and devastating flooding and debris flows with region-wide damage exceeding $50 million.
  • The "Top-Ten AR" list highlights additional high-impact AR events.

How are science and applications of ARs being addressed?

  • Research experiments (CalJet and PacJet) performed by NOAA in the 1998, 2001, and 2002 were conducted to better understand landfalling Pacific winter storms.
  • CalJet/PacJet led to the development of the NOAA Hydrometeorology Testbed (HMT; HMT's aim is to accelerate the development and prototyping of advanced hydrometeorological observations, models, and physical process understanding, and to foster infusion of these advances into forecasting operations of the NWS, and to support the broader user community's needs for 21st Century precipitation information.
  • Within HMT, scientists have developed and prototyped an atmospheric river observatory (ARO) designed to further our understanding of the impact of ARs on enhancing precipitation in the coastal mountains and the high Sierra of California.
  • Studies of the potential impacts of climate change on AR characteristics is the focus on an ongoing project – CalWater that is partnering with HMT, the California Energy Commission, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USGS and others, to explore the potential implications for flood risk and water supply.
  • Under the USGS-led Multihazards project, ARs have become the focus of an emergency preparedness scenario for California that is intended to help the region prepare for a potentially catastrophic series of ARs. The scenario is named "ARkStorm" and has developed an informational video for use with the public (

What are the benefits of studying atmospheric rivers?

  • The community of flood control, water supply and reservoir operators of the West Coast states see ARs as a key phenomenon to understand, monitor and predict as they work to mitigate the risks of major flood events, while maintaining adequate water supply. The frequency and strength of AR events in a given region over the course of a typical west-coast wet season greatly influences the fate of droughts, floods, and many key human endeavors and ecosystems. Better coupling of climate forecasts with seasonal weather forecasts of ARs can improve water management decisions. Long-term monitoring using satellite measurements, offshore aircraft reconnaissance, and land-based atmospheric river observatories, combined with better numerical modeling, scientific progress, and the development of AR-based smart decision aids for resource managers, will enable society to be more resilient to storms and droughts, while protecting our critical ecosystems.


Dettinger, M.D., 2011: Climate change, atmospheric rivers and floods in California—A multimodel analysis of storm frequency and magnitude changes. J. Am. Water Resources Assoc., (in press).

Guan, B., N. P. Molotch, D. E. Waliser, E. J. Fetzer, and P. J. Neiman, 2010: Extreme snowfall events linked to atmospheric rivers and surface air temperature via satellite measurements. Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L20401, doi:10.1029/2010GL044696.

Jankov, I., J.-W. Bao, P. J. Neiman, P. J. Schultz, Y. Huiling, and A. B. White, 2009. Evaluation and comparison of microphysical algorithms in ARW-WRF model simulations of atmospheric river events affecting the California coast. J. Hydrometeor., 10, 847-870, doi:10.1175/2009JHM1059.1.

Kaplan, M. L., C. S. Adaniya, P. J. Marzette, K. C. King, S. J. Underwood, and J. M. Lewis, 2009. The Role of Upstream Midtropospheric Circulations in the Sierra Nevada Enabling Leeside (Spillover) Precipitation. Part II: A Secondary Atmospheric River Accompanying a Midlevel Jet. J. Hydrometeor., 10, 1327-1354, doi:10.1175/2009JHM1106.1.

Leung L. R, and Y. Qian, 2009. Atmospheric rivers induced heavy precipitation and flooding in the Western U.S. simulated by the WRF regional climate model. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L03820, doi:10.1029/2008GL036445

Ma, Z., W. Y.-H. Kuo, F. M. Ralph, P. J. Neiman, G. A. Wick, E. Sukovich, and B. Wang, 2010: Assimilation of GPS radio occultation data for an intense atmospheric river with the NCEP Regional GSI system. Mon. Wea. Rev., (in press).

Neiman, P. J., F.M. Ralph, G.A. Wick, J. Lundquist, and M.D. Dettinger, 2008a: Meteorological characteristics and overland precipitation impacts of atmospheric rivers affecting the West Coast of North America based on eight years of SSM/I satellite observations. J. Hydrometeor., 9, 22-47, doi:10.1175/2007JHM855.1.

Neiman, P. J., F.M. Ralph, G.A. Wick, Y.-H. Kuo, T.-K. Wee, Z. Ma, G.H. Taylor, and M.D. Dettinger, 2008b: Diagnosis of an intense atmospheric river impacting the Pacific Northwest: Storm summary and offshore vertical structure observed with COSMIC satellite retrievals. Mon. Wea. Rev., 136, 4398-4420, doi:10.1175/2008MWR2550.1.

Porter, K., Cox, D., Alpers, C., Barnard, P., Carter, J., Dettinger, M., Ferris, J., Morman, S., Perry, S., Plumlee, G., Stock, J., Strong, D., Wein, A., Ralph, F.M., Reynolds, D., Wills, C., Schaefer, K., Olsen, A., Topping, K., Rose, A., Serakos, J., and Eymann, M., Jan 2011: Overview of the ARkStorm scenario: USGS Open File Report, 2010-1312, 72 p.

Ralph, F. M., P. J. Neiman, and G.A. Wick, 2004: Satellite and CALJET aircraft observations of atmospheric rivers over the eastern North-Pacific Ocean during the winter of 1997/98. Mon. Wea. Rev., 132, 1721-1745, doi:10.1175/1520-0493(2004)132<1721:SACAOO>2.0.CO;2.

Ralph, F. M., P. J. Neiman, and R. Rotunno, 2005: Dropsonde Observations in Low-Level Jets Over the Northeastern Pacific Ocean from CALJET-1998 and PACJET-2001: Mean Vertical-Profile and Atmospheric-River Characteristics. Mon. Wea. Rev., 133, 889-910, doi:10.1175/MWR2896.1.

Ralph, F. M., P. J. Neiman, G. A. Wick, S. I. Gutman, M. D. Dettinger, D. R. Cayan, and A. B. White, 2006: Flooding on California's Russian River: Role of atmospheric rivers. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L13801, doi:10.1029/2006GL026689.

Ralph, F. M., P. J. Neiman, G. N. Kiladis, K. Weickman, and D. W. Reynolds, 2010: A multi-scale observational case study of a Pacific atmospheric river exhibiting tropical-extratropical connections and a mesoscale frontal wave. Mon. Wea. Rev., (accepted October 2010).

Smith, B.L., S.E. Yuter, P.J. Neiman, and D.E. Kingsmill, 2010: Water vapor fluxes and orographic precipitation over northern California associated with a land-falling atmospheric river. Mon. Wea. Rev., 138, 74-100, doi:10.1175/2009MWR2939.1.

Stohl, A., C. Forster, and H. Sodemann, 2008: Remote sources of water vapor forming precipitation on the Norwegian west coast at 60° N - a tale of hurricanes and an atmospheric river. J. Geophys. Res., 113, D05102, doi:10.1029/2007JD009006.

Yoshimura, K., Kanamitsu, M., and Dettinger, M., 2010: Regional downscaling for stable water isotopes—A case study of an atmospheric river event. Journal of Geophysical Research, 115(D18114), doi:10.1029/2010JD014032.

Zhu, Y, and R. E. Newell, 1998: A proposed algorithm for moisture fluxes from atmospheric rivers. Mon. Wea. Rev., 126, 725-735, doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1998)126<0725:APAFMF>2.0.CO;2.

Related Journal Articles

Bao, J.-W., S. A. Michelson, P.J. Neiman, F. M. Ralph and J. M. Wilczak, 2006: Interpretation of enhanced integrated water vapor bands associated with extratropical cyclones: Their formation and connection to tropical moisture. Mon. Wea. Rev., 134, 1063-1080, doi:10.1175/MWR3123.1.

Brimelow, J. C., and G. W. Rueter, 2005: Transport of atmospheric moisture during three extreme rainfall events over the Mackenzie river basin. J. Hydrometeor., 6, 423-440, doi:10.1175/JHM430.1.

Dettinger, M.D., H. Hidalgo, T. Das, D. Cayan, and N. Knowles, 2009, Projections of potential flood regime changes in California: California Energy Commission Report CEC-500-2009-050-D, 68 p.

Falvey, M., and R. Garreaud, 2007: Wintertime precipitation episodes in Central Chile: Associated meteorological conditions and orographic influences. J. Hydrometeor., 8, 171-193, doi:10.1175/JHM562.1.

Jankov, I., P. J. Schultz, C. J. Anderson, and S. E. Koch, 2007: The impact of different physical parameterizations and their interactuions on cold-season QPF in the American River basin. J. Hydrometeor., 8, 1141-1151, doi:10.1175/JHM630.1.

Junker, N. W., R. H. Grumm, R. Hart, L. F. Bosart, K. M. Bell, F. J. Pereira, 2008: Use of normalized anomaly fields to anticipate extreme rainfall in the mountains of northern California. Wea. Forecasting, 23, 336-356, doi:10.1175/2007WAF2007013.1.

Knippertz, P., and J. E. Martin, 2007: A Pacific moisture conveyor belt and its relationship to a significant precipitation event in the semiarid Southwestern United States. Wea. Forecasting, 22, 125-144, doi:10.1175/WAF963.1.

Knippertz, P., and H. Wernli, 2010: A Lagrangian climatology of tropical moisture exports to the Northern Hemispheric extratropics. J. Climate, 23, 987-1003, doi:10.1175/2009JCLI3333.1.

Lackmann, G. M., J. R. Gyakum, and R. Benoit, 1998: Moisture transport diagnosis of a wintertime precipitation event in the Mackenzie River basin. Mon. Wea. Rev., 126, 668-692, doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1998)126<0668:MTDOAW>2.0.CO;2.

Morss, R. E., and F. M. Ralph, 2007: Use of information by National Weather Service Forecasters and emergency managers during the CALJET and PACJET-2001. Wea. Forecast., 22, 539-555, doi:10.1175/WAF1001.1.

Neiman, P. J., F. M. Ralph, A.B. White, D. E. Kingsmill, and P. O. G. Persson, 2002: The statistical relationship between upslope flow and rainfall in California's coastal mountains: Observations during CALJET. Mon. Wea. Rev., 130, 1468-1492, doi:10.1175/1520-0493(2002)130<1468:TSRBUF>2.0.CO;2.

Neiman, P. J., P.O.G. Persson, F. M. Ralph, D. P. Jorgensen, A. B. White, and D.A. Kingsmill, 2004: Modification of fronts and precipitation by coastal blocking during an intense landfalling winter storm in Southern California: Observations during CALJET. Mon. Wea. Rev., 132, 242 273, doi:10.1175/1520-0493(2004)132<0242:MOFAPB>2.0.CO;2.

Neiman, P. J., A. B. White, F. M. Ralph, D. J. Gottas, and S. I. Gutman, 2009: A Water Vapor Flux Tool for Precipitation Forecasting. U.K. Journal of Water Management, 162, 83-94, doi:10.1680/wama.2009.162.2.83.

Neiman, P. J., E. M. Sukovich, F. M. Ralph, and M. Hughes, 2010: A seven-year wind profiler-based climatology of the windward barrier jet along California's northern Sierra Nevada. Mon. Wea. Rev., 138, 1206-1233, doi:10.1175/2009MWR3170.1.

Persson, P. O. G., P. J. Neiman, B. Walter, J.-W. Bao and F. M. Ralph, 2005: Contributions from California coastal-zone surface fluxes to heavy coastal precipitation: A CALJET case study During the Strong El NiÖo of 1998. Mon. Wea. Rev., 133, 1175-1198, doi:10.1175/MWR2910.1.

Ralph, F. M., P. J. Neiman, D. E. Kingsmill, P. O. G. Persson, A. B. White, E. T. Strem, E. D. Andrews, and R. C. Antweiler, 2003: The impact of a prominent rain shadow on flooding in California's Santa Cruz mountains: A CALJET case study and sensitivity to the ENSO cycle. J. Hydrometeor., 4, 1243-1264, doi:10.1175/1525-7541(2003)004<1243:TIOAPR>2.0.CO;2.

Ralph, F. M., R. M. Rauber, B. F. Jewett, D. E. Kingsmill, P. Pisano, P. Pugner, R. M. Rassmussen, D. W. Reynolds, T. W. Schlatter, R. E. Stewart and J. S. Waldstreicher, 2005b: Improving short-term (0-48 hour) Cool-season quantitative precipitation forecasting: Recommendations from a USWRP Workshop. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 86, 1619-1632, doi:10.1175/BAMS-86-11-1619.

Ralph, F. M., E. Sukovich, D. Reynolds, M. Dettinger, S. Weagle, W. Clark, and P. J. Neiman, 2010: Assessment of Extreme Quantitative Precipitation Forecasts and Development of Regional Extreme Event Thresholds Using Data from HMT-2006 and COOP Observers. J. Hydrometeor., 11, 1288-1306, doi:10.1175/2010JHM1232.1.

Smirnov, V. V., and G. W. K. Moore, 1999: Spatial and temporal structure of atmospheric water vapor transport in the Mackenzie River basin. J. Climate, 12, 681-696, doi:10.1175/1520-0442(1999)012<0681:SATSOA>2.0.CO;2.

Smirnov, V. V., and G. W. K. Moore, 2001: Short-term and seasonal variability of atmospheric water vapor transport through the Mackenzie River basin. J. Hydrometeor., 2, 441-452, doi:10.1175/1525-7541(2001)002<0441:STASVO>2.0.CO;2.

Sodemann, H., H. Wernli, and C. Schwierz 2009: Sources of water vapour contributing to the Elbe flood in August 2002-A tagging study in a mesoscale model. Q. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 135(638), 205-223, doi:10.1002/qj.374/abstract.

Wick, G. A., Y. Kuo, F. M. Ralph, T. Wee, and P. J. Neiman, 2008: Intercomparison of integrated water vapor retrievals from SSM/I and COSMIC, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L21805, doi:10.1029/2008GL035126.

Wratt, D. S., R.N. Ridley, M.R. Sinclair, H. Larsen, S.M. Thompson, R. Henderson, G.L. Austin, S.G. Bradley, A. Auer, A.P. Sturman, I. Owens, B. Fitzharris, B.F. Ryan, and J.-F. Gayet, 1996: The New Zealand Southern Alps Experiment. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 77, 683-692, doi:10.1175/1520-0477(1996)077<0683:TNZSAE>2.0.CO;2.

Yuan, H. J., J. A. McGinley, P. J. Schultz, C. J. Anderson, and C. Lu, 2008: Short-range precipitation forecasts from time-lagged multimodel ensembles during HMT-West 2006 field campaign. J. Hydrometeor., 9, 477-491, doi:10.1175/2008WAF2007053.1.



Syste, N. (2012). Atmospheric Rivers. Retrieved from


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