From foehn to intense rainfall: the importance of Alps in influencing the regional weather


Figure 1: View from Monte Lema (Italy-Switzerland) looking West. The Lake Maggiore region and the southern Alpine foothills are visible in the foreground whereas Monte Rosa and the Pennine Alps behind them are partially hidden by a characteristic foehn wall.  (A. Volonté, 4 January 2017)

The interaction between atmospheric flow and topography is at the origin of various important weather phenomena, as we have already seen in Carly Wright’s blog post. When a mountain range is particularly high and extended it can even block or deflect weather systems, as it happens with the Alps. For example, in Figure 1 we can see the main Alpine range with its over-4000m-high peaks blocking a cold front coming from the north. The main ridge acts as a wall, enhancing condensation and precipitation processes on the upstream side (stau condition) and leaving clear skies on the downstream lee side, where dry and mild katabatic foehn winds flow. The contrast is striking between sunny weather on Lake Maggiore and snowy conditions over Monte Rosa, just a few miles apart. The same phenomenon is shown in Figure 2 with a satellite image that highlights how a cold front coming from northwest gets blocked by the Alpine barrier. A person enjoying the sunny day in the southern side of the Alps, if unaware of this mechanism, would be very surprised  to know that the current weather is so different on the other side of the range.

Figure 2: Satellite image (MODIS-NASA) over the Alps and Po Valley on 22 October 2014
Figure 3: same as Figure 1 but on 13 December 2016

A comparison with Figure 3 helps to notice that in Figure 2 the shape of the cloud band closely mirrors the mountain range. As an additional remark,  this comparison shows that foehn bring clear skies even in the Po Valley, having blown away the typical mist/fog occurring in the region in Autumn and Winter months in high pressure regimes. The  stau/foehn dynamics is actually very fascinating, and you can read more about it in Elvidge and Renfrew (2015 ) and in Miltenberger et al. (2016), among others. Unfortunately, the interaction of weather systems with the Alps can often trigger very damaging phenomena, like heavy and long-lasting precipitation on one side of the slope, and this is what the rest of this post will be focused on. In fact, the most recent event of this kind just happened at the end of November, with intense and long-lasting rain affecting the southern slope of the Alps  and causing floods particularly in the Piedmont region, in northwestern Italy ( Figure 4).

Figure 4: River Tanaro flooding in the town of Garessio, 24 November 2016 (Piedmont, Italy). Source:
Figure 5: rainfall accumulated between 21 and 26 November 2016 in the Piedmont region. Source: Regional Agency for the protection of the Environment – Piedmont

Figure 5 shows that the accumulated rainfall in the event goes over 300 mm in a large band that follows the shape of the southern Alpine slope in the region (see map of Piedmont, from Google Maps), reaching even 600 mm in a few places. This situation is the result of moist southerly flow being blocked by the Alps and thus causing ascent and consequent precipitation to persist on the same areas for up to five days. It is quite common to see quasi-stationary troughs enter the Mediterranean region during Autumn months causing strong and long-lasting moist flows to move towards the Alps. Hence, it is crucial to understand  where the heaviest precipitation will occur. In other words, will it rain the most on top of the ridge or on the upstream plain? What processes are controlling the location of heavy precipitation with respect to the slope?

The study published by Davolio et al. (2016), available here and originated from my master degree’s thesis, tackles this issue focusing on northeastern Italy. In fact, the analysis includes three case studies in which heavy and long-lasting rain affected the eastern Alps and other three case studies in which intense rainfall was mainly located on the upstream plain. Although all the events showed common large-scale patterns and similar mesoscale settings, characterised by moist southerly low-level flow interacting with the Alps, the rainfall distribution turned out to be very dissimilar. The study highlights that the two precipitation regimes strongly differ in terms of interaction of the flow with the mountain barrier. When the flow is able to go over the Alps the heaviest rain occurs on top of the ridge. When the flow is instead blocked and deflected by the ridge (flow around), creating a so-called barrier wind, intense convection is triggered on the upstream plain (Figure 6) .

Figure 6: Schematic diagram of the key mechanisms governing the two different wind and precipitation patterns over NE Italy. (a) Blocked low-level flow, barrier wind, convergence and deep convection over the plain, upstream the orography. (b) Flow over conditions with orographic lifting and precipitation mainly over the Alps. From Davolio et al. (2016)
Figure 7: cross section going from the Adriatic Sea to the Alps in one of the events simulated. Equivalent potential temperature is shaded, thick black lines indicate clouds while arrows show tangent wind component. See Davolio et al. (2016)

The key mechanism that explains this different evolution is connected to the thermodynamic state of the impinging flow. In fact, when the southerly moist and warm air gets close to the Alpine barrier it is lifted above the colder air already present at the base of the orography. It can be said that the colder air behaves as a first effective mountain for the incoming flow. If this lifting process triggers convection, then the persistence of a blocked-flow condition is highly favoured (see Figure 7). On the contrary, if this initial lifting process does not trigger convection the intense moist flow will eventually be able to go over the ridge, where a more substantial ascent will take place, causing heavy rain on the ridge top. This study also looks at numerical parameters used in more idealised analyses (like in Miglietta and Rotunno (2009)), finding a good agreement with the theory.

To summarise, we can say that the Alpine range is able to significantly modify weather systems when interacting with them. Thus, an in-depth understanding of the processes taking place during the interaction, along with a coherent model is necessary to capture correctly the effects on the local weather, being either a rainfall enhancement, the occurrence of foehn winds or various other phenomena.


Davolio, S., Volonté A., Manzato A., Pucillo A., Cicogna A. and Ferrario M.E. (2016), Mechanisms producing different precipitation patterns over north-eastern Italy: insights from HyMeX-SOP1 and previous events. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142 (Suppl 1): 188-205. doi:10.1002/qj.2731

Elvidge A. D., Renfrew, I. A. (2015). The causes of foehn warming in the lee of mountains. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97: 455466, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00194.1.

Miglietta M. and Rotunno R., (2009) Numerical Simulations of Conditionally Unstable Flows over a Mountain Ridge. J. Atmos. Sci., 66, 1865–1885, doi: 10.1175/2009JAS2902.1. 

Miltenberger, A. K., Reynolds, S. and Sprenger, M. (2016), Revisiting the latent heating contribution to foehn warming: Lagrangian analysis of two foehn events over the Swiss Alps. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142: 2194–2204. doi:10.1002/qj.2816

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