Explained: What are atmospheric river storms flooding parts of Canada? – India Today

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As climate change intensifies, extreme events are becoming more frequent and more damaging. Canada is the latest theatre of these events. Climatic phenomena called atmospheric river storms have caused havoc in parts of the country.
According to the latest weather reports, the Canadian province of British Columbia is likely to face another such storm. The local government has warned residents asking them to “get prepared for heavy rain and strong winds”.
Scientists have said that atmospheric rivers of the kind that drenched California in the US, and flooded British Columbia in recent weeks are likely to become larger and more destructive.
They have attributed the extremely rough weather condition to the spell of climate change. American space agency Nasa said these “rivers in the sky” were relatively common with 11 being present on the Earth at any given point of time.
However, with the warming of the planet and the rise in sea temperatures, the atmospheric conditions change, resulting in heavy rainfall. A warm atmosphere can hold more moisture which falls as rain when the air cools particularly over land. Atmospheric rivers are one such occurrence.
Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow regions in the atmosphere like rivers in the sky that transport most of the water vapour outside of the tropical region. This atmospheric water steams or columns of moisture travel great distances. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapour in the form of rain or snow.
According to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), when these atmospheric rivers move inland and sweep over mountains, the water vapour rises and cools to create heavy rainfall or snowfall.
While most of these atmospheric phenomena are weak systems, the powerful ones can lead to extreme flooding that disrupts travel, induce mudslides and cause catastrophic damage to life and property.
Atmospheric rivers are a key feature in the global water cycle. They are closely tied to both water supply and flood risks. While they lead to flooding at times, in some cases they also help in enriching drying rivers.
Four people have died in a landslide caused by heavy rains in British Columbia forcing the government to declare it a state of emergency. John Clague, a professor in the Earth Sciences Department at Simon Fraser University told AP that the weather events were all connected and could be attributed to climate change.
The record temperatures in the summer set the stage for the wildfires, burning the ground in a way that prevented water from seeping into the soil. This resulted in the water from the torrential rains pouring more quickly into streams and rivers, causing floods.
The region witnessed a month’s worth of rain in two days, prompting fatal floods and landslides, devastating communities and severing access to the country’s largest port. A similar event was also observed in drought-hit California that triggered mudslides, toppled utility poles and blocked roadways, but also helped replenish depleted reservoirs.
Reuters quoted scientists as saying that the atmospheric river that hit California in October was accompanied by a so-called “bomb cyclone” a weather hazard that held more precipitation and produced stronger winds.
A 2018 study by Nasa’s Jet propulsion Laboratory (JPL) showed that the atmospheric rivers were projected to become slightly less frequent, but more intense.
Atmospheric rivers would become about 10 per cent less frequent by the end of this century, but about 25 per cent longer and wider, the study found. This situation might lead to nearly double the frequency of the most intense atmospheric river storms.
Recent events in Canada have proved that atmospheric river storms are getting more intense with heavy precipitation bringing devastation to fire-ravaged regions. Matthias Jakob, a geoscientist with Canada’s BCG Engineering, however, said “Not only are we having more of these so-called atmospheric rivers, but we also have the added secondary effect of heat and drought, which then amplify the effects of heavy rainstorms.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s weather department has issued another warning for a winter storm in British Columbia.
“Weather system over northern B.C. will continue to bring periods of heavy snow along Highway 97 – Pine Pass. With temperatures near zero, snow may become mixed with rain at times before ending overnight. Weather in the mountains can change suddenly resulting in hazardous driving conditions,” read the forecast.
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