The Climatology and Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers near the Coast of Southern Alaska
Abstract:Atmospheric rivers, narrow plumes of anomalously high tropospheric water vapor transport, frequently appear over the Pacific Ocean. Popularized by colloquialisms such as the “Pineapple Express,” atmospheric rivers often interact with synoptic-scale disturbances to produce significant precipitation events over land masses. Previous research has focused extensively on the impacts of this phenomenon with respect to high-precipitation storms, namely during boreal winter, on the western coast of the contiguous United States. These events generate great scientific, political, and economic concerns for nearby cities, farms, and tourist destinations. Recently, researchers have investigated similar high-precipitation events along the southern coast of Alaska. Specifically, previous work has discussed several major events occurring during the September-November timeframe. One particular event, in October 2006, produced an all-time record for water levels at several river observation sites.
This study examines the climatology of atmospheric rivers in the vicinity of southern Alaska. Data (1979-2014) from the Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA) is used to detect atmospheric rivers approaching, and making landfall on, the southern Alaskan coast from the Kenai Peninsula to the Gulf of Alaska region. A seasonal cycle in the strength and frequency of atmospheric rivers over Alaska is shown. Furthermore, the study assesses the synoptic conditions coincident with atmospheric rivers and examines several instances of particularly strong precipitation events. For example, wintertime atmospheric river events tend to occur when a blocking high exists over southeastern Alaska. These results have the potential to help forecasters and emergency managers predict high-precipitation events and lessen potential negative impacts.