Scientists warn climate change could unleash ‘rivers in the sky’

By: Rosie Frost

The planet’s warming climate could intensify ‘rivers in the sky’ over East Asia, scientists have warned.

Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow columns of water vapour flowing through the sky that pick up moisture from warm areas then deposit it in colder regions. When they hit a barrier like a mountain range, it can lead to extreme levels of rain or snowfall.

This weather phenomenon is thought to contribute around 20% of the Earth’s total water flow.

But, with vast quantities of water being released in a short space of time, they can also cause potentially catastrophic flooding. Wind and temperature control their movements too – both factors that are influenced by climate change.

While there has been a lot of research into atmospheric rivers, it isn’t entirely clear what our changing climate will do to them. But meteorologists say that, with more frequent extreme weather having a severe impact on society, understanding how they will be affected is vital.

To find out, scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan ran simulations using nearly 60 years of weather data. Computer models showed that if we see the worst outcomes of climate change, atmospheric rivers would cause record-breaking amounts of precipitation in Japan, Taiwan, northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula.

“Atmospheric rivers will bring unprecedented extreme rainfall over East Asia under global warming,” says the newly published paper.