• Atmospheric rivers can hold huge amounts of water, and can cause mudslides and floods when they fall.
  • According to the NASA Earth Observatory, these weather systems can carry up to 15 times the volume of the Mississippi River.
  • Scientists say warmer air and water temperatures from climate change can lead to more evaporation for storms to absorb and dump.

Atmospheric rivers of the sort causing massive floods and mudslides in Canada's British Columbia are akin to a river in the sky, weather systems that carry up to 15 times the volume of the Mississippi River, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.

The one that hit British Columbia dumped a month's worth of rain in two days, forcing a quarter of all residents in one town to seek shelter. read more

They appear as a trail of wispy clouds that can stretch up to hundreds of miles and bring much-needed rain or snow to the Pacific Northwest, Chile, western Europe and South Africa.

The largest of these atmospheric rivers can bring extreme flooding, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists say warmer air and water temperatures from climate change can lead to more evaporation for storms to absorb and dump.

Research projects that climate change will cause atmospheric rivers to become 25% longer and 25% wider and to carry more water.

In addition to the flooding this week in British Columbia, last month a powerful storm that meteorologists described as an atmospheric river mixed with a "bomb cyclone" washed over wildfire-scarred northern California. The storm brought much-needed rain but also plagued the region with mudslides and downed power lines. read more

a graphic showing how atmospheric rivers work
Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere, like rivers in the sky.
Image: NOAA

How has the World Economic Forum helped initiate a more effective response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises?

In 2005, the World Economic Forum helped to establish the Logistics Emergency Teams (LET), a network of representatives from four of the world’s largest logistics and transport companies (Agility, DP World, Maersk and UPS) who work together in partnership with the World Food Programme-led Global Logistics Cluster to deliver free humanitarian assistance.

To date, the LET has responded to more than 20 large-scale natural disasters and humanitarian crises, providing critical logistical support for hurricane victims in Haiti, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, tsunami victims in Indonesia, civilians in war-ravaged Yemen and many more.

In 2018, 1,943 employees of LET member companies were trained in humanitarian logistics, contingency operations and disaster response to ensure that they were better prepared for future crises.

Read more about how the LET initiative continues to be an exemplary model for public-private partnerships.

Contact us if you're interested in getting involved in impactful initiatives as a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

In 2019, an atmospheric river nicknamed the "Pineapple Express" hit California. The water vapor from near Hawaii brought rain and triggered mudslides that forced motorists to swim for their lives and sent homes sliding downhill.