Atmospheric rivers in CMIP5 climate ensembles downscaled with a high-resolution regional climate model

dmitry.sein [ at ]


Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are important drivers of hazardous precipitation levels and are often associated with intense floods. So far, the response of ARs to climate change in Europe has been investigated using global climate models within the CMIP5 framework. However, the spatial resolution of those models (1–3∘) is too coarse for an adequate assessment of local to regional precipitation patterns. Using a regional climate model with 0.22∘ resolution, we downscaled an ensemble consisting of 1 ERA-Interim (ERAI) reanalysis data hindcast simulation, 9 global historical, and 24 climate scenario simulations following greenhouse gas emission scenarios RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. The performance of the climate model to simulate AR frequencies and AR-induced precipitation was tested against ERAI. Overall, we find a good agreement between the downscaled CMIP5 historical simulations and ERAI. However, the downscaled simulations better represented small-scale spatial characteristics. This was most evident over the terrain of the Iberian Peninsula, where the AR-induced precipitation pattern clearly reflected prominent east–west topographical elements, resulting in zonal bands of high and low AR impact. Over central Europe, the models simulated a smaller propagation distance of ARs toward eastern Europe than obtained using the ERAI data. Our models showed that ARs in a future warmer climate will be more frequent and more intense, especially in the higher-emission scenarios (RCP4.5, RCP8.5). However, assuming low emissions (RCP2.6), the related changes can be mostly mitigated. According to the high-emission scenario RCP8.5, AR-induced precipitation will increase by 20 %–40 % in western central Europe, whereas mean precipitation rates increase by a maximum of only 12 %. Over the Iberian Peninsula, AR-induced precipitation will slightly decrease (∼6 %) but the decrease in the mean rate will be larger (∼15 %). These changes will lead to an overall increased fractional contribution of ARs to heavy precipitation, with the greatest impact over the Iberian Peninsula (15 %–30 %) and western France (∼15 %). Likewise, the fractional share of yearly maximum precipitation attributable to ARs will increase over the Iberian Peninsula, the UK, and western France. Over Norway, average AR precipitation rates will decline by −5 % to −30 %, most likely due to dynamic changes, with ARs originating from latitudes > 60∘ N decreasing by up to 20 % and those originating south of 45∘ N increasing. This suggests that ARs over Norway will follow longer routes over the continent, such that additional moisture uptake will be impeded. By contrast, ARs from >60∘ N will take up moisture from the North Atlantic before making landfall over Norway. The found changes in the local AR pathway are probably driven by larger-scale circulation changes such as a change in dominating weather regimes and/or changes in the winter storm track over the North Atlantic.

Item Type
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Helmholtz Cross Cutting Activity (2021-2027)
Publication Status
Eprint ID
DOI 10.5194/esd-13-613-2022

Cite as
Gröger, M. , Dieterich, C. , Dutheil, C. , Meier, H. E. M. and Sein, D. V. (2022): Atmospheric rivers in CMIP5 climate ensembles downscaled with a high-resolution regional climate model , Earth System Dynamics, 13 (1), pp. 613-631 . doi: 10.5194/esd-13-613-2022

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