Atmospheric River Observatories

Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) are the regions of extratropical storms where high winds and water vapor are concentrated. These factors combine to produce heavy rainfall upon landfall, especially over mountainous terrain. Most flooding events that occur along the west coast of North America in winter are associated with the landfall of AR conditions. ARs are visible in satellite images over the oceans, but their impact over land is not captured well by NOAA's current operational observing system. To help fill this important observing gap, scientists from the Physical Sciences Division (PSL) developed the concept of an atmospheric river observatory (ARO). Each ARO monitoring station includes a Doppler wind profiler for measuring wind profiles and snow level aloft and a Global Positioning System receiver for measuring the column-integrated water vapor concentration. These are the primary variables in ARs that determine whether an AR event produces a flood. In addition, the ARO consists of an S-band precipitation profiling radar (S-PROF) and surface-based disdrometers to study the microphysics of the precipitation, along with a meteorological tower to monitor AR conditions near the surface.

Using satellite data in conjunction with observations from the AROs, PSL researchers have developed scientifically-based AR thesholds for water vapor content and upslope wind speed that are used to identify landfalling ARs. These thresholds are part of an AR water vapor flux tool developed by PSL along with partners from ESRL's Global Systems Laboratory and the National Weather Service San Francisco/Bay Area Weather Forecast Office. The award-winning display from this tool allows forecasters to monitor the atmospheric forcings associated with ARs and to evaluate the performance of a weather forecast model's prediction of those forcings. The tool has been implemented at several ARO stations in California, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington since 2008. Based on successes in HMT, the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Department of Energy have invested in a "picket fence" of seven long term coastal AROs ranging from Southern California to near the Canadian border. Recently California added two inland AROs: one to monitor moisture transport through the gap in coastal terrain existing in the San Francisco Bay area, and a second to monitor AR conditions near Lake Oroville.

Learn More

An atmospheric river observatory at Bodega Bay, CA.
An atmospheric river observatory at Bodega Bay, CA. (Credit: NOAA)
An atmospheric river observatory at Bodega Bay, CA. (Credit: NOAA)