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Swelling 'atmospheric rivers' may bring severe flooding to California




An atmospheric river (thin yellow band) feeds torrential rain into northern California on Nov. 30.
An atmospheric river (thin yellow band) feeds torrential rain into northern California on Nov. 30.
Image courtesy of NOAA

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The last few days the entire state has been hammered by a series of storms, but they may have been caused by something few have heard of ... an atmospheric river.

These atmospheric rivers are large flows of vapor that form a mile high and reach 1,000 miles long in the atmosphere. These flows can carry as much as 10 Mississippi Rivers-worth of water and cause major flooding, as they did during a 43-day storm back in 1861.

According to scientists, every 200-250 years or so there are massive floods in California caused by these flows of moisture. 

An article about atmospheric rivers will appear in the January edition of Scientific American. We talk with senior editor of Scientific American, Mark Fischetti.