Influence of atmospheric rivers on vegetation productivity and fire patterns in the southwestern U.S.

Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
By: , and 



In the southwestern U.S., the meteorological phenomenon known as atmospheric rivers (ARs) has gained increasing attention due to its strong connections to floods, snowpacks, and water supplies in the West Coast states. Relatively less is known about the ecological implications of ARs, particularly in the interior Southwest, where AR storms are less common. To address this gap, we compared a chronology of AR landfalls on the west coast between 1989 and 2011 and between 25°N and 42.5°N to annual metrics of the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI; an indicator of vegetation productivity) and daily resolution precipitation data to assess influences of AR-fed winter precipitation on vegetation productivity across the southwestern U.S. We mapped correlations between winter AR precipitation during landfalling ARs and (1) annual maximum NDVI and (2) area burned by large wildfires summarized by ecoregion during the same year as the landfalls and during the following year. Interannual variations of AR precipitation strongly influenced both NDVI and area burned by wildfire in some dryland ecoregions. The influence of ARs on dryland vegetation varied significantly depending on the latitude of landfall, with those ARs making landfall below 35°N latitude more strongly influencing these systems, and with effects observed as far as 1300 km from the landfall location. As climatologists' understanding of the synoptic patterns associated with the occurrence of ARs continues to evolve, an increased understanding of how AR landfalls, in aggregate, influence vegetation productivity and associated wildfire activity in dryland ecosystems may provide opportunities to better predict ecological responses to climate and climate change.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Influence of atmospheric rivers on vegetation productivity and fire patterns in the southwestern U.S.
Series title Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
DOI 10.1002/2016JG003608
Volume 122
Issue 2
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher AGU
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Western Branch
Description 16 p.
First page 308
Last page 323
Country United States
State Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah
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