End-of-Century Projections of North American Atmospheric River Events in CMIP5 Climate Models

Friday, 19 December 2014
Michael Warner1, Cliff Mass1 and Eric P Salathe Jr2, (1)University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States, (2)University of Washington, Science and Technology Program, Bothell, WA, United States
Most extreme precipitation events that occur along the North American west coast are associated with narrow plumes of above-average water vapor concentration that stretch from the tropics or subtropics to the West Coast. These events generally occur during the wet season (October-March) and are referred to as atmospheric rivers (AR). ARs can cause major river management problems, damage from flooding or landslides, and loss of life.

It is expected that anthropogenic global warming could lead to thermodynamic and dynamic changes in the atmosphere, such as increases in water vapor content and, thus, precipitation, and shifts in the climatological jet stream. Since AR events are associated with extreme values of integrated water vapor (IWV) near the West Coast, increases in IWV could impact the intensity of AR events intersecting the coast. Additionally, ARs are associated with cyclonic activity that originates near and propagates along the jet stream. The jet stream configuration influences the frequency and location of AR landfall along the North American west coast. It is probable that any changes in the general circulation of the atmosphere will result in changes in the frequency, orientation, and location of AR landfalls.

Global climate models have sufficient resolution to simulate synoptic features associated with AR events, such as high values of vertically integrated vapor transport (IVT) approaching the coast. Ten Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) simulations are used to identify changes in ARs impacting the west coast of North America between historical (1970-1999) and end-of-century (2070-2099) runs, using representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5. The most extreme ARs are identified in both time periods by the 99th percentile of IVT days along a north-south transect offshore of the coast. Integrated water vapor (IWV) and IVT are predicted to increase, while lower-tropospheric winds change little. Winter-mean precipitation along the West Coast increases by 11-18% (4-6% C-1) while precipitation on extreme IVT days increases by 15-39% (5-19% C-1). The frequency of IVT days above the historical 99th percentile threshold increases as much as 290% by the end of this century.