Art and Design

The Beauty of an Atmospheric River

February 7, 2014

Puddles in the street and the drum of rain on the roof are beautiful sights and sounds for drought-stressed Californians. The forecast continues to call for big rain this weekend from an “atmospheric river,” a plume of moisture stretching thousands of miles across the Pacific and splashing onto land right smack on the Northern California coast. It’s not just the sight of water in the sky, though: visualizations of the rivers themselves are stunningly gorgeous.

The above image was captured by Cameron Beccario, who created the hypnotic Earth weather visualization site Beccario’s model draws information from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the National Weather Service, and the Global Forecast System to create a moving, swirling global map of wind, water and temperature at varying elevations. In the above screen shot, blue represents water in the air, white represents wind paths. The atmospheric river leaps across the Pacific from Hawaii — hence the nickname “Pineapple Express” — and lands on us. For a brief moment this weekend, amidst all the hugeness and complexity of the vast North Pacific Ocean, there’s just us and our rain in the spotlight.

blocking ridge and polar vortex
Visualization of wind on January 26, 2014, showing both the blocking ridge deflecting the storm track from the West Coast of North America and the swirling polar vortex that froze the East Coast. (Visualization created on

Of course, the rain is also so exciting in part because it has been so long — and while the unusually persistent high-pressure ridge that has blocked our storms for most of the last year could take on a malignant feel, it too was beautiful to watch. Here’s that strange wind pattern, both the West Coast ridge (see the wind and storm track curling up and over the utterly calm California coast) and its partner, the East Coast polar vortex (see that wind swirling down from the Arctic and into angry, blizzard-addled New York City), on Jan. 26.

There’s some insanely complicated math underlying global climate prediction and global weather models. But in these visualizations, you can see Earth’s complex weather rendered as art, like the greatest work of van Gogh and Monet.

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.