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Atmospheric Rivers and Climate Stresses: Retrospective and Prospective Assessments of the Impacts of Storm Variability, Climate Changes, and Extremes in the Western U.S.
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Overcoming the challenges posed by weather and climate-related hazards requires a shared understanding among scientists, decision-makers, and the public of what the likely or potential impacts might be so that appropriate actions can be identified. The research presented here contributes toward addressing this challenge in two primary ways. First, I address questions related to the historical role of atmospheric rivers (ARs) - key drivers of precipitation variability and extremes in many parts of the world - as determinants of ecological and hydrological variability and hazards in the western US. In doing so, I distinguish areas with differing AR-related hazards (e.g., flood-, fire-, snow-related), identify how atmospheric and land-surface drivers of these risks vary across space and time, and highlight a method for comprehensively analyzing hydrologic responses to ARs that allows potential best- and worst- case impacts that might occur for a given storm to be quantified.The second facet of this research focuses on translating information on climate and weather hazards into a form that is useful to local communities. In doing so, I provide guidance on the construction of climate stress tests – scenarios that represent one or more specific examples of disruptive climatic events. By focusing on a very limited set of extreme conditions, stress tests facilitate analyses of the impacts and risks at the level of detail that is necessary to identify specific actions or strategies to address these risks. Although there is a wealth of guidance on the use of scenarios for natural hazards and climate adaptation planning, this guidance typically assumes the use of ‘off-the-shelf’ data or climate model projections, rather than the creation of a customized scenario depicting an extreme event(s) of interest. I address this gap by synthesizing a variety of data sources and analytical techniques that could be used to construct climate stress tests that are customized to end-users’ needs. I further assess the potential advantages and disadvantages of these methods to provide guidance on which might be best suited given an intended application, the stakeholders involved, and the resources available. Finally, I demonstrate the use of these methods in a case study water resources sustainability planning effort in the Truckee and Carson River basins of California and Nevada. Ultimately, this work is intended to provide building blocks with which scientist-stakeholder teams can co-produce their own stress test scenarios for detailed exploration of weather and climate risks of concern.