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New Research on Atmospheric River Effects on the Southwest

2017 has brought the state of California one heavy rain event after another. It has also brought a hot new phenomenon to our attention: Atmospheric River. What exactly is an atmospheric river and how are they impacting our region? The new publication, "Influence of atmospheric rivers on vegetation productivity and fire patterns in the southwestern U.S." explores this topic. Take a look at the abstract below for more information.


In the southwestern U.S., the meteorological phenomenon known as atmospheric rivers (ARs) has gained increasing attention due to its strong connections to floods, snowpacks, and water supplies in the West Coast states. Relatively less is known about the ecological implications of ARs, particularly in the interior Southwest, where AR storms are less common. To address this gap, we compared a chronology of AR landfalls on the west coast between 1989 and 2011 and between 25°N and 42.5°N to annual metrics of the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI; an indicator of vegetation productivity) and daily resolution precipitation data to assess influences of AR-fed winter precipitation on vegetation productivity across the southwestern U.S. We mapped correlations between winter AR precipitation during landfalling ARs and (1) annual maximum NDVI and (2) area burned by large wildfires summarized by ecoregion during the same year as the landfalls and during the following year. Interannual variations of AR precipitation strongly influenced both NDVI and area burned by wildfire in some dryland ecoregions. The influence of ARs on dryland vegetation varied significantly depending on the latitude of landfall, with those ARs making landfall below 35°N latitude more strongly influencing these systems, and with effects observed as far as 1300 km from the landfall location. As climatologists' understanding of the synoptic patterns associated with the occurrence of ARs continues to evolve, an increased understanding of how AR landfalls, in aggregate, influence vegetation productivity and associated wildfire activity in dryland ecosystems may provide opportunities to better predict ecological responses to climate and climate change.

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