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Scientists Develop Category System To Warn Residents About Strong Storms

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — When you hear about a category five hurricane, you know it can be deadly. Now meteorologists have created a new scale to track the strong winter storms that slam the west coast. The new system could help give more people warning and ranks some of our past storms.

Northern California is no stranger to strong storms that cause flooding, levee breaks, and mudslides. In the past, they've been known as a pineapple express, and more recently they've been dubbed atmospheric rivers. Now scientists have developed a new scientific scale to track them.

UC Davis Climate professor Paul Ullrich explained what they are measuring.

"Basically its just a measure of the amount of danger that this particular extreme weather phenomenon presents," Ullrich said.

It's similar to the scales that track hurricanes and tornados, but in this case, the rankings are based on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere and the duration of the storms.

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"Atmospheric rivers have the potential to cause significant dramatic damage," Ullrich said.

A "five" is a superstorm, capable of causing an exceptional disaster, and a "one" is a weak system that can actually be beneficial for water supply and snowpack.

"We can deal with the amount of water that those are dumping on us because they're occurring over a relatively short time frame and dumping not an excessive amount of liquid," Ullrich said.

Ullrich helped rank past storms in Northern California.

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The heavy rain in January of 2017 that caused widespread flooding, levee breaches, and power outages would now be ranked a category four. The 1997 New Year's storm, which dropped more than two feet of rain in less than a week, causing flooding and forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate, would get the highest ranking, a category five.

Ullrich says having this new metric to track these meteorological events will help warn people before the severe wet weather hits.

"The main benefit associated with this scale is it provides a very easy mechanism in order to communicate the dangers to the general population," Ullrich said.

So far there is no plan to name the individual atmospheric river storms, but that could come sometime in the future.

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