In the past two months, weather reports in California, Oregon, and Washington have been filled with news of “atmospheric rivers” bringing copious amounts of rain and snow to the western United States. Atmospheric rivers are long, thin fingers of moisture that develop in the tropics and flow into higher latitudes. If one of them makes landfall, huge of amounts of rain and snow can fall in a short period.
Much of this moisture, of course, eventually finds its way back to the sea through rivers. When waterways are swollen and flowing rapidly, they also become rivers of suspended sediment, full of clay, mud, sand, and other debris. Though the flooding from atmospheric river events can be devastating, the enormous amount of sediment they send rushing into the sea can also be surprisingly beautiful.
For instance, on February 11, 2017, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP acquired this remarkable view of rivers and streams spewing sediment into the Pacific Ocean. Close to the outlets of streams and rivers, sediment-rich waters appear brown. As the sediment dissipates and mixes into the ocean, the water appears teal.
Duane Waliser, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently tallied just how damaging atmospheric rivers can be for coastal areas. In a study published in Nature Geoscience, Waliser and a colleague showed that atmospheric rivers are among the most damaging storm types in the middle latitudes. Of the very wettest and windiest storms (those ranked in the top 2 percent), atmospheric rivers were associated with nearly half of them. Waliser and colleagues also found that atmospheric rivers were associated with a doubling of the typical wind speed compared to all storm conditions.