Advancing Local Atmospheric River Communication & Adaptation

Project Summary

Climate communication often is most effective when grounded in visible local impacts. According to an AP-NORC survey, 74% of Americans who have changed their opinions about climate change in the past five years cite extreme weather as an influential factor. Skilled climate communication about extreme events is therefore necessary to advance community preparedness to ongoing and future changes to extreme climate events. 

This project’s goal was to enhance the communication of climate extremes for the West Coast of North America. Studying the communications of local climate impacts helps us understand 1) current climate adaptations and 2) attitudes about potential climate adaptations. 

Every region has different climate impacts. For many regions in the U.S., a warmer and wetter global climate is translating to more frequent and more intense precipitation. Extreme precipitation can come from a variety of storms, including convective thunderstorms in the Midwest and hurricanes in the Southeast and Eastern U.S. For the Western U.S., most extreme precipitation comes from atmospheric rivers. Atmospheric rivers are features of long, narrow plumes of atmospheric moisture that can often result in high intensity, long duration precipitation. 

The impacts of atmospheric river precipitation are a mixture of hazardous and beneficial. The Western US region relies on atmospheric river precipitation as a water source, but the intense nature of atmospheric river precipitation can also induce harmful surface impacts, including flooding and landslides. In a warming climate, it is important for communities to know and prepare changes to the character of precipitation, including already-documented changes to West Coast atmospheric rivers. 

Water utilities are on the front lines of adapting to climate change as well as messaging climate impacts to their residents. This project partnered with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), the provider of water, sewer, and drainage services for 1.3 million residents. Partnering with SPU created an opportunity to study both research-to-technical expert communications (How are utility agencies using climate science to prepare for increased hazards?), and communication between the agency and the public (How do utilities communicate climate impacts to their residents?). As part of the process, we designed, piloted, and evaluated the efficacy of communication intervention practices in partnership with SPU. Insights and practices from this project may scale to other local regions and their respective utility agencies. 

Project Goals:

  • Study the internal (intra-agency) and external (agency to the public) communication of present and projected atmospheric river-associated hazards by Seattle Public Utilities and other Western U.S. water utility agencies
  • Identify effective methods of atmospheric river communication and partner with Seattle Public Utilities to co-produce communication interventions that meet the agencies’ long-term climate resilience goals
  • Provide a foundation of best practices for atmospheric river and extreme precipitation communication that may be implemented in other regions in the West and other regions more broadly 

Project Team

Heidi Roop

Heidi Roop

Kat Gonzales

Katerina Gonzales
Postdoctoral Fellow