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    Monday, Jan. 28, 2013

    Facebook: Tó Mané

    Big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara already has the record for surfing the biggest wave ever ridden -- a 78-foot beast at Nazaré, Portugal, in 2011. But on Monday, Jan. 28, he rode this massive wave at Nazaré, prompting SurferToday.com to wonder whether he not only broke his own world record but dropped into a 100-foot wave. (Or, as one Portuguese publication so eloquently put it, "Garrett McNamara volta a surfar montanha de água na Nazaré.")

    McNamara wrote on Twitter Monday, "Thank you for all your support. It means the world to me. Today was an awesome day and so fun to be out there..."

    The ride was captured on film by photographer Tó Mané.

    It'll take some time for record keepers to assess the size of this wave. Meanwhile, here's video of McNamara's epic 2011 ride:



    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Gut-Wrenching Wipeout Photos

     

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    Jan. 28, 2013

    A woman walks with her dog by homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy along the beach in the Rockaways in Queens, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - Three months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged coastal areas in much of the Northeast, Congress on Monday sent a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for storm victims to President Barack Obama for his signature.

    "I commend Congress for giving families and businesses the help they deserve, and I will sign this bill into law as soon as it hits my desk," Obama said in a statement late Monday.

    Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars more to the nation's debt, the Senate cleared the long-delayed bill, 62-36, after House Republicans had stripped it earlier this month of spending unrelated to disasters. All 36 votes against the bill were from Republican senators.

    "This is a huge relief," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noting the vote came 91 days after Sandy struck. "We are now just a presidential pen-stroke away from beginning the rebuilding process in earnest."

    Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.

    The House passed the bill two weeks ago. The measure is aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild from the storm. Sandy roared up the East Coast and has been blamed for more than 130 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage.

    The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community development block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.

    More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund for shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.

    "The funding in this bill is urgently needed," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "Hundreds of thousands of families have seen their lives turned upside down."

    Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Republicans weren't seeking "to undermine" help for Sandy victims but instead were trying to make sure that the money was actually being spent on emergency needs.

    "We're simply trying to say we need some standards," Coats said.

    Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well over 100,000 flood insurance claims from businesses, homeowners and renters related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion that Obama requested in December.

    Sandy damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, according to officials. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged.

    The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a "fiscal cliff" deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring some $24 billion in spending cuts to have been shared between defense and domestic programs.

    The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28 exposed deep political divisions within Republican ranks. "There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fumed at the time.

    Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to win over as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.

    GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion for training Iraqi policemen to instead be used on bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions. The shift in money followed a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

    Also deleted was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan, and another $150 million for fisheries disasters that states such as Alaska and Mississippi could have shared.

    After all the cost-cutting, 179 House Republicans still voted against the disaster aid package with only 49 favoring it. GOP leaders had to rely on yes votes from 192 Democrats to pass it.

    As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill is not offset with spending cuts, meaning the aid adds to the deficit. The lone exception is an offset provision requiring that $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be covered by an equal amount of unspecified spending cuts in other programs before next October.

    The Senate on Monday rejected, 35-62, an attempt by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to amend the final package Monday with a provision to cut federal programs across the board by one-half of 1 percent through 2021 as a way to prevent the disaster aid from swelling the U.S. debt.

    While the bill passed by the Senate carries a $50.5 billion price tag, it could trim 5 percent or so if across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take place on March 1 as scheduled under current law.

    The cuts, known as a sequester, are punishment for the failure of a congressional deficit "supercommittee" to follow up a 2011 budget pact with additional deficit curbs. The cuts would apply equally to every account in the measure.

    As of Monday, FEMA said it spent $3.3 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from the storm.

    New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have shared that money.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    Jan. 29, 2013

    Members of the San Francisco 49ers answers questions from the media ahead of Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 29, 2013, in New Orleans, La. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

    NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans has celebrated plenty of milestones on its slow road to recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but arguably none is bigger than hosting its first Super Bowl since the 2005 storm left the city in shambles.

    To see the remnants of Katrina's destruction, fans coming to town for Sunday's game will have to stray from the French Quarter and the downtown corridor where the Superdome is located. Even in the neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the storm, many of the most glaring scars have faded over time.

    Billions of dollars in federal money has paid for repairing and replacing tens of thousands of homes wrecked by flooding. Gone are the ubiquitous FEMA trailers that once dotted the landscape. Levees that broke and flooded 80 percent of the city have been fortified with the intent of protecting the city from another epic hurricane.

    The city's lifeblood tourism trade has thrived despite the double-barrel blow of Katrina and BP's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Seafood is plentiful as the harvest rebounds from effects of the oil spill.

    Crowds at Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras, two of the city's signature events, have at least matched pre-storm levels. Lured by tax credits, filmmakers have flocked here in droves. And the hospitality industry has been an economic engine for the city, which has more restaurants now than it did when the storm made landfall.

    "The restaurants opened lickety split, as fast as they could," said Tom Fitzmorris, publisher of The New Orleans Menu. "Everybody is doing well. We have very few closings. I don't know anybody who is complaining."

    Sunday's Super Bowl is the city's first since 2002, but New Orleans already has hosted a BCS national championship game, a men's Final Four and other major sports and entertainment events in the past 18 months alone.

    "That is an extraordinary run of events for a city that seven years ago was 15 feet underwater and the last on every list in America that mattered," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said last week. "Now we find ourselves in a city that's on the world stage."

    Yet, as far as the city has come, decades-old problems persist. New Orleans remains plagued by violent crime, political corruption, a troubled police department and poverty.

    Crime rates briefly dipped after Katrina scattered residents all over the country but quickly soared again as people returned home. Landrieu has made crime reduction one of his top priorities, but the murder rate has remained stubbornly high since he took office in 2010.

    After the storm, federal authorities launched a sweeping effort to clean up the police department. Several investigations yielded charges against 20 current or former officers, many of whom were linked to deadly shootings in Katrina's chaotic aftermath. The Justice Department also has negotiated ambitious plans to reform the police force and improve conditions at the city's jail.

    Separate probes of City Hall corruption revealed that some officials enriched themselves while New Orleans struggled to rebound from the storm. The latest and most prominent target so far is former Mayor Ray Nagin, who was indicted earlier this month on charges he accepted bribes and payoffs in exchange for steering work to city contractors.

    For the city's poorest residents, life hasn't gotten any easier since Katrina. Housing costs have skyrocketed while the region's unemployment rate has risen along with the rest of the country. A months-long moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf after the BP spill didn't help matters, either.

    "A fresh coat of paint hasn't and won't drive away the poverty that has existed in our community," said Davida Finger, a Loyola University law professor who has helped low-income residents with Katrina-related housing problems. "It didn't go away with the storm, and it can't go away overnight."

    Although the population hasn't returned to its pre-Katrina levels, New Orleans is one of the nation's fastest growing large cities. The population dropped from more than 484,000 in 2000 to an estimated 208,000 a year after Katrina before rising to an estimated 360,000 as of July 2011, according to census figures cited by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

    Allison Plyer, the center's deputy director and chief demographer, said Katrina gave the city a chance to fix problems that have spanned generations. For instance, notoriously dysfunctional public schools were replaced with privately run charter schools that have been credited with making slow but measurable improvements in student performance.

    "Katrina and the levee failures caused a break in the status quo that sparked extensive citizen engagement and intensive reforms," Plyer said. "For some, there has been a vast improvement. For others, things have gotten substantially worse."

    Few residents are dwelling on the negative, however, as they prepare for the big game, the legions of celebrities it will bring and the annual Carnival parades that culminate with Mardi Gras on Feb. 12.

    The matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will be the seventh Super Bowl at the Superdome and 10th overall in New Orleans since the NFL awarded the city a franchise in 1966. The dome became a symbol of suffering after thousands of residents were stranded there for days without food or water in Katrina's aftermath. Hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations helped make the Saints' home a suitable Super Bowl venue again.

    Marisol Canedo, whose love for New Orleans inspired her to rebuild after her family's home was inundated by 11 feet of water, said the Super Bowl's return shows the world that New Orleans is "open for business." But that doesn't mean the city is close to completely recovering, she cautions.

    "It's a struggle to get where we were," she said. "Everything is not up and running. Everything is not back to what it was pre-Katrina."

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Jan. 29, 2013

    Beijing residents wear face masks as they ride bikes during severe pollution on Jan. 29, 2013. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

    BEIJING (AP) - Thick, off-the-scale smog shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks Tuesday, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting Beijing to temporarily shut factories and curtail fleets of government cars.

    The capital was a colorless scene. Street lamps and the outlines of buildings receded into a white haze as pedestrians donned face masks to guard against the caustic air. The flight cancellations stranded passengers during the first week of the country's peak, six-week period for travel surrounding the Chinese New Year on Feb. 10.

    The U.S. Embassy reported an hourly peak level of PM2.5 - tiny particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs - at 526 micrograms per cubic meter, or "beyond index," and more than 20 times higher than World Health Organization safety levels over a 24-hour period.

    Liu Peng, an employee at a financial institution in Beijing, said he will keep his newborn baby indoors.

    "It's really bad for your health, obviously," Liu said. "I bike to work every day and always wear a mask. The pollution in recent years is probably due to the increase in private cars and government cars."

    Visibility was less than 100 yards in some areas of eastern China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. More than 100 flights were canceled in the eastern city of Zhengzhou, 33 in Beijing, 20 in Qingdao and 13 in Jinan.

    Every year, China's transport system bursts at the seams as tens of millions of people travel for the Lunar New Year holiday, in the world's largest seasonal migration of people.

    Ren Haiqiang, a bank worker in his early 30s, said he had booked tickets to fly out of Beijing on Thursday to visit family in the coastal city of Dalian, but now worried about flight cancellations.

    "Traveling over the holiday is already a huge hassle, along with all the gift-giving and family visits. We thought flying would be the best way to avoid the crush, but if the weather continues like this we'll be in real trouble," Ren said as he waited in line at a bakery in downtown Beijing.

    Beijing's city government ordered 103 heavily polluting factories to suspend production and told government departments and state-owned enterprises to reduce their use of cars by a third, Xinhua said. The measures last until Thursday.

    Beijing's official readings for PM2.5 were lower than the embassy's - 433 micrograms per cubic meter at one point in the afternoon - but even that level is considered "severe" and prompted the city government to advise residents to stay indoors as much as possible. The government said that because there was no wind, the smog probably would not dissipate quickly.

    Patients seeking treatment for respiratory ailments rose by about 30 percent over the past month at the Jiangong Hospital in downtown Beijing, Emergency Department chief Cui Qifeng said.

    "People tend to catch colds or suffer from lung infections during the days with heavily polluted air," he said.

    Air pollution has long been a problem in Beijing, but the country has been more open about releasing statistics on PM2.5 - considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other pollutants - only since early last year. The city hit its highest readings on Jan. 12, when U.S. Embassy readings of PM2.5 reached as high as 886 micrograms per cubic meter.

    Celebrity real estate developer Pan Shiyi, who has previously pushed for cities to publish more detailed air quality data and who is a delegate to Beijing's legislature, called Tuesday morning for a "Clean Air Act." By late afternoon, his online poll had received more than 29,000 votes, with 99 percent in favor.

    On Monday, Wang Anshun was elected Beijing's mayor after telling lawmakers the municipal government should make more efforts to fight air pollution, according to Xinhua.

    Last week, he announced plans to remove 180,000 older vehicles from the city's roads and promote government cars and heating systems that use clean energy.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Extreme Smog Once Again Engulfs Beijing

     

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    A beach front home that was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy rests in the sand in Bay Head, N.J., in this Jan. 3, 2013, photo. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said he'll sign a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims as soon as it lands on his desk.

    Three months after Sandy ravaged coastal areas in much of the Northeast, Obama chided lawmakers for taking their time to approve the funding even as he commended them for providing the long-awaited aid.

    "So while I had hoped Congress would provide this aid sooner, I applaud the lawmakers from both parties who helped shepherd this important package though," Obama said in a statement late Monday.

    Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars to the nation's debt, the Senate cleared the bill, 62-36, after House Republicans had stripped it earlier this month of spending unrelated to disasters.

    "This is a huge relief," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

    Northeast lawmakers said the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.

    The measure is aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild from the storm. The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community block grants. Of that, about $12.1 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-13. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.

    More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund for Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems.

    Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well over 100,000 claims related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion Obama requested in December.

    The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a "fiscal cliff" deficit-reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring some $24 billion in spending cuts in defense and domestic programs.

    The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28 exposed deep political divisions within Republican ranks. "There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fumed at the time.

    Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to win over as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.

    GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion from training programs for Iraqi policemen to bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions. The shift in money followed a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

    Also deleted was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan.

    As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill is not offset with spending cuts, meaning the aid adds to the deficit. The lone exception is an offset provision requiring that $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be covered by an equal amount of unspecified spending cuts in other programs before next October.

    The Senate on Monday rejected, 35-62, an attempt by conservatives to amend the final package with an offset provision to cut federal programs across the board by one-half of 1 percent through 2021.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    People use a kayak to make their way through floodwaters in Lismore, northern New South Wales, Australia, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/NSW State Emergency Service, Samantha Cantwell)

    BRISBANE, Australia (AP) - Rescuers helped drivers escape swift floodwaters and used helicopters to pluck stranded people from rooftops in northeast Australia on Tuesday after torrential rains flooded thousands of homes and businesses, killed four and forced thousands to huddle in shelters.

    Floodwaters peaked in most of the worst-hit areas by evening. Some communities that were initially expected to be inundated appeared to have escaped major damage, with levees holding back the muddy water in one city that was in the high danger zone. But officials were still urging caution, as fast-moving floodwaters in New South Wales prompted 50 rescues, most involving drivers stuck in cars swept away by the current.

    In the hardest-hit city of Bundaberg in Queensland, 385 kilometers (240 miles) north of Brisbane, rescue crews plucked 1,000 people to safety after the river that runs through town broke its banks, sending murky water pouring into streets and homes. Several people had to be rescued from the roofs of their waterlogged houses, while hospital patients were airlifted to Brisbane as a precaution.

    "Listen to the roar of the water - that's not helicopters," Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said. "You see a lot of locations where there are literally sort of rapids. There's white water out there, so it is very dangerous."

    Between 2,500 and 3,000 homes and 200 to 300 businesses were inundated with water, Bundaberg Mayor Mal Forman said. Around 1,500 residents were hunkered down in evacuation centers as they waited for the waters to recede.

    Queensland residents and officials were being particularly cautious, after floodwaters from heavy rain in late 2010 and early 2011 left much of the state under water in the worst flooding Australia had seen in decades. The 2010-2011 floods killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, under water for days.

    The current flood crisis was not as severe, though some areas in northern New South Wales were hit by more than half a meter (about 20 inches) of rain, State Emergency Services Deputy Commissioner Steve Pearce said. Four people have died, including a 3-year-old boy who was hit by a falling tree in Brisbane.

    In the New South Wales city of Grafton, 600 kilometers (370 miles) north of Sydney, the river peaked just below the top of the levee wall, prompting relief among officials who had ordered an evacuation affecting 2,500 residents.

    "It does appear as though the worst of it is over," New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said.

    The flooding was caused by the remnants of a tropical cyclone that sparked tornadoes and created sea foam that came ashore on the Queensland coast. The foam covered roads in places, causing traffic to be diverted. Elsewhere, beach-goers waded into the bubbles to pose for photographs. The storm system was moving offshore Tuesday evening.

    Australia has been suffering through a summer of weather extremes, with blistering temperatures and dry conditions igniting hundreds of wildfires across the southern half of the country.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Another blast of arctic air will sweep from the northern Plains to the mid-Atlantic and New England as the week progresses.

    The cold wave will follow a brief warm-up that will lead to severe weather in some locations.

    According to Meteorologist Mark Paquette, "A second pulse of stratospheric warming occurred during the middle of January is now sending another blast of arctic air southward."

    For information on how stratospheric warming yielded the nasty cold wave from last week, consult "Evolution of the Arctic Outbreak." In short, sudden warming in the stratosphere is often a sign that arctic air will build and drive southward into the mid-latitudes two to three weeks later.

    The new wave of arctic air will be almost as cold as the first blast that hit during the latter part of week three and the first part of week four of January.

    "The latest indications are this frigid blast will not be quite as long-lasting as the first, probably lasting three to five days instead of the week-long barrage just experienced," Paquette said.

    However, this time the arctic blast will be following very closely behind a couple of days of warm weather shifting from west to east over the Plains, Midwest and the East. As a result, it will pack just as much, if not more, shock than the first.

    Minneapolis may have another day where temperatures fail to get above zero.

    In Chicago, two to perhaps three days of temperatures no higher than the teens are likely.

    Around New York City and the I-95 mid-Atlantic, it is possible there are a few days where temperatures do not get above the freezing mark.

    How cold it gets at night from region to region will depend on where the core of the arctic air settles, as well as sky and wind conditions. Clear and calm conditions with fresh snow cover are ideal for allowing temperatures to plummet to bitterly cold levels at night.

    Beyond the several-day stretch of dead-of-winter cold from the northern Plains to the mid-Atlantic and New England, the pattern will turn a bit more progressive. This means that shifting bouts of cold air and mild conditions will occur through much of the rest of the month over the same areas.

    According to long-range weather expert Joe Lundberg, "It appears the stratosphere is now entering a cooling phase, so we should not see prolonged cold lasting into March.

    "The only thing that would derail the progressive pattern beyond early February would be if there was another stratospheric warming event and there is no way to reliably forecast that," Lundberg added.

    While some chilly air and snow has settled into parts of the West, it will not pack the cold punch of earlier in the month, where a frost reached the coast of Southern California and freezing air dipped into southern Arizona. The second arctic outbreak is not aiming for the Deep South.

    In terms of snow, February is typically a stormy and unsettled month.

    While face-value looks of the pattern and a lack of blocking high pressure over Greenland may not yield blockbuster blizzards, there is still the potential for rounds of moderate snowstorms during the changing of the guard.

    While the period from the second half of February into March is not likely to bring steady arctic cold in the Northeast, temperatures will end up averaging near to slightly below normal for the period, which would be a switch from much of the winter thus far.

    Visit AccuWeather.com for the latest weather news.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Icy Photos of the Deep Freeze

     

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    Showers were in the forecast for the sun recently, but not the kind we have here on Earth. This video, taken with the Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) aboard the Hinode satellite, shows plasma at roughly 14,000-36,000 degrees F shooting out from the surface of the sun. As it cools, the plasma is pulled back toward the sun by gravity in a phenomenon known as "Coronal Rain."

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

    Facebook: Tó Mané

    The moment Bill Sharp saw this photo in his inbox Monday, Jan. 28, he knew it would rock the surfing world.

    "Even after all these years, when a classic photo like that comes in, it's like Christmas," he said Tuesday. "I love it."

    Sharp is the event director of the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards, which has been awarding prizes for the biggest wave ridden each year since 1998 and also certifies rides for Guinness World Records.

    The photo, which went viral shortly after it was taken Monday, shows big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara dropping into a monster wave off Nazaré, Portugal. McNamara holds the world record for the largest wave ever ridden -- a 78-footer that thundered into Nazaré in 2011. Now, many are wondering if this wave is even bigger -- possibly even reaching a mind-blowing 100 feet.

    Sharp will help answer that question, so SKYE asked him about the business of measuring really big waves.

    SKYE: How do you determine who's ridden the biggest wave in a given year?

    There are usually nine experts - editors, big-wave surfers -- who decide. We look at all the photographs and videos of the top waves from different angles. By using one definitive image that shows the face the best and surfer the clearest, it's fairly simple. The biggest challenge is finding the top and bottom of the wave. The top is usually obvious but the bottom isn't -- finding where the slope ends and the flat sea begins is the hardest part. But with our judges, you're talking about guys who have looked at millions of waves and have a good sense of the geometry of waves.

    How do you measure the wave? Do you pull out a tape measure?

    Yeah, we do. But the way to do it precisely is on the computer. You marquee the pixels that show the surfer from the top of his head to the bottom of his foot and cut and paste that and stack it up. That reduces the margin of error.

    Say the surfer is 5'11, and he's in this stance where his femur is at this angle. As silly as it might look, we'll find the judge who is the same height and have him assume that stance and measure him. Then you multiply that height and you come up with a number and check it for reasonableness.

    This photo appears to have been taken from a high point. That would seem to make it harder to gauge the size, wouldn't it?

    Yeah, this image is trickier than most because it combines a high angle, the telephoto lens for shortening and a lot of mist and flat lighting, so deciphering where the true bottom of the wave is would be very difficult with that image alone. Fortunately that ride was shot by 20 to 50 photographers there. That photo was the first one in my inbox, but as the other photos come in, that will help determine how big it actually is.

    Do all of the judges get in the same room when you make that determination?

    Yeah. It's an annual tradition. We usually do it at Billabong headquarters in a big conference room. I'm the non-voting facilitator. We have some Mexican food and beers and watch all the videos. It's like a surf movie -- we hoot and holler. Then we get down to brass tacks and do the measuring.

    When will you be deciding this year's winner?

    This year's awards are May 3. We usually do it at some point in the week prior.

    Thanks so much.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Gut-Wrenching Wipeout Photos

     

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    Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

    A stairway to nowhere sits on what is left of the beachfront in Toms River, N.J. on Nov. 29, 2012. The beach used to extend to the top of the staircase before Superstorm Sandy washed most of it away. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama has signed into law a $50.5 billion emergency measure for Superstorm Sandy victims.

    Congress gave the measure its final approval late Monday. Obama signed it Tuesday night, minutes after returning to the White House from a visit to Nevada.

    It took Congress three months after Sandy devastated areas along the East Coast to approve the emergency funding. Obama scolded lawmakers for delaying recovery efforts even as he commended them for providing the long-awaited aid.

    Conservatives concerned about billions in debt opposed the measure. Earlier this month, House Republicans removed unrelated spending from the bill.

    The Oct. 29 storm was one of the worst to strike the Northeast and is blamed for more than 130 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in property damage.


    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    Lightning streaks across the sky in Tyler, Texas as a line of thunderstorms from reaching from Texas, to Chicago move east, on Tuesday evening. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

    JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A large storm system packing high winds, rain and some possible twisters tore across several states in the South and central U.S. on Wednesday, blacking out power to thousands, downing trees and damaging homes.

    One death was reported when a large tree blew down on a shed in Nashville, Tenn., where a man was sheltering, police told Nashville broadcaster WTVF-TV. Authorities did not immediately release further details when contacted by The Associated Press.

    In Arkansas, another person was reported injured by lightning in Arkansas during the storm's eastward trek. The storm was marching just ahead of a cold front as the volatile system headed toward the Eastern seaboard, dumping heavy rain in Kentucky and parts of Tennessee.

    The rapidly changing conditions created a risk of tornadoes in the nation's midsection and South. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the threat was greatest in recent hours in northeast Texas, northern Louisiana, northwest Mississippi, southeast Missouri and much of Arkansas.

    Thousands were reported without power in Tennessee, where tornado warnings and flash flood warnings were issued for various counties and a tractor-trailer truck was blown on its side by high winds.

    Entergy Arkansas Inc. reported at least 9,000 power outages in several communities around Arkansas at the height of the storm, including in and around Little Rock.

    Authorities in Arkansas said they would be checking reports of possible twisters kicked up near a Little Rock suburb and in two locations in northwestern Arkansas. Power lines fell, trees were toppled and some homes suffered damage to rooftops around the state, according to emergency officials.

    The National Weather Service reported that suspected straight-line winds of up to 80 mph were reported in Arkansas late Tuesday night along with flooding in low-lying areas of Jonesboro in Arkansas' northeastern corner. Police in the Arkansas community of Monticello reported a person was injured by lightning late Tuesday but the injury was not life-threatening

    The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency urged residents to be on guard for severe thunderstorms, high winds and the possibility of tornadoes amid the collision of cold and warm weather systems.

    "This storm will move through the state while most folks are asleep, which increases the potential for injuries," said the agency's director, Robert Latham, urging Mississippi residents to stay tuned to weather alerts Wednesday.

    Tennessee also braced for volatile weather conditions from the front stretching on a slanted arc crossing several states. In Tennessee, a tornado watch was in effect for a wide swath of the state overnight, part of a system that spread buffeting winds and rain over the region.

    Earlier this week, a large swath of the Midwest and South bathed in unseasonably balmy temperatures that reached the high 70s in some areas.

    The temperature in the central Missouri college town of Columbia reached 77 degrees on Monday, a record for January, and students exchanged their winter coats for shorts and flip-flops as freezing rain gave way to spring-like conditions. Foul weather made a quick return, however, with a Tuesday downpour that flooded some streets near the University of Missouri campus. Early morning snow was expected Wednesday.

    Chicago residents also have been whiplashed by recent weather extremes. Workers who suffered through subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills a week ago strolled through downtown without coats Tuesday as temperatures soared into the mid-60s.

    Carol Krueger, who lives in the Chicago suburb of North Hoffman Estates, noted that just a few days ago she was struggling to drive through blowing snow. All she needed Tuesday was a light jean jacket, although by Thursday temperatures were barely expected to reach 20 degrees.

    "It's bizarre, it's scary," Krueger said of the swiftly changing weather.

    On Monday, the National Weather Service predicted a "moderate" risk of severe weather more than 24 hours out, only the fifth time it had done so in January in the past 15 years, said Gregory Carbin, the director of the Storm Prediction Center.

    A system pulling warm weather from the Gulf of Mexico was colliding with a cold front moving in from the west, creating volatility.

    The nation has had its longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed tornado records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24, when a person was killed in a home in Highlands County, Fla. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.

    The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in a mobile home in Scott County, Mo.

     

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    Five barges sit waiting for traffic to open along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Miss. on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/The Vicksburg Evening Post, Melanie Thortis)

    VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) - With more than 50 vessels idled on the water for a fourth day Wednesday, authorities said they still do not know when they will be able to reopen a 16-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that has been closed due to an oil spill.

    A plan to pump oil from a leaking barge onto another barge - a process known as lightering - had been approved but it was unclear how long that would take, Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally said Tuesday. He said the other barge was en route.

    Severe weather that was expected to sweep through the area could shut down cleanup operations for a time, prolonging the process further, authorities said.

    Crews have been working around the clock to contain and remove oil since the barge, owned by Corpus Christi, Texas-based Third Coast Towing LLC, struck a railroad bridge and began leaking early Sunday. The company has refused to comment on the incident.

    Lally also noted that about 7,000 gallons of crude oil were unaccounted for aboard the barge. He said it's not clear if all of it spilled into the river or if some seeped into empty spaces inside the barge.

    At least 54 vessels, including towboats and barges, were idled on the river, one of the nation's vital commerce routes.

    "The Coast Guard advised our hazardous materials unit that the river would be closed indefinitely to all traffic," Lt. Julie Lewis of the Louisiana State Police said Tuesday.

    About 168.4 million tons of cargo a year move along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, La., and the mouth of the Ohio River, carried by nearly 22,300 cargo ships and 162,700 barges, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. About 3.6 million tons of cargo is handled annually by the port of Vicksburg.

    When low water threatened to close the river earlier this month, the tow industry trade group American Waterways Operators estimated that 7.2 million tons of commodities worth $2.8 billion might be sidelined over the last three weeks of January.

    Salt destined for Northern roads is moving upriver in January, said spokeswoman Ann McCulloch. "We're still moving corn, soybeans and grain, but also coal and petroleum ... stone, sand and gravel," she said Tuesday.

    Barges carry 20 percent of the nation's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports, according to the group.

    Ron Zornes, director of corporate operations for Canal Barge Co. of New Orleans, said each idled towboat could cost a company anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a day. The low end would be for a single boat with a couple of barges and the high end for one in "a system of towboats that acts sort of like a bus system."

    "So if one bus is stopped it gums up the whole system," he said.

    On the other hand, vessel traffic tends to be less in January than during peak harvest season, when grain from the U.S. heartland is shipped south to be loaded onto massive ships near New Orleans.

    On Tuesday, tugs were pinning the ruptured barge to the bank on the Louisiana side of the river, across from Vicksburg's Riverwalk and Lady Luck casinos. Their engines churned the muddy water. A few workers could be seen walking on top of the stricken barge.

    An orange boom bobbed in the water just downstream and another boom was set up as a second line of defense to contain leaking oil.

    Environmental impact, Lally said, has been minimal because a boom is containing the leak around the barge and the leak is slow.

    Lally said crews had skimmed 1,596 gallons of an oil-and-water mixture from the river. He said there was no evidence that oil was washing ashore.

    Nature's Way Marine LLC of Theodore, Ala., has been named the responsible party for the oil spill, a designation that is assigned under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

    The barges were being pushed by the company's tug Nature's Way Endeavor. The company has declined requests for information from The Associated Press.

    Companies found responsible for oil spills face civil penalties tied to the amount of oil that spilled into the environment. Lally said it's too early in the investigation to know whether the company could face penalties or fines.

    The Nature's Way Endeavor was pushing two tank barges when the collision with the bridge happened about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, authorities said. Both barges were damaged, but only one leaked. Authorities declared the bridge safe after an inspection.

    The leaking tank, which was pierced above the water line, was carrying 80,000 gallons of light crude, authorities said. The Coast Guard hasn't said how much oil was in the other tanks on the barge.

     

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    Sinkhole Swallows Whole Building Complex in China

    An enormous sinkhole swallowed an entire building complex in China's southern Guangdong province on Monday. Incredibly, no one was injured. Minutes after the complex collapsed, as second, neighboring building also crashed into the sinkhole and is caught on video.

     

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    A police officer gestures on a highway covered with floodwaters caused by torrential rains, in Lismore, northern New South Wales, Australia Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/NSW State Emergency Service, Samantha Cantwell)

    BRISBANE, Australia (AP) - Military personnel headed to flood-ravaged northeast Australia on Wednesday to help clean up the sludgy aftermath of floods that damaged thousands of homes and businesses and left some communities short of power, food and water.

    The death toll from the flood crisis rose to six Wednesday when police discovered the bodies of two men in a creek.

    Floodwaters were receding in most places, bringing relief to a region that was battered by worse floods just two years ago. But there were concerns about food and water shortages in some communities and thousands were without power.

    Around 120 soldiers were en route to the hardest-hit city of Bundaberg in Queensland, 240 miles north of Brisbane. The flooding, caused by the remnants of a tropical cyclone, forced around 7,500 Bundaberg residents from their homes, inundated 2,000 houses and 200 businesses with murky water and prompted helicopter evacuations of 1,000 people.

    As the cleanup began Wednesday, some residents complained about dwindling food supplies.

    "People were almost coming to blows this morning at the local shop fighting over bread rolls," said Chris Pasky of Moore Park, just outside Bundaberg. "We've got a baby in the house we can't feed. We've just been forgotten."

    In Brisbane, residents were warned to conserve water after muddy floodwaters put pressure on the city's water treatment plants. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that stocks of bottled water were ready to be distributed to residents if the reservoirs run dry.

    In other areas, officials scrambled to deliver supplies to residents still cut off by the slowly receding waters.

    "We're discovering people who are isolated, without power, without water, and we're going to be getting some long-life milk and bread supplies in through four-wheel drive later today," said Pam Parker, mayor of Logan City, south of Brisbane.

    In a waterlogged area of Queensland, police on Wednesday found the bodies of two men in a creek near Gatton, about 55 miles west of Brisbane. One of the bodies was in a submerged car.

    Formal identification was still pending, but police said they believe the bodies are those of two men, aged 25 and 34, who disappeared as they traveled separately to work on Sunday.

    Queensland residents suffered through the worst flooding Australia had seen in decades in late 2010 and early 2011, when floodwaters from heavy rain killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane under water for days.

    Australia has been suffering through a summer of weather extremes, with blistering temperatures and dry conditions igniting hundreds of wildfires across the southern half of the country.

     

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    The USS Guardian sits aground in this Jan. 22, 2013 file photo on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy. Naval Aircrewman 3rd Class Geoffrey Trudell)

    MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The U.S. Navy said Wednesday that it would dismantle a minesweeper that ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after carefully studying all options on how to remove the damaged ship.

    Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman said dismantling the USS Guardian was determined to be the solution that would involve the least damage to the Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine sanctuary where the ship got stuck Jan. 17.

    He said the Philippine coast guard was reviewing the plan, but gave no other details.

    The Navy had said previously that the Guardian would be lifted by crane onto a barge and taken to a shipyard, but apparently the damage was too extensive and it will have to be cut up and removed in pieces. Stockman gave no time frame for the operation.

    The grounding caused no casualties to the ship's 79 crew and officers, who were taken off the vessel after it crashed into the reef in shallow waters. The ship began listing and taking on water through holes in the wooden hull. The Navy's support vessels siphoned off remaining fuel and salvage teams removed heavy equipment and hazardous material.

    The Navy is investigating the incident, which caused Philippine government agencies and environmentalists to express concern about the extent of damage to the coral reef.

    Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said last week that the U.S. Navy must explain how the ship got off course. He said the Navy would face fines for damaging the environment.

    Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of the Navy's Logistics Group in the Western Pacific, told reporters last week that the investigation would look into all the factors that may have led to the grounding, including a reported faulty digital chart, sea conditions, weather and the state of the ship's navigational equipment.

    The Navy and the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Harry K. Thomas, have apologized for the grounding and promised to cooperate with its close ally.

     

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    The same storm system that brought the first severe weather outbreak of the season to the Deep South and Mississippi Valley on Tuesday will bring more nasty storms today into tonight.

    Violent storms are expected to rumble toward the Eastern Seaboard today as a cold front races eastward. Many of these storms will be capable of producing damaging winds and hail. There could even be a few tornadoes.

    A squall line of severe thunderstorms toppled trees and power lines from Texas to Indiana on Tuesday. A few tornadoes were even reported and several people were injured.

    This squall line will continue to progress eastward through Wednesday, reaching the East Coast later in the evening. Winds can gust up to 70 mph in the strongest storms.

    Although the day will start out springlike across the Southeast, conditions will deteriorate rapidly as storms move in from the west. In the wake of the storms, much chillier air will pour south and eastward.

    While the severe threat is not expected to be as widespread as Tuesday, it still has the potential to cause problems. In addition to the high winds, torrential downpours can cause localized flooding.

    Airline flights will no doubt be delayed in many places, including major hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

    Damaging winds could stretch as far north as the Mason-Dixon Line. The severe threat should wane by late evening as most of the storms move into the Atlantic.

    While a severe weather outbreak of this scope isn't unprecedented this early in the year, it certainly isn't the norm. Looking forward, a return to chilly, wintry conditions is anticipated to close the week.

    Visit AccuWeather.com for more weather news.

     

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    AccuWeather issues a spring outlook for the U.S. every year, focusing on the major highlights of the season. AccuWeather's Long-Range Forecasting Team is predicting that winter will hold on the longest, into March, across the Northeast and Northwest.

    A near-normal tornado threat may be in store this spring, especially across the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys.

    Another warm spring is expected across the Plains and Rockies, with worsening drought conditions across the hardest-hit areas. Extreme and exceptional drought conditions are gripping Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and portions of Texas.

    Highlights of the spring forecast are explained below. Jump to: More Winter, Late-Season Snowstorms | Tornado Threat Returns | Spring Warmth Still Strong, Not as Widespread as Last Year | Drought to Worsen for Hardest-Hit Areas

    More Winter, Late-Season Snowstorms

    Winter may stick around for six more weeks across the Northeast and Northwest, no matter what prognostication Punxsutawney Phil makes on Groundhog Day.

    "I think we could still see some late-season winter storms [in the Northeast]," AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok said.

    A couple of winter storms may impact the Northeast during February and March. The potential exists for snow along the I-95 corridor from Washington, D.C., to New York City and Boston. This is not unusual for the region, as Pastelok noted, "Typically, February to March is the season on the East Coast." Historically, some large winter storms such as the Blizzard of '93 have struck the East Coast during March.

    Snowfall will not be accompanied by the arctic cold that has been gripping the region this January, but more seasonable cold is predicted. Temperatures may be near to slightly below normal in the Northeast during February and March. While the spring will start out cooler and unsettled in the Northeast, milder weather may arrive by April and May.

    Meanwhile, AccuWeather long-range meteorologists predict a return to a stormier pattern in the Northwest similar to early in December. Snowfall could impact travel through the heavily traveled mountain passes of the Northwest such as Snoqualmie Pass along I-90 in Washington, while rain dampens the I-5 corridor from Seattle to Portland.

    Tornado Threat Returns

    The number of tornadoes is predicted to be near-normal this spring. The average number of tornadoes per year in the U.S. is around 1,300, according to the Storm Prediction Center. Typically, April and May have the highest occurrence of tornadoes.

    RELATED: 2012 May Challenge Records for Low Tornado Count

    "Severe weather season this year will be different from last year," Pastelok said. "I think it is going to be a more typical start. Late March into April we'll get going, especially over the lower Mississippi and Tennessee valleys. But not like last year where we started very early in the season." Last year, unusual warmth during the winter allowed a quick start to the severe weather season during January and February.

    Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi are among the states that will be in the battlegrounds for severe storms this spring. Later in the season, severe storms may reach the Ohio Valley at times, including Kentucky and southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

    Cincinnati and Evansville, Ind., will be among the cities at risk later in the season.

    Spring Warmth Still Strong, Not as Widespread as Last Year

    The AccuWeather Long-Range Forecasting Team believes this spring could rank in the top-ten warmest for the U.S. again; however, the warmth will not be as widespread or as extreme as last year.

    "The core of warmth for the spring is going to center itself in the dry areas, the western Plains, east-central Rockies, maybe extending down into the Southwest mid- to late-season," Pastelok said.

    Drought to Worsen for Hardest-Hit Areas

    Drought conditions may worsen across portions of the Plains and Rockies this spring.

    "Unfortunately for the western Plains and eastern Rockies, I think the drought is going to persist, and it is going to be strong going into the springtime," Pastelok said. "In the heart of the drought, it doesn't look good right now."

    With dry and warm weather persisting, the stage will be set for dangerous fire conditions by the summer.

    "This could be devastating, especially for people in the agriculture industry," AccuWeather Long-Range Meteorologist Mark Paquette said.

    Farther north, beneficial rain may fall during April across portions of the Upper Midwest, including Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Some improvement with the Mississippi River flow is possible, but a full turn-around of the situation is not anticipated, according to Pastelok.

     

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