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SKYE on AOL

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    Sunday, Aug. 5, 10:45 a.m. ET

    This satellite image taken Sunday, Aug. 5 at 01:45 AM EDT shows Tropical Storm Ernesto moving through the Caribbean Sea. (NOAA)

    PORT ROYAL, Jamaica (AP) - Fishermen near Jamaica's capital tied their wooden skiffs down along a rocky shore on Sunday as Tropical Storm Ernesto spun off the Caribbean country's southern coast on a path that may carry it across the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Emergency officials said some eastern parts of the island were already being drenched by rain from Ernesto's outer bands and there was expected to be heavy rainfall and gusty winds over the island. Tropical storm conditions were expected by the afternoon from the rapidly moving storm, though U.S. forecasters said it was becoming less organized.

    Jamaica's emergency management agency urged people in flood-prone areas to be on alert and avoid flooded waterways and submerged roads. The government had earlier ordered fishermen on outlying cays to evacuate and move to the main island.

    Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called on all Jamaicans to make the necessary preparations to ensure their safety.

    "I urge you to especially consider the children, the sick, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and the most vulnerable in the society," said Simpson Miller.

    Daniel Edwards, a dreadlocked fisherman in Port Royal, a small fishing village at the tip of a spit of land near Kingston's airport, said vigorous lightning lit up the sky over the sea late Saturday and early Sunday.

    Bailing out his small wooden fishing boat next to a dilapidated wooden dock, Edwards said he wasn't overly concerned about the tropical storm's passage.

    "It's not much of a muchness," said the veteran fisherman, decked out in rain gear.

    Ernesto was threatening to dump 3 to 6 inches of rain on the Caribbean island of less than 3 million people before drenching the coasts of Honduras, Belize and Mexico. Forecasters said it then might re-emerge as a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico late next week.

    A tropical storm watch was in effect for the coast of Honduras from the border with Nicaragua westward to Punta Castilla. Showers and thunderstorms were also still possible over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said that Ernesto was centered about 215 miles (345 kilometers) south-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, on Sunday morning. It had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph (85 kph) and was moving swiftly westward at 22 mph (35 kph).

    The storm wasn't expected to strengthen much during the day. But it was forecast to gradually begin gaining power over the next two days and possibly reach hurricane strength by Wednesday.

    Many Jamaicans stocked up on bottled water, batteries and canned goods in the southern capital of Kingston.

    Elsewhere, Tropical Storm Florence, which formed recently far out in the Atlantic, had stopped strengthening early Sunday, forecasters said.

    Florence had top sustained winds of 60 mph (95 kph) and is 680 miles (1,090 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands. But the forecasters said the storm was expected to begin strengthening anew in the next day or so.

     

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    Amazing Footage of Record Breaking Skydive

    OTTAWA, Ill. (AP) - Falling at speeds of up to 220 mph, a group of nearly 140 skydivers shattered the vertical skydiving world record as they flew heads-down in a massive snowflake formation in northern Illinois.

    Three judges representing the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the international air sports agency, certified that 138 skydivers created the formation Friday evening over Ottawa, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. It took 15 attempts over three days for the team to break the previous record of 108 skydivers, which was set in 2009.

    "I feel amazing," Rook Nelson, an organizer and the owner of Skydive Chicago where the record was broken, said shortly after he made the jump. "There was a lot of emotion and a lot of days where we should have got it. But we dug down deep and stuck at it."

    Following months of planning, tryouts and camps to decide who could take part in the dangerous challenge, the record breakers squeezed into six aircraft and launched themselves into the air at 18,500 feet. Flying at such a high altitude presents a risk of altitude sickness, so the skydivers and pilots used oxygen tanks aboard the planes.

    Four camera operators shooting video and stills jumped with the 138 participants to record their achievement for the FAI judges. Those images are key, said co-organizer Mike Swanson, a professional skydiver who base jumped from Willis Tower and its fellow Chicago skyscraper Trump Tower for the movie "Transformers 3."

    If no one records the 150-foot-wide formation showing all the jumpers in their pre-assigned slots, "then it wasn't really done," Swanson said.

    The challenge for the record began Wednesday, midway through a 10-day skydiving festival. After each attempt, the organizers reviewed the videos and decided who should stay and who should be swapped out for one of the dozens of hopefuls who didn't make the initial cut.

    "It's a hard job coming in from the bench," said Erica Tadokoro, from Brisbane, Australia. "You have to be positive because it's a team effort."

    Tadokoro, 43, was one of just 13 women selected in the first string. She was cut after the 14th unsuccessful attempt - one shy of the record jump.

    Nelson explained that vertical flying is "basically doing a headstand" in the air. The lack of wind resistance speeds the skydivers' fall rate to an average of 170 to 180 mph. Ahead of the record attempt, he said some of those involved would need to reach much higher speeds. And that increased the risks.

    If they're not paying attention when diving into the formation at upwards of 220 mph, "it's going to be like someone running a red light and you taking them out," Nelson said.

    Each skydiver knew exactly when to exit the aircraft, whom to follow and where in the formation they should be. At 7,000 feet, the skydivers began to peel away on a last-in, first-out basis, and each wave deployed their parachutes at altitudes specified according to their positions in the formation.

    RELATED ON SKYE: See Photos of Daredevil Skydiver's Incredible Leaps

     

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    This Aug. 2 photo shows Nick Lam, data controller, monitoring the Mars rover Curiosity from the Deep Space Network's control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (AP)

    ALICIA CHANG,AP Science Writer

    PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - Hurtling ever closer to Mars, NASA's most high-tech interplanetary rover prepared for the riskiest part of its journey: diving through the Martian atmosphere and pulling off a new landing routine.

    Nerves will be on overdrive Sunday night as the Curiosity rover attempts a dizzying "seven minutes of terror" routine that ends with it being lowered by cables inside a massive crater if all goes according to script.

    Hours before the 10:31 p.m. PDT planned touchdown, Curiosity was in excellent health and speeding toward the top of Mars' thin atmosphere.

    "We're having a very clean ride right now. It's a little spooky," said Allen Chen, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

    Not ones to tempt fate, flight controllers planned to break out the "good luck" peanuts before Curiosity takes the plunge as part of a long-running tradition.

    One scientist who can relate to the building anxiety is Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who headed NASA's last successful rover mission in 2004.

    This time around, Squyres has a supporting role and planned to view the landing with other researchers in the "science bullpen."

    "Landing on Mars is always a nerve-racking thing. You're never going to get relaxed about something like landing a spacecraft on Mars," said Squyres.

    Sunday's touchdown attempt was especially intense because NASA is testing a brand new landing technique. There's also extra pressure because budget woes have forced NASA to rejigger its Mars exploration roadmap.

    "There's nothing in the pipeline" beyond the planned launch of a Mars orbiter in 2013, said former NASA Mars czar Scott Hubbard, who teaches at Stanford University.

    Curiosity was launched to study whether the Martian environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life.

    The voyage took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The landing will be the trickiest part of the journey. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down.

    The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.

    The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.

    And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashes a distance away.

    The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

    It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

    After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheeled rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

    The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

    Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today's harsh, frigid desert environment.

    Curiosity's goal: To scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It's not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.

    The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

    Despite Mars' reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts - flybys, orbiters and landings - by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

    One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

     

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    The Mars rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet tonight at 1:31 a.m. EDT. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is airing a live feed from mission control, and you can watch it here.

     

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    Mostly empty camping and parking lots appear behind the grandstands after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race, Sunday at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. (AP)

    LONG POND, Pa. (AP) - Lightning strikes at Pocono Raceway after a rain-shortened NASCAR race Sunday killed one fan and injured nine others, one critically, racetrack officials said.

    Multiple lightning strikes occurred behind the racetrack's grandstands and outside one of the gates as fans were leaving, Pocono spokesman Bob Pleban said. It wasn't immediately clear how many of the fans were actually struck by the lightning itself or were injured by related jolts.

    "Unfortunately, a member of our raceway family here, a fan, has passed away," Pocono President Brandon Igdalsky said in announcing the death. He provided no details about the victim but expressed condolences to his family.

    The victim was in or near his car in a parking lot after the race had ended when lightning struck the car, Monroe County Coroner Bob Allen said. Bystanders performed CPR on the man, who had gone into cardiac arrest, until paramedics arrived, Allen said. They took him to the track's medical facility, where efforts to revive him failed. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

    Allen would only identify the victim as a 41-year-old Pennsylvania man, saying his family had not yet been notified.

    The Pennsylvania 400 was called because of storms, with 98 of the 160 scheduled laps completed. As the storm approached, the track posted messages on its Twitter page to more than 22,000 followers near the end of the race encouraging fans to "seek shelter as severe lightning and heavy winds are in our area."

    The attendance was estimated by the track at 85,000. Public address announcements were made before the storm and the end of the race for fans to take shelter and evacuate the grandstands, Pleban said.

    Racetrack officials were reviewing the logs of when the announcements were made, he said. There was no order to evacuate the track premises.

    Jeff Gordon, who won the race, said at a post-race news conference that he could hear a huge crack as he walked down the pit road during the storm. "You could tell it was very close," he said. "I mean, that's the thing that's going to take away from the victory, is the fact that somebody was affected by that."

    One person remained hospitalized in critical condition at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center, Pleban said. Three people were taken to hospitals with minor to moderate injuries, and five others were treated on the scene, he said.

    "We are deeply saddened that a fan has died and others were injured by lightning strikes following today's race at Pocono," NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said. "Our thoughts are with them as well as those affected by this unfortunate accident."

     

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    The scene at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif., after Curiosity successfully touched down. (AP)

    PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.

    Cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory late Sunday after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.

    "Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."

    Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.

    "We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful," said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.

    It was NASA's seventh landing on Earth's neighbor; many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.

    The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.

    In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments - which would give Earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

    Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL Director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a post-landing press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that participate in the Olympics.

    "This team came back with the gold," he said.

    The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another robotic Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries and pave the way for astronaut landings.

    "The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," said NASA chief Charles Bolden.

    President Barack Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."

    Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.

    The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.

    Curiosity relied on a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, a heat shield and a supersonic parachute to slow down as it punched through the atmosphere.

    And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashed a distance away.

    The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

    It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

    Over the next several days, Curiosity is expected to send back the first color pictures. After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

    The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

    Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today's harsh, frigid desert environment.

    Curiosity's goal: to scour for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It's not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.

    The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

    Despite Mars' reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts - flybys, orbiters and landings - by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

    One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

     

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    A fisherman bails his boat out in Port Royal, Jamaica on Sunday after Ernesto soaked the island. (AP)

    TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto's forward movement slowed a bit early Monday as it headed for an expected close pass along Honduras' northern coast after dropping heavy rains on Jamaica without causing serious problems.

    The storm passed to the south of Jamaica, where authorities said rains fell over much of the island, particularly its eastern areas. Rain and wind began tapering off Sunday evening, but the government urged islanders to remain alert during the night and said fishermen should remain in safe harbors.

    Ernesto hasn't made any direct hits on land since entering the Caribbean early Saturday, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was predicted to stay offshore while swirling past Honduras by Monday night.

    Many Jamaicans stocked up on food and water before the storm made itself felt on their island, but few seemed worried.

    Daniel Edwards, who was bailing out his small wooden fishing boat next to a dilapidated dock in Port Royal, a small fishing village, said he wasn't overly concerned by the storm.

    "It's not much of a muchness," the veteran fisherman said.

    Forecasters said Ernesto could bring rain to the coast of Honduras on Monday. It is then expected to grow to near-hurricane force before moving ashore near the Belize-Mexico border early Wednesday and eventually passing into the southern Gulf of Mexico.

    A tropical storm warning was issued early Monday for the coast of Honduras, from the border with Nicaragua westward to Punta Sal, including the Bay Islands. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the main island of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands to the north of Ernesto.

    A Cayman government statement urged Grand Cayman residents to monitor the storm but said it was not likely to have serious effects on the British Caribbean territory.

    Also, Mexico has issued a hurricane watch Monday for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

    The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto was centered about 145 miles (235 kilometers) east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border early Monday. It had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph (85 kph) and was moving westward at 12 mph (19 kph).

    Far out in the Atlantic, Florence had weakened to a tropical depression Monday with maximum sustained winds near 35 (55 kph). Additional weakening is forecast and the U.S. National Hurricane Center says Florence was expected to degenerate within the next few days.

    Florence was centered about 1,610 miles (2,590 kilometers) east of the Northern Leeward Islands.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Aug. 6, 2012


    This visible image of Tropical Storm Ernesto was captured by NOAA's GOES-13 satellite on August 6 at 11:45 a.m. EDT. Ernesto was located south of central Cuba at that time. (NASA GOES Project)

    TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto moved closer to the Central American coast Monday evening as authorities in Nicaragua evacuated some people from low-lying areas and Honduras considered evacuations.

    With Ernesto predicted to stay at sea while passing along Honduras' northern coast, authorities were monitoring the storm and would decide soon whether to evacuate people, the country's Contingencies Commission said.

    Officials in Nicaragua evacuated hundreds of people living along the coast and near the border with Honduras, Guillermo Gonzalez, who is in charge of the country's emergency services, told local television.

    "The scope of action will include a big chunk of the northern Caribbean coast, specifically the area between Cabo Gracias a Dios, the Misquito Cays, Puerto Cabezas and Waspam," Gonzalez said.

    Ernesto could drop up to five inches of rainfall along Honduras' coast and the northeastern shores of Nicaragua, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

    The center's forecast said rain could begin falling late Monday or early Tuesday.

    After passing Honduras, the storm is expected to grow to near-hurricane force before moving ashore near the Belize-Mexico border early Wednesday and eventually passing into the southern Gulf of Mexico.

    A tropical storm warning was issued for the coast of Honduras, from the border with Nicaragua westward to Punta Sal, including the Bay Islands. Hurricane warnings were posted for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and all of Belize's coast.

    The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto was centered about 295 miles (475 kilometers) east of the Honduran island of Roatan late Monday. It had maximum sustained winds near 65 mph (100 kph) and was moving west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).

    On Sunday, the storm passed to the south of Jamaica, where authorities said rains fell over much of the island but caused no serious problems.

    Far out in the Atlantic, Florence weakened to a tropical depression Monday with maximum sustained winds near 35 (55 kph). Additional weakening was forecast and the hurricane center said Florence was likely to dissipate over the next few days.

    Florence was centered about 1,515 miles (2,440 kilometers) east of the Caribbean's northern Leeward Islands.

     

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    Ernesto's projected path as of Tuesday morning. (NOAA)

    TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto swirled along Honduras' northern coast early Tuesday, bringing the threat of torrential rains as it headed toward landfall as a possible hurricane near Mexico's border with Belize.

    Nicaraguan authorities moved some people from low-lying areas, while Honduran officials urged people along its Caribbean coast to stay alert.

    With Ernesto predicted to stay at sea while passing along Honduras' northern coast during the day, Honduran authorities were monitoring the storm but there were no immediate plans to evacuate people, Roberto Diaz, operations chief of the country's Contingencies Commission, said Monday night.

    "We don't think is necessary to evacuate people at this point," Diaz said. "We don't want to create collective panic ... and we think that ordering an evacuation would create hysteria that would affect the population more than the storm itself."

    Authorities sent enough food packages to the sparsely populated area to feed 600 families for two weeks, Diaz said.

    On Tuesday morning, Ernesto was centered about 180 miles (285 kilometers) northeast of Honduras' Roatan island, a tourist haven, and 250 miles (405 kilometers) east of Belize City. The storm had maximum sustained winds near 65 mph (100 kph) and was moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).

    Rain began falling Monday night and the region between Cabo Gracias a Dios and the city of Trujillo already had received about one inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain, Diaz said.

    Officials in Nicaragua evacuated hundreds of people living along the coast and near the border with Honduras, Guillermo Gonzalez, who is in charge of the country's emergency services, told local television.

    Ernesto could drop up to five inches (13 centimeters) of rain along Honduras' coast and the northeastern shores of Nicaragua, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

    After passing Honduras, the storm was expected to grow to hurricane force before moving ashore near the Belize-Mexico border early Wednesday, passing near the jungle Mayan ruins of Calakmul and eventually entering the southern Gulf of Mexico and hitting the Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz.

    Hurricane warnings were posted for the entire coast of Belize and the southern half of Mexico's Caribbean Yucatan coast.

    Tropical storm warnings were issued for the Honduras coast and for the northern part of the Yucatan coast up to Cancun.

    Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in an area where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides. In a landslide last year, 31 people were buried in the Chiapas state town of Juan del Grijalva.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    A man sweeps ash from a car near Mt. Tongariro, New Zealand after an eruption Tuesday. (AP)

    WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - A volcano quiet for more than a century erupted in a New Zealand national park, spreading thick ash for several kilometers (miles) and causing some residents to evacuate their homes. Some domestic flights were canceled Tuesday.

    Mount Tongariro spewed ash and rocks for about 30 minutes late Monday night after a few weeks of increased seismic activity. It didn't cause any injuries or damage in the sparsely populated central North Island region. Tongariro National Park has three active volcanos, is a popular tourist destination and was the backdrop for many scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

    Some residents left their homes as a precaution, and authorities temporarily closed roads. National carrier Air New Zealand canceled or delayed domestic flights to towns near the mountain, though by Tuesday afternoon, it said it was resuming service to locations where the ash cloud had cleared. No international flights were affected.

    Police said a witness to the eruption described flashes and explosions followed by a cloud of ash coming from a hole in the north face of the mountain. The Department of Conservation said three hikers were staying in a hut on the opposite slope of Mount Tongariro when it erupted but they walked out of the area safely.

    Steve Sherburn, a volcanologist at the government agency GNS Science, said the eruption spread a layer of ash several centimeters (one or two inches) thick for several kilometers (miles). He said he'd heard reports of ash traveling on wind currents to coastal towns 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. He said the eruption was likely caused by steam pressure building within the mountain.

    The nation's civil defense ministry said eruption activity was subsiding though it still urged caution for people who were in the vicinity of the volcano. The park has closed hiking trails and sleeping huts on the mountain for now.

    New Zealand is part of the Pacific's "Ring of Fire" and has frequent geothermal and seismic activity. However, the last verified eruption of Mount Tongariro occurred in 1897, marking the end of a decade of volcanic activity.

    Sherburn said it was too early to determine whether the latest eruption was the start of a renewed cycle of activity.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Photos of Tongariro's Aftermath

     

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    The Valladares family from Mexico City stand near the sea in Tulum, Mexico, Tuesday as Tropical Storm Ernesto brings the threat of hurricane-force winds and torrential rains to the Caribbean coast. (AP)

    CANCUN, Mexico (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto headed toward landfall near Mexico's border with Belize Tuesday, bringing the threat of hurricane-force winds and torrential rains to the Caribbean coast.

    Soldiers and police were moving 600 residents from the fishing village of Punta Allen in Mexico's Quintana Roo state, where authorities opened emergency shelters and began preparing for the evacuation of other low-lying coastal settlements.

    The heart of the storm was expected to hit south of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, though strong rain and winds were likely there, and officials also prepared shelters there as a precaution.

    Ernesto was 220 miles (354 kilometers) east of Chetumal, Mexico, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (105 kph) late Tuesday morning, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, and it was moving to the west-northwest at 14 mph (22 kph).

    Forecasters said it was expected to become a hurricane, with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph), and hit the coast late Tuesday.

    The storm that entered the Caribbean on Saturday was driving through the sea parallel to the Honduran coast, though officials there said the threat had passed without any damage or injuries.

    Nicaragua had evacuated hundreds of people living along the coast, but it too apparently was spared significant damage.

    Forecasters said the storm was expected to grow to hurricane force before moving ashore near the Belize-Mexico border early Wednesday, passing near the jungle Mayan ruins of Calakmul and eventually entering the southern Gulf of Mexico and hitting the Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz.

    Hurricane warnings were posted for the entire coast of Belize and the southern half of Mexico's Caribbean Yucatan coast.

    Tropical storm warnings were issued for the northern part of the Yucatan coast up to Cancun.

    Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in an area where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides. In a landslide last year, 31 people were buried in the Chiapas state town of Juan del Grijalva.

    Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma formed in the Pacific Ocean, 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of Mazanillo, Mexico, with winds of 40 mph (64 kph). The storm was not expected to threaten land.

     

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    Aug. 7, 2012

    View of the beach in Tulum, Mexico, Tuesday, as Tropical Storm Ernesto brings the threat of hurricane-force winds and torrential rains to the Caribbean coast. (AP Photo)

    By Gabriel Alcocer

    CANCUN, Mexico (AP) - Hundreds of tourists evacuated beach resorts along Mexico's Caribbean coast as Hurricane Ernesto headed toward a Tuesday night landfall near Mexico's border with Belize, bringing the threat of powerful winds and torrential rains.

    Ernesto strengthened from a tropical storm earlier in the day, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had winds of 80 mph (129 kph) by late afternoon and was moving west-northwest at 15 mph (24 kph). It was centered about 140 miles (225 kilometers) east of Chetumal, Mexico.

    Authorities in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo were moving more than 1,300 tourists from resorts in Mahuahal and other spots to Chetumal, a bayside city that was expected to see less rain and wind than the coast. Two cruises ships scheduled to dock on the Riviera Maya put off their arrival.

    In the city of Tulum, some 6,000 tourists were sheltering in hotels that authorities said were strong enough to qualify as storm shelters. Authorities also prepared two kindergartens as shelters that can hold up to 220 people.

    Soldiers and police were moving 600 residents from the fishing village of Punta Allen in Quintana Roo, where authorities opened emergency shelters and began preparing for the evacuation of residents from other low-lying coastal settlements.

    The heart of the storm was expected to hit south of the resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, though strong rain and winds were likely. Officials prepared shelters as a precaution.

    The storm that entered the Caribbean on Saturday was driving through the sea parallel to the Honduran coast, though officials there said the threat had passed without any damage or injuries.

    Forecasters said that after moving ashore during the night, Ernesto was expected to take about 24 hours to cross Yucatan and enter the southern Gulf of Mexico. Its predicted course would then take it to Mexico's Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz.

    Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in a region where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides. In a landslide last year, 31 people were buried in the Chiapas state town of Juan del Grijalva.

    Hurricane warnings were posted for the entire coast of Belize and much of Mexico's Caribbean Yucatan coast. Tropical storm warnings were issued for the Yucatan coast from Cozumel to Cancun.

    Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma formed in the Pacific Ocean about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of Manzanillo, Mexico, with winds of 40 mph (64 kph). The storm was not expected to threaten land.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Armed with waterproof GoPro cameras, kayakers Rafa Ortiz, Dane Jackson, Eric Jackson and Nick Troutman run some seriously wild stretches of river in Southern Mexico, shooting rapids, plunging down waterfalls and generally having their run of the place. The results are spectacular.

     

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    Aug. 7, 2012


    Police evacuate residents in Mahahual, Mexico, Tuesday. (AP Photo)

    By Gabriel Alcocer

    CANCUN, Mexico (AP) - Hundreds of tourists evacuated beach resorts along Mexico's Caribbean coast as Hurricane Ernesto closed in for a Tuesday night landfall near Mexico's border with Belize, bringing the threat of powerful winds and torrential rains.

    Ernesto strengthened from a tropical storm earlier in the day, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had sustained winds of 85 mph by early evening and was moving west-northwest at 18 mph. It was centered about 65 miles east of Chetumal.

    Rain began falling as early as the afternoon and some streets flooded.

    Authorities in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo were moving more than 1,300 tourists from resorts in Mahuahal, Balacar and other spots to Chetumal, a bayside city that was expected to see less rain and wind than the coast. Two cruises ships scheduled to dock on the Riviera Maya put off their arrival.

    In the city of Tulum, some 6,000 tourists were sheltering in hotels that authorities said were strong enough to qualify as storm shelters. Authorities also prepared two kindergartens as shelters for up to 220 people, but only 20 people had showed up in the early hours at one.

    Cruz Garcia, a tourist guide, came to the shelter with his wife from Punta Allen, a low-lying coastal settlement.

    "To be over there is a risk because the tide rises and there could be a disaster," Garcia said, adding that he twice went through strong hurricanes while living in the neighboring state of Campeche.

    Soldiers and police evacuated all 600 residents of Punta Allen, and authorities were preparing for the evacuation of people from other low-lying coastal settlements, said Luis Gamboa of Quintana Roo's Civil Protection office.

    The heart of the storm was expected to hit south of the resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, though strong rain and winds were likely. Officials prepared shelters as a precaution.

    Forecasters said that after moving ashore during the night, Ernesto was expected to take about 24 hours to cross the Yucatan Peninsula and enter the southern Gulf of Mexico in an area dotted with offshore oil platforms owned by the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos. Its predicted course would then take it to Mexico's Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz.

    On its way to Yucatan, the storm swirled over open sea parallel to Honduras' northern coast, but officials there said the threat had passed without any damage or injuries.

    Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in some of the region threatened by Ernesto, where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides. In a landslide last year, 31 people were buried in the Chiapas state town of Juan del Grijalva.

    Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma formed in the Pacific Ocean about 620 miles west of Manzanillo, Mexico, with winds of 40 mph. The storm was not expected to threaten land.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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