The term atmospheric river has been used a lot lately, as California has been hit with round after round of heavy rain and snow. So what is an atmospheric river? An atmospheric river is a long, narrow region in the atmosphere that transports water vapor from the tropics to other parts of the world. The size and shape of atmospheric rivers vary, but the strongest ones can cause extreme rainfall events and floods. When atmospheric rivers make landfall, they release most of their water vapor in the form of rain or snow. One example is the ‘Pineapple Express,’ which brings moisture from the ocean near Hawaii to the west coast of the United States.

Over the past few weeks, California has been hit by a series of atmospheric rivers that have helped produce record rain and snowfall across the state. Since December 1, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Luis Obispo have all seen over three times the normal amount of rain for that period. Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, has already surpassed its annual average rainfall for 2023. All of this rain on already saturated ground has led to flooding, mudslides, and damage to roads and bridges. 

In the higher elevations of California, the numerous atmospheric rivers over the last few weeks have produced a whole lot of snow. Mammoth Lakes, home to a major ski resort, has received nearly ten feet of snow since January 9. Numerous resorts have received over 200% of their average snowfall to date. These atmospheric rivers have given a big boost to the mountain snowpack, which will provide critical water to farmers and reservoirs when it begins to melt in the spring. 

What does all this rain and snow mean for the ongoing drought? It’s still too early to tell. The next few months will be critical. Last winter, a wet October-December was followed by a dry remainder of the winter. More precipitation needs to fall throughout the rest of the winter in order to help alleviate the drought. Reservoirs across California have risen dramatically as a result of the recent rains, but many remain well below capacity. Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, both in the northern part of the state, are currently around 55% of capacity. Generally, reservoirs in the south have experienced more rain and are higher than their historical average, which is good news. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 95% of the state is still in some level of drought. So while the record moisture over the last few weeks has been a good start, it hasn’t quite pulled California out of the drought.

Change in drought between December 6, 2022 (left) and January 17, 2023 (right): U.S. Drought Monitor


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Eli Flicker