This study focuses on quantifying future anthropogenic changes in surface runoff associated with extreme precipitation in California's Sierra Nevada. The method involves driving a land surface model with output from a high resolution regional atmospheric simulation of the most extreme atmospheric rivers (ARs). AR events were selected from an ensemble of global climate model simulations of historical and late 21st century climate under the “high‐emission” RCP8.5 scenario. Average precipitation during the future ARs increases by ~25% but a much lower proportion falls as snow. The resulting future runoff increase is dramatic—nearly 50%, reflecting both the precipitation increase and simultaneous conversion of snow to rain. The “double whammy” impact on runoff is largest in the 2,000–2,500 m elevation band, where the snowfall loss and precipitation increase are both especially large. This huge increase in runoff during the most extreme AR events could present major flood control challenges for the region.
Precipitation extremes will likely intensify under climate change. However, much uncertainty surrounds intensification of high-magnitude events that are often inadequately resolved by global climate models. In this analysis, we develop a framework involving targeted dynamical downscaling of historical and future extreme precipitation events produced by a large ensemble of a global climate model. This framework is applied to extreme “atmospheric river” storms in California. We find a substantial (10 to 40%) increase in total accumulated precipitation, with the largest relative increases in valleys and mountain lee-side areas. We also report even higher and more spatially uniform increases in hourly maximum precipitation intensity, which exceed Clausius-Clapeyron expectations. Up to 85% of this increase arises from thermodynamically driven increases in water vapor, with a smaller contribution by increased zonal wind strength. These findings imply substantial challenges for water and flood management in California, given future increases in intense atmospheric river-induced precipitation extremes.
Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are responsible for a majority of extreme precipitation and flood events along the U.S. West Coast. To better understand the present‐day characteristics of AR‐related precipitation extremes, a selection of nine most intense historical AR events during 1980–2017 is simulated using a dynamical downscaling modeling framework based on the Weather Research and Forecasting Model. We find that the chosen framework and Weather Research and Forecasting Model configuration reproduces both large‐scale atmospheric features—including parent synoptic‐scale cyclones—as well as the filamentary corridors of integrated vapor transport associated with the ARs themselves. The accuracy of simulated extreme precipitation maxima, relative to in situ and interpolated gridded observations, improves notably with increasing model resolution, with improvements as large as 40–60% for fine scale (3 km) relative to coarse‐scale (27 km) simulations. A separate set of simulations using smoothed topography suggests that much of these gains stem from the improved representation of complex terrain. Additionally, using the 12 December 1995 storm in Northern California as an example, we demonstrate that only the highest‐resolution simulations resolve important fine‐scale features—such as localized orographically forced vertical motion and powerful near hurricane‐force boundary layer winds. Given the demonstrated ability of a targeted dynamical downscaling framework to capture both local extreme precipitation and key fine‐scale characteristics of the most intense ARs in the historical record, we argue that such a configuration may be highly conducive to understanding AR‐related extremes and associated changes in a warming climate.
This study investigates temperature impacts to snowpack and runoff‐driven flood risk over the Sierra Nevada during the extremely wet year of 2016–2017, which followed the extraordinary California drought of 2011–2015. By perturbing near‐surface temperatures from a 9‐km dynamically downscaled simulation, a series of offline land surface model experiments explore how Sierra Nevada hydrology has already been impacted by historical anthropogenic warming and how these impacts evolve under future warming scenarios. Results show that historical warming reduced 2016–2017 Sierra Nevada snow water equivalent by 20% while increasing early‐season runoff by 30%. An additional one third to two thirds loss of snowpack is projected by the end of the century, depending on the emission scenario, with middle elevations experiencing the most significant declines. Notably, the number of days in the future with runoff exceeding 20 mm nearly doubles under a mitigation emission scenarios and triples under a business‐as‐usual scenario. A smaller snow‐to‐rain ratio, as opposed to increased snowmelt, is found to be the primary mechanism of temperature impacts to Sierra snowpack and runoff. These findings are consequential to the prevalence of early‐season floods in the Sierra Nevada. In the Feather River Watershed, historical warming increased runoff by over one third during the period of heaviest precipitation in February 2017. This suggests that historical anthropogenic warming may have exacerbated runoff conditions underlying the Oroville Dam spillway overflow that occurred in this month. As warming continues in the future, the potential for runoff‐based flood risk may rise even higher.
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Alex Hall Chad Thackeray Naomi Goldenson Jesse Norris Yen-Heng (Henry) Lin Stefan Rahimi Di Chen Gavin D. Madakambura
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