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River in the Sky
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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

River in the Sky

No, it is not a '60s pop song; it is the name for a climate phenomenon that has repeatedly left its mark on California.

In the last decade, researchers have begun to understand how storm tracks concentrate into "atmospheric rivers" that can channel vast amounts of precipitation into state-drenching storms. (In 1862, an atmospheric river brought 45 straight days of rain and required California Governor Leland Stanford to arrive at his own inauguration by rowboat.)

Mike Dettinger, a hydrologist who has a joint appointment with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says the phenomenon went largely unrecognized by science until the 1990s, when advancements in analysis and technology gave it shape.

Dettinger and Marty Ralph of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Physical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colo., co-authored a recent paper describing the phenomenon. The vaporized water carried by the wind in these narrow regions is equivalent to the amount of liquid water carried by seven to 15 Mississippi Rivers combined. They said that raising awareness of atmospheric rivers is imperative if we are to improve flood management plans around the country, as well as extreme precipitation forecasts and flood warnings in key areas.

—Robert Monroe