New Western Storms Scale to Describe Intensity, Potential Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers

February 5, 2019 · 4 comments

Hurricanes are classified by the Saffir-Simpson Scale and tornadoes by the Enhanced Fujita Scale, and now atmospheric rivers—those long, transient corridors of water vapor that fuel flooding rain events each winter in the West, especially California—will also be scaled to enhance awareness and bolster prediction.

The new AR scale ranks their intensity and potential impacts from 1 to 5 using the categories “weak,” “moderate,” “strong,” “extreme,” and “exceptional,” based on the amount of water vapor they carry and their duration. It is intended to describe the strength of ARs as beneficial to hazardous, aiding water management and flood response.

AR-Scale“The scale recognizes that weak ARs are often mostly beneficial because they can enhance water supply and snow pack, while stronger ARs can become mostly hazardous, for example if they strike an area with conditions that enhance vulnerability, such as [where there are] burn scars, or already wet conditions,” says Marty Ralph and co-authors in a paper appearing in the February 2019 issue of BAMS and posted online as an early release today. “Extended durations can enhance impacts,” he says.

Ralph is director of the Center for Western Water and Weather Extremes (CW3E) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a leading authority on atmospheric rivers, which were officially defined by the AMS in 2017. The new scale was created in collaboration with NWS meteorologists Jonathan Rutz and Chris Smallcomb, and several other experts. It marks two decades of intensive field research that involved establishing a network of dozens and dozens of automated weather stations to observe ARs in real time and flying research planes through them as they crashed ashore and up and over the mountainous terrain of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Atmospheric rivers are the source of most of the West Coast’s heaviest rains and floods—roughly 80 percent of levee breaches in California’s Central Valley are associated with landfalling ARs. Research shows that a combination of intense water vapor transport for a long duration over a given area causes the biggest impact. But ARs also are primary contributors to the region’s water supply.

The newly created scale is designed to capture this combination, accounting for both the amount of available water and the duration it is available. It focuses on a period of 24-48 hours as its standard measurement. When an AR lasts in an area fewer than 24 hours it is demoted by one category, and if it persists more than 48 hours, it is promoted by a category. Unlike the operational hurricane scale, which has been criticized for inadequately representing the increased impacts of slower-moving, lower-end hurricanes, duration is a fundamental factor in the AR scale. It also aims to convey the benefits of ARs, not just the hazards.

“It can serve as a focal point for discussion between water managers, emergency response personnel and the research community as these key water supply and flood inducing storms continue to evolve in a changing climate,” says co-author Michael Anderson of the California Department of Water Resources.

The scale ranks ARs in five categories:

  • AR Cat 1 (Weak):  Primarily beneficial. For example, a February 23, 2017, AR hit California, lasted 24 hours at the coast, and produced modest rainfall.
  • AR Cat 2 (Moderate): Mostly beneficial, but also somewhat hazardous. An AR on November 19-20, 2016, hit Northern California, lasted 42 hours at the coast, and produced several inches of rain that helped replenish low reservoirs after a drought.
  • AR Cat 3 (Strong): Balance of beneficial and hazardous. An AR on October 14-15, 2016, lasted 36 hours at the coast, produced 5-10 inches of rain that helped refill reservoirs after a drought, but also caused some rivers to rise to just below flood stage.
  • AR Cat 4 (Extreme): Mostly hazardous, but also beneficial. For example, an AR on January, 8-9, 2017, that persisted for 36 hours produced up to 14 inches of rain in the Sierra Nevada and caused at least a dozen rivers to reach flood stage.
  • AR Cat 5 (Exceptional): Primarily hazardous. For example, a December 29, 1996, to January 2, 1997, AR lasted over 100 hours at the Central California coast. The associated heavy precipitation and runoff caused more than $1 billion in damages.

When AR storms are predicted for the West Coast, the scale rankings will be updated and communicated on the CW3E website and its Twitter handle.

“The launch of the AR Scale marks a significant step in the development of the concept and its application,” Ralph commented in an e-mail to the AMS, “and caused me to reflect back a bit on where it came from. All the people and organizations who’ve contributed. The scientific debate around the subject. The creation of a formal definition for the Glossary of Meteorology. The creation of a 100-station mesonet to monitor them in California. The AR Recon effort underway in a partnership between Scripps and NCEP [now NCEI], and in collaboration with the Navy, NCAR, and ECMWF, as well as others.  A number of papers are already in the works using the scale, and we are hopeful that it will prove useful for the public and for officials who must deal with storms in a large area where scales for hurricanes, tornadoes and nor’easters are not very applicable.”