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SKYE on AOL

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    Pilot Felix Baumgartner sits in his capsule during the preparations for the final manned flight of the Red Bull Stratos mission in Roswell, N.M., on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. (Red Bull)

    ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - Experienced skydiver and extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner hopes to take the leap of his life on Tuesday, attempting the highest, fastest free fall in history.

    If he survives, the man dubbed "Fearless Felix" could be the first skydiver to break the sound barrier. If he doesn't, a tragic fall could be live-streamed on the Internet for the world to see.

    Rigged with cameras, the 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria is scheduled to jump from a balloon-hoisted capsule 23 miles near Roswell on Tuesday morning. He wants to break the record set in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, who jumped from an open gondola at an altitude of 19.5 miles. Kittinger's speed of 614 mph was just shy of breaking the sound barrier at that height.

    Baumgartner, who has been preparing for the jump for five years, has made two practice runs from the Roswell area, from 15 miles high in March and 18 miles in July.

    And while he and his team of experts recognize the worst-case scenarios - including "boiling" blood and exploding lungs - they have confidence in their built-in solutions. Those solutions are something NASA is watching closely. The space agency is interested in the potential for escape systems on future rocket ships.

    Baumgartner's top medical man is Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon whose wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, died in the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003. Clark is dedicated to improving astronauts' chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

    The No. 1 fear is a breach of Baumgartner's suit, which could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as boiling blood. There are also risks he could spin out of control, causing other problems.

    This death-defying venture is being sponsored by energy drink maker, Red Bull, which has funded other extreme athletic events. The project's team of experts has a plan for almost every contingency. The spacesuit and capsule were tested in the early skydiving practice runs. The company won't say how much the project, called Stratos for stratosphere, is costing.

    But whether Baumgartner can make what he vows will be his final jump depends on the weather. A cold front that brought winds to the area this weekend prompted the team to move the planned Monday jump to Tuesday. Even the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, 200 miles to the north, was forced to cancel its opening mass ascension of more than 500 balloons on Saturday morning because of the high winds. Those balloons took off Sunday, but winds in the 9 mph range and above remain in the forecast for Roswell all week, and the jump can only be made if winds on the ground are less than 2 mph.

    Still, Baumgartner's team remained optimistic about getting the mission off the ground.

    "From what we are looking at so far, we are on schedule (for Tuesday)," meteorologist Don Day said at a media briefing Sunday.

    Weather permitting, Baumgartner will be lifted into the stratosphere around 7 a.m. MDT by a helium balloon that will stretch 55 stories high. Once he reaches his target altitude, he will open the hatch of his capsule and make a gentle, bunny-style jump. Any contact with the capsule on his exit could break open the pressurized suit that will protect him from temperatures as low as minus 70 and a lack of oxygen. He hopes to reach a speed of 690 mph to break the sound barrier.

    Baumgartner, who has made more than 2,500 jumps from planes, helicopters, landmarks and skyscrapers over the past 25 years, promises this jump will be his last.

    He says he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.

    SEE ON SKYE: Photos of Daredevil Skydiver Felix Baumgartner

     

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    YouTube user Rita Krill was merrily recording a "real rootin' tootin' little rainfall" pouring down on her backyard - she doesn't mention where, exactly - when a fiery jolt of lightning nearly set a tree on fire. Watch the video for a shock.

    (via Gawker)

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Will Gadd ice climbs in Marble Canyon, a popular ice-climbing spot in British Columbia.

    RELATED ON SKYE: The World's Most Extreme Sports

     

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    Breaking Weather: Temperature Turn Around

    A few showers and thunderstorms will continue along the East Coast on Tuesday as a lingering coastal system impacting the area moves further offshore into the western Atlantic Ocean. Waves of low pressure along this disturbance will send moisture from the Atlantic back to the coast, allowing generally light to moderate showers and isolated thunderstorm to continue along the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic coasts. This activity is expected to spread to the coastal New England areas as the northern wave of low pressure lifts into the offshore Atlantic waters of the Northeast. Meanwhile, the southern portion of this disturbance will linger across the Florida Peninsula with chances of showers and thunderstorms.

    Behind this activity, high pressure building into the East will bring clearer skies, light winds, and drier air to much of the region. Areas from the Lower Ohio Valley into the Northeast will start the morning with chilly temperature near the freezing mark and will remain under a variety of Frost Advisories and Freeze Watches and Warnings through the early morning.

    In the Midwest, a storm system skirting in the north-central part of the nation will advance into the Upper Midwest on Tuesday with areas of light to moderate precipitation. Much of the north-central U.S. will see a return to colder temperatures on Tuesday as high pressure from the north builds in behind this system with a colder airmass. Colder temperatures in the region will allow for a mix of rain and snow to develop in the Northern Rockies and Northern High Plains.

    Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Monday have ranged from a morning low of 12 degrees at Kremmling, Colo. to a high of 90 degrees at El Centro, Calif.

     

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    A tractor pulls a wagon full of visitors to the Tuttle Orchards, in Greenfield, Ind. (AP)

    INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Devastating spring freezes and a historic drought have stripped some charm from rustic fall destinations, leaving some corn too short to create mazes, orchards virtually devoid of apples and fall colors muted.

    Extreme weather has forced agritourism ventures in the heart of the country to scramble to hold onto their share of an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

    Pat Schaefers, who runs Schaefers Corn Maze near Lollie, Ark., hopes visitors to the farm's two mazes won't mind that the corn is just 6 to 8 feet this fall - up to 4 feet shorter than the wall of corn families and school groups normally pay to get lost and turned-around in.

    "It's just not up to par," she said of the corn in her two mazes. "It's not anything like it's been in past years."

    Yet Schaefers was one of the lucky ones. Even though the corn in her 30 acres of mazes is shorter than normal, she was able to open them for a seventh year thanks to a summerlong irrigation effort at the 1,000-acre farm she owns with her husband, Bob.

    Sam Brown, who owns A-Maizeing-Farms in Mayfield, Ky., said the summer drought and 100-degree days ruined his farm's 20-acre corn maze, leaving stalks knee- to waist-high - far too short for use as a maze. Instead, he's offering a petting zoo, pedal cart races and hay rides.

    "The object of our maze is to find hidden checkpoints, and our checkpoints literally would have been taller than the corn in some of the fields," he said. "It would have pretty much been pointless."

    For many farms and orchards, autumn is the peak agritourism season as families seek out a taste of rural life with outings to explore corn mazes, take hay rides and pick their own apples or pumpkins. Tourism generated about $566 million for more than 23,000 U.S. farms in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent agriculture census - a survey conducted every five years.

    But just like farming itself, agritourism can be stung by the weather.

    Apple orchards across the Midwest and New England suffered huge losses when blossoms lured into early bloom by a warm March were killed in April freezes.

    Indiana apple growers have had one of their worst crops in eight decades. Many orchards canceled their U-pick apple seasons and shipped in apples from out of state or traded varieties with other orchards to meet customers' demand.

    Tuttle Orchards, a central Indiana farm with 30 acres of trees, lost all but about 10 percent of its apple crop in April. Mike Roney, who co-owns the orchard near Greenfield, Ind., said it might have been the worst freeze damage ever at the farm his family has owned for 84 years.

    At Crane Orchards, a 120-acre top U-pick tourist destination in Fenville, Mich., co-owner Rob Crane said just 5 percent of his apple crop survived the icy nights on his family's fifth-generation farm a few miles from Lake Michigan. With so few apples, its normal 60-day U-pick season shrank to a couple of weeks, and the last trees were picked clean before October.

    Despite the lack of apples, Crane is hoping people still come to the farm for a hay ride along its lake and rolling hills, to navigate its corn maze or indulge in fruit pies and other homemade treats served at its restaurant.

    "The fall is about making memories, family gatherings and outings to see the colors. It's that inner clock that's ticking that wants you to do that before winter," Crane said. "We're hoping people still come and do that."

    The colors won't be so bright in some places. Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau in southwestern Michigan, said some drought-stressed trees in her area dropped their leaves early.

    But despite a less brilliant landscape and lack of apples, she expected bustling fall business in an area often called the "Art Coast of Michigan" because of Saugatuck and Douglas' art galleries, shopping and bed and breakfast inns along Lake Michigan.

    "I don't think it's going affect our business at all, but it always adds to it if there's really beautiful foliage," Fairchild said.

    Others in the industry took steps to ensure their fall seasons weren't a total loss.

    Greg Hochstedler, who owns the 160-acre Boondocks Farms about 30 miles east of Indianapolis, canceled his corn maze this year because the June planting time coincided with sweltering 100-degree days and the worst drought in decades.

    "It was too dry, too dusty. It would have been a waste of seed," Hochstedler said.

    Instead, he's focused on hosting fall weddings to make up some of the revenue usually generated by about 5,000 people who pay to get turned around in the corn labyrinth.

    The farm has held about a dozen weddings this fall at its 4,000-square foot pavilion, which has walls that can be rolled up to reveal views of the surrounding countryside.

    "That's why we call it Boondocks Farms - we're out in the boondocks," Hochstedler said.

    Roney, the Indiana orchard owner, found a bright spot in his pumpkin patches, which were irrigated and emerged from the drought with a fine crop.

    "We actually have one of the best pumpkin crops we've ever had as far size goes and quantity," Roney said. "I don't know why that is - maybe they just liked the heat."

    RELATED ON SKYE: America's Best Fall-Foliage Road Trips

     

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    (Credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory)

    An 11-year-old Florida boy died October 7 after being struck by a bolt of lightning on his way to football practice on October 4. His manner of death is perhaps all the more tragic for how unusual it's becoming in America.

    Jesse Watlington, of Fort Myers, is the fifth person to die from a lightning strike in Florida this year, and he was hit only two days after another Floridian, Falk Weltzien, 39, of St. Augustine, was knocked unconscious by a bolt while kiteboarding with his son. Weltzien survived the ordeal with no major injuries, according to ABC News.

    Despite the apparent surge in news reports of people being struck by lightning, deaths from lightning strikes so far in 2012 appear to be continuing a steady, decades-long slide.

    As usual, Florida, America's lightning capital, is leading the nation in lightning deaths, but the current nationwide total of 28 is still on track to make 2012 one of the safest years on record and continue the downward trend of yearly lightning deaths that stretches back to at least 1940, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]

    America's average number of yearly lightning deaths over the past 30 years is 54, a figured jacked up by particularly bad years like 1995, which saw 85 deaths, and 1987, which saw 88. The average over the last decade drops to 32, with 2011 experiencing the lowest number on record at 26 lightning deaths.

    For comparison, lightning deaths in the 1940s averaged above 300, breaking 400 twice.

    So why are lightning-related fatalities falling off? The population has been increasing, which would seem to make for more lightning targets and more fatal run-ins. Is lightning striking less frequently?

    Lightning expert Douglas Jordan says no.

    "Statistically I don't think anything's really changed, lightning flash density or anything like that," Jordan, director of operations at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing, a joint project of the University of Florida and Camp Blanding Florida Army National Guard Base, told Life's Little Mysteries. "My guess is that it probably has more to do with education than anything else. I think a lot of people are getting the word out [on lightning safety]."

    Joseph Dwyer, a physicist at the Florida Institute of Technology who researches lightning, speculates that education on how to deal with lightning strikes once they've happened might also contribute to diminishing fatalities.

    "Perhaps CPR is more widely taught, so more people survive being struck," he wrote in an email to Life's Little Mysteries.

    Cardiac arrest is one way that lightning kills, according to NOAA.

    The NOAA's lightning safety motto appears to be having some effect, so remember: "When thunder roars, go indoors!"

    Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

    Electric Earth: Stunning Images of Lightning
    Lightning Still Largely a Mystery
    Dramatic Video Apparently Shows Lightning Striking an SUV

    Copyright 2012 Lifes Little Mysteries, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    In this July 25, 2012 photo, a balloon lifts up during the second manned test flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, N.M. (AP)

    Update at 1:50 p.m. ET: Tuesday's jump was just cancelled due to winds.

    ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner made final preparations Tuesday for a death-defying, 23-mile free fall into the southeastern New Mexico desert, hoping to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier.

    The planned early morning launch had been delayed by high winds. But shortly before 11 a.m. MDT, the 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria entered his capsule and crews were expected to begin the hour-long process of filling the 55-story, ultra-thin and easy-to-tear helium balloon that was to take him into the stratosphere for the jump.

    MORE ON SKYE: Watch the epic event live

    Those plans were in question before sunrise, when winds at 700 feet above ground - the top of the balloon - were 20 mph, far above the 3 mph maximum for a safe launch, said mission meteorologist Don Day.

    After sunrise, Day said there were indications the upper level winds might calm, so the team pushed the launch window from 10 a.m. to noon at the latest.

    The balloon had been scheduled to launch about 7 a.m. from a field near the airport in a flat dusty town that until now has been best known for a rumored 1947 UFO landing.

    If the mission goes, Baumgartner will make a nearly three-hour ascent to 120,000 feet, then take a bunny-style hop from a pressurized capsule into a near-vacuum where there is barely any oxygen to begin what is expected to be the fastest, farthest free fall from the highest-ever manned balloon.

    Baumgartner spent Monday at his hotel, mentally preparing for the dangerous feat with his parents, girlfriend and a few close friends, his team said. He had a light dinner of salmon and a salad, then had a massage. He spent Tuesday morning resting in an Airstream trailer near the launch site.

    Among the risks: Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero. It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as "boiling blood."

    He could also spin out of control, causing other risky problems.

    The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event at http://www.redbullstratos.com/live from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter. But organizers said there will be a 20-second delay in their broadcast of footage in case of a tragic accident.

    Despite the dangers and questionable wind forecast, high performance director Andy Walshe said the team was excited, not nervous. Baumgartner has made two practice jumps, one from 15 miles in March and another from 18 miles in July.

    "With these big moments, you get a kind of sense that the energy changes," he said Monday. "It really is just kind of a heightened energy. It keeps you on your toes. It's not nervousness, it's excitement."

    During the ascent, Walshe said, the team will have views from a number of cameras, including one focused directly on Baumgartner's face. Additionally, they will have data from life support and other systems that show things like whether he is getting enough oxygen.

    The team also expects constant communication with Baumgartner, although former Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger, whose 1960 free-fall record from 19.5 miles Baumgartner hopes to break, is the only member of mission control who will be allowed to talk to him.

    And while Baumgartner hopes to set four new world records, his free fall is more than just a stunt.

    His dive from the stratosphere should provide scientists with valuable information for next-generation spacesuits and techniques that could help astronauts survive accidents.

    Jumping from more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for jetliners, Baumgartner's expects to hit a speed of 690 mph or more before he activates his parachute at 9,500 feet above sea level, or about 5,000 above the ground in southeastern New Mexico. The total jump should take about 10 minutes.

    His medical director is Dr. Jonathan Clark, a NASA space shuttle crew surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel Clark, in the 2003 Columbia accident. No one knows what happens to a body when it breaks the sound barrier, Clark said.

    "That is really the scientific essence of this mission," said Clark, who is dedicated to improving astronauts' chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

    Clark told reporters Monday he expects Baumgartner's pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. If all goes well and he survives the jump, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet, he said.

    Currently, spacesuits are certified to protect astronauts to 100,000 feet, the level Kittinger reached in 1960. Kittinger's speed of 614 mph was just shy of breaking the sound barrier at that altitude.

    SEE ON SKYE: Photos of Daredevil Skydiver Felix Baumgartner

     

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    UPDATE: The jump has been cancelled today because of high winds.

    Daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner is attempting to become the first man to break the speed of sound in freefall (690 miles per hour) today. Baumgartner is scheduled to make a 23 mile leap from the edge of space at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time. Watch the event streaming live from New Mexico.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Skydiver Begins Prep for Supersonic Jump

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Baumgartner's Recent Dives

     

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    Pilot Felix Baumgartner sits in his capsule in Roswell, New Mexico, USA on October 9, 2012. (Red Bull Content Pool)

    ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - Blame it on the wind. Again.

    For the second straight day, extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner aborted his planned death-defying 23-mile free fall because of the weather, postponing his quest to become the world's first supersonic skydiver until at least Thursday.

    As he sat Tuesday morning in the pressurized capsule waiting for a 55-story, ultra-thin helium balloon to fill and carry him into the stratosphere, a 25 mph gust rushed across a field near the airport in Roswell, N.M.

    The wind rushed so fast that it spun the still-inflating balloon as if it was a giant plastic grocery bag, raising concerns at mission control about whether it was damaged from the jostling.

    The balloon is so delicate that it can only take off if winds are 2 mph or below on the ground.

    "Not knowing if the winds would continue or not, we made the decision to pull the plug," mission technical director Art Thompson said. Baumgartner's team said he has a second balloon and intends to try again.

    Thompson said the earliest the team could take another shot would be Thursday because of weather and the need for the crew - which worked all night Monday - to get some rest.

    The cancellation came a day after organizers postponed the launch because of high winds. They scheduled the Tuesday launch for 6:30 a.m. near the flat dusty town best known for a rumored UFO landing in 1947.

    High winds kept the mission in question for hours.

    When winds died down, Baumgartner, 43, suited up and entered the capsule. Crews began filling the balloon. A live online video feed showed a crane holding the silver capsule off theground.

    The team's discovery that it had lost one of two radios in the capsule and a problem with the capsule itself delayed the decision to begin filling the balloon, pushing the mission close to a noon cutoff for launch.

    "It was just a situation where it took too long," mission meteorologist Don Day said.

    After sitting fully suited up in his capsule for nearly 45 minutes, Baumgartner left the capsule and departed the launch site in his Airstream trailer without speaking to reporters.

    The feat, sponsored by energy drink maker Red Bull, was supposed to be broadcast live on the Internet, using nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter.

    A 20-second delay would allow them to shut down the feed if an accident occurred.

    The plan was for Baumgartner to make a nearly three-hour ascent to 120,000 feet, then take a bunny-style hop from the capsule into a near-vacuum where there is barely any oxygen to start his jump.

    The jump poses many risks. Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero. It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as "boiling blood."

    He could also spin out of contro, causing other problems.

    While Baumgartner hopes to set four new world records in all when he jumps, his dive is more than just a stunt.

    His free fall should provide scientists with valuable information for next-generation spacesuits and techniques that could help astronauts survive accidents.

    Currently, spacesuits are certified to protect astronauts to 100,000 feet, the level former Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger reached in his 1960 free-fall record from 19.5 miles.

    Kittinger's speed of 614 mph was just shy of breaking the sound barrier at that altitude.

    Baumgartner expects to hit 690 mph, if and when the wind cooperates enough to give him the chance to jump.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Photos of Felix's Past Dives

     

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    Freeride mountain biker Cam Zink was among those competing at the Red Bull Rampage in Utah over the weekend. This video shows his point of view as he sailed down some seriously challenging single-track and then launched into the air. But as the video shows, something went terribly wrong on his descent. Amazingly, he walked away from the crash with only minor injuries.

    Afterward, he posted about the accident on Facebook:

    So you wanna see something gnarly? I was scared for my life and can't believe my legs and knees are in tact... With 5 knee surgeries, two broken feet and a having a rod in my tibia prior to this plane crash I guess I'm doin ok if this 80 foot bail to flat only bruised my heels. Shot on my CONTOURRoam2

    (Via Grind TV)

     

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    National Weather Forecast

    A cold front will push through the Northeast on Wednesday bringing showers, a few thunderstorms and dense cloud cover to the region. Ahead of the cold front, temperatures will warm up due to southerly winds drawing warm air out of the south. This warm moist air will help enhance rainfall along the front, where locally heavy precipitation is possible.

    Behind the front, the Great Lakes and upper Mid-West will feel the chill of cold Canadian air plunging southward. Along with the cool temperatures, cloudy skies should make for a gloomy day across much of the region.

    South of the lakes, generally clear skies are anticipated throughout the Southeast and Gulf Coast, though Texas should see a few areas of cloudiness as a weak area of low pressure sits atop the state.

    High pressure in the eastern Plains will keep much of the nationÂÂ's mid-section clear and dry on Wednesday with highs typical to cool for this time of year.

    In the West, skies are expected to be generally clear, although low pressure of the coast of central California could produce showers or thunderstorms in the state, especially around the coastal mountains and hills.

    This low is helping to block other storm systems from reaching the West Coast, but as it slides east later this week, a series of storms will line up to bring wet weather to the Northwest.

    Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Tuesday have ranged from a morning low of 16 degrees at Stanley, Idaho to a high of 91 degrees at Edinburg, Texas

     

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    The majority of Americans think global warming is not only affecting weather but is also worsening extreme weather events, including record-high summer temperatures and the Midwest drought, a new survey released today (Oct. 9) finds.

    Between Aug. 31 and September, more than 1,000 participants ages 18 and over answered survey questions about their beliefs on global warming and its link to weather events. The results were weighted to give nationally representative numbers.

    Overall, there has been an uptick in Americans who see a link between global warming and weather events, as well as those who think weather has gotten worse over time, compared with the March survey, both of which were conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

    For instance, 74 percent (a 5 percent increase from March) of Americans said "global warming is affecting weather in the United States." The increase was mostly driven by changing beliefs of residents in the Northeast (82 percent saw a link, up 11 points from March) and the South (75 percent, up 9 points).

    A majority of Americans also felt that global warming worsened the six extreme-weather events asked about. For instance, 73 percent either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that global warming had worsened the record-high temperatures this summer; 64 percent said the same of a derecho, or fast-moving band of thunderstorms, which traveled from Indiana to Virginia in June, causing massive power outages and other damage. [Extreme Weather Facts: Quiz Yourself]

    Many also agreed that warming had worsened drought in the Midwest and Great Plains (71 percent), the unusually warm winter of 2011-2012 (71 percent), the unusually warm spring of 2012 (70 percent), and record forest fires in the American West (65 percent).

    Compared with the March results, more than twice as many Midwesterners said they had experienced an extreme heat wave (83 percent) or drought (81 percent).

    Fifty-one percent of Americans said droughts have become more common in their local area over the past few years. (By the end of August 2012, more than 60 percent of the contiguous United States was affected by moderate to exceptional drought.)

    And things are perceived to be getting worse: Some 61 percent of Americans indicated U.S. weather has gotten worse in the past several years, up 9 points from March. Looking at local weather, 56 percent of those in the South say it has gotten much or somewhat worse over the past few years, while half of Midwesterners, 43 percent of Westerners and 42 percent of those in the Northeast said the same.

    The study, whose results had an average margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project and the Grantham Foundation.

    Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

    The World's Weirdest Weather
    8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World
    50 Interesting Facts About The Earth

    Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

     

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    A farmer poses with one of his most popular pumpkins, the "knucklehead," grown on his farm in Morton, Ill. (AP)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - Farmers in a stretch of Illinois where most of the nation's pumpkins are grown say their crop looks relatively smashing and is likely to be one of the few successes in a year when severe drought baked most of the nation's heartland.

    The drought forced thousands of ranchers to sell off cattle because pastures were too dry to graze, and corn and soybean farmers watched their plants wither in the summer sun. But John Ackerman said most of the pumpkins he planted fared "fantastic" for a simple, single reason: Pumpkins dig dry weather.

    "Pumpkins have been kind of a bright spot in production this year," said Ackerman, 51, whose farm near Morton, Ill., has been in his family for more than a century.

    Pathology may help explain why pumpkins coped better than most crops at beating the heat. A relative of squashes, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupe, pumpkins tend to thrive in warm, temperate climates that stave off fungus, mold and other rind-rotting diseases that spread in wet conditions, said Dan Egel, a plant pathologist with Purdue University's extension.

    Also, pumpkins grown from seeds - the most common way - have tremendous root systems that reach deep into the ground, enabling them to reach moisture that corn and other crops without taproots cannot find.

    "I think we're going to have a pretty decent crop of pumpkins," Egel said.

    Ackerman said he planted about 70 percent of his 30 acres of pumpkins in May, and that portion did well. He planted the rest of his pumpkins in late June and early July, about the time the drought really took hold, and they "sat in dust for a while" but are finally turning orange now.

    It's a sharp - and welcome - break from recent years, when soggy conditions have hurt the nation's pumpkin production. In 2009, farmers hired by Nestle to grow pumpkins for the Libby's pumpkin-canning plant near Morton had to leave much of their crop in the field after rain saturated the ground, bogging tractors down in the mud. The result was a shortage of canned pumpkin that created bidding wars for the stuff on eBay during the holidays.

    The next summer turned out to be among the wettest ever in Illinois, and pumpkin production plummeted in much of the state, although not around Morton. And last summer, the remnants of Hurricane Irene and other storms devastated the pumpkin crop in the Northeast.

    "Mother Nature can mess with you, and there can be consequences," said Roz O'Hearn, a Nestle spokeswoman. "In the past couple of years, we've been at the opposite ends of the Mother Nature continuum."

    This year, she said, "you'll be able to find pumpkins for your holidays."

    Nestle produces more than 85 percent of the world's canned pumpkin each year under the Libby's label, and much of it comes from the area around Morton. The company hires farmers to grow Dickinson pumpkin, an oval-shaped, pale orange variety that's denser, meatier and less hollow than carving or ornamental pumpkins.

    Farmers who irrigate seem to have produced bigger and more pumpkins than those who don't this year, O'Hearn said. But overall, she said, the harvest is "fine."

     

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    The village of Kivalina, Alaska faces a water shortage this winter. (AP)

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Inupiat Eskimo villagers in a small Alaska community are facing six long months of melting ice and snow nearly every time they want to cook a meal or bathe, after freezing temperatures hit before workers could fill the village's two large storage tanks with water.

    Officials in Kivalina had hoped to pull more than 1 million gallons from the nearby Wulik River before it froze over - enough to allow residents to cook, clean and keep its Laundromat, or "washeteria," open all winter.

    But city administrator Janet Mitchell said Tuesday that crews were "packing it up because it's just too cold to pump." At 8 a.m., the temperature was 26 degrees in the community 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

    Kivalina has only enough water stored to keep its school open through mid-March - if the rest of the village forgoes the luxury of showers and washing machines at the washeteria.

    Superintendent Norm Eck said the school - which opened late this year because of water problems - has to be operational until at least May 16, if not longer.

    "Those kids deserve to have a good education, and they deserve to have their school," Eck said.

    Mitchell was preparing a memo to the village's 400 residents saying that because of the water shortages, the washeteria would be open only two days a week - likely Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the details of the conservation plan were still being ironed out.

    Residents may have expected this news given the weather problems this year, "but they aren't going to be happy," Mitchell said. "I don't want to cut them off completely. It'll be tricky."

    As of Saturday, 667,000 gallons had been put into the tanks. Some of the water had been treated, but some had to wait for mud to settle.

    "At that point, they would have to ration water pretty substantially," said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security, which had not officially been informed of the shutdown. The city has no way to melt massive amounts of snow or ice in winter.

    Kivalina is on a barrier reef in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast - about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. The community is like a lot of Alaska villages off the road system. Conveniences that most Americans take for granted are still a dream.

    According to the state Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Department, only the village school and clinic have their own water and sewer systems. Residents haul their own bathroom waste to a landfill.

    Kivalina's infrastructure problems are compounded by its uncertain future at its current location. Shore ice that used to protect the reef from waves generated by fierce Chukchi Sea winter storms has diminished with climate warming, leaving the shore susceptible to erosion. The community hopes to relocate to higher ground.

    The water tanks, even when full, hold just a six-month supply for the entire community. Every February, the washeteria closes to showers and laundry so the school will have enough. Water is doled out to use at home.

    The city's water tanks hold 670,000 and 500,000 gallons.

    The community has just two months - July and August - to extract water from the Wulik River. The pipe freezes in winter, and there's too much ice in the river during May and June.

    In July, Mitchell said, the community was ready to fill tanks but did not have funds on hand due to a problem with a state revenue sharing application.

    Late summer rainstorms damaged the PVC pipe and washed some of it to sea. Repairs were made but more storms continued to muddy the water, and they couldn't pump until the mud settled. Freezing temperatures cause slush to jam the line.

    Ice started forming this week, forcing the shutdown.

    The earlier water problems delayed the opening of school for five weeks. The school simply will not open unless it can operate its water and sewer system.

    "You have to be able keep things hygienic," said Eck, the superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. "That includes flush toilets as well as water for washing as well as for cooking, because we have to prepare meals."

    He is hoping that state or Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium officials will come up with a way to make more water in winter.

     

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    This image provided by NASA from May 2012 shows the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft just prior to being released by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm (top center) on as it heads toward a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo/NASA)

    By Marcia Dunn

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - A private company successfully delivered a half-ton of supplies to the International Space Station early Wednesday, the first official shipment under a billion-dollar contract with NASA.

    The SpaceX cargo ship, called Dragon, eased up to the orbiting lab, and station astronauts reached out with a robot arm and snared it. Then they firmly latched it down.

    "Looks like we've tamed the Dragon," reported space station commander Sunita Williams. "We're happy she's on board with us."

    Williams thanked SpaceX and NASA for the delivery, especially the chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream stashed in a freezer.

    The linkup occurred 250 miles above the Pacific, just west of Baja California, 2½ days after the Dragon's launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

    "Nice flying," radioed NASA's Mission Control.

    It's the first delivery by the California-based SpaceX company under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The contract calls for 12 such shipments.

    This newest Dragon holds 1,000 pounds of groceries, clothes, science experiments and other gear. Williams and her crew won't get access to all that until Thursday, when the hatch is opened.

    The vessel will remain at the space station for nearly three weeks before departing with almost twice that much cargo at the end of the month. Dragon is the only cargo ship capable of bringing back research and other items, filling a void left by NASA's retired shuttles.

    SpaceX - owned by PayPal's billionaire creator Elon Musk - launched Dragon aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday night. One of the nine first-stage engines failed a minute into the flight, but the other engines compensated and managed to put the capsule into the proper orbit. The mishap, however, left a secondary payload aboard the rocket - an Orbcomm communication satellite - in too low of an orbit.

    This is the second Dragon to visit the space station. Last May, SpaceX conducted a test flight.

    NASA is hiring out space station supply runs to American companies now that the shuttles are museum relics. The shuttle fleet was retired in 2011 after 30 years so the space agency could focus on human trips beyond low-Earth orbit; the destinations include asteroids and Mars.

    Space station partners Russia, Japan and Europe also launch cargo ships, but those vessels are filled with trash and destroyed during descent. NASA scientists eagerly are awaiting nearly 500 samples of astronauts' blood and urine that have been stockpiled aboard the complex since Atlantis visited for the last time more than a year ago.

    NASA's human exploration and operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, called the returning specimens "unbelievably unique and precious" and a major reason for going commercial in the post-shuttle era.

    "There were a lot of skeptics at the beginning, but as evidenced today, I think you're starting to see that this can work and can move forward," Gerstenmaier said.

    SpaceX is working to make its Dragon capsule safe enough to carry astronauts, possibly in three years. For now, NASA is paying the Russian Space Agency tens of millions of dollars to launch astronauts to the space station. Other U.S. companies also are vying for crew-carrying rights.

    The space station currently houses three astronauts from America, Russia and Japan. Another American and two more Russians will arrive in two weeks.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    More than 80,000 photos taken in spring 2012 allow you to venture deep into the Grand Canyon and down the Colorado River in this incredible time-lapse video from GOTM Films.

    (via Buzzfeed)

    RELATED ON SKYE: Striking Images of Islands, Rivers and Seas from Space

     

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