Drivers and Impacts of Atmospheric Rivers in New Zealand
Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) are long, narrow jets of intense water vapour flux that are a fundamental component of the global atmospheric circulation, transporting moisture and heat from the tropics to higher latitudes. When an AR makes landfall, especially in areas of steep topography, it releases much of its water vapour as precipitation through orographic uplift. Thus, although ARs play a positive role in the distribution and maintenance of water resources in the mid-latitudes, they are also associated with extreme precipitation and flooding. AR events in New Zealand have had major socio-economic consequences with losses to property, farmland, stock, roads and bridges. However, despite knowledge of their occurrence, focused investigations of ARs in New Zealand have received relatively little scientific attention. In particular, little is known about how large-scale climate patterns, such as the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) and El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), influence ARs and AR-related precipitation extremes.
The aim of this study is to quantify the impacts and large-scale drivers of AR landfalls in New Zealand. We employ a new AR detection algorithm, developed specifically for the New Zealand case, to investigate landfalling ARs over a 41-year period from 1979-2019. We investigate the general climatology of ARs, and evaluate the synoptic conditions that drive these events. Using a comprehensive daily rainfall dataset comprising 189 stations, we also investigate the impacts of ARs on NZ rainfall and flooding events. For northern and western regions, over 45% of rainfall fell directly under AR conditions, contributing to daily rainfall totals 2.5 times higher on average compared to non-AR days. Further, we find that AR days were associated with up to 70% of daily rainfall totals above the 99th percentile, with insurance damages exceeding NZ $1.4 billion since 1980.
Finally, for the first time in New Zealand, we investigate how large-scale climate patterns influence the occurrence of ARs. We find that changes in the leading modes of climate variability can alter seasonal and regional AR frequency by upwards of 30%. The SAM is identified as the dominant driver of AR activity (other than the seasonal cycle), with the positive SAM phase associated with a 16% reduction in AR occurrence during summer (30-35% reduction for the North Island). The links between AR occurrence and ENSO were less clear, though a few statistically significant relationships were found. The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), the leading mode of intraseasonal tropical variability, was found to significantly influence the frequency and timing of AR landfalls (particularly for the northern North Island). Favourable MJO phases were associated with positive AR frequency anomalies +60% above the mean. These results demonstrate potential use of the AR framework in skilful subseasonal-to-seasonal forecasts of extreme rainfall in New Zealand.