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    Monday, May 12, 2014

    Scientists using a European space telescope have created the best map yet of our Milky Way galaxy's magnetic field, a set of cosmic "fingerprints" that may lead to better understanding of how stars form, researchers say.

    The magnetic map of the Milky Way was stitched together from observations from the European Space Agency's Planck space observatory. The Planck map shows how specially-oriented polarized light is emitted from interstellar dust.

    "This is the best picture we've ever had of the magnetic field of the Milky Way over such a large part of the sky," Charles Lawrence, the U.S. Planck project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said in a statement.

    Traveling as waves in electric and magnetic fields, light vibrates in directions at right angles to one another and the direction it travels. In most cases, the fields vibrate in all directions. However, if something affects the light and causes it to vibrate preferentially in certain directions, it becomes 'polarized.' Such polarization can occur when the light bounces off a reflective surface like a mirror or the sea. Special filters can absorb polarization, which is how polarized sunglasses eliminate glare.

    In space, light emitted by gas, dust, and stars can be polarized. Spinning dust particles in clouds can become aligned with magnetic fields, creating polarization that can be measured.

    The new image from Planck reveals the large-scale organization of the polarization of the galaxy. Swirls, loops, and arcs, like giant fingerprints, trace the structure of the magnetic fields in the Milky Way, which results from the field lines running predominantly parallel to the galactic plane. Darker regions correspond to stronger polarization, with striations indicating the direction of the magnetic field on the plane of the sky.

    The image also reveals variations in polarization by nearby objects, such as clouds of gas and dust. These variations are revealed by tangled features above and below the plane, where the local magnetic field is especially disorganized.

    Planck's study of the galactic polarization is analyzed in four papers recently submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. More data based on Planck's observation of polarized light covering the sky at seven frequencies will be released later this year.

    Although the Planck space observatory shut down in 2013 after running out of coolant, researchers continue to study the wealth of data it collected. The Planck space observatory launched into space in May 2009.

    In addition to studying the magnetic structure of the Milky Way, the craft also collected information on the cosmic microwave background, light from the early universe.

    Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article 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: 15 Mind-Blowing Photos of the Milky Way
    Milky Way

     

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    Monday, May 12, 2014

    A NASA spacecraft has made a surprising find on the surface of the sun: a square-shaped "hole" in the star's outer atmosphere.

    The dark square on the sun, known as a "coronal hole," is an area where the solar wind is streaming out of the sun at superfast speeds. NASA captured a video of the sun's square-shaped coronal hole between Monday and Wednesday (May 5-7) using the powerful Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

    The coronal hole appears dark in the NASA view because there is less material emitting light in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum used to make the video, according to a NASA video description. [Biggest Solar Storms of 2014 (Photos)]

    "Inside the coronal hole you can see bright loops where the hot plasma outlines little pieces of the solar magnetic field sticking above the surface," SDO officials wrote in the video description. "Because it is positioned so far south on the sun, there is less chance that the solar wind stream will impact us here on Earth."

    NASA's sun-watching Solar Dynamics Observatory is just one of a fleet of spacecraft keeping a close watch on the weather on Earth's parent star. In 2013, the sun experienced its peak activity of its 11-year solar weather cycle.

    Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article 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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    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A flow of tropical moisture ahead of a slow-moving front will trigger heavy rain and raise the risk of flash and urban flooding problems along the Atlantic Seaboard late in the week.

    While spotty showers and storms Tuesday and Wednesday are forecast to occur ahead of the heavier rainfall, there will be a greater risk for disruptions to outdoor activities and travel problems on Thursday and Friday in the mid-Atlantic and on Friday and Saturday in New England.

    After a wedge of cool air trims temperatures in much of the Northeast at midweek, a front with showers and thunderstorms will push toward the East Coast late in the week.

    Tropical moisture, which has produced flooding and mudslides in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico since last week, will be drawn northward along the Atlantic coast around the same time the front arrives from the west. While the system is not expected to develop, it is carrying tropical moisture.

    The front alone has the potential to bring a general 1 to 2 inches of rain from showers and thunderstorms. However, where the tropical moisture gets involved, double that amount can fall in localized areas from Georgia to Maine.

    RELATED:
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    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center
    How to Stay Safe in a Flood

    As long as the narrow corridor of heavy rainfall continues to move along, widespread flooding problems will be avoided. If the zone of heavy rain were to stall, there is more of a risk for stream and river flooding, along with widespread urban flooding issues.

    There will be minor incidents of flash and urban flooding, with poor visibility over a several-hour period as the band of heavy rain pivots slowly to the northeast later this week.

    Major cities that will be impact by a period of drenching showers and thunderstorms with the associated travel delays include Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston.

    In the wake of the drenching rain, cooler air will roll eastward from the Midwest in time for the weekend. Similar to a storm that brought cool and unsettled conditions to the area a week ago, this new storm the upper atmosphere has the potential to bring angry clouds and spotty showers mainly during the afternoon and evening hours.

    Beneath the storm in the upper atmosphere, high temperatures may be held to the 50 over the mountains and the lower 70s in many areas east of the Appalachians.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 U.S. Cities Most at Risk from Rising Sea Levels

     

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    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    A continuous flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico will help to fuel rounds of heavy thunderstorms from Texas to Ohio through Wednesday.

    These storms will not only cause headaches for travelers, but also impact any outdoor events planned for either Tuesday or Wednesday across this portion of the country.

    The focus of Tuesday's thunderstorms is expected to stretch along the coast of Texas and into western portions of Tennessee with storms producing flooding downpours and small hail possible.

    Localized flash flooding cannot be ruled out farther north into western Ohio and even into southeastern Michigan on Tuesday, especially during the afternoon.

    Areas along I-10 in Texas between San Antonio and Houston are at a higher risk of flooding after thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain along this corridor on Monday night.

    People on the roads may feel the biggest impact from these storms as flash flooding may force road closures, making it more difficult to reach your destination.

    If you come across a road with water flowing over it, or a road that is closed due to flooding, it is advised that you find an alternate route rather than attempting to drive through the water.

    Airport delays may also develop as a result of these storms, particularly those planning to fly out of Houston, Detroit, Indianapolis or Cincinnati.

    The threat of heavy, gusty thunderstorms will persist into Wednesday, affecting some of the same areas hit by Tuesday's storms.

    In addition to the thunderstorms from Mississippi to Ohio, a steady rain is forecast to develop from Arkansas to southern Illinois which could lead to additional flooding problems.

    RELATED:
    Tropical Connection to Bring Late-Week Flood Risk From Atlanta to NYC
    Interactive Radar
    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center

    Although these storms may have some negative impacts, they will have some positive impacts.

    One of the biggest positives from these storms will be the much-needed rain falling over portions of Texas currently in a drought.

    This much rain will help to fill reservoirs and get rivers and streams flowing closer-to-normal levels before drier weather moves in for the second half of the week.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    In this photo provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety, a wildfire burns near Fritch, Texas. The wildfire has led to evacuations and road closures and has destroyed dozens of homes. (AP Photo/Texas Department of Public Safety, Chris Ray)

    FRITCH, Texas - Firefighters had stopped the spread of flames in a wildfire in the Texas Panhandle and were focusing Monday night on hotspots and buildings still smoldering 24 hours after they first turned their hoses on the blaze.

    No injuries were reported in the fire, but hundreds of people from a 4-square-mile area around Lake Meredith, between the towns of Sanford and Fritch, evacuated their homes Sunday afternoon. Some moved to an ad hoc shelter in a high school gymnasium, others to the sanctuary of a local church serving the rural communities some 30 miles northeast of Amarillo.

    Dozens of pets were taken in by a local animal hospital.

    The fire destroyed 156 structures, at least 89 of which were homes, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Troy Duchneaux said late Monday. About 2,100 people remain evacuated from roughly 1,300 homes, he said.

    The fire was about 65 percent contained as of late Monday night, and humidity and lower temperatures from area storms were helping, Duchneaux said.

    A house-by-house search and damage assessment is planned for Tuesday, he said.

    Nearly three-quarters of the impacted area within the city of Fritch was contained.

    "We still have some structures that are smoldering, but we don't have an active fire," said Jason Wright, Hutchinson County's assistant emergency management coordinator.

    The wildfire, which swept through a mobile home community, could have been started by a burning shed, Wright said. The homes' steel frames and burnt carcasses of cars and trucks sat under a pile of ash.

    However, Fritch Police Chief Monte Leggett told the Associated Press it was "too early to suspect" foul play.

    About 130 evacuees were at the Sanford-Fritch High School gym on Monday, according to the Panhandle chapter of the Red Cross. Red Cross coordinator Steve Pair said about 200 people checked into the makeshift shelter Sunday night.

    Throughout Fritch, the smell of fire was in the air. With power lines down and the impacted area still off-limits, the shelter's evacuees could only wonder whether it was their homes they could smell burning.

    "It's hard because we're kind of in a wait-and-see pattern," Pair said.

    It is the first wildfire in the area since February 2011 during one of the worst droughts in Texas history. Twelve people were killed in a March 2006 wildfire that burned nearly 1 million acres.

    Some 25 fire departments in a 165-mile radius responded to the most recent fire.

    "We had so many people respond to it right away that we were able to get a better hold of it," Wright said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    Sun glints off Russia's Lake Baikal in an astronaut photograph taken on April 22, 2014. (ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center; image was taken by the Expedition 39 crew)

    Russia's Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, but its beauty is skin-deep in a new astronaut photograph.

    The lake image, taken by a crew member aboard the International Space Station, shows the southern half of the lake, which is mostly covered by ice. A melted portion catches the sun, creating a silvery, mirrorlike surface. This phenomenon is called "sunglint," according to NASA's Earth Observatory.

    Sunglint is a literal trick of the light -- sun reflects directly off the surface of the water toward the observer. It can happen in rivers, lakes and on the open ocean, and the color of the sunglint depends on the roughness of the water surface, among other factors, according to Earth Observatory. [101 Stunning Images of Earth from Space]

    One of a kind

    Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its depths stretch down some 5,577 feet -- twice as deep as the tallest building in the world, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, is high. The lake is also the world's oldest, dating back about 25 million years, according to UNESCO.

    Lake Baikal is also the single largest reservoir on Earth. It contains 20 percent of the fresh, unfrozen water on the planet, and has a rare and diverse ecosystem to match. According to UNESCO, the lake is home to 1,340 animal species and 570 plants. Of these, 745 animals and 150 plants are found nowhere else on Earth.

    Perhaps the cutest of these is the Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica), also known as the nerpa. This seal is the only pinniped that lives only in freshwater, according to the Seal Conservation Society. Adults are silver-grey, and pups are a fuzzy, fluffy white. Weighing in around 155 pounds max, Baikal seals are some of the smallest pinnipeds on the planet.

    Less adorable, but no less amazing, is the golomyanka, a bizarre translucent fish that is more than one-third oil by weight. The fish have no scales and, because of their unique bodies, can move from Lake Baikal's depths to its shallows without suffering damage from changes in water pressure. The fish are the main prey of the Baikal seal.

    Threats and challenges

    Despite its storied status, Lake Baikal is not immune to the threat of human activity. Baikal seals are hunted, which may be contributing to declining numbers of the species. Pollution also threatens the lake, particularly agricultural runoff and discharge from nearby industrial plants, according to the Seal Conservation Society.

    The lake is also a repository of gas hydrates, which are essentially dissolved gases locked inside solid crystals of water. Lake Baikal hosts huge amounts of methane trapped in these structures in its depths, making it a popular place for research into how to extract these gas hydrates as an alternative source of energy.

    There are currently no plans to extract these gas hydrates from Lake Baikal, but similar structures are also found in the oceans and in permafrost. This fact has led to additional concerns about climate change, as melting ice could release large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

    Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space


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

     

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    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    Three children were injured, two of them seriously, after a strong gust of wind lifted an inflatable bounce house into the air on Monday around 3:30 p.m., in South Glens Falls, New York.

    Two boys, ages 5 and 6, fell from the bounce house, which was about 15 feet in the air. One boy fell on a parked car while the other fell onto asphalt. Both were taken to Albany Medical Center according to the Glens Falls Post-Star. The third child, a 10-year-old girl, suffered minor injuries when she fell out just as the house was being lifted.

    Gust Throws Bounce House in Air
    Three children were injured after a strong gust of wind lifted an inflatable bounce house into the air on Monday afternoon in South Glens Falls, New York. (Photo/Glens Falls Post-Star)

    South Glens Falls Police tell the Post-Star that conditions of the boys were not known as of Tuesday morning.

    A witness told the Post-Star that, "the wind picked the structure up and spun it around as if it were a small tornado."

    Observations from the region did not indicate any widespread wind gusts Monday afternoon around the time of the incident, said AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Eric Leister.

    Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport, just about 5 miles northeast of Glens Falls, reported winds gusts of only 6 to 8 miles per hour between 3 and 4 p.m.

    "Wind gusts can be very localized and also depending on terrain and structures, winds can be funneled and become much stronger than other nearby areas, which could possibly explain the extreme wind gusts responsible for lifting the inflatable bounce house," Leister said.

    Besides the possibility of drastic variations in wind, AccuWeather.com meteorologist Jesse Ferrell said there could have been a "freak dust devil."

    It was unusually warm, with highs in the upper 80s in the area, and heat is an essential ingredient in the formation of dust devils.

    "The truth is, vortexes are all around us constantly; it takes something physical to give them shape such as dust, snow, steam or leaves," Ferrell said.

    Bounce houses are popular toys for younger children. As a safety precaution, when being put together, they should be fastened with stakes in the ground.

    According to the Post-Star, the mother of the injured girl said the bounce house was tied down to the ground with stakes, but the "wind blew them free."

    The wind eventually blew the house more than 50 feet in the air.

    Two Boys Seriously Injured After Bouncey House Goes 50ft Into The Air

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Incredible Photos of Forces of Nature
    Volcano Eruption

     

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    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Flames grow as a wild fire burns out-of-control in the north county area of San Diego Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in San Diego. Wildfires destroyed a home and forced the evacuation of several others Tuesday in California as a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to a parched state that should be in the middle of its rainy season. (AP Photo)

    SAN DIEGO - A pair of wildfires flared and thousands of residents fled amid drought conditions and spiking heat in California, but both blazes had calmed as night fell and the winds that had whipped them diminished.

    Evacuation orders were lifted for all of the more than 20,000 residents in and around San Diego on Tuesday night just a few hours after they were called, and all but a handful of the 1,200 homes and businesses told to evacuate in Santa Barbara County had been allowed to return.

    The two blazes, 250 miles apart, each covered more than 800 acres and each was 5 percent contained, but the San Diego-area fire was much closer to much more populated areas, and the rugged terrain and unseasonably warm temperatures made firefighting difficult, creating some scary moments that quickly passed.

    Neither blaze caused any home damage or injuries, but another hot, dry day is expected Wednesday.

    "We believe we have a pretty good handle on it," San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said. "We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed."

    The flames erupted in the fire-prone Rancho Bernardo area of the city, driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds.

    By late afternoon, the flames ripped through canyons to approach expensive homes and new subdivisions on the ridges. It spread to Rancho Santa Fe, one of the nation's wealthiest communities, known for its multimillion-dollar homes, golfing and horseback riding.

    Black and gray smoke billowed over northern San Diego, filled with whirling ash and embers that created small spot fires. Flames crept within yards of some homes before firefighters doused them.

    On one road, people on bicycles and skateboards stopped to watch as a plane dumped water on flames a half-mile away. At least two high schools and three elementary schools were evacuated.

    Cameron Stout, filling his tank at a gas station, got a text from his wife shortly after noon saying that she was packing up and leaving with the family's pictures, laptops and other valuables. Their next-door neighbor's home burned in a fire 15 years ago, he said.

    "This area's been through this before," he said. "I thought the recent rains would have prevented this from happening. But after a couple days of 100 degrees, it's reversed all that."

    Katy Ghasemi, 14, was held for hours in her high school classroom before the school let the children go home. Students studied, ate lunch, did yoga and looked out the windows at the fire.

    "There were a lot of flames. Some were right near the front gate," she said.

    The city of San Diego issued between 16,000 and 17,000 evacuation orders, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. Gore said the sheriff's department issued an additional 5,000 evacuation orders outside city limits. All the evacuations were called off by about 9 p.m.

    Meanwhile, in the Santa Barbara County community of Lompoc, heavy brush and downed power lines provided special challenges for the nearly firefighters, said David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

    Chrissy Cabral, 57, rounded up friends to help her remove 19 head of cattle she keeps at a local ranch after the fire shifted directions. She said firefighters warned her: "Get out now."

    "It was very high flames, very dark," she said.

    The group used trailers to move the cows five miles away, Cabral said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Dramatic Photos Reveal California's Epic Drought

     

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    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    (NASA/NOAA GOES Project)

    Following a season with the fewest number of hurricanes since 1982, the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to follow suit as a below-normal hurricane season.

    With roughly 10 named tropical storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes predicted for the Atlantic Basin this season, AccuWeather.com's long-range forecasting team anticipates two storms, either tropical storms or hurricanes, to make landfall in the United States.

    Atlantic Hurricane Season Key Points:

    1. AccuWeather.com is predicting a below-normal hurricane season.
    2. Tropical development this season may be altered by the onset of El Niño in late summer or fall.
    3. Areas from the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico up through the East Coast will be most vulnerable for impacts from a tropical system.

    The onset of El Niño, a short-term phenomenon associated with above-normal water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, may alter weather patterns across the globe. At some point this summer, El Niño will likely increase wind shear across portions of the Atlantic basin and thus suppress the development of tropical storms this season.

    "If we have a robust El Niño develop, then the numbers will be much lower and this could be one of the least active years in memory," AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

    If the 2014 season falls short of normal, it would only be the fourth below-normal season in 20 years, according to NOAA.

    The official start of hurricane season, June 1, 2014, could be ushered in by one or two storms in June or July, according to Kottlowski.

    However, most storms and the best potential for landfall will be on the horizon for the basin during the heart of hurricane season, which occurs later in the summer and into fall, in the months of August, September and October.

    This summer, the areas to watch closely for potential impact will be those from eastern Louisiana, east through Florida and up through the Carolina and Virginia coasts, including the cities of New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Key West, Charleston and Norfolk.

    However, other areas along the coastline could still be hit as early predictions for pathways and intensity of storms and hurricanes weeks ahead of time are extremely difficult, according to Kottlowski.

    Although this season overall numbers are predicted to be low, meteorologists urge people to be prepared for the worst.

    "All we need is one hurricane," Kottlowski said. "Just because we are saying this is going to be an inactive season doesn't mean we couldn't have a couple of very intense hurricanes."

    RELATED:
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    Kottlowski emphasized the importance of preparing for a storm, comparing this season to that of 1992. Nearly 22 years ago, after a nearly tranquil summer, Hurricane Andrew made landfall. A Category 5 storm, Andrew wiped out South Florida and portions of Louisiana, including Morgan City, and became one of the most memorable hurricanes in history.

    "I'm worried because people think this is going to be a very inactive year, so people think they don't have to worry, but that's not the case at all," Kottlowski said. "All it takes is one storm or hurricane to ruin your vacation or your property."

    Ahead of the season, AccuWeather.com meteorologists urge citizens along the coast to begin preparations for the season. Once a storm or hurricane is on its way, it's almost too late, Kottlowski added.

    Hurricanes can induce storm surges, or a pile-up of water that moves with a hurricane and rises quickly before crashing along the coast, which can wash away entire neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy demonstrated the strength of storm surges in October 2012, nearly demolishing the New Jersey coastline.

    Damaging winds are another component of hurricanes that can bring extensive damage to impacted areas, as straight-line winds can knock down anything untethered. Hurricanes are also known for spawning tornadoes as they make landfall.

    "Have an emergency kit together that includes food, water, copies of your housing documents, insurance papers and a safety kit," Kottlowski said. "Think about the possibilities of where you are going to evacuate to."

    Check in with AccuWeather's Hurricane Center as the season progresses for updates from expert meteorologists on potential development and impact of storms, satellite images and an interactive hurricane tracker.


    Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com or follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.


    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    (AP Photo)

    Another round of strong, soaking storms is set to slam areas from Mississippi to Ohio today, Wednesday, May 14, making people reach for their raincoats and umbrellas.

    Cincinnati; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Tupelo, Mississippi; and Birmingham, Alabama, could all be rattled by powerful thunderstorms, especially during the afternoon and evening on Wednesday.

    Flash flooding could be the most widespread impact as drenching downpours dump as much as 1 to 2 inches of rain in less than an hour.

    Such a substantial amount of rainfall in such a short amount of time can cause water to pool on roadways, resulting in treacherous travel for anyone attempting to drive through the blinding downpours.

    Localized power outages may occur as these storms blast through with wind gusts strong enough to bring down tree limbs and power lines.

    A few isolated tornadoes cannot be ruled out in the strongest storms with the greatest tornado risk covering an area from eastern Mississippi to central Kentucky.

    Thousands of baseballs fans in Cincinnati could face a rainout on Wednesday evening as the Reds are scheduled to host the Padres at the same time that the steadiest rain is forecast to spread over the city.

    Other outdoor activities planned across the region on Wednesday may also face a washout with thunderstorms being followed up by a steady rain that will last into the night.

    RELATED:
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    Interactive Radar
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    Rain and thunderstorms will be replaced by cooler, less humid conditions for Thursday and Friday, although a few showers may linger around in Tennessee and Kentucky.

    Meanwhile, the thunderstorms and flooding downpours will shift eastward, raising flooding concerns across the Northeast.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2013
    Twin Waterspouts

     

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    Wednesday, May 13, 2014

    (Starry Night Software)

    If you go out tonight (May 14) about half an hour after sunset and have clear weather, you will see a number of bright objects in the sky. The brightest of these celestial lights are four of five planets visible to the naked eye this month, with the full moon completing the view - a sight you won't want to miss.

    To begin our planet parade in May's night sky, let's look low in the northwest. There you can find the tiny speck of Mercury, never far from the sun. You may need a binocular to spot it.

    A bit higher in the west is Jupiter, long past its opposition on Jan. 5, and now sinking rapidly behind the sun. If you have a telescope take a look to see Jupiter's four bright moons.

    Due south is Mars, now well past opposition on April 8, and fading fast in brightness. If you have a powerful telescope, you might still spot the Red Planet's tiny northern polar ice cap. [Amazing Night Sky Photos for May (Gallery)]

    May full moon and more

    Rising in the southeast, just ahead of the full moon, is the planet Saturn, just four days past opposition.

    The rising moon and Saturn mark the midpoint of the night: they will be high in the southern sky at local midnight (1 a.m. local time in most areas because of Daylight Saving Time).

    If you go out about an hour before sunrise tomorrow morning (May 15), the moon and Saturn will have moved to the southwest, where they are setting. Notice how much the moon has moved relative to Saturn during the night.


    (Starry Night Software)

    Venus will have risen low in the southeast, still very bright, although it soon will be lost in the sun's glare.

    In the southeastern sky you will need binoculars to spot Neptune, the farthest planet from the sun.

    Finally, Uranus, also requiring binoculars, will be close to Venus for the next few nights.

    A planet parade in the night sky

    Notice how all seven planets and the moon fall close to the green line which marks the ecliptic — the path the sun follows across the sky. In the sky maps in this guide, I've adjusted the view to emphasize that it is a straight line, but this is not always obvious when you see it spread across the sky. Having it marked by so many bright planets helps to visualize it.

    Because all the planets and the moon follow courses close to the ecliptic, they frequently have close encounters, called conjunctions, as they pass one another. Sometimes one planet may even pass in front of another as seen from Earth, resulting in eclipses, transits, and occultations.

    In April, stargazers on Earth saw two eclipses: a lunar eclipse on April 15, when the Earth cast its shadow on the moon; and an annular solar eclipse on April 29, when the moon passed in front of the sun.

    This month, we will have a conjunction of Uranus and Venus on May 15 and an occultation of Saturn tonight. However, the Saturn occultation will occur while the planet and the moon were below the horizon in North America, so stargazers there will miss it. Observers in Australia, however, are well placed to see the event.

    Tonight, and for the next few weeks, all seven planets are visible, making it a great opportunity for a "Solar System Marathon." How many Solar System bodies can you see in a single night?

    You can also seek out an asteroid or two, a telescope view of two comets, the zodiacal light, and a meteor or two. If you are really lucky, there will be a bright display of aurora, though these have been few and far between during the current subdued solar maximum. Be sure to count the moons you see circling Jupiter and Saturn!

    Editor's Note: If you take an amazing photo of the planets, or any other night sky view, that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

    This article was provided to Space.com by Simulation Curriculum, the leader in space science curriculum solutions and the makers of Starry Night and SkySafari. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook+ and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    An amazing new NASA video shows two super-dense neutron stars tearing each other apart in a cataclysmic cosmic merger that ultimately forms a black hole.

    The neutron star collision video, which was produced by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, is a supercomputer simulation. It starts off with two neutron stars - the city-size, dense remnants of a violent supernova explosion - separated by about 11 miles (18 kilometers), NASA officials said. One object contains about 1.7 times the mass of our sun, while the other weighs in at 1.4 solar masses.

    The two neutron stars spiral toward each other, deforming. As they get closer and closer to each other, the bigger stellar remnant crushes the smaller one, causing it to erupt and form a spiral arm around the larger neutron star, according to NASA. [The Top 10 Star Mysteries]

    "At 13 milliseconds, the more massive star has accumulated too much mass to support it against gravity and collapses, and a new black hole is born," NASA officials said in a statement. "The black hole's event horizon - its point of no return - is shown by the gray sphere. While most of the matter from both neutron stars will fall into the black hole, some of the less-dense, faster-moving matter manages to orbit around it, quickly forming a large and rapidly rotating torus."

    Neutron stars form when a star that is eight to 30 times the mass of the sun explodes as a supernova, leaving behind the compressed, dense core. One cubic centimeter (0.06 cubic inches) of neutron star matter outweighs Mount Everest, NASA officials said.

    In 2013, scientists found that mergers of neutron stars could create the gold in the universe. A group of astronomers, led by Edo Berger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered that the collisions of neutron stars could eject as much as 10 moon masses' worth of gold.

    Scientists think that the violent cosmic mergers of neutron stars can also produce short gamma-ray bursts, which last about two seconds and unleash as much energy as all the stars in the Milky Way produce in more than a year, according to NASA.

    The afterglow from these extremely bright explosions fades quickly, making them difficult to study. Astronomers want to be able to understand gamma-ray bursts by using large instruments on the ground to see the afterglow as soon as possible after the burst. Scientists also use the accurate positions and quick notification from NASA's Swift satellite, which can spot bursts from space.

    Follow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article 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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    Updated Thursday, May 14, 2014, 1:17 p.m. ET

    A Carlsbad, Calif., police officer turns traffic away as flames leap behind him Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in Carlsbad, Calif. Weather conditions that at least temporarily calmed allowed firefighters to gain ground early Wednesday on a pair of wildfires that forced thousands of residents to leave their homes. (AP Photo)

    SAN MARCOS, California (AP) - Gusty winds failed to return Thursday morning in San Diego County wildfire areas and authorities said it was a window of opportunity to make further gains against flames that burned homes and drove tens of thousands from their homes.

    Emergency officials said a significant number of firefighting aircraft had become available, including four air tankers and 22 military helicopters.

    Ten of the military helicopters were being used to battle a blaze that grew to 9.37 square miles (24 square kilometers) on the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. Despite its growth, the fire was 20 percent contained and was no longer considered a threat to communities.

    Twelve other military helicopters were available to the county, where the biggest concern was a 1.25-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) blaze at the city of San Marcos. That fire was 5 percent contained and thousands of people remained evacuated, but officials told a news conference they were beginning to assess repopulating areas.

    Fires began erupting Tuesday amid high heat, extremely low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds. By Wednesday, nine fires were burning.

    Asked about the possibility of arson, county Sheriff Bill Gore said he wouldn't prejudge the investigations. He noted that sparks from vehicles can easily ignite brush in such dry conditions.

    The wildfires forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks, including Legoland.

    Firefighters contended with temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) and gusty winds as they tried to contain flames fueled by brush and trees left brittle by drought.

    Extremely high temperatures were again expected Friday, but winds were expected to be light to moderate, with localized gusts. Forecasters predicted a return of the normal sea breeze on the western edge of the county later in the day.

    Efforts were focusing on San Marcos, a university city where hundreds of new evacuation orders were issued early Thursday. More than 20,000 evacuation notices were sent to residents Wednesday, and a California State University campus with nearly 10,000 students in the middle of final exams was shut down at least through Thursday. Graduation ceremonies were canceled.

    San Diego County officials said that the blaze had destroyed three homes.

    The blaze in the coastal city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, was the most destructive of the fires so far.

    Many schools across the county were closed Thursday. Officials expected some wouldn't reopen until next week.

    Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Diego County, which would free up special resources and funding for the firefight, and state fire officials were creating a central command center for the blazes.

    Drought conditions have made fire danger extremely high throughout much of California. Officials have encouraged residents in fire-prone areas to prepare evacuation plans and clear brush from near their homes.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado aboard, gallops at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. The Preakness Stakes horse race is scheduled to take place on Saturday. (AP Photo)

    How quickly rain departs the Baltimore area and returns will determine if there will be any edge for mudders for the 2014 Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness stakes at Pimlico.

    Rain will converge on northern Maryland and Pimlico Racecourse late this week, ahead of the 2014 Preakness Stakes.

    A few hours are needed for the track to dry thoroughly after a heavy rain, according to officials of the Maryland Jockey Club.

    The steadiest rain is forecast to fall from late Thursday night into the midday hours on Friday. Locally drenching thunderstorms with strong winds can erupt ahead of the steady rain Thursday evening.

    Enough rain can fall on the area to cause flash and urban flooding in northern Maryland.

    Friday is Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico. Post time for the filly race is 4:47 p.m. EDT. Occasional light rain may linger from the middle of the afternoon to close to the start of the stakes race late in the day. Whether or not the track has a chance to dry thoroughly following the heavy rainfall is uncertain.

    Temperatures are forecast to hover in the 60s F much of the day on Friday.

    RELATED:
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    The storm system forecast to move through on Friday has had a history of torrential rainfall and flash flooding from Texas to the Midwest earlier this week and is moving eastward at a slow pace.

    Moisture from the storm may join up with tropical moisture that caused flash flooding over the Caribbean last weekend.

    According to northeast weather expert Dave Dombek, "A general 1 to 2 inches of rain is forecast to fall on the Baltimore area during Friday over a six- to eight-hour period but locally higher amounts can occur."

    Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club said the dirt track at Pimlico dries fast and runs well in mud.

    According to Mike Gathagan, vice president of communications of the Maryland Jockey Club, "As a precaution, crews can seal the track after racing activities on Thursday, ahead of the rain."

    Any delay in the departure of the rainfall on Friday could have more direct effect on racing activities into Friday afternoon.

    The period from Friday evening through the middle of Saturday afternoon is most likely to be rain-free.

    On Saturday, there is the chance of very spotty showers late in the day and during the evening. However, much of the day will bring some sunshine and good drying conditions.

    If showers stay away late Saturday, the track is likely to be fast. Post time for Saturday's Preakness is 6:18 p.m. EDT, with temperatures close to 70 F.

    "During Saturday late afternoon and evening, spotty showers and thunderstorms are likely to pop up over northern Maryland and Virginia as a puddle of chilly air moves in high in the atmosphere," Dombek said.

    The development and exact track of small-scale showers are challenging to predict.

    "Much of the time will be free of rain Saturday evening, but there is just that remote chance one of those pop-up showers will wander through," Dombek said.

    Despite the good drying conditions Friday night and Saturday, a downpour just prior to start of the Preakness on Saturday might give the mudders an edge.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014



    Torrential rain and locally gusty thunderstorms will converge on the eastern third of the nation at the end of the week and will raise the risk of flash and urban flooding.

    The heaviest and most persistent rainfall and greatest risk of flooding is likely over the Appalachians to the lower Great Lakes region, but a period of torrential downpours will swing through much of the I-95 corridor of the mid-Atlantic and New England as well.

    A general 1 to 2 inches of rain will fall along the I-95 corridor with 2 to 4 inches forecast over much of the southern and central Appalachians to the lower Great Lakes. However, locally higher amounts are possible throughout the eastern third of the nation.

    As long as the narrow corridor of heavy rainfall continues to move along flooding problems in the I-95 corridor will be minor rather than widespread.

    Major cities that will be impact by a six- to eight-hour episode of drenching showers and thunderstorms include Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Toronto, Ontario. While the intense rainfall and poor visibility may only last a few hours, the impact on travel and outdoor activities may linger longer.

    Atlanta will be hit with the heaviest rain Wednesday night into Thursday morning, while heavy rain can fall during much of Thursday around Charlotte. The greatest risk of flooding downpours around Pittsburgh would be Thursday night.

    According to northeast weather expert Dave Dombek, "The timing of the rain is such that Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have the greatest impact Friday morning, while around New York City the worst of the rain will be Friday evening with problems during much of the day around Philadelphia."

    The heaviest rain is scheduled to swing through Boston Saturday morning and midday.

    Thunderstorms will accompany the heavy rainfall in some areas and can erupt ahead of the steady rain area.

    According to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Brett Anderson, "The combination of thunderstorms and strong winds aloft could bring gusts to 60 mph on Friday in the mid-Atlantic, especially from eastern Pennsylvania through the Chesapeake Bay region."

    Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the tropics will be drawn into the system as it crawls eastward through Thursday, then begins to lift northeastward Friday into Saturday at a faster past.

    "Most areas in the I-95 zone have had a long gap since the last heavy rainfall [late April], so that only minor flooding problems are likely, but it is a different story farther inland and the flooding risk is greater as a result," Dombek said.

    Where the heaviest rainfall occurs, over the Appalachians and lower Great Lakes, lives and property can be threatened in some communities that are prone to flash flooding.

    As the system passed through the Central states earlier this week, it had a history of causing flash flooding. In addition, the zone of tropical moisture forecast to feed in along the Atlantic coast produced flash flooding and mudslides in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands this past weekend.

    RELATED:
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    In the wake of the drenching rain, cooler air will roll eastward from the Midwest in time for the weekend. Similar to a storm that brought cool and unsettled conditions to the area a week ago, this new storm has the potential to bring building clouds and spotty showers mainly during the afternoon and evening hours.

    Beneath the storm, high temperatures may be held in the 50s over the mountains and the lower 70s in many areas east of the Appalachians.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014


    A stunning new NASA video shows a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way form and take shape, compressing more than 13 billion years of cosmic evolution into about 45 seconds.

    The galaxy-evolution video - a supercomputer simulation created by researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - chronicles the growth of a spiral, beginning with its birth shortly after the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

    "Galaxies are thought to begin as small clouds of stars and dust swirling through space. As other clouds get close, gravity sends these objects careening into one another and knits them into larger spinning packs," NASA officials wrote in a description of the video released Tuesday (May 13).

    "Subsequent collisions can sling material toward a galaxy's outskirts, creating extensive spiral arms filled with colonies of stars," they add. "Watch the video to see this process unfold."

    Mergers have been important in shaping the Milky Way galaxy since its birth about 13.5 billion years ago. The Milky Way has gobbled up a number of satellite dwarf galaxies over the eons, for example, and is set for a much more dramatic collision in the future.

    The Milky Way and neighboring Andromeda, another spiral galaxy that's even bigger than our own, are currently barreling toward each other at about 250,000 mph (400,000 km/h). Four billion years from now, they will begin coming together in a huge galactic smashup that will dazzle Earthbound skywatchers (if any humans are still around by then).

    When the dust has cleared in about six billion years, the result will likely be a new hybrid "Milkomeda" galaxy with an elliptical rather than a spiral shape, researchers say.

    You can view the new NASA galaxy-evolution simulation on your iPhone or iPad using the NASA Visualization Explorer. Learn more about this free app here.

    Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall 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.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    (AP Photo/Brian Agnell)

    There is the potential for severe thunderstorms, including the risk of isolated tornadoes, Thursday from the part of the Carolinas to central and northern Virginia.

    The storms are firing ahead of a zone of torrential rainfall that is advancing slowly through the Appalachians and southern Atlantic Seaboard.



    Cities that can be hit with a thunderstorm containing damaging winds, hail, flash flooding and even a tornado include Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Raleigh and Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Charlottesville, Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia.



    If the sun emerges farther north, storms could also become severe in part of northern Maryland, the eastern West Virginia Panhandle and a portion of south-central Pennsylvania.

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    People living in or traveling through these areas should keep an eye out for rapidly changing weather conditions. Storms will cross portions of the I-40, I-64, I-66, I-70, I-81 and I-95 corridors. Motorists should be alert for sudden low visibility and powerful wind gusts.

    There is the possibility of an isolated tornado, which could be concealed by heavy rain.

    The storms will weaken as they move farther to the east later Thursday night, but windswept rain will continue. Locally strong thunderstorms with gusty winds may ignite ahead of steady rain from part of Delmarva to New Jersey and southeastern New York state on Friday.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014


    This image of the International Space Orchestra musicians was taken by Neil Berrett. The orchestra is a project by Nelly Ben Hayoun of the SETI Institute. (Neil/Berrett/Nelly Ben Hayoun/SETI Institute)

    What do you get when you combine brilliant space scientists with musical instruments? Why, an International Space Opera, of course.

    The International Space Orchestra (ISO) is the brainchild of French director Nelly Ben Hayoun, who has the colorful title "designer of experiences" at the SETI Institute (short for Search for Extraterrestrial Life) in Mountain View, Calif.

    "If you want to engage the public with [space science], you can't really do that with a poster," Ben Hayoun told an audience at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas in March.

    In the summer of 2012, Ben Hayoun assembled the orchestra using scientists from the NASA Ames Research Center, SETI Institute, Singularity University and the International Space University joined forces. They performed "Ground Control: An Opera in Space," a 27-minuted musical extravaganza that reenacted the drama of NASA's mission control during the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

    Ben Hayoun directed and produced the space opera, which features NASA Flight Director for the LCROSS and LADEE moon missions Rusty Hunt playing baritone saxophone, NASA Ames Deputy Director Lewis Braxton on the gong and NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle on percussion.

    The ISO had their first performance in front of the world's largest wind tunnel at NASA Ames on Sept. 6, 2012. Their second performance took place in San Jose during the ZERO1 Biennial, a showcase of work at the nexus of art and technology.

    The scientists were joined by musical talent Damon Albarn, frontman for the bands Blur and Gorillaz, singer-songwriter Bobby Womack and the famous Japanese art group Maywa Denki, with original music by the band Penguin Cafe's Arthur Jeffes and lyrics by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and writer Jasmina Tesanovic.

    Later, Ben Hayoun made a feature film about the orchestra, because otherwise, "nobody would believe that it happened," she said. She filmed the space opera at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, where "Star Wars" was developed.

    In January 2013, the film premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and launched a world tour.

    "They're never going to be the philharmonic, but that's not the point," one person interviewed in the film observed.

    The orchestra performed with the singer Beck at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall in May 2013, in front of 2,700 people. An mp3 recording of the orchestra was launched to the International Space Station on two satellites in August 2013, which were later released into orbit.

    Prominent NASA and SETI scientists have given public talks about the missions that inspired the space opera, among them NASA Ames chief scientist Jacob Cohen, Kepler mission manager Roger Hunter and Director of SETI Research Gerry Harp.

    At South by Southwest, Tesanovic praised Ben Hayoun for having the courage to pursue the space orchestra.

    "She's doing dangerous stuff," Tesanovic said. "She's just a young girl, and she's telling 80-year-olds what to do."

    Ben Hayoun's enthusiasm for space didn't end with the International Space Orchestra. She is currently pursuing informal astronaut training, and her next project is a film called "Disaster Playground" about potential space catastrophes, such as an asteroid impact, and the emergency procedures for handling them.

    Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitterand Google+.Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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

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    Thursday, May 15, 2014
    Lightning bolt

    Solar winds hitting Earth may trigger an increase in lightning, a new study suggests.

    The research finds an increase in the number of lightning strikes after the streams of plasma and particles known as solar wind arrive on Earth from the sun. Exactly why this correlation exists is unclear, but researchers say the interaction of solar particles might somehow prime the atmosphere to be more susceptible to lightning.

    "As the sun rotates every 27 days these high-speed streams of particles wash past our planet with predictable regularity. Such information could prove useful when producing long-range weather forecasts," study researcher Chris Scott, a professor in space and atmospheric physics at the University of Reading, said in a statement. [Images: Weird Red Sprite Lightning Caught on Camera]

    Triggering lightning

    The idea that lightning has roots in space is not a new one. In 2013, researchers found evidence that cosmic rays, which are high-energy beams of particles that likely originate in supernovas, may trigger lightning when they enter Earth's atmosphere. As they stream through the atmosphere, cosmic rays knock electrons off of atoms, potentially causing a chain reaction when those electrons knock into other atoms, dislodging even more electrons. In the 2013 study, researchers found that thunderclouds contain already-charged water droplets and ice crystals, meaning a normal level of cosmic rays could push these clouds over the edge into lightning territory.

    Not all researchers are convinced that cosmic rays play a role in generating lightning. But if they do, strong solar winds' magnetism should strengthen the magnetic field that surrounds Earth, Scott said in a video about the new findings.

    Sun-lightning link?

    That's not what Scott and his colleagues found, however. The researchers compared a record of lightning strikes from the U.K. Met Office lightning detection program from between 2000 and 2005. They focused on strikes within a 310-mile (500 kilometers) radius of central England. They then analyzed the lightning strikes in comparison with solar wind data from NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft.

    Instead of seeing solar winds strengthening Earth's protective magnetic field, keeping cosmic rays out and preventing lightning, the researchers found the opposite. There were more lightning strikes after a significant gust of solar wind than before. After the arrival of a strong solar wind, there were an average of 422 lightning strikes in the study area over the next 40 days, compared with 321 on average in the 40 days prior.

    The measurements might be the result of a greater number of lightning strikes, the researchers note, or it might be that strikes are stronger and are thus picked up on weather-monitoring instruments.

    The lightning peaked 12 to 18 days after the solar winds arrived, researchers report today (May 14) in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

    "As one of these streams washes past the Earth, it brings with it a population of energetic particles that penetrate the atmosphere and appear to help modulate lightning rates," Scott said in the video.

    Solar winds are predictable, Scott said, so if the phenomenon proves legitimate, it might be possible to forecast times of increased lightning risk.

    Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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

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