California is regularly affected by floods and droughts, primarily as a result of too many or too few atmospheric rivers (ARs). This study analyzes a 2-decade-long hourly precipitation data set from 176 California weather stations and a 3-hourly AR chronology to report variations in rainfall events across California and their association with ARs. On average, 10–40 and 60–120 hours of rainfall in southern and northern California, respectively, are responsible for more than half of annual rainfall accumulations. Approximately 10% to 30% of annual precipitation at locations across the state is from only one large storm. On average, northern California receives 25 to 45 rainfall events annually (40% to 50% of which are AR-related). These events typically last longer and have higher event-precipitation totals than those in southern California. Northern California also receives more AR landfalls with longer durations and stronger Integrated Vapor Transport (IVT). On average, ARs contribute 79%, 76%, and 68% of extreme-rainfall accumulations (i.e., top 5% events annually) in the north coast, northern Sierra, and Transverse Ranges of southern California, respectively.
The San Francisco Bay Area terrain gap in the California Coast Range allows more AR water vapor to reach inland over the Delta and Sacramento Valley, and thus influences precipitation in the Delta’s catchment. This is particularly important for extreme precipitation in the northern Sierra Nevada, including river basins above Oroville Dam and Shasta Dam.
This study highlights differences between rainfall and AR characteristics in coastal versus inland northern California — differences that largely determine the regional geography of flood risks and water reliability. These analyses support water resource, flood, levee, wetland, and ecosystem management within the catchment of the San Francisco Estuary system by describing regional characteristics of ARs and their influence on rainfall on an hourly time-scale.