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Extreme Precipitation and Atmospheric Rivers

Future changes in extreme precipitation over the San Francisco Bay Area

Extreme precipitation poses a major challenge for local governments, including the City and County of San Francisco, California, as flooding can damage and destroy infrastructure and property. As the climate continues to warm, reliable future precipitation projections are needed to provide the best possible information to decision makers. However, future changes in the magnitude of extreme precipitation are uncertain, as current state-of-the-art global climate models are typically run at relatively coarse horizontal resolutions that require the use of convective parameterization and have difficulty simulating observed extreme rainfall rates. Here, we performed ensembles of convection-permitting regional climate model simulations to investigate how five historically impactful extreme precipitation events over the San Francisco Bay Area could change if similar events occurred in future climates. We found that changes in storm-total precipitation depend strongly on storm type. Precipitation associated with an atmospheric river (AR) accompanied by an extratropical cyclone (ETC) is projected to increase at a rate exceeding (by up to 1.5 times) the theoretical Clausius Clapeyron scaling of 6–7% per C warming. On the other hand, future precipitation changes are weak or negative for events characterized by an AR only, despite increases in precipitable water and integrated vapor transport that are similar to those of the co-occurring AR and ETC events. The differences in the sign of future precipitation change between AR-only events and co-occurring AR and ETC events is instead linked with changes in mid-tropospheric vertical velocity. Given that the majority of observed ARs are associated with an ETC, this research has important implications for future precipitation impacts over the Bay Area, as it indicates that storm-total precipitation associated with the most common type of storm event may increase by up to 26–37% in 2100 relative to historical.

  • Patricola CM, Wehner MF, Bercos-Hickey E, Maciel FV, May C, Mak M, Yip O, Roche A, Leal S (2022) Future Changes in Extreme Precipitation over the San Francisco Bay Area: Dependence on Atmospheric River and Extratropical Cyclone Events, Weather and Climate Extremes, 36, 100440.

This research was supported by the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) and used resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC).

updated 12/9/2022