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    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014
    Sevierville Primary School students load up as school is let out early due to snow in Sevierville, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.  Snowfall across East Tennessee has led several school districts to call off classes early. (AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken)
    Sevierville Primary School students load up as school is let out early due to snow in Sevierville, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken)

    ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal says the National Guard is sending military Humvees onto Atlanta's winter weather-snarled freeway system in an attempt to move stranded school buses and get food and water to people.

    Deal says the Georgia State Patrol is also sending troopers to schools where children remain stranded after spending the night there after snow began falling Tuesday afternoon. He said in a statement early Wednesday morning that state transportation crews are continuing to treat roads and bring gas to stranded motorists.

    Deal plans a briefing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Capitol to discuss the state's "ongoing disaster response."

    A sea of red brake lights remained at a standstill along a dozen lanes of the Downtown Connector shortly before dawn Wednesday.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2013
    Lightning Grand Canyon

     

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    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014
    Traffic inches along the connector of Interstate's 75 and 85 as snow blankets Metro Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass.  Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is preparing to declare a state of emergency as a winter storm coats the region with snow and ice. State transportation officials said a mass of commuters leaving downtown Atlanta at once created traffic jams on interstates and surface streets. (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)
    Traffic inches along the connector of Interstate's 75 and 85 as snow blankets Metro Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass. (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

    The latest polar blast that settled over the East and South set the stage for snow and ice, and caused tremendous travel disruptions across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic.

    The amount of snow and ice (whether falling as sleet or freezing rain) was quite substantial, and led to school closures, extremely treacherous travel and thousands of flight cancellations.

    The storm system traveled through the South, tapping into moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and unloaded snow and ice from central Texas to the eastern Carolinas much of Tuesday into early Wednesday.



    Houston and Austin, Texas; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; Pensacola and Tallahassee, Fla.; Savannah, Atlanta and Macon, Ga.; Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Columbia, S.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and Raleigh, Wilmington and the Outer Banks of North Carolina were all within this zone.

    This was a major winter storm for a large portion of the I-10 corridor and part of the I-95 corridor.



    In recent years, comparable events for this storm and the general area of concern include Jan. 10, 2011. According to National Weather Service Meteorologist Emily Timte, "The storm of 2011 clobbered parts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina with between 0.50 and 1.00 inch of ice."

    A snowstorm spanning Feb. 11 to 13, 2010, captured part of the same area getting hit by the system Wednesday. The storm during 2010 reached from Longview, Texas, to Cape Hatteras, N.C., where it put down a swath of 4 to 8 inches of snow along much of the way.

    With subfreezing temperatures lingering, residents and travelers should prepare for more travel disruptions. This includes motorists planning to travel on Interstates 10, 26, 40, 45, 65, 75, 85 and 95.

    Snow totals are expected to top 3 inches from east central Alabama to eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. This zone stretches across Montgomery, Ala., and Augusta, Ga., and lies just east of Raleigh.

    A small area in part of the Carolinas to the Virginia capes is forecast to receive between 6 and 10 inches of snow from this storm, including Fayetteville, N.C., and Columbia, S.C.

    Portions of the southern Appalachians will also pick up a couple of inches of snow.

    RELATED:
    AccuWeather.com Winter Weather Center
    Snow- and Cold-Related Watches, Warnings
    Breaking Weather News on the Snow, Ice Storm in Progress


    In between the snow and plain rain across the Florida Peninsula will be substantial sleet and freezing rain. Power outages are a serious concern, especially where most of the precipitation falls as freezing rain.

    The storm has the potential to rival damage and the number of outages from the southern ice storm of Feb. 10-11, 1994.

    According to the New York Times, the storm in 1994 reached from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Southeast and knocked out power to 800,000 people.

    The current storm impacting the South has focused more toward the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts.

    The storm is expected to track northward slightly on Wednesday, grazing parts of the Northeast. The arctic blast and very dry air will push the majority of storm track to the east of the I-95 corridor in the Northeast. A dusting to an inch of of snow can occur in parts of the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston metro areas.

    However, a few inches snow are forecast to fall over Delmarva, part of southern New Jersey and Cape Cod, Mass.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2013
    Lightning Grand Canyon

     

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    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014
    Romanian soldiers walk in the village of Vadu Pasii, Romania, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. Snow storms are forecasted for the coming days in the already affected southeastern regions of Romania, in which road and rail traffic were badly disrupted and the army was called in to assist in the worst hit areas.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
    Romanian soldiers walk in the village of Vadu Pasii, Romania, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

    SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - A cold spell is gripping parts of central and eastern Europe, killing four people in Bulgaria over the past few days, and Wednesday was the coldest day of the year in Moscow.

    In Bulgaria, heavy snow and strong winds have left dozens of villages in the eastern half of the Balkan country without electricity and water.

    A 76-year-old man died after getting stuck in a snowdrift in the village of Povet, near the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Three other men have died in weather-related incidents in eastern villages in the last two days. Many roads are closed to traffic while rescue teams try to bring food supplies to remote areas. Hundreds of schools remain closed. The main Black Sea port of Varna was shut because of high winds.

    Snow fell in the central Adriatic coast in Croatia, which is highly unusual because the region has a Mediterranean climate. The ice and snow in the seaside town of Sibenik prompted authorities to close down the schools there. Heavy snow is also falling in neighboring Montenegro, causing road traffic problems.

    Temperatures dipped to -8 F in Moscow and -24 F in surrounding regions, making it the coldest day of the year,

    The temperature was 10 degrees below average for this time of year and expected to drop further. Many Muscovites, however, welcomed the sun and blues skies of a real Russian winter after the gray clouds that hung over the capital for much of December and January.

    "The weather is magnificent and the sun is shining," said Yulia Sukhorukova, who was taking pictures near the Kremlin. "I'm in a good mood. No problem with the frost - winter has just now arrived."

    Heavy snow has also hit Romania hard in recent days, closing down schools and snarling road and rail traffic.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Off-the-Charts Hottest and Coldest Places on Earth

     

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    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014
    GERMANY-WEATHER-FEATURE
    (KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

    Though Phil has a few more days to prognosticate the next six weeks, the AccuWeather.com long-range forecasting team already predicts that the nation will be split in half: cold and snow will linger in the Northern states, while spring will get an earlier start in the southern half.

    Where Will Cold Linger?

    Wintry weather is forecast to hold longest across the the Great Lakes, Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

    Cold air masses and a few snowstorms will continue to impact the regions as late as March before the winter season comes to an end.

    A steady stream of warmth may not arrive for cities from Detroit to Boston and New York City until mid- to late spring.



    "For the next six weeks in the Northeast, we're going to be dealing with some pretty good cold coming down out of northern Canada," AccuWeather.com Lead Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok said.

    "I still think there's going to be a few systems of significance before the winter season is over with."

    Similarly, snow and shots of cold air will persist across the northern Plains and Upper Midwest.

    Where Will Spring Get an Early Start?

    The best chances for an early spring will be found in the Southwest. Below-normal snowpack and dry conditions will contribute to a mild end of winter.

    California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, where severe drought conditions persist, will warm early. Area farther east, into Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, will begin feeling spring's warmth in March.

    A slower transition to spring will sweep the nation's midsection, however, from Washington across the central Plains and down to the interior Southeast.

    Florida will mark the exception, where a quick warmup is in store.

    Spring Flooding Versus Drought Concerns

    There is a slight chance for spring flooding for the Tennessee Valley and lower Ohio Valley. Above-normal snowfall has fallen across the Ohio Valley this winter so far, and potentially more wet systems in the forecast could result in a moderate rise in rivers and streams.

    On the other side of the spectrum, little improvement is coming for the dire drought situation in the West.

    Pastelok believes March could usher in some rain for California, but the impact will be minimal and the situation will remain serious moving forward, with no significant relief in sight.

    As of Jan. 21, more than 60 percent of the West was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Earlier this month, the San Francisco National Weather Service office called the situation a phase of drought "largely unseen by many alive today."

    Dryness will also prevail in Florida through the springtime, though the situation will be far less severe than in the West. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, portions of the state are abnormally dry for late January. Since Oct. 1, Orlando, Fla., has received less than 30 percent of the city's normal rainfall for the period.

    "I do feel they'll get a little bit of rain going forward in the next few weeks; however, I think they could back in a dry pattern before they actually get into their wet season in June," Pastelok said.

    Severe Weather Threats

    After a below-normal severe weather season in 2013, this year is forecast to follow suit.

    "Last year's severe weather season was a quiet season," Pastelok said. "A lot of it had to do with a lot of cold, stable air in place and I see that same situation setting up for this year."

    RELATED:
    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center
    Forecast Temperature Maps
    Current AccuWeather Snow Map


    While the season is anticipated to be below normal, it will be more eventful than 2013.

    A few episodes of severe weather are possible in the Gulf Coast, where some severe tornado outbreaks occurred in 2013, Pastelok warns.

    "I think you have to be concerned there again this year," he said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 22 People More Sick of Winter Than You Are

     

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    How Weather Channel's Jim Cantore Stopped A Would-Be Videobomber


    Proving there are few external conditions too extreme to halt his on-air weather coverage, weatherman Jim Cantore took a knee to a wannabe videobomber's crotch during his live report Tuesday night. While covering the rare ice and snowstorm striking the Southern United States from South Carolina's College of Charleston, Cantore was suddenly assailed by a young man charging toward him.

    Cantore, ever the professional, barely missed a beat, raising a knee to the man's groin, and warding off his would-be "attacker." The weatherman brushed off the incident, telling viewers, "Obviously, here at the College of Charleston, they are already having a good time."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Most Weathery Weather Forecaster Names

     

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    Updated Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 3:05 p.m. ET
    Winter Weather
    In this aerial photo, traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of the metro area after a winter snow storm, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

    ATLANTA (AP) - Helicopters took to the skies Wednesday to search for stranded drivers while authorities on the ground worked to deliver food, water and gas - or a ride home - to people who were stuck on highways after a winter storm walloped the Deep South.

    Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or idled in them all night and the highways turned into parking lots. The problems started when schools, businesses and government offices all let out at the same time, leading to gridlock. As people waited on the highways, snow accumulated on the ground, the roads froze, cars ran out of gas and tractor-trailers jackknifed. In the chaos, though, there were stories of people bringing hot chocolate or opening up their homes to the stranded.

    It wasn't clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. And the timing of when things would clear and when the highways would thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.

    PHOTOS: Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads
    "We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," said Jessica Troy, who along with a co-worker spent more than 16 hours in her car before finally getting home late Wednesday morning.

    Their total trip was about 12 miles.

    "I slept for an hour and it was not comfortable," Troy said. "Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation."

    The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.

    Elsewhere in the South, Virginia's coast had up to 10 inches of snow, North Carolina had up to 8 inches on parts of the Outer Banks, South Carolina h ad about 4 inches and highways were shut down in Louisiana.

    In Atlanta and Birmingham, thousands of cars lined interstate shoulders, abandoned at the height of the traffic jam. Some sat askew at odd angles, apparently left after crashes. Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged miles home, abandoning their vehicles outright.

    Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.

    "I boohooed a lot," she said. "It was traumatic. I'm just glad I didn't have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there."

    Some employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.

    Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's office said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions.

    Atlanta, hub to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, once again found itself unprepared to deal with the chaos - despite assurances that city officials had learned their lessons from a 2011 ice storm that brought the city to its knees. Some residents were outraged that more precautions weren't taken this time around and schools and other facilities weren't closed ahead of time. But officials from schools and the state said weather forecasts indicated the area would not see more than a dusting of snow and that it didn't become clear until late Tuesday morning that those were wrong.

    Still, Georgia leaders were aware of public angst and tried to mitigate it.

    Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took some of the blame for schools, businesses and government a ll letting out at the same time, and he said they should have staggered their closings.

    "I'm not thinking about a grade right now," Reed said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."

    Ryan Willis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Ga., said temperature were still below freezing Wednesday and they were to dip back into the teens overnight. Thursday will offer much warmer weather, around the upper 30s to lower 40s.

    Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the National Guard was sending military Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeways to get food and water to people. Deal, who faces re-election in November, fended off criticism about the government's response to the storm. He said emergency officials prioritized to rescue stranded children on buses first and were aiming to make contact with all stranded motorists by Wednesday.

    "Our goal today is that there will not be anybody strand ed in a vehicle on our interstates that has not been offered the opportunity to go to a place of safety and security," Deal told reporters at a Statehouse news conference.

    If there was a bright spot in the epic gridlock, it was the Southern-style graciousness. Strangers opened up their homes and volunteers served coffee and snacks to the traffic-bound.

    Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at an Atlanta-area Waffle House, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road.

    "I'm calm," she said. "That's all you can be. People are helping each other out, people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It's been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars."

    Stephanie Reynolds, a second-grade teacher, spent the night with about 10 students and two dozen co-workers at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster, Ala. Many of the children's parents were stuck in cars in r oadways and unable to pick up their kids, she said.

    Reynolds comforted crying children, played games and did lesson plans for two weeks. A dance party helped fill up a few minutes, and the children ate pizza for dinner and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

    "The students have been here so long: all day yesterday, overnight and now," Reynolds said. "I'm going on no sleep right now. I didn't even try. I figured since I was here I might as well be productive."

    At the non-denominational Action Church in Canton, Ga., church member Tommy Simmons said there were about 20 people there getting warm. His guests included a family that got stuck en route to Texas, several motorists, and two homeless men.

    "Everyone is sitting around chitchatting like they've known each other for years," he said. And in true Southern style, they were served pork barbecue.

    Heroes also had their day. Police in suburban Atlanta say one of their own helped assist the safe delivery of a baby girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday afternoon after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Rare Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

     

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    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014


    The technicolor swirls in this video reveal movement on the surface of a soap bubble. The spinning structures were created by a group of physicists at the University of Bordeaux, France, attempting to better understand how storms form and develop.

    During the study, published in New Scientist, the bubbles were heated and rotated. The resultant iridescent vortices offered researchers insight into the lifecycle of a cyclone. "If we had a better understanding of how the vortices are created, how they move and how they die, we would be able to provide better predictions for cyclone alerts," explained mathematician Patrick Fischer.

    Of course, the physics of soap bubbles is simpler than that of a complex weather system, but the patterns apparent in the study are also seen in the Earth's atmosphere.

    (via Gizmodo)

    RELATED ON SKYE: Forces of Nature: 50 Incredible Photos
    Twin Waterspouts

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014
    Winter Weather New Jersey
    Workers clear snow Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    There is good news for folks hoping for a little break on heating bills and hoping to clean up the ice and snow that has accumulated in the Midwest, East and South. However, the pattern change may eventually evolve into storms that bring heavy precipitation.

    For a large part of the eastern two-thirds of the nation, the severe cold will ease up and temperatures will climb to average to above average levels during the first few days of February.

    The most notable warmup will be in the South.

    Temperatures will trend upward through the 50s and 60s late this week and are forecast to reach the 70s in portions of Texas and Louisiana this weekend.

    From the Ohio Valley to the mid-Atlantic, temperatures will bounce back into the 30s and 40s as early as Friday. It may feel like springtime, almost. Temperatures at Punxsutawney, Pa., first thing Sunday morning look to be close to the freezing mark with a cloudy to partly cloudy sky.

    A couple hundred miles farther east on Sunday at East Rutherford, N.J., football fans can expect temperatures to fall through the 30s, after rising near 40 degrees. The region appears as though it will be in between two storm systems Sunday afternoon and evening with some cloud cover, but probably no precipitation.

    For folks who have trouble coping with the cold and who have been pent up in recent weeks, the break will provide an opportunity to get out of the house. Vehicles will be easier to start, and garage doors may open without the strange noises.

    RELATED:
    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center
    Forecast Temperature Maps
    Current AccuWeather Snow Map

    The pattern change marks an end to the train of Alberta Clipper storms that have helped to usher in the waves of bitterly cold air, ground blizzards over the North Central states and the snow almost every day in some locations.

    The new pattern moving forward through February will still offer cold, just not quite as extreme over a large area as that of the last several weeks.

    However, the pattern will not be without storm systems.

    With moisture and storms beginning to move in from the Pacific Ocean, some of the storms will take a southward dip toward the Gulf of Mexico, where they will grab more moisture.

    As a result, the upcoming pattern into February looks to be rather stormy at times. Episodes of rain and thunder will visit the south with rounds of snow, ice and rain from the central Plains to the Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic and periods of snow over the northern tier states.

    A short series of such storms is forecast to move up from the Gulf this weekend into the middle of next week. These will pose forecast challenges related to timing and position of the areas of snow versus wintry mix versus rain. Along the northern and western fringes of these storms will be issues with slippery travel and travel delays.

    The first two or three systems appear to be rather weak, but they can spread a swath of mainly light precipitation from the lower Mississippi Valley and the southern Plains to the Northeast Saturday into Monday.

    The largest of the storms and potentially the most disruptive could bring substantial precipitation from eastern Texas to New England spanning next Tuesday and Wednesday. The storm during the middle of next week may bring a dose of drenching rain and locally strong thunderstorms to the South. On the northern and western fringe of the storm, snow and a wintry mix would fall with the potential for a heavy accumulation in part of the Midwest and Northeast.

    Details on the track and coverage of precipitation will made available as soon as possible.

    AccuWeather.com has released its spring forecast outlook. The nation will have to wait a bit to hear what Punxsutawney Phil has to say.

    While temperatures will get above freezing during the day in the pattern, ice can form on areas that were previously wet at night. Folks in the South should continue to exercise caution the next few days until all of the snow and ice from the recent storm has gone away.

    The recent extreme cold has allow ice to build up on area rivers in the north and ice flows will be monitored closely. However, the thaw should be gradual and slight enough in most cases to avoid major ice jams, at least in the short term.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Rare Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 3014
    Dry California Governor
    A visitor to Folsom Lake, Calif., walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards away from the water's edge, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

    As severe to extreme drought continues to grip much of California, the first significant storm since early December is bearing down upon the state.

    A persistent ridge of high pressure that has been stationed over the western United States for the last several months has crumbled during the past couple of days.

    This has allowed a storm track that had been sending storms into far northern Canada to dive southward, right into the Pacific Northwest and California.

    While the widespread sunshine and warmth of the last few weeks may be over for now, the change in weather is marked by very beneficial, drought-easing rain and snow, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

    Elevations above 8,000 feet can expect snowfall amounts to exceed at least 2 feet through Friday evening. Winds will gust over 90 mph across the higher ridges.

    Lower elevations, such as Lake Tahoe, can expect snowfall amounts to range from 6-12 inches through Friday.

    Interstate 80 over Donner Pass and Highway 50 over Echo Pass will be heavily impacted by blinding snow and high winds. Chains on vehicles are a must, as well as a winter weather survive kit in your vehicle containing a blanket, a shovel, matches and flares.

    RELATED:

    Spring Outlook: Six More Weeks of Winter to Grip Half of US
    Forecast Temperature Maps
    Current AccuWeather Snow Map

    Of course, your best bet is to hold off on any travel through the Sierra Mountains until the storm is over.

    Soaking rain in the lowest elevations will bring rainfall of 0.25 of an inch in San Francisco to as much as 2.00 inches or greater in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

    To but this storm into better perspective, consider that Lake Tahoe, located in the Sierra Nevada range, has only had a total of 15.9 inches of snow since Oct. 1. The average snowfall for the region from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31 is 97 inches. So the snowfall deficit is 81.1 inches for the 2013-2014 season thus far.

    The snowpack that builds in the fall and winter months in the Sierra Nevada is important because it contains California's water storage reservoir for the typically very dry spring and summer months.

    Though it will take more than one big storm to make a huge dent in the drought, this storm is a step in the right direction.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014
    A truck blocks all east-bound lanes of   Interstate 285 in Sandy Spring, Ga. after htting an icet patch of road. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta.   Some interstates remained clogged by jackknifed 18-wheelers Wednesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after snow began falling on the city.  (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
    A truck blocks all east-bound lanes of Interstate 285 in Sandy Spring, Ga., after hitting an icy patch of road, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    ATLANTA (AP) - The snow and sleet have stopped falling and traffic was moving again around Atlanta following a crippling storm - but transportation and rescue officials said that didn't mean it was safe yet to drive, especially after the sun goes down.

    Officials from the Georgia Department of Transportation said Wednesday night that they were concerned with sub-freezing overnight lows potentially leading to layers of black ice coating roads that might appear to be safe.

    Temperatures were expected to drop to about 15 degrees overnight in the Atlanta area, according to National Weather Service forecasters. Although it was supposed to be in the high 30s Thursday, it is forecast to dip below freezing again before rising into the 50s on Friday.

    PHOTOS: Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

    "Whatever little leeway that we've gained with melting and slushiness is gonna refreeze," Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karlene Barron said of local road conditions. She added that the department was especially concerned with semi-trucks jackknifing and leading to additional traffic jams.

    Heeding the warnings, school districts and state and local governments stretching from northwest to coastal Georgia announced that offices and classrooms would remain closed Thursday.

    A storm that dropped just inches of snow Tuesday wreaked havoc across much of the South, closing highways, grounding flights and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and a mobile home fire. Yet it was Atlanta, home to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, that was Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience.

    The Georgia State Patrol responded to more than 1,460 crashes between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening, including two fatal crashes, and reported more than 175 injuries. About 1,000 arrivals and departures were canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and thousands of schoolchildren either slept on the buses that tried and failed to get them home, or on cots in school gymnasiums. All were back home by Wednesday evening, officials said.

    State transportation crews spent much of Wednesday rescuing stranded drivers and moving disabled and abandoned vehicles that littered the interstates, medians and shoulders. Gov. Nathan Deal said emergency workers, police, and the National Guard would help drivers Thursday to recover their cars and would provide them with fuel if necessary.

    Crews planned to use four-wheel-drive vehicles to take motorists to vehicles they abandoned to reclaim them Thursday. State officials also said they were creating a database to help motorists locate vehicles that were towed to impound lots.

    Gov. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed found themselves on the defensive Wednesday, acknowledging that storm preparations could have been better. But Deal also blamed federal forecasters, saying he was led to believe it wouldn't be so bad.

    However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult or impossible." The agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta early Tuesday and cautioned against driving.

    Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier, but he also fended off criticism.

    "We don't want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?'" Deal told reporters.

    The Atlanta area was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.

    Among the commuters trapped in the gridlock was Jessica Troy, who described her drive home to the suburb of Smyrna as a slow-motion obstacle course on sheets of ice.

    "We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," Troy said after she and a co-worker spent more than 16 hours covering 12 miles.

    Nelson Kickly said he left work in Alpharetta, an Atlanta suburb, around 1 p.m. Tuesday and didn't get home to Smyrna until 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. On a typical day, Kickly's commute lasts about 45 minutes. He said the journey has motivated him to take a closer look at his emergency preparedness strategy.

    "I had a full tank of gas but if I didn't, I'd have been freezing cold," he said. "I was just listening to the radio and you know, I don't know how I didn't go crazy."

    After daybreak, a few good Samaritans appeared, going car-to-car with bottles of water and cookies. Traffic started moving again about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

    At Atlanta's Deerwood Elementary School, librarian Brian Ashley, a dozen of his colleagues, and 35 children spent the night on cots set up in the gym.

    The teachers and other staff members opened up the pantry in the cafeteria, making pizza and chicken nuggets accompanied by carrots and apples for dinner. Later, some police officers dropped off sandwiches, and parents living nearby brought food.

    "The kids slept peacefully through the night," Ashley said. "They knew that there were people around them that cared about them."

    However, Ashley said he was surprised officials allowed the schools to open Tuesday in the first place.

    "They were forewarned about the weather, and they were ill-prepared," he said. "If schools were canceled yesterday, we would not have had the catastrophe we did last night and today."

    Even amid the chaos, Atlanta officials insisted that downtown was open for business - at least for a huge meat- and poultry-industry exposition at the Georgia World Congress Center. Roughly 27,000 people from more than 100 countries were expected to attend between Monday and Friday.

    City officials arranged for prompt scraping and ice-melting operations on roads around the center.

    "Atlanta has a lot at stake with the convention business," said Charles Olentine, the expo's general manager. "It is mandatory that visitors to Atlanta feel welcome and attended to."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Rare Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014

    This DigitalGlobe satellite image shows the 2014 Winter Olympics village in Sochi, Russia. This image was collected Jan. 2, 2014. (Credit: DigitalGlobe)

    Here's a view of the Olympics only the astronauts can get.

    New satellite imagery shows the sprawling sporting venues and slopes that will host the world's best athletes next week when the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia begin.

    The recent photos come from DigitalGlobe, a commercial company based in Colorado that provides high-resolution images of the planet. [2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and Space Travel (Photos)]

    Past views from space illustrate just how dramatically the Olympic complexes have transformed the landscape of the city over the past eight years. DigitalGlobe's images from 2005 and 2007 show tracts of open space where the huge sporting complex now lies along the Sochi's Black Sea coast. (The Olympic Village and other facilities can also been seen in Google Map views of Sochi.)


    This DigitalGlobe satellite image shows the 2014 Winter Olympics event slopes in Sochi, Russia. This image was collected Jan. 2, 2014. (Credit: DigitalGlobe)

    Sochi boasts several newly built arenas to accommodate sports from speed skating to ice hockey to curling, while resorts miles outside of the city are now prepared to host Alpine skiing contests and the bobsled, luge and skeleton events. Watchdog groups have estimated that Russia has spent nearly $50 billion on the Olympics, making them the most expensive Games yet. President Vladimir Putin, however, recently claimed that Russia only spent about $7 billion to host the highly anticipated event, according to The New York Times.


    This DigitalGlobe satellite image shows Sochi, Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, as it appeared from space on March 17, 2013. (Credit: DigitalGlobe)

    In November, amid the epic relay of the Olympic flame, two Russian cosmonauts took the Olympic torch on a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station for a historic photo op. The torch was returned to Earth in November soon after the spacewalk in a Russian Soyuz capsule that landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan with two NASA astronauts and a cosmonaut who spent five months in space.

    DigitalGlobe's fleet of Earth-watching satellites have been able to snap some timely images, including a photo of the Costa Concordia cruise liner from space, showing the shipwreck on its side; the likely compound where Osama bin Laden was shot and killed; and even treasure-hunter's looting holes that were carved into Syria's archaeological sites amid the country's civil war.

    Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @SPACEdotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

    Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Breathtaking Images of Earth from Space

     

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    Chris Shur captured this image of Venus from Payson, Ariz., near noon on Jan. 18, 2014. (Credit: Chris Shur | www.schursastrophotography.com)

    The brilliant planet Venus and tiny Mercury take center stage these amazing, and rare, daytime sky photos captured this month by an amateur astronomer.

    Skywatching photographer Chris Shur snapped the striking views of a crescent Venus and bright Mercury on Jan. 18 from Payson, Ariz. At the time, both planets were 10 degrees - about the width of a closed fist held at arm's length - to either side of the noontime sun.

    "It's not often you can shoot two planets in broad daylight with the sun nearing the zenith, with the planets on both sides of the sun," Shur told SPACE.com in an email. [Amazing Stargazing Photos for January 2014]

    In Schur's photos, Venus appeared as a very thin crescent. Mercury, meanwhile, was on the far side of the sun, appears as a small round disk.


    Chris Shur captured this image of Mercury from Payson, Ariz., near noon on Jan. 18, 2014. (Credit: Chris Shur | www.schursastrophotography.com)

    Both of Schur's images are at the same scale for comparison. He took the photos with an Explore Scientific AR152 refractor telescope (6-inch) mounted on the side of the 12-inch, DMK 51AU03.AS camera, and Baader Continuum + IR/UV blocker filter.

    "It's like seeing dusk and dawn at the same time," Shur said. "The refractor was stopped to 4 inches, and the sunlight did not enter the telescope."

    Warning: Never use telescopes or binoculars to look near the sun without proper filters to protect your eyesight. Serious eye damage can occur. Astronomers and photographers like Schur use special filters to protect their eyesight while observing the sun.

    To see more amazing night sky photos submitted by SPACE.com readers, visit our astrophotography archive.

    Editor's note: If you have an amazing night sky photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

    Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+. Original story on SPACE.com.

    Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014

    This eye-popping image of the sun - and the moon passing in front of it - was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory this morning.

    What's the story behind it? Reports NASA:

    On Jan 30, 2014, beginning at 8:31 a.m EST, the moon moved between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, and the sun, giving the observatory a view of a partial solar eclipse from space. Such a lunar transit happens two to three times each year. This one lasted two and one half hours, which is the longest ever recorded. When the next one will occur is as of yet unknown due to planned adjustments in SDO's orbit.

    Note in the picture how crisp the horizon is on the moon, a reflection of the fact that the moon has no atmosphere around it to distort the light from the sun.


    And here's video of the event:



    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014
    Karen Hurst, left, carries a gas can as she helps Ann Batsun, recover her car on Interstate 75  Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Atlanta. Police and the National Guard helped people reunite with their abandoned cars Thursday as the logjam on Atlanta highways eased and the roads thawed, two days after a winter storm hit the Deep South.  (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
    Karen Hurst, left, carries a gas can as she helps Ann Batsun, recover her car on Interstate 75 Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    When the snow started falling Tuesday and cars lined up on the highways, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were at an awards luncheon, smiling and back-slapping each other as the Republican governor introduced the Democratic mayor, who was named a local magazine's "Georgian of the Year."

    Just 40 minutes earlier, the mayor declared via Twitter: "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow."

    Within hours, the metropolitan area was in gridlock with tens of thousands of people, including some children on school buses, stranded on icy, wreck-strewn roads. Two days later, the ice was thawing, the children were home and abandoned vehicles were being reclaimed, yet Deal and Reed have scrambled to explain how it all happened after the National Weather Service - despite the governor's claims to the contrary - clearly warned of a dangerous scenario.

    Both men have played the blame game delicately, perhaps knowing political futures are sometimes made or squashed by storm preparations and response, and that the city that has a long and painful past of being ill-prepared for nasty winter weather.

    Reed, who recently began his second term, holds ambition for a statewide run, possibly for governor. Deal is running for re-election this year, and Democrats believe he is vulnerable.

    On Thursday, the governor offered his clearest apology yet. He acknowledged he was sleeping in wee hours of Tuesday morning when the National Weather Service upgraded its warning for the entire metro area, and he said his administration didn't prepare well enough.

    "Certainly things could have been done earlier," he said, pledging a full review of the state's emergency planning. "We will be more aggressive. We will take those weather warnings more seriously."

    Since the storm, Deal and Reed have mostly alternated between qualified apologies and defensive explanations about what they do and don't control, each of them carefully avoiding explicitly pointing the finger at the other, a reflection of their odd-couple political alliance on projects like a new downtown stadium and deepening a key port in Savannah.

    The governor offered perhaps the most bald-faced excuse, at one point referring to "an unexpected winter storm" and saying that "national forecasters" were wrong. The mayor has said it was a mistake for schools, business and government to close around the same time Tuesday, forcing several million people into a frenzied commute around the region before salt-and-sand crews had treated roadways. Once people were stuck, they became nearly impossible to treat or plow.

    Reed has also noted the city was not directly responsible for the interstates, and many of the wrecks and scenes of gridlock on national television were outside the city altogether. Both men insisted they don't "control" the decisions over whether to cancel school.

    Deal explained the preparations were based on earlier National Weather Service forecasts that predicted the worst of the storm passing between the metro area and Macon, in the center of the state.

    Yet a review of the National Weather Service advisories showed the agency published a storm watch for part of Georgia on Sunday. By daybreak Monday, the watch extended into metro Atlanta.

    "Snow covered roads could make travel difficult," forecasters wrote. "If you can change your travel ... do so before the event starts. Now is the time to plan... Do not wait for the warning!"

    The watch was upgraded Monday afternoon to a warning for south metro Atlanta, and the overnight forecast - released at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday - extended that warning to the entire metro area, beginning at 9 a.m.

    Yet it appeared government officials didn't fully grasp the scope of the impending weather. Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent an email Monday around 3 p.m. that suggested some unease from the governor's office. It sought more information from Charley English, the chief of the state emergency management office.

    "Everyone keeps trying to tell me how bad the weather is going to be but I keep saying if the weather was going to be bad, Charley would have called and he hasn't called me," Riley wrote, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using Georgia's open records laws. English offered to call minutes later.

    Deal mentioned English directly when discussing the mistakes Thursday, and the chief said he had "made a terrible mistake and put the governor in an awful position."

    Whatever the fallout for Deal and Reed, they have plenty of examples of politicians whose careers met a turning point due to a disaster. President George W. Bush had sagging approval ratings before voters resoundingly approved of his work in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

    But Bush saw the other end of the spectrum four years later with Hurricane Katrina. Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, never recovered politically from the public disapproval over government's response after the storm.

    Weather disasters in particular become a "crucible moment" for politicians, said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor who worked for Blanco in 2005. That differs from a scandal like what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces for his administration forcing a bridge closure and resulting traffic jam as political retribution.

    "Not everyone in New Jersey experienced that," Mann said. "But something like a hurricane or a snow storm, everybody is impacted, and they take it more personally."

    In Birmingham, Ala., the weather was just as bad, and at least twice as many students (11,000) spent the night at schools there compared with Atlanta, but the backlash was much different.

    Angry parents vented on social media and talk radio about meteorologists who blew the forecast by predicting central Alabama would get only a trace of snow and experience no travel problems.

    The National Weather Service and TV forecasters acknowledged the foul-up. A joint visit by Birmingham Mayor William Bell, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Robert Bentley to an elementary school with trapped students was more a love fest than a confrontation.

    Weary teachers who had to spend all night with students clapped and cheered when a laughing Bentley said: "They need to give y'all a vacation."

    For Reed and Deal, their political futures will depend heavily on the Atlanta-area voters who compose a majority of the state's 10 million residents. The northern suburbs in particular are a boon to many Republicans, and Deal did extremely well there in 2010. Conversely, those areas are key for Reed, a black Democrat who can't depend exclusively on the increasing strength of minority voters and urban liberals if he hopes to win statewide in a GOP-leaning state.

    As for the luncheon, Deal said it was appropriate for him to be there.

    "I did not eat lunch there," he said. "I stayed only a minimal period of time, left immediately after I introduced him (Reed) and canceled everything else we had that day to concentrate on this issue."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Rare Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

     

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    Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
    Winter Weather
    A traveler walks in the economic parking lot at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    The first in a series of winter storms will reach from Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma to major hubs in the the Midwest and southeastern Canada spanning Friday into Saturday.

    A push of cold air coinciding with a storm moving up from the Southwest will trigger a zone of moderate to heavy snow on its northern and western fringe with a zone of ice hugging the southeastern fringe of the snow area.

    The snow and ice will hinder travel on the highways from the central Plains to the Midwest and can lead to flight delays and cancellations, not only in the same area, but also reaching out to other parts of the nation.

    While winds will be light with the storm and ground blizzards are not expected, enough snow to plow will fall along much of I-70 over the Rockies and Plains and along I-80 in the Midwest.

    According to AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Mark Mancuso, "Snow will fall on major metropolitan areas from Denver to Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City."

    A shallow push of cold air southeast of the snow area will lead to a zone of sleet and its more dangerous and disruptive cousin, freezing rain.

    "Ice and/or a wintry mix will glaze surfaces from near Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan., to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Cleveland," Mancuso said.

    Farther south and east, warmer air will win the battle with only a brief and spotty, light wintry mix forecast in parts of northern Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia and much of the mid-Atlantic and southern New England. In these areas, most of the precipitation produced by the storm will be light rain or drizzle and includes the metro areas of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta.

    RELATED:
    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center
    AccuWeather Spring Outlook
    Current AccuWeather Snow Map

    A train of storms will follow from the South and Southwest well into February. The track of each storm will vary with some reaching toward the Great Lakes, some aiming for the mid-Atlantic and perhaps one or two causing wintry trouble in the South.

    In the wake of each storm, colder air will sag southward, but not to the extreme experienced during the middle and latter part of January.

    Earlier in the month, temperatures plunged below zero with high winds. At least with the cold settling in Sunday into Monday, winds will be much lighter in comparison then the coldest air is around. For example around Chicago, high temperatures will be within a few degrees of 10 F as opposed to highs near to slightly below zero during several episodes earlier during January. RealFeel(R) temperatures at the time had plunged to between minus 40 to minus 20 F.

    However, just enough cold air will be laid down by each storm to cause a variety of freezing and frozen precipitation that could yield sizable snow and ice accumulation.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 20 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
    Winter Weather Georgia
    An abandoned car marked with yellow tape is left on Interstate 75/85 south of downtown Atlanta, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

    ATLANTA (AP) - Hundreds of drivers were reunited with their abandoned cars and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered state employees back to work Friday as the metro Atlanta region rebounded from a winter storm that coated the area with snow and ice.

    Many school districts throughout the metro area - including Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton County - announced that they'd remain closed to students Friday, and Deal extended a state of emergency through to Sunday night.

    The declaration was extended to allow the state to continue using certain resources to help local governments clear roads and deal with other storm-related issues, Deal said in a statement.

    The governor and Director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Charley English, have taken responsibility for poor planning leading up to the storm.

    "We did not make preparations early enough," Deal said at a news conference. "I'm not going to look for a scapegoat. I am the governor. The buck stops with me."

    Deal added that state agencies would do internal reviews and come up with revised protocols to respond to severe weather forecasts.

    Temperatures in the region were expected to reach the low 50s on Friday, which should help officials clear ice accumulations from local roads. Temperatures are expected to remain well above freezing and reach the low 60s Sunday, according to the NationalWeather Service.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Rare Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Southern Roads

     

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    Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
    FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2011 file photo, a Monarch butterfly perches on a tree at the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary in the mountains of Mexico's Michoacan state. The number of Monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico has plunged to its lowest level since studies began in 1993. A report released on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 by the World Wildlife Fund, Mexicoís Environment Department and the Natural Protected Areas Commission blames the dramatic decline on the insect's loss of habitat due to illegal logging in Mexicoís mountaintop forests and the massive displacement of its food source, the milkweed plant. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
    In this Dec. 9, 2011, file photo, a Monarch butterfly perches on a tree at the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary in the mountains of Mexico's Michoacan state. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

    MEXICO CITY (AP) - The stunning and little-understood annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies to spend the winter in Mexico is in danger of disappearing, experts said Wednesday, after numbers dropped to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1993.

    Their report blamed the displacement of the milkweed the species feeds on by genetically modified crops and urban sprawl in the United States, extreme weather trends and the dramatic reduction of the butterflies' habitat in Mexico due to illegal logging of the trees they depend on for shelter.

    After steep and steady declines in the previous three years, the black-and-orange butterflies now cover only 1.65 acres (0.67 hectares) in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City, compared to 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) last year, said the report released by the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico's Environment Department and the Natural Protected Areas Commission. They covered more than 44.5 acres (18 hectares) at their recorded peak in 1996.

    Because the butterflies clump together by the thousands in trees, they are counted by the area they cover.

    While the Monarch is not in danger of extinction, the decline in their population now marks a statistical long-term trend and can no longer be seen as a combination of yearly or seasonal events, experts said.

    Graphic shows forest area occupied by Monarch butterfly colonies in Mexico.; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;The announcement followed on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which saw the United States, Mexico and Canada sign environmental accords to protect migratory species such as the Monarch. At the time, the butterfly was adopted as the symbol of trilateral cooperation.

    "Twenty years after the signing of NAFTA, the Monarch migration, the symbol of the three countries' cooperation, is at serious risk of disappearing," said Omar Vidal, the World Wildlife Fund director in Mexico.

    Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, wrote that "the migration is definitely proving to be an endangered biological phenomenon."

    "The main culprit," he wrote in an email, is now genetically modified "herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA," which "leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch's principal food plant, common milkweed."

    While Mexico has made headway in reducing logging in the officially protected winter reserve, that alone cannot save the migration, wrote Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota. She noted that studies indicate that the U.S. Midwest is where most of the butterflies migrate from.

    "A large part of their reproductive habitat in that region has been lost due to changes in agricultural practices, mainly the explosive growth in the use of herbicide-tolerant crops," Oberhauser said.

    Extreme weather - severe cold snaps, unusually heavy rains or droughts in all three countries - have also apparently played a role in the decline.

    But the milkweed issue now places the spotlight firmly on the United States and President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Mexico on Feb. 19, with events scheduled for Toluca, a city a few dozen miles from the butterfly reserve.

    "I think President Obama should take some step to support the survival of the Monarch butterflies," said writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis. "The governments of the United States and Canada have washed their hands of the problem, and left it all to Mexico."

    It's unclear what would happen to the Monarchs if they no longer made the annual trek to Mexico, the world's biggest migration of Monarch butterflies and the second-largest insect migration, after a species of dragonfly in Africa.

    There are Monarchs in many parts of the world, so they would not go extinct. The butterflies can apparently survive year-round in warmer climates, but populations in the northern United States and Canada would have to find some place to spend the bitter winters. There is also another smaller migration route that takes butterflies from the west to the coast of California, but that has registered even steeper declines.

    Oberhauser noted that some Monarchs now appear to be wintering along the U.S. Gulf coast, and there has been a movement in the United States among gardeners and home owners to plant milkweed to replace some of the lost habitat. But activists say large stands of milkweed are needed along the migratory route, comparable to what once grew there. They also want local authorities in the U.S. and Canada to alter mowing schedules in parks and public spaces, to avoid cutting down milkweed during breeding seasons.

    The migration is an inherited trait. No butterfly lives to make the full round-trip, and it is unclear how they remember the route back to the same patch of forest each year, a journey of thousands of miles to a forest reserve that covers 193,000 acres (56,259-hectares) in central Mexico. Some scientists think the huge masses of migrating butterflies may release chemicals that mark the migratory path and that if their numbers fall low enough, not enough chemical traces would remain and the route-marking might no longer work.

    The human inhabitants of the reserve had already noted a historic change, as early as the Nov. 1-2 Day of the Dead holiday, when the butterflies usually arrive.

    "They were part of the landscape of the Day of the Dead, when you could see them flitting around the graveyards," said Gloria Tavera, the director of the reserve. "This year was the first time in memory that they weren't there."

    Losing the butterflies would be a blow for people such as Adolfo Rivera, a 55-year-old farmer from the town of Los Saucos who works as a guide for tourists in the Piedra Herrada wintering ground. He said the butterflies had come later and in smaller numbers this year, a fact he attributed to a rainy winter. "This is a source of pride for us, and income," Rivera said.

    Butterfly guide Emilio Velazquez Moreno, 39, and other farmers in the village of Macheros, located inside the reserve, have been planting small plots of milkweed in a bid to provide food for the Monarchs if they decide to stay in Mexico year-round, which he said some do.

    Sitting beside a mountainside patch of firs where the butterflies were clumping on the branches, Velazquez Moreno, a second-generation guide who has been visiting the butterflies since he was a boy, said "we have to protect this. This comes first, this is our heritage."

    RELATED ON SKYE: World's Freakiest Bugs

     

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    Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
    Raindrops appear on a windshield following the first rain of the year, early Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Novato, Calif. Northern California is finally getting rain after some areas have gone without measurable moisture for weeks. But the precipitation won't help much to ease the drought that has plagued the region. (AP Photo/Marin Independent Journal, Robert Tong)
    Raindrops appear on a windshield following the first rain of the year, early Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Novato, Calif. (AP Photo/Marin Independent Journal, Robert Tong)

    LOS ANGELES (AP) - With dangerously low snow levels in the mountains and rain coming in just dribs and drabs a deepening California drought has prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to urge people to turn off the water while brushing teeth and not to "flush more than you have to."

    A snow survey Thursday in the Sierra Nevada in Northern California found the snow water equivalent was just 12 percent of normal for this time of winter, despite a storm that dumped some new snow Thursday. The water in the northern and central Sierra snowpack provides about a third of California's water supply. Satellite photos from space show the tops of the towering peaks as brown instead of white.

    A weak cold weather system limping through the state did provide a few sprinkles of rain Thursday but it amounted to only a few hundreds of an inch and "the chances of tipping any rain buckets is much closer to zero," a National Weather Service forecast said.

    The system could bring perhaps an inch of snow in the higher mountains.

    The chance of rain was to continue into early Friday and again on Sunday but "even the wettest models suggest a very light precipitation at best, mostly under a tenth of an inch," the forecast said.

    "Make no mistake, this drought is a big wakeup call," Brown said Thursday before meeting with local water district officials in downtown Los Angeles, where a smattering of rain fell later in the day. "Hopefully it's going to rain. If it doesn't, we're going to have to act in a very strenuous way in every part of the state to get through."

    "Every day this drought goes on, we're going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing," Brown said.

    Brown declared a state drought emergency earlier this month and called on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent.

    On Thursday he offered some practical advice, including avoiding long solo showers and cutting down on toilet flushing.

    State climatologist Michael Anderson said only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, the lowest aggregate total in records dating back to 1895.

    Officials say 2013 was also state's driest calendar year since records started being kept.

    Southern California has been stockpiling water to deal with potential shortages but some places in the state are struggling.

    State officials have said that 17 rural communities are in danger of a severe water shortage within four months. Wells are running dry or reservoirs are nearly empty in some communities. Others have long-running problems that predate the drought.

    The communities range from the area covered by the tiny Lompico County Water District in Santa Cruz County to the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale in Sonoma County.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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