What is an atmospheric river?

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Atmospheric rivers are an interesting and important atmospheric phenomenon that contributes to bringing humidity to North America.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla .– An atmospheric river is similar to the rivers we observe on earth, except that it is in the sky. It is a band of moisture that drains into the atmosphere and often brings significant humid weather to the western parts of the United States.

Although they can be over 1,000 miles long, atmospheric rivers only extend 250 to 375 miles wide. This water vapor can provide up to 50% of the annual precipitation accumulated for the western half of the United States in the form of rain and snow. Atmospheric rivers can have beneficial effects ranging from ending droughts to strengthening water supplies. However, wet weather flooding can be dangerous, causing flooding, mudslides and extensive water damage.

You may have heard this atmospheric phenomenon by another name, the Pineapple Express. This moniker was earned due to the location where moisture typically comes from. These rivers will tap into the warm, humid air near the Polynesian islands, especially Hawaii, and carry it to the western parts of North America. Hence the name, Pineapple Express.

The best way to spot an atmospheric river is to use the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 16 (GOES 16) to identify areas of significant water vapor. From there, meteorologists will closely monitor the movement of water vapor and provide the necessary information on how to prepare.

Further research is being conducted on atmospheric rivers not only from satellites and radar, but also from NOAA ships based in the Pacific.



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