17 March 2023

Note to AP and Fox News: A Storm Hit California, Not an Atmospheric River

Posted by Dan Satterfield

From NOAA. An Atmospheric River is indeed a meteorological term, but it is being misused.

An atmospheric river is a plume of moisture that often shows up well on Satellite images over large oceans. If I see one associated with a storm, I know that it will likely be a very wet one with increased rainfall. There are a few famous ones as well, like the Pineapple Connection which will sometimes bring tropical air from the Equatorial Pacific into a storm approaching the U.S west coast. While the term has been used in meteorology for decades, some news writers have recently discovered them and tend to want to use the term in place of the old and dusty term STORM. This use is wrong, and there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding about them.

Let’s be clear, an Atmospheric River ( from here on AR) is a plume of moisture, NOT a storm. 

Now, California has been hit by a good number of storms this winter, and some had a significant AR associated with them, but California has NOT been hit by an AR. This is like saying a brief strong wind gust destroyed a neighbourhood when in reality it was an EF-4 tornado! The problem is that a lot of news writers have been using the term AR as being synonymous with a storm. These AR’s are fascinating but no meteorologist who knows his science would replace storm with AR.

An AR is NOT a storm.

I’ve heard and read AR used in place of storm several times over the past two months. Most recently in the article above this past week from the AP, and in at least two on-air packages from Fox News. I’m sure I could find more if I look, but doing so is painful so I’ll let you the reader note how often you hear it.

This is unarguably wrong and the AP Style Guide needs to be updated to include a warning about it. 

Accuracy matters in science and journalism.