Oroville Dam near-failure shines light on Atmospheric Rivers

Photos from NASA's Earth Observatory show the aftereffects of massive amounts of rain on California's hydrologic system.

The study, which appeared in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Geoscience, said that it's not only the US that sees these weather troublemakers: Globally, up to 75% of extreme precipitation events come from atmospheric rivers, said study lead author Duane Waliser, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Heavy rainfall is causing California to flood.

"A large portion of atmospheric river research has focused on the western coast of the United States, so the goal of this study was to improve our understanding of atmospheric river events throughout the Southeast", said Neil Debbage, doctoral candidate in the UGA department of geography and first author on the study.

The onslaught has knocked out the five-year drought in northern California, with much of the Sierra Nevada seeing its rainiest and snowiest October-February period on record, the weather service said. According to a study published Monday in Nature Geoscience, it is because of a condition known as atmospheric rivers, or water vapors that extend thousands of miles from the tropics to the western US.

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While their influence on rain and snow has been studied before, one surprising new finding from the study is that up to 75% of extreme wind events in the western USA are due to atmospheric rivers. These flowing columns of condensed water vapor produce "significant levels of rain and snow", and can account for 30-50% of the Pacific Coast's rain and snow.

While atmospheric rivers are naturally occurring phenomena, climate change is expected to intensify the severe precipitation events caused by atmospheric rivers in the future, because of increased evaporation rates and greater atmospheric water-holding capacity.

"The current situation in California - specifically, the dramatic swing from extreme drought to water overabundance and flooding - is indeed a preview of California's likely climate future", one of the team, climate scientist Daniel Swain from UCLA, told Mashable.

To put that into perspective, an average year will usually only have five to seven atmospheric rivers. Out of the 19 most damaging storms that hit Europe between 1979 and 2003, 14 were related to atmospheric river activity.

Atmospheric rivers are now being understood that it will not only bring flooding hazards but also come with strong winds that can pose hazards to lives and properties.