Skill of Rain–Snow Level Forecasts for Landfalling Atmospheric Rivers: A Multimodel Assessment Using California’s Network of Vertically Profiling Radars

Authors: Brian Henn, Rachel Weihs, Andrew C. Martin, F. Martin Ralph, and Tashiana Osborne 

The partitioning of rain and snow during atmospheric river (AR) storms is a critical factor in flood forecasting, water resources planning, and reservoir operations. Forecasts of atmospheric rain–snow levels from December 2016 to March 2017, a period of active AR landfalls, are evaluated using 19 profiling radars in California. Three forecast model products are assessed: a global forecast model downscaled to 3-km grid spacing, 4-km river forecast center operational forecasts, and 50-km global ensemble reforecasts. Model forecasts of the rain–snow level are compared with observations of rain–snow melting-level brightband heights. Models produce mean bias magnitudes of less than 200 m across a range of forecast lead times. Error magnitudes increase with lead time and are similar between models, averaging 342 m for lead times of 24 h or less and growing to 700–800 m for lead times of greater than 144 h. Observed extremes in the rain–snow level are underestimated, particularly for warmer events, and the magnitude of errors increases with rain–snow level. Storms with high rain–snow levels are correlated with larger observed precipitation rates in Sierra Nevada watersheds. Flood risk increases with rain–snow levels, not only because a greater fraction of the watershed receives rain, but also because warmer storms carry greater water vapor and thus can produce heavier precipitation. The uncertainty of flood forecasts grows nonlinearly with the rain–snow level for these reasons as well. High rain–snow level ARs are a major flood hazard in California and are projected to be more prevalent with climate warming.

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