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Study shows warming planet is leading to an increase in 'atmospheric river'-associated flooding in India

Study shows warming planet is leading to an increase in atmospheric river-associated flooding in India
Changes in atmospheric rivers in India in the summer monsoon season (JJAS, June-September) during 1951–2020. a Trend in the frequency of occurrence of ARs (%) during 1951–2020; b Trend in the summer monsoon season IVT anomaly (kg m−1 s−1). Solid lines in (a, b) indicate the linear trend and 10-year moving mean, respectively; c Long-term (1951–2020) change in the frequency of ARs in India. Trend and change (trend slope multiplied by duration) were estimated using the non-parametric Mann-Kendall trend test and Sen slope estimator. Statistical significance was estimated at 5% level, therefore, p < 0.05 indicate significant trend/change. Stippling in (c) shows the regions with statistically significant change in the frequency of ARs. Credit: Communications Earth & Environment (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-00775-9

A team of atmospheric scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology and the University of California, has found that the number of atmospheric rivers associated with flooding in India has been rising as the planet continues to grow warmer.

In their paper published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, the group describes how they analyzed data from multiple sources to track the number of atmospheric rivers affecting India and how it has led to increased flooding in that country.

Atmospheric rivers (ARs) have been in the news of late due to several of them that caused flooding in California this past winter. But ARs do not impact just the US, they can form and cause increased amounts of rain in many parts of the world. In this new effort, the research team sought to learn more about the impact of ARs on India—a country well accustomed to annual flooding during the monsoon season.

ARs are channels of moisture-laden air. They form when air pressure systems collide, pushing air with a lot of moisture in a stream-like fashion through the atmosphere. As they grow in size, they become similar to rivers flowing across the sky. When they meet land, the air pressure relents, allowing the moisture to be released, quite often in dramatic fashion.

In this new effort, the researchers team examined from the European Reanalysis Version, the Dartmouth Flood Observatory and the India Meteorological Department for the years 1951 through 2020 looking for evidence of ARs that have had an impact on India, most particularly during monsoon seasons.

In so doing, they found AR events impacted the country 596 times, 95% of which occurred during a . They also found that 54% of the biggest AR events occurred over the past three decades, suggesting they are not only forming more often but are getting bigger as the planet grows warmer.

The researchers note that warmer ocean surface temperatures over parts of the Indian Ocean have led to more evaporation, which in turn has led to more rain when ARs form. The increase in rain amounts has led to massive floods which have destroyed property and killed thousands of people.

More information: Shanti Shwarup Mahto et al, Atmospheric rivers that make landfall in India are associated with flooding, Communications Earth & Environment (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-00775-9

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