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Implications of warming on western United States landfalling atmospheric rivers and their flood damages


Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are critical to the hydrological cycle of the western United States with both favorable and formidable impacts to society based on their landfalling characteristics. In this study, we provide a first-of-its-kind evaluation of how landfalling ARs may respond to several stabilized warming scenarios. To do this we combine a recently developed AR detection workflow with an ensemble of uniform high-resolution (0.25°) Community Earth System Model simulations designed to facilitate detection and attribution of extreme events with global warming. These simulations include a world that might have been in the absence of anthropogenic warming (+0◦C), a world that corresponds to present day warming (+0.85◦C), and several future worlds corresponding to +1.5◦C, +2◦C and +3◦C global warming. We show that warming increases the number of water management relevant landfalling ARs from 19.1 ARs per year at +0◦C to 23.6 ARs per year at +3◦C. Additionally, this warming intensifies the amount of water transported by landfalling ARs resulting in a decrease in the fraction of ARs that are “mostly to primarily beneficial” to water resource management (i.e., 91% of ARs at +0◦C to 78% at +3◦C) and an increase in the fraction of ARs that are “mostly or primarily hazardous” to water resource management (i.e., 2% of ARs at +0◦C to 8% at +3◦C). Shifts in AR character also have important ramifications on flood damages, whereby for every +1◦C of additional warming from present conditions annual average flood damages increase by ~$1 billion. These findings highlight the pragmatic implications of climate mitigation aimed at limiting global warming to under +2◦C.

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