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    The sun rises over grain silos in Ashland, Ill. (AP)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - The widest drought to grip the United States in decades is getting worse with no signs of abating, a new report warned Thursday, as state officials urged conservation and more ranchers considered selling cattle.

    The drought covering two-thirds of the continental U.S. had been considered relatively shallow, the product of months without rain, rather than years. But Thursday's report showed its intensity is rapidly increasing, with 20 percent of the nation now in the two worst stages of drought - up 7 percent from last week.

    The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies drought in various stages, from moderate to severe, extreme and, ultimately, exceptional. Five states - Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska - are blanketed by a drought that is severe or worse. States like Arkansas and Oklahoma are nearly as bad, with most areas covered in a severe drought and large portions in extreme or exceptional drought.

    Other states are seeing conditions rapidly worsen. Illinois - a key producer of corn and soybeans - saw its percentage of land in extreme or exceptional drought balloon from just 8 percent last week to roughly 71 percent as of Thursday, the Drought Monitor reported.

    And conditions are not expected to get better, with little rain and more intense heat forecast for the rest of the summer.

    "Some of these areas that are picking up a shower here and there, but it's not really improving anything because the heat has been so persistent in recent weeks, the damage already is done," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "Realistically, the forecast going forward is a continuation of warm, dry conditions through the end of August easily, and we may see them in the fall."

    Some are reacting to the drought with inventiveness. At Lake DePue in Illinois, the dangerously low water level threatened to doom an annual boat race that's a big fundraiser for the community. Hundreds of volunteers joined forces and built a makeshift dam out of sandbags before hundreds of millions of gallons of water were pumped in from a river. By Wednesday, the effort had added 2 feet to the water level, doubling the lake's size and saving the race.

    In other areas, communities are instituting water restrictions and asking people to voluntarily conserve.

    The drought stretches from Ohio west to California and runs from Texas north to the Dakotas. Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more of the U.S., according to National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

    Rain-starved Oklahoma could get a brief respite with perhaps a quarter of an inch possible through sunrise Friday, the National Weather Service said.

    But that won't be of much help to people like Clinton rancher Paul Schilberg, who would sell his herd of Black Angus cattle if he didn't stand to lose maybe $2,500 per head for the animals he usually buys for more than $3,000. With the grass and forage dead from lack of rain, he's been forced to buy hay.

    "I'm feeding just like I would during the winter time," he said.

    Nationwide, ranchers have been selling off large numbers of animals they can't graze and can't afford to buy feed for. The nation's cattle inventory, at 97.8 million head, is the smallest since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a July count in 1973.

    Mark Thompson, a professional farm manager with about 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans near Fort Dodge, Iowa, said good land management practices including no-till farming could help crop farmers muddle through.

    "Eastern Iowa is in worst shape than we are," he said. "Right around here, we're still at the tipping point, but conditions have improved somewhat, even though last night's rain wasn't widespread."

    Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared a drought emergency in all of the state's 105 counties this week and urged residents to conserve as much water as possible as the drought becomes more intense. The latest Drought Monitor report, which covers conditions through Tuesday, lists 73 percent of Kansas in an extreme drought, up 9 percent from a week earlier.

    Brownback's move allows farmers, ranchers and communities to draw water from 28 state fishing lakes. Tracy Streeter, the Kansas Water Office's director, said Thursday there was adequate supply in the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lakes to meet the demand.

    "Even today, the lake elevations are good, all things considered," Streeter said.

    He said ranchers can take 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of water at a time on semi-trucks loaded with tanks, but that's not a permanent solution. "Folks can't do that long term because of the cost of hauling the water. If they are buying feed, too, they may just have to sell the cattle."


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    A man walks through the aftermath of a tornado that struck in Elmira, N.Y. on Thursday. (AP)

    ELMIRA, N.Y. - Communities around the Northeast are cleaning up after strong thunderstorms swept from Ohio into upstate New York, knocking out power to tens of thousands and leaving at least two people dead.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Storm Hits and New Yorkers Storm Twitter

    In New York City, the storm is blamed for killing a 61-year-old man who was struck by collapsing scaffolding outside a Brooklyn church. Police say lighting brought bricks down onto the scaffolding. A woman in Pennsylvania was killed by a tree felled by Thursday's powerful storms.

    A state of emergency and curfew remains in effect in Elmira, N.Y., as crews continue clearing trees and repairing power lines that were brought down by a possible tornado.

    The storms temporarily shut down operations at the annual Ohio State Fair in Columbus.

    There's a chance of more storms around the region on Friday.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts


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    Pedestrians walk through Times Square during heavy rains in New York City on Thursday. (AP)

    The Eastern US will see more showers and thunderstorms on Friday, as a frontal boundary lingers over the region. A low pressure system moves eastward and away from the Northeastern US, but continues pushing a cold front southeastward throughout the day. The system will move from the Ohio River Valley and Mid-Mississippi River Valley into the Southeast stretching from the Mid-Atlantic states into the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Storm Hits and New Yorkers Storm Twitter

    Additional moisture and energy from the Gulf of Mexico will feed into this system, allowing for widespread showers and thunderstorms to develop. There is a slight chance of severe thunderstorm development in these areas with damaging winds and large hail likely. These storms are not expected to be as severe as the heavy rain and thunderstorms that developed across the Northeast on Thursday.

    In the West, monsoonal moisture lingers over the Southern and Central Rockies, kicking up more widespread showers and thunderstorms. In the Northern Plains, an area of low pressure will develop over the Intermountain West and move through the Northern Rockies. This will kick up scattered storms throughout the day. Severe thunderstorm development is not anticipated for the Western US.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the West Coast remains under high pressure with sunny, dry, and warm conditions. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Thursday have ranged from a morning low of 33 degrees at West Yellowstone, Mont. to a high of 105 degrees at Needles, Calif.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts


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    peru missing climbers gil weiss ben horne
    Gil Weiss, left, and Ben Horne pose for a photo as they climb the Palcaraju Peak in Peru. (AP)

    LIMA, Peru (AP) - A search team has reached the base camp and spotted the apparent tracks of two U.S. mountaineers who have not been heard from since July 11 when they set off to climb a 20,000-foot glacier-capped peak (6,100-meter) in the Cordillera Blanca range of northern Peru.

    Gil Weiss, 29, and Ben Horne, 32, both experienced climbers, were attempting the west summit of Palcaraju from the south, said Ted Alexander, a guide based in the nearby town of Huaraz coordinating an initial search team sent out Tuesday.

    The three-person team found the climbers' bright yellow tent at 16,700 feet (5,100 meters) on Thursday and tracks coming off the summit as well as evidence of an avalanche, said Alexander.

    He said it would attempt an ascent on Saturday, though he was not optimistic about Horne and Weiss' chances for survival given the length time they have been missing.

    An eight-man team from Peru's high-mountain rescue police unit was also involved in the search, said its commander, Maj. Marco Carrera.

    Alexander and the men's families were hoping to get an air search under way as well.

    "The Peruvian government is cooperating in that they are trying to get some air support scrambled," said Ben Horne's father, Gary Horne of Annandale, Virginia. He said the missing men's families were working with Peruvian authorities through the U.S. Embassy, which confirmed its assistance in a statement.

    "We really need the Peruvian government involved in this. We can't do it ourselves," said Gary Horne.

    Carrera said police were attempting to secure a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter to join the search.

    The two mountaineers had planned an excursion of between 7-10 days and their families contacted Alexander after 13 days passed with no word from the two, he said.

    Weiss's sister, Galit, told The Associated Press by phone from New Jersey that the two men were not carrying a satellite phone.

    They had previously done a six-day trip that included summiting the north face of 6,162-meter Ranrapalca, according to an entry by Horne in a blog by a collective of mountaineering friends to which both climbers contributed.

    Horne, an economics graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, wrote that it was his first time in the Cordillera Blanca, while Weiss was a repeat visitor.

    "He spent a lot of time here, did a lot of hard routes" said Alexander.

    Carrera said Palcaraju is "one of the most dangerous (peaks) to climb and it's not typical for people to climb it because the weather is difficult year-round, a combination of strong winds, avalanches and enormous crevasses."

    Even though it is in the tropics, nights are frigid in the Cordillera Blanca, a range popular with climbers but also among the world's most dangerous due to the instability of snow and ice caused by wide temperatures fluctuations.

    Alexander said Horne and Weiss, who is from New York City and was living in Boulder, Colorado, were aware of the risks.

    "These guys are top-shelf climbers," he added. "This is not the first time they were on something of this caliber."

    Gary Horne said his son and Gil Weiss were experienced in the type of harsh conditions found in the Peruvian Andes.

    "They've done first winter ascents on certain mountains," he said.

    The Cordillera Blanca climbing season runs from June to September and so far this year six mountaineers have lost their lives in the range and at least 40 have been evacuated due to medical problems, mostly altitude sickness and hypothermia, said Carrera.

    Many of the roughly 8,000 foreigners who Carrera said climb the Cordillera Blanca annually do so without hiring local guides, whose absence can make ascents more perilous as snow and ice conditions can quickly change.

    On the pullharder.org blog to which various mountaineering friends contribute, Weiss posted a rumination on July 10 on the death of his friend and fellow climber Michael Ybarra while climbing solo in the high Sierra Nevada range.

    "I sit here in a coffee shop in Huaraz, Peru, planning another foray into the Cordillera Blanca, where the sense that one's life is in the hands of the mountains can be as blinding as the endless white glaciers, and a thirst for glory can darken our better judgment more than the blackness of night."


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    Ryan Musgrave of Chicago holds a U.S. flag prior to the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 27 in London. (AP)

    Those in London for the Games will be getting a more authentic British weather experience today as rainy spells hit the capital.

    Thursday was the hottest day of the year in Britain - temperatures reached 89 degrees at the Olympic Park - but Friday started off much cooler indeed.

    The good news? Forecasters say that any rain should have cleared by early evening with the British Met Office predicting just a 10 percent chance of a downpour at the opening ceremony. The event begins at 8.12 p.m. (3:12 p.m. EDT) so if things play out as expected the 60,000 spectators in the Olympic Stadium should stay dry.

    Whatever happens with the weather, you can bet the Brits will be talking about it.


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    Sunlight captured by webcam at Princess Elisabeth station on July 23 ((C) 2012 International Polar Foundation)

    A lonely webcam at an Antarctic station recently captured images of the first sunrise to light the sky in two months, marking the end of winter darkness in its neighborhood of East Antarctica.

    The sun set for austral winter in mid-May, plunging Belgium's Princess Elisabeth Station into two months of night.

    Related at Our Amazing Planet: Images: The Majestic Transantarctic Mountains

    Although there were no human eyes to witness the return of the light, on July 15, operators back in Belgium got a signal that the hold of the winter darkness was broken. On that day, five of the station's Sunny Boys - contraptions that convert energy collected by the station's solar panels into usable form - woke up from their winter slumber.

    And on July 23, a webcam set up at the station, deserted for winter, sent back images of a rose-gold glow suffusing the horizon.

    A zero-emissions compound, the Princess Elisabeth Station relies on wind and solar energy for all its power, which it continues to collect even when people aren't there to use it. During the darkness of winter, Antarctica's ferocious winds spin the station's herd of wind turbines; already, the station's solar panels have seen enough sunlight to begin building up wattage ahead of the summer research season.

    Related at Our Amazing Planet: Extreme Living: Scientists at the End of the Earth

    The gleaming station, which opened in 2008, looks like the perfect setting for a science fiction movie - all silvery, graceful angles amid a desolate and glittering landscape.

    Built as a joint project between the Belgian government and a private, nonprofit organization, the International Polar Foundation, which oversees operations, the station stands atop a rocky ridge in East Antarctica, about 137 miles (220 kilometers) from the coast.

    The station was shuttered for winter on Feb. 27, and humans won't return until November, when austral summer arrives. Tens of scientists spend the warmer months at Princess Elisabeth, conducting research in a host of disciplines from microbiology to seismology to glaciology.

    Farther inland, the continent is still shrouded in darkness. At Concordia Station, a European outpost in the middle of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet where residents recently snapped a bright aurora shimmering overhead, the sun won't rise until sometime in August.

    Related at Our Amazing Planet: Infographic: Antarctica - 100 Years of Exploration

    Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com, or follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: The 30 Best Places to Watch the Sunset


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    (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

    An enduring question ever since the manned moon landings of the 1960s has been: Are the flags planted by the astronauts still standing?

    Now, lunar scientists say the verdict is in from the latest photos of the moon taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC): Most do, in fact, still stand.

    "From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standing and casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11," LROC principal investigator Mark Robinson wrote in a blog post today (July 27). "Astronaut Buzz Aldrin reported that the flag was blown over by the exhaust from the ascent engine during liftoff of Apollo 11, and it looks like he was correct!"

    Each of the six manned Apollo missions that landed on the moon planted an American flag in the lunar dirt.

    Related at Space.com: Photos: New Views of Apollo Moon Landing Sites

    Scientists have examined images of the Apollo landing sites before for signs of the flags, and seen hints of what might be shadows cast by the flags. However, this wasn't considered strong evidence that the flags were still standing. Now, researchers have examined photos taken of the same spots at various points in the day, and observed shadows circling the point where the flag is thought to be. [Video: Moon Photos Prove Apollo Flags Still Stand]

    Robinson calls these photos "convincing."

    "Personally I was a bit surprised that theflags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did," Robinson wrote. "What they look like is another question (badly faded?)."

    Related at Space.com: Driving on the Moon: Photos of NASA's Lunar Cars

    Most scientists had assumed the flags hadn't survived more than four decades of harsh conditions on the moon.

    "Intuitively, experts mostly think it highly unlikely the Apollo flags could have endured the 42 years of exposure to vacuum, about 500 temperature swings from 242 F during the day to -280 F during the night, micrometeorites, radiation and ultraviolet light, some thinking the flags have all but disintegrated under such an assault of the environment," scientist James Fincannon, of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, wrote in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.

    Related at Space.com: NASA's 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures

    In recent years, photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have also shown other unprecedented details of the Apollo landing sites, such as views of the lunar landers, rovers, scientific instruments left behind on the surface, and even the astronauts' boot prints. These details are visible in photos snapped by the probe while it was skimming just 15 miles (24 kilometers) above the moon's surface.

    LRO launched in June 2009, and first captured close-up images of the Apollo landing sites in July of that year. The $504 million car-size spacecraft is currently on an extended mission through at least September 2012.

    Follow Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: The solar corona and more newly-released photos from space


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    Gil Weiss, left, and Ben Horne posed for a photo as they climbed the Palcaraju Peak in Peru. (AP)

    LIMA, Peru (AP) - Searchers on Saturday found the bodies of two U.S. mountaineers who apparently plunged to their deaths off a ridge after ascending a glacier-capped 20,000-foot Peruvian peak, the rescue coordinator said.

    "They did summit and they got into trouble on the way down," said coordinator Ted Alexander. "What led to the fall, I cannot tell you now."

    Gil Weiss, 29, and Ben Horne, 32, fell an estimated 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) off a ridge after reaching the west summit of Palcaraju in the Cordillera Blanca range in mid-July, he said.

    "Unfortunately, they died whenever they fell because they had been there long in the snow," he said from the nearby town of Huaraz, where he runs a guide business.

    He said a private plane had helped the three-person search team piece together what might have happened. He said he would have a better idea of how the climbers died after examining photos taken by rescuers on-site.

    Both Weiss, of Queens, N.Y., and Horne, of Annandale, Virginia, were experienced climbers. Weiss was a repeat visitor to the Cordillera Blanca while this trip was Horne's first.

    Both belong to the pullharder.org climbers' collective and Horne wrote about the first, six-day leg of their trip on its blog, saying they had been buffeted by hurricane-force winds when the two reached the top of the 20,216-foot Ranrapalca.

    After a rest in Huaraz, the two set out again on July 11 for an excursion of seven to 10 days. Their families contacted Alexander after 13 days passed with no word from them.

    Weiss's sister, Galit, said the two were not carrying a satellite phone.

    Alexander said it should not be too difficult to remove the bodies and hoped they could be out on Sunday.

    "We'll use manpower to get them down and try to put them on a horse as soon as possible," he said.

    Horne was a graduate student in economics at the University of California, San Diego. Weiss was founder of a business in Boulder, Colorado, called Beyond Adventure Productions that specialized in organizing and photographing events in remote and spectacular locations.

    The Cordillera Blanca climbing season runs from June to September and the deaths of Weiss and Horne bring to eight the number of mountaineers who have lost their lives in the range so far this year.

    At least 40 have been evacuated due to medical problems, mostly altitude sickness and hypothermia, said Maj. Marco Carrera, commander of Peru's police high-mountain rescue team, which was aiding in the recovery of the climbers' bodies.

    Many of the roughly 8,000 foreigners who Carrera said climb the Cordillera Blanca annually do so without hiring local guides, whose absence can make the trips more perilous as snow and ice conditions can quickly change.

    On the pullharder.org blog, Weiss posted a comment on July 10 that demonstrated his acute awareness of the potential dangers of his passion for climbing. He was contemplating the death of his friend Michael Ybarra, who had been solo climbing in California's high Sierras.

    "I sit here in a coffee shop in Huaraz, Peru, planning another foray into the Cordillera Blanca, where the sense that one's life is in the hands of the mountains can be as blinding as the endless white glaciers, and a thirst for glory can darken our better judgment more than the blackness of night."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Amazing Survival Stories from Mount Everest


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    A woman covers herself from rain at the Olympic Park Sunday. (AP)

    LONDON (AP) - Heavy rain drenched the women's road cycling race Sunday and strong winds rattled through tennis courts and the equestrian arena as the London Olympics faced its first encounter with Britain's often tempestuous weather.

    Thousands of fans braved downpours along the 87-mile Olympic cycling route, while the riders themselves battled to keep control as they flew across pools of rainwater.

    In London's Greenwich district, wind and rain forced a brief delay at the equestrian events and pulled loose the roof of an enclosure housing tournament judges.

    To the south at Wimbledon, play in the Olympic tennis tournament was delayed for almost three hours amid repeated showers, and the arena's Center Court roof was rolled out to allow some matches to continue.

    The archery competition - taking place at the capital's storied Lords cricket ground - was also blighted by downpours during a women's team quarterfinal between Denmark and South Korea.

    Claps of thunder had announced the start of the women's road cycling race, close to Buckingham Palace, but spectator Simon Ashmore, 29, said the soaking conditions hadn't dampened the crowd's spirits.

    "It was a fantastic atmosphere despite the rain. People were still jolly and everyone was sharing brollies," said Ashmore, using a British term for umbrellas.

    At the Olympic Park, Molly Wilson, from Michigan, wrapped her U.S. flag around her head in an attempt to fend off the rain.

    "I know London is rainy so this doesn't surprise me, though I will bring an umbrella next time," she said.

    British horse rider Kristina Cook insisted the wind and rain hadn't put her - or her horse - off their stride as they competed in the equestrian events at Greenwich.

    "Obviously I would love the sun shining down on me now, it would have been brilliant, but that's England for you isn't it?" said a philosophical Cook.

    But she said she did get concerned when strong winds yanked off part of a roof on a temporary enclosure where the judges were based.

    "When the judges' roof came up and down as he (my horse) was doing his extended trot, I really hoped that he wasn't going to spook," she said.

    Despite the showers, some Olympic venues escaped the poor weather.

    Soccer matches in central and northern England went ahead unaffected, the beach volleyball tournament in central London continued unscathed, and there was actual bouts of sun at the Weymouth sailing venue in southwest England.


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    Residents wait on the roof of a flooded building in Anju City, North Korea on Monday. (AP)

    ANJU, North Korea - Heavy rain pounded North Korea for a second day Monday, submerging buildings, cutting off power, flooding rice paddies and forcing people and their livestock to reach safety on dry rooftops.

    The latest rain follows downpours earlier this month that killed nearly 90 people and left more than 60,000 homeless, officials said. The weeks of rain come on the heels of a severe drought, fueling renewed food worries about a country that already struggles to feed its people.

    Two-thirds of North Korea's 24 million people face chronic food shortages, a U.N. report said last month, while asking donors for $198 million in humanitarian aid for the country. South Korean analyst Kwon Tae-jin said the recent flooding, coming so soon after the dry spell, is expected to worsen the North's food problems.

    On Sunday and Monday, rain hit the capital Pyongyang and other regions, with western coastal areas reporting heavy damage.

    In Anju city in South Phyongan Province, officials reported 1,000 houses and buildings were destroyed and 2,300 hectares (5,680 acres) of farmland were completely covered.

    The Chongchon River in Anju city flooded on Monday, cutting communication lines and submerging rice paddies and other fields, said Kim Kwang Dok, vice chairman of the Anju City People's Committee, who told The Associated Press that the disaster is the worst in the city's history.

    Boats made their way through the muddy waters that covered the city's streets Monday. Many residents sat on their homes' roofs and walls, watching the rising water. A young man wearing only underwear stood on a building's roof with two pigs; four women sat on another rooftop with two dogs.

    Helicopters flew to various areas to rescue flood victims, state media reported.

    If it rains again before the water drains, Kim said, the damage will be greater.

    Earlier this year, North Korea mobilized soldiers and workers to pour buckets of water on parched fields, irrigate farms and repair wells as what officials described as the worst dry spell in a century gripped parts of both North and South Korea.

    North Korea does not produce enough food to feed its people, and relies on limited purchases of food as well as outside donations to make up the shortfall. North Korea also suffered a famine in the mid- and late-1990s, the FAO and World Food Program said in a special report late last year.
    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible New Natural-Disaster Photos from Space


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    Rain is expected to roll through the Southwest, including Western Arizona today. (AP)

    Expect little change in weather activity on Monday as monsoonal moisture streams across the Southwest, high pressure ridging persists in the south-central U.S., frontal disturbances push through the Midwest, and a trough of low pressure with waves of energy linger over the East.

    In the West, monsoonal moisture will spread across southwestern California and the Four Corners kicking up afternoon monsoonal showers and thunderstorms. Western Arizona and southwestern California will see the brunt of this activity with possible flooding and flash flooding.

    Meanwhile, high pressure ridging in the south-central U.S. will maintain strong daytime heating in the Central and Southern Plains and the Lower and Mid-Mississippi Valleys. Expect various Heat Advisories and Excessive Heat Warnings to remain in effect as daytime highs reach from 100 to 110 degrees.

    In the Midwest, frontal impulses will push from the Northern and Central Plains into the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley with areas of showers and thunderstorms. Clusters of organized thunderstorms in the Great Lakes may kick up hail and strong wind gusts.

    Further east, a cold front will become nearly stationary with waves of low pressure as it extends through the Mid-Atlantic into the Southeast, while a trough of low pressure remains situated over the northeastern quadrant of the nation. Afternoon showers and thunderstorms will continue near and ahead of the front from parts of the Carolinas through northern Florida and along the Central Gulf Coast.

    Elsewhere, high pressure ridging over the south-central U.S. supported day of hot daytime highs from 100 to 110 degrees in the Central and Southern Plains and the Lower to Mid-Mississippi Valleys. A variety of Heat Advisories, Excessive Heat Warnings, and Red Flag Warnings remained in effect for this region. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Sunday have ranged from a morning low of 37 degrees at Meacham, Ore. to a high of 109 degrees at Okmulgee, Okla.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts


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    This image of the full moon was taken by Alamelu Sundaramoorthy from Portland, Ore. on July 3, 2012. (Alamelu Sundaramoorthy)

    The month of August brings us not one, but two full moons. The first will kick off the month on Wednesday (Aug.1), and will be followed by a second on Aug. 31.

    Some almanacs and calendars assert that when two full moons occur within a calendar month, the second full moon is called a "blue moon."

    The full moon that night will likely look no different than any other full moon. But the moon can change color in certain conditions.

    Related at Space.com: How 2012's Full Moons Got Their Strange Names

    After forest fires or volcanic eruptions, the moon can appear to take on a bluish or even lavender hue. Soot and ash particles, deposited high in the Earth's atmosphere, can sometimes make the moon appear bluish. Smoke from widespread forest fire activity in western Canada created a blue moon across eastern North America in late September 1950. In the aftermath of the massive eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991 there were reports of blue moons (and even blue suns) worldwide. [Infographic: Blue Moons Explained]

    Origin of the term

    The phrase "once in a blue moon" was first noted in 1824 and refers to occurrences that are uncommon, though not truly rare. Yet, to have two full moons in the same month is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, it occurs, on average, about every 2.66 years. And in the year 1999, it occurred twice in a span of just three months.

    For the longest time no one seemed to have a clue as to where the "blue moon rule" originated.

    More mistakes

    It was not until that "double blue moon year" of 1999 that the origin of the calendrical term "blue moon" was at long last discovered. It was during the time frame from 1932 through 1957 that the Maine Farmers' Almanac suggested that if one of the four seasons (winter, spring, summer or fall) contained four full moons instead of the usual three, that the third full moon should be called a blue moon.

    Related at Space.com: Photos: Our Changing Moon

    But thanks to a couple of misinterpretations of this cryptic definition, first by a writer in a 1946 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, and much later, in 1980 in a syndicated radio program, it now appears that the second full moon in a month is the one that's now popularly accepted as the definition of a blue moon.

    This time around, the moon will turn full on Aug. 31 at 9:58 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (6:58 a.m. Pacific Standard Time), making it a blue moon.

    However, there is an exception: for those living in the Kamchatka region of the Russian Far East as well as in New Zealand, that same full moon occurs after midnight, on the calendar date of Sept. 1. So in these regions of world, this will not be the second of two full moons in August, but the first of two full moons in September. So, if (for example) you reside in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky or Christchurch, you'll have to wait until September 30 to declare that the moon is "officially" blue.

    Blue Moon/New Moon

    While we've assigned the name blue moon to the second full moon of the month, it seems that we have no such name for the second new moon of the month. Nonetheless, these opposing phases seem to be connected with each other. For if two new moons occur within a specific month, then in most cases, four years later, two full moons will also occur in that very same month.

    Related at Space.com: Moon Master: An Easy Quiz for Lunatics

    As an example, there were two new moons in August 2008. Now, four years later, August 2012 will be graced with two full moons.

    The next time we will see two full moons in a single month comes in July 2015 (July 1 and 31). But if you still have a calendar leftover from last year, check the month of July.

    You'll find that there were two new moons on the 1st and the 30th.

    Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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

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    Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

    At least 70 percent, and as much as 95 percent, of sea ice loss in the Arctic is the result of human activities such as the burning of greenhouse gases, according to a new study.

    According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), summer sea ice extent in the Arctic is declining by approximately 12 percent per decade; 2007 and 2011 experienced the lowest summer sea ice levels on record, and NSIDC director Mark Serreze has said that this year's ice is in a "sorry state", at the extreme low end of the satellite record for this time of year and on track to be similar to 2007.

    But how much of that change is the result of global warming, and how much can be attributed to natural cycles? The new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, set out to answer that very question.

    Related on Discovery News: PHOTOS: Sunsets and Other Sky Wonders

    Scientists at the University of Reading and the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) used advanced statistical techniques to compare satellite data obtained since 1979 with computer simulations on supercomputers, and found the natural cycles in winds over the Arctic (the Arctic Oscillation, or AO), which can cause ice to thin in some areas and pile up in others, had surprisingly little influence on the loss of sea ice.

    The Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO), a cycle of warming and cooling in the North Atlantic, which repeats every 65-80 years and has been in a warming phase since the mid 1970s, did, however, play a role - but, the researchers found, a relatively minor one in comparison to human activities: responsible for no more than 30 percent, and perhaps as little as 5 percent, of sea ice decline.

    Related on Discovery News: Climate Skeptic Says Call Me Converted

    According to study lead author Jonny Day of the University of Reading, "The debate over how much the change observed in Arctic sea ice can be attributed to humans and how much is due to natural variability in the climate is an important one. Our study shows that while natural changes play a significant role, the majority of sea ice loss - between 70% and 95% - is likely to be due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions."

    Related on Discovery News: Video: How much Arctic sea ice loss is due to humans?

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    A rainbow stretches across rainy skies over State Highway 178 between Death Valley National Park and the town of Shoshone, Calif. (AP)

    FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Imagine being the only driver on a two-lane asphalt highway as the stark desolation of Death Valley National park passes on each side and the crystal blue sky stretches up from the horizon.

    Or picture a tight left turn on Yosemite's Glacier Point Road where in the east iconic Half Dome suddenly appears against a backdrop of the snow-capped High Sierra.

    The Google Street View service that has brought us Earth as we might not be able to afford to see it - as well criticism that some scenes along its 5 million miles of the globe's roadways invade privacy - this month has turned its 360-degree cameras on road trips through five national parks in California.

    "Everyone likes to take a road trip through a national park," said Evan Rapoport, the Street View project manager, who was inspired by a cross-country camping trip he took after graduation. "Bringing unique places to people that they might not go in the real world is unique to Street View."

    The company sought permission from the Department of the Interior before filming in May as drivers hit the road in vehicles rigged with 15-lens cameras that point in all directions, Rapoport said. The camera fires off still images at intervals depending upon the speed of the vehicle, then custom software blurs faces and stitches all of them together into an ever-advancing 360-degree panorama.

    Click right and see orange-hued boulders formed from cooling magma. Click up and squint into that fireball of a sun hovering over the southeast California desert in Joshua Tree National Park, which is featured with the others along with the forest-dense Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Redwood National Park at Crescent City near the Oregon border.

    Stop in the middle of the virtual road and do a 360 without worrying about being rear-ended by a ubiquitous RV.

    The project was part of a Street View "refresh" of California that involved a trip down Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast, including the famous Bixby Creek Bridge that spans the mouth of a coast-hugging canyon.

    Is it part of a master plan to capture people in a virtual world?

    "I sure hope not," Rapoport said. "Part of our goal is to inspire people to see these places in person."

    As national park attendance continues to decline, officials welcome this unique virtual visit as a way to keep fans connected and inspire others to experience the sights in person.

    "I often wish we could get the word out on some of the park system's lesser known wonders," said Candace Tinkler, chief interpreter at Redwoods, with its massive trees that can live 2,000 years and soar up to 350 feet. "This is a wonderful opportunity for people around the world to connect to these places."

    The parks join other Street View features like a snowy glide down one of the ski runs at Squaw Valley of 1960 Olympics fame, or a walk around the gardens of the Louvre museum in Paris. Rapoport would not say whether other U.S. national parks are being considered for this special look.

    Joe Zarki at Joshua Tree says the virtual drive could be used to show tourists at the 1,200-square-mile park's peripherally located visitors' centers that the flat expanse of desert changes to a landscape of boulders and the namesake towering yuccas within an hour's drive.

    With summer temperatures hovering near 120 degrees and heat stroke warnings common, this time of year only the hearty visit Death Valley, which at 282 feet below sea level boasts the lowest locale in the U.S.

    "We're often the forgotten big park," said spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman of the 3,000-square-mile park that is the largest in the lower 48. "I think it will make people want to come to the park. It's a cool place, but it is remote. When they see those photos and the crystal clear blue skies they're going to want to come here - especially in the middle of the winter."

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    An M6-class solar flare erupted from the sun on July 28, 2012. (NASA)

    A medium-size solar flare erupted from the sun this weekend, hurling a cloud of plasma and charged particles toward Earth on a cosmic path that is expected to deliver a glancing blow to our planet tomorrow (July 31), according to space weather forecasters.

    The M6-class solar flare exploded from the sun on Saturday (July 28), unleashing a wave of plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), into space. The CME is expected to reach Earth tomorrow, and could deliver a glancing blow to Earth's magnetic field at around 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), according to the website Spaceweather.com, which regularly monitors space weather events.

    Related on Space.com: Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Sun Storms

    "This is a slow-moving CME," astronomer Tony Phillips wrote on Spaceweather.com. "The cloud's low speed (382 km/s estimated) combined with its glancing trajectory suggests a weak impact is in the offing. Nevertheless, polar geomagnetic storms are possible when the cloud arrives."

    Powerful, fast-moving CMEs that hit Earth directly can trigger strong geomagnetic storms that cause radio blackouts and disrupt power grids and other communications infrastructure. These clouds of charged particles can also knock out satellites as they travel through space.

    Related on Space.com: The Sun's Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History

    A more benign effect of solar storms, however, is supercharged northern and southern lights, which can be sparked when the CME's charged particles hit Earth's magnetic field. Solar storm forecasts are often accompanied by alerts for auroras at high- and mid-latitudes, though particularly strong geomagnetic storms can generate auroras at lower-than-normal latitudes.

    Saturday's M6-class solar flare erupted from the active sunspot AR1532, which is slowly rotating across the solar disk. X-class solar flares are the strongest type of solar eruptions, with M-class flares ranking as medium-strength, and C-class flares representing the weakest type. [Video: Strong Sun Flare Erupts Towards Earth]

    While Earth may be safe from being hit head-on by the CME, Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, will not be as lucky.

    "The CME will also hit Mercury, probably with greater force," Phillips wrote on Spaceweather.com. "Mercury's planetary magnetic field is only ~10 percent as strong as Earth's, so Mercury is not well protected from CMEs. When the clouds hit, they can actually scour atoms off Mercury's surface, adding material to Mercury's super-thin atmosphere and comet-like tail."

    Related on Space.com: Solar Flares: A User's Guide (Infographic)

    The sun's activity waxes and wanes on a roughly 11-year cycle. The sun's current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008. The sun's activity is expected to ramp up toward a solar maximum in 2013.

    Editor's note: If you snap aurora or sunspot photos that you'd like to be considered for use in a story or gallery, please send them to SPACE.com managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

    Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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

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