Storms Ripping Through the West Create an Atmospheric River Visible From Space

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Feb 10, 2024

California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency as storms rip through the West Coast. Over the weekend, a powerful storm is making its way across the western U.S., and the West Coast discovered what an atmospheric river is firsthand.

Los Angeles received 75 percent of its normal rainfall in a single day, leading to a saturated ground prone to flooding with a second system. This particular flooding can even be seen from space.

Atmospheric River Pours Over Nine States

The National Weather Services (NWS) issued weather warnings for nine states before the storm’s arrival, but no one expected the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites to capture the atmospheric river.

Cars driving on a highway during a rainy night

Source: Romain Guy

“This morning, @NOAA’s #GOESWest is continuing to monitor a large #AtmosphericRiver bringing flooding rains, strong winds, and coastal flooding to southern California,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday morning.


This Storm System Is Moving Inland

An atmospheric river is a long, narrow region in the atmosphere that transports a large amount of moisture, according to NOAA. These rivers play a major role in global climate patterns.


Source: Rick George/Flickr

The atmospheric river is part of a broader storm system that is currently moving inland, according to NWS Weather Prediction Center meteorologist and forecaster Ashton Robinson Cook (via Newsweek).

What Causes Atmospheric Rivers? 

Several factors cause atmospheric rivers. Wind patterns transport warm water sources mixed with warm, moist air. As air travels toward the poles, the upward motion cools the air, causing water vapor to condense into tiny water droplets or ice crystals.

A person walks through flood waters as a powerful long-duration atmospheric river storm, the second in less than a week, impacts California on February 4, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. The storm is delivering potential for widespread flooding, landslides and power outages while dropping heavy rain and snow across the region.

Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Fast-moving air current guides and shapes the movement of the moist air creating a narrow, elongated “river” appearance of atmospheric rivers. The specific intensity and impact of an atmospheric river depend on various factors like temperature, wind speed, and the shape of the terrain.

Space Can See This Storm

The post continues to read: “The system is also bringing the threat of heavy mountain snow to parts of the Great Basin and southern Rockies. Satellite images with the post showed the storm swirling from the Mexico border to the Canadian border in Montana.

A multicolor storm pattern across the west coast of the United States

Source: NOAA Satellites/X

“Eventually, this system will slide into the interior western U.S. and is a big part of the reason for the snow to pick up, especially in the higher territory of Arizona northward through Wyoming,” Robinson Cook said to Newsweek.

How Is the Weather Affecting People 

The Los Angeles Fire Department said 1,000 firefighters are fighting against 49 debris flows, 130 reports of flooding, half a dozen structure fires, and several rescues of motorists stranded in vehicles.

A man being rescued by a helicopter from the raging waters in the Los Angeles river

Source: Daniel Castillo/LAFD/Facebook

Many drivers are avoiding driving through the rivers forming in the streets, while some residents are noticing that water is starting to seep through their front doors.


Authorities Advise People to Stay at Home

The winter storm is effecting nine states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. The storm’s impacts included a threat of hazardous conditions that could make traveling difficult.

A SUV driving through a rainstorm in a city downtown

Source: Asim Bharwani/Flickr

“If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food, and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency,” the NWS office in Pocatello, Idaho, warned Newsweek.


Los Angeles Has Received 75 Percent of Its Normal Annual Rainfall 

In the last two days, downtown Los Angeles received 7.03 inches of rain, according to AccuWeather. The city just witnessed its third wettest two-day span in history, with back-to-back days shattering daily rainfall records.

Raining overflowing and pouring off a roof at a warehouse

Source: lisascottage/Instagram

While Californians welcome the rain, the destructive storm is creating hazardous conditions by pushing mud, boulders, and debris down hillsides and roadways.


How Much Will This Storm Cost California? 

Portions of Los Angeles County have accumulated more than 10 inches of rain since Sunday, with some areas reaching nearly one foot of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. In the California mountains, heavy snowfall associated with atmospheric river-fueled storm systems has been packing the snow.

A overview of a mudslide over a highway in Washington

Source: Washington State Dept of Transportation

AccuWeather estimates that the storm and record rainfall in California will lead to $10 billion in damages and economic losses.


Atmospheric Rivers Are Common in West Coast Winters

Atmospheric rivers are a hallmark across the West Coast winter. Not all of these storms are harmful. Weaker atmospheric rivers offer the much-needed rainfall and snow that regions need. In these wet winters, the rainfall fills up water reservoirs before the dry, hot summers come.

A overfilled canal in Venice, California

Source: therealmrcendejas/Instagram

Then, there are the more hazardous atmospheric rivers. Excessive rainfall increases the chances of flooding.


Not the West Coast’s First Atmospheric River

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the West Coast has faced an atmospheric river-fueled storm system. Between December 2022 and March 2023, heavy rainfall caused by multiple atmospheric rivers resulted in floods in parts of Southern California, the California Central Coast, Northern California, and Nevada.

A greyscale image of rain drops on a window looking out onto skyscrapers and palm trees

Source: Nic Adler

Some areas were affected by flooding, mudslides, and power outages. Some areas received over 20 inches of rainfall, and at least 22 fatalities.


Atmospheric Rivers Happen All Over the World

While California has been battling atmospheric rivers for the last few years, these types of storms are not exclusive to the West Coast. They can also impact the eastern US and happen frequently in parts of Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

An aerial view of the Los Angeles River swollen by storm runoff as a powerful long-duration atmospheric river storm, the second in less than a week, continues to impact Southern California on February 5, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Nearly seven inches of rain have fallen in downtown Los Angeles during the storm, about half the average yearly total. The storm is delivering widespread flooding, landslides and power outages while dropping heavy rain and snow across the region.

Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Atmospheric rivers are fascinating weather phenomena. While they can be intense, the rain and snow are much needed during the winter months.