Atmospheric Rivers

Atmospheric Rivers are trails of moisture in the atmosphere composed of condensed water vapor. Atmospheric rivers are typically found on the boundaries of different weather zones like cyclones that form in regions other than the tropics. At any given time there are a few (between 3-5) atmospheric rivers in Earth’s hemisphere; each can be thousands of miles long and hundreds of miles wide. The moisture contained within an atmospheric river can be equivalent to the amount of water in the Amazon River, although only 10% of the Earth’s circumference is covered by an atmospheric river band. 90% of Earth’s north to south water vapor transport is done through atmospheric rivers.

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Since the 1990s researchers have tracked and studied atmospheric rivers and analyzed their incredible importance to the water cycles of Earth. These atmospheric rivers are made up of the water droplets that evaporate from rainstorms, puddles, rivers, lakes, streams and the oceans and come back town to Earth as rain, snow, and other precipitation. As atmospheric rivers often are caused by extraordinary weather fronts they are also capable of dumping massive amounts of precipitation back to Earth causing storms, floods, and other disasters in many parts of the world. The most common or well-known atmospheric river might be the Pineapple Express, which affects the western coast of the United States.

Water vapor imagery of the eastern Pacific Ocean from the GOES 11 satellite, showing a large atmospheric river aimed across California. Image from United States Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey. (Captured December 20, 2010).

Water vapor imagery of the eastern Pacific Ocean from the GOES 11 satellite, showing a large atmospheric river aimed across California. Image from United States Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey. (Acquired December 20, 2010).

Aside from their incredible importance in relation to the water cycle of the Earth, studying atmospheric rivers can help atmospheric scientists and others determine the quantity, quality and health of the water cycle in addition to flow and volume of this vital water transportation entity.

References

Earth System Research Laboratory. 2014. Atmospheric River Information Page. Web access 5 January, 2015. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/atmrivers/

Earth System Research Laboratory. 2014. What are Atmospheric Rivers? Web access 5 January, 2015. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/atmrivers/questions/