Atmospheric Rivers in the Southwestern US: Climatology and Possible Future Changes
Abstract:Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are important contributors to cool season precipitation in the Southwestern US, and in some cases can lead to extreme hydrometeorological events in the region. We performed a climatological analysis and identified two predominant types of ARs that affect the Southwest: Type 1 ARs originate in the tropics near Hawaii (central Pacific) and enhance their moisture in the midlatitudes, with maximum moisture transport over the ocean at low-levels of the troposphere. On the other hand, moisture in Type 2 ARs has a more direct tropical origin and meridional orientation with maximum moisture transfer at mid-levels.
We then analyze future projections of Southwest ARs in a suite of global and regional climate models (from NARCCAP), to evaluate projected future changes in the frequency and intensity of ARs under warmer global climate conditions. We find a consistent and clear intensification of the water vapor transport associated with the ARs that impinge upon Arizona and adjacent regions, however, the response of AR-related precipitation intensity to increased moisture flux and column-integrated water vapor is weak and no robust variations are projected either by the GCMs or the NARCCAP models.
To evaluate the effect of horizontal resolution and improve our physical understanding of these results, we numerically simulated a historical AR event using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model at a 3km resolution. We then performed a pseudo-global warming experiment by modifying the lateral and lower boundary conditions to reflect possible changes in future ARs (as projected by the ensemble of GCM simulations used for NARCCAP). Interestingly we find that despite higher specific humidity, some regions still receive less rainfall in the warming climate experiments – partially due to changes in thermodynamics, but primarily due to AR dynamics. Therefore, we conclude from this analysis that overall future increase in atmospheric temperature and water content as projected by GCMs will not necessarily translate into generalized heavier AR-related precipitation in the Southwestern US.