The Inland Penetration of Atmospheric Rivers over Western North America: A Lagrangian Analysis

Friday, 19 December 2014
Jonathan J Rutz1, William J Steenburgh1 and F Martin Ralph2, (1)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, (2)Scripps Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA, United States
Although atmospheric rivers (ARs) typically weaken following landfall, those that penetrate inland can contribute to heavy precipitation and high-impact weather within the interior of western North America. In this paper, we examine the evolution of ARs over western North America using trajectories released at 950 and 700 hPa within cool-season ARs along the Pacific coast. These trajectories are classified as coastal decaying, inland penetrating, or interior penetrating based on whether they remain within an AR upon reaching selected transects over western North America. Interior-penetrating AR trajectories most frequently make landfall along the Oregon coast, but the greatest fraction of landfalling AR trajectories that eventually penetrate into the interior is found along the Baja Peninsula. In contrast, interior-penetrating trajectories rarely traverse the southern “high” Sierra. At landfall, interior-penetrating trajectories are associated with a more amplified flow pattern, more southwesterly (vs. westerly) flow along the Pacific coast, and larger water vapor transport (qu). The larger initial qu of interior-penetrating trajectories is due primarily to larger initial water vapor (q) and wind speed (u) for those initiated at 950 and 700 hPa, respectively.

Inland- and interior-penetrating AR trajectories maintain large qu over the interior due partially to increases in u that offset decreases in q, particularly in the vicinity of topographical barriers. Therefore, synoptic conditions and trajectory pathways favoring larger initial qu at the coast, limited water vapor depletion by orographic precipitation, and increases in u over the interior are keys to differentiating interior-penetrating from coastal-decaying AR trajectories.