The Language of Science: Do’s and Don’ts of Extreme Rainfall

October 3rd, 2016 by Pola Lem
Louisiana

Heavy rains fell on Louisiana in August 2016, causing record-high crests for a number of rivers in the area. Map by Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory.

In the United States, we say “it’s raining cats and dogs” when we get a heavy downpour. In South Africa, it rains “women with clubs.” In Slovakia, a good soak means “tractors are falling.”

World languages brim with rainy day idioms. But when it comes to describing copious amounts of wet stuff, meteorologists do not encourage wordplay. Researchers are particularly adamant about one expression that does not work: the “rain bomb.”

The summer of 2016 brought extreme rain to multiple parts of the U.S., taking lives and causing billions  in property damage. In July, thunderstorms dumped more than six inches of rain on Elicott City, Maryland in roughly two hours, causing flash floods that upended cars and lives. In May, nearly eight inches of rain fell in two days, among a series of heavy rains to inundate Texas. Most recently in Louisiana, more than 30 inches of rain fell in three days, stranding 20,000 people and killing nine.

The Louisiana storm didn’t meet the criteria of a tropical depression as defined by the National Hurricane Center: a tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind speed is 38 miles per hour (62 kilometers per hour) or less. In another instance of precise wording, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy technically ceased to be a “hurricane” a few hours before it made landfall, turning into a “post-tropical cyclone.”

For some in the media, “tropical depression” lacks pizzazz and conviction. It lacks the visceral pelting of tractors falling out of the sky or of women with clubs beating down on the Earth. Some news organizations referred to the Louisiana event as a rain bomb. So what should we call severe rain?

NASA scientists George Huffman and Owen Kelley parsed some of the commonly-used rain terminology.  

For one, there’s the “rain shaft.” A rain shaft is a centralized column of precipitationnot necessarily heavy rain. “The rain shaft […] is any rain event, no matter how modest or foreboding, that can be seen stretching from the cloud to the ground,” wrote Huffman, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Then, there are “microbursts.” These are severe wind events caused by a “small column of exceptionally intense and localized sinking air that results in a violent outrush of air at the ground,” according to AccuWeather. Microbursts are smaller than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) in size.

Be careful of mixing rain shafts with microbursts, Huffman cautioned.

“Just as you don’t have a microburst with every rain shaft, you don’t necessarily have an identifiable rain shaft with every microburst,” wrote Huffman in an email. “The really interesting dynamics of microbursts are a bit rare, and frequently not present in flooding rains.”

There’s also a size distinction between the different systems, NASA scientists said. A rain shaft comes out of an individual convective cell, making it roughly five to ten kilometers across. (By contrast, tropical depressions measure roughly 100 to 500 kilometers across.)

But in some cases, like Louisiana’s, the term “tropical depression” works, said Owen Kelley. “You don’t need to appeal to rain shafts, microbursts, or rain bombs to explain this system,” Kelley wrote in an email. The storm in Louisiana was “just a plain-old tropical depression that got stuck in one place for several days in a row and therefore dumped a lot of rain in one place.” That weather system did display some of the common signs of a tropical system. For instance, Huffman notes that it had low pressure at low and middle altitudes, and high pressure at the top, “implying some degree of warm core.” (Mid-latitude systems have a cold core, with the most negative pressure deviation at the system’s top.)

Researchers agree, though, about one term, “rain bomb,” which appeared in a couple of articles this summer in reference to extreme rainfall events. Don’t use it, scientists said. While it makes for a catchy headline, “rain bomb” is not an established meteorological term.  

For extreme rain, Kelley suggested yet another phrase: “vigorous convective cells.” These severe rainstorms can take on various forms: super-cells, squall lines, isolated cells.

Microbursts, rain shafts, vigorous convective cells. At the end, isn’t it all just wet stuff coming out of the sky? Yes and no, scientists say. Terms used to describe extreme rain should be used with an eye on precision. As extreme rains (and extreme weather, in general) become more frequent, so will the terms we use to describe them.

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One Response to “The Language of Science: Do’s and Don’ts of Extreme Rainfall”

  1. James R. Foreman says:

    Would “deluge” be a precise enough term?