Understanding Atmospheric Rivers Could Give Insight to Weather Systems and Climate Change

Atmospheric rivers, like the recent one that pelted California with an onslaught of storms, are getting more deadly and costly thanks to warming oceans impacting entire weather systems.  

Maike Sonnewald
Maike Sonnewald, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis (Steven Trinh/UC Davis)

A recent article in The Guardian reports that scientists, like Maike Sonnewald, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, are racing to better understand these systems. They hope to make sense of the layered and complicated conversations that happen among the ocean, the atmosphere and the land and gain stronger insights on how, when and where storms will strike.    

The work is greatly expanding the accuracy of weather predictions, giving water managers more time to plan and communities earlier warnings to prepare. But forecasts of where a storm will make landfall can still be off by hundreds of miles, and it's difficult to predict how particular storms will play out.  

"The more we learn, the more we recognize we need more data about this," said Sonnewald, who leads the Computational Climate and Ocean Group.  

Sonnewald is a physical oceanographer and uses computer science to gain insights about the climate and long-range weather forecasts. She added that recent advances in the satellite age helped paint a picture of how the ocean and the atmosphere interact. That picture, metaphorically speaking, still has too few pixels. 

"We don't necessarily have a high enough resolution to be able to model specific things," she said, explaining that the dynamic nature of the ocean — and how easily small shifts can create big changes in the models — pose predictive challenges. 

"The climate is changing; we are making the earth hotter, and that is known. It is the details that are hard to discern," Sonnewald said.  

Read the full article 

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