From weather to climate - Seasonal and interannual variability of storms and implications for erosion processes in the Himalaya

Ana P. Barros, Sen Chiao, Timothy J. Lang, Douglas Burbank, J. Putkonen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The extent to which orography may be a product of climate-erosion interactions is largely unknown. One grand challenge is to quantify the precipitation regimes of mountainous regions at the spatial and temporal scales relevant for investigating the interplay of erosion and tectonics in active orogens. In this paper, our objective is to synthesize recent research integrating numerical model simulations, satellite data, and surface observations in the Himalaya to elucidate the role of weather and climate in mountain evolution. We focus on the seasonal and interannual space-time variability of precipitation in the Great Himalayas by studying two preeminent storm regimes in detail-monsoon onsets and depressions in general, and wintertime Western Disturbances (cold season events). High-resolution simulations of heavy precipitation storms for two monsoon onset conditions (1999 and 2001) and one wintertime storm (2000) are used to illustrate the complex patterns of interaction between the mountains and the atmosphere, and to show how these affect the spatial distribution of precipitation. Along with observations from an existing ground-based network, these simulations provide unique insights into the space-time features of seasonal and interannual variability of precipitation. Our analysis indicates that the trajectory of monsoon storms during onset events exerts a strong control on the precipitation amounts and rainfall penetration into the rain shadow. Spatial variability of subsequent storm tracks in any given year helps explain the interannual variability of monsoon precipitation. Both observational data and our simulations define striking spatial variability in precipitation on upwind and downwind flanks of ridges that project into obliquely impinging storms. Specifically, as southeasterly monsoon winds encounter north-south oriented ridges, forced lifting of moist air enhances precipitation on the upwind flanks, whereas less precipitation occurs on downwind flanks. This variability is observed at spatial scales as short as ̃10 km-a distance equivalent to the spacing of major ridge crests. Because infrequent, singular storm events appear to control the mass input to glaciers, and may determine the frequency and spatial distribution of landslides, these findings provide physically based insight into decoupling highfrequency (seasonal to interannual time scales) from low-frequency (multidecadal to centennial and longer time scales) signals in the interpretation of climate and erosion records in the Himalayas. Furthermore, this research suggests that integrative studies aimed at unraveling the role of climate in landscape evolution must include consideration of storm frequency and intensity along with spatial variability at scales consistent with regional climate forcing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-38
Number of pages22
JournalSpecial Paper of the Geological Society of America
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate
  • Erosion
  • Landform
  • Orography
  • Precipitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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