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SKYE on AOL

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    Aug. 8, 2012


    People survey the damage caused by Hurricane Ernesto after it made landfall overnight in Mahahual, near Chetumal, Mexico, Wednesday. (AP)

    By Ricardo Lopez

    CHETUMAL, Mexico (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto spun across Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Wednesday, then edged into the Gulf of Mexico after forcing the evacuation of thousands of tourists and fishermen from beaches in Tulum and the Costa Maya.

    There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity as it hit the cruise ship port of Mahahual shortly before midnight Tuesday as a hurricane. It stayed south of the Yucatan's main resorts around Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

    "In many places the windows were shattered," said Flori Cruz, a 27-year-old cook from the beach town.

    Ernesto weakened to a tropical storm while moving over land early Wednesday, but it strengthened a bit in the afternoon, with sustained winds near 50 mph (85 kph). It was expected to regain more strength as it moved out into the extreme southern Gulf of Mexico in a region dotted with offshore oil rigs.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said that Wednesday evening the storm was about 20 miles (35 kilometers) east-northeast of Ciudad del Carmen, an administrative center for Mexico's state oil company, and it was moving west at 7 mph (11 kph). Ernesto was expected to stay close to the gulf coast before making a second landfall Thursday night near the key oil port of Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz state.

    Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, said it was closely monitoring the storm, but did not report plans to evacuate any of about 200 oil platforms in the area. The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the stormy conditions.

    As Ernesto neared Ciudad del Carmen, Fernando Perera opened the restaurant he manages as usual, saying he wanted to work as long as possible, since more rain was expected after the storm passed.

    "The wind is blowing pretty heavily, but it still feels normal," Perera said. "But people are staying away. What we fear is the weekend."

    Officials in Veracruz set up about 20 shelters in preparation for the storm, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state's civil defense agency. The port captain for Veracruz city, Enrique Casarrubias, said the port there was closed to smaller vessels. He also said the Carnival Elation cruise ship canceled a Wednesday stop in the city.

    Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since the hurricane season began June 1, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the U.S. hurricane center in Miami,

    "Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak," he said.

    Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state, was the closest sizable city to where Ernesto made its Tuesday night landfall and officials moved more than 1,300 tourists there from resorts in Mahahual, Bacalar and other spots on the Caribbean coast.

    Soldiers and police also evacuated residents of low-lying coastal settlements in that state Tuesday, said Luis Gamboa of Quintana Roo's Civil Protection office.

    The Federal Electricity Commission said blackouts affected about 85,000 people in the coastal communities, and schools were closed Wednesday in Quintana Roo.

    At her grocery store in Mahahual on Wednesday, Joaquina Huerfano was trying to rescue whatever food and furniture was still in good condition after the place was flooded. Water stood 2 feet (60 centimeters) high at the shop.

    "It's all flooded and dirty," Huerfano said. "Now we have to get to work and clean."

    Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma neared hurricane strength in the Pacific Ocean about 645 miles (1,040 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with winds near 70 mph (110 kph). The storm was not expected to threaten land, however.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Ernesto brings the threat of strong winds and torrential rains to Mexico's Caribbean coast. (AP)

    VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto neared a collision with Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf coast Thursday after hurling rain across the Yucatan Peninsula but causing little major damage.

    Ernesto spun through the southern Gulf of Mexico overnight, across waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's sustained winds had increased to about 70 mph (110 kph) after getting over the water. It had grown into a hurricane shortly before landfall Tuesday night near the cruise ship port of Mahahual, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula.

    Forecasters said Ernesto was expected to come ashore in Veracruz state's lush Los Tuxtlas region, roughly 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of oil port of Coatzacoalcos, and it could dump as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, creating the threat of flooding.

    At dawn Thursday, it was centered about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east-northeast of Coatzacoalcos and was moving to the west-southwest at 13 mph (20 kph).

    Officials in Veracruz readied storm shelters, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state civil defense agency. The port captain for Veracruz city, Enrique Casarrubias, said the port there was closed to smaller vessels. The Carnival Elation cruise ship canceled a Wednesday stop, he added.

    Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, announced it had evacuated 61 people workers from a drilling platform and had taken other safety precautions, but it said production had not been affected.

    The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the stormy conditions.

    Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since the hurricane season began June 1, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the U.S. hurricane center in Miami.

    "Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak," he said.

    There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity as it hit land well south of the region's main resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya and then passed near the Mayan ruins of Calakmul.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Caught on Tape: Bear in Candy Store

    OLD FORGE, N.Y. (AP) - With their normal summer diet of greens and berries shriveled by summer heat or drought in many spots nationwide, hungry bears are rummaging through garbage, ripping through screens and crawling into cars in search of sustenance.

    In the Adirondack Mountain village of Old Forge in northern New York state, a black bear clawed through the wall of a candy store on Main Street last week; another one locked itself in a minivan and shredded the interior in a frantic struggle to escape, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

    "We've been here 17 years and never had a problem with bears," said Roslyn Starer, who runs the Candy Cottage in Old Forge with her son, Larry. "But it's been so dry the normal foods in the woods just aren't growing. So they're coming into town."

    Starer came to the shop one morning to find a bear had ripped a big hole in the wall. "If it had gone much further it would have gotten into the shop, and the damage would have been devastating," she said.

    This summer's bear troubles aren't isolated to New York. In eastern Kentucky, the U.S. Forest Service closed two campgrounds for a weekend at the end of July because of bears raiding picnic baskets and coolers. Biologists blamed the drought-related berry shortage.

    In Colorado, where drought has dried up the chokecherries and serviceberries bears rely on, a bear and three cubs broke into more than a dozen cars in Aspen looking for food in June.

    A surveillance camera in a candy store in Estes Park, Colo., showed a bear making seven trips inside for candy in 15 minutes. A bear that broke into occupied homes there last month was put down because it posed a danger to people, one official said, noting the drought has made the intelligent animals even more resourceful in finding food.

    Weather-related bear problems are nothing new, as natural food supplies vary from year to year depending on rainfall and other factors. But this summer has been a particularly busy one, wildlife biologists in New York say.

    "This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills," said Jeremy Hurst, a big game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, referring to the mountain range north of New York City. "In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people's homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated."

    While property has been damaged by foraging bears, no human injuries have been reported in New York this year.

    In the Catskills last month, there were three times as many serious bear issues such as home and vehicle break-ins as there were in the same period last year, Hurst said.

    "Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July," he said.

    The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University reported Tuesday that so far, 2012 has been the hottest year on record for the 12-state region. While conditions in the Northeast weren't as dry as some parts of the country, there has been moderate drought in parts of upstate New York.

    Bears typically turn to hard foods such as acorns and beechnuts in the fall to bulk up for winter. Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension and associate professor at Cornell University, said a cold snap in April that damaged a lot of fruit tree buds also may have affected acorns and other wild nuts. That could mean trouble for corn farmers, with bears fattening up in their fields, Curtis said.

    In Vermont, Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Forrest Hammond said food scarcity due to the dry summer was contributing to bear complaints. The department has recommended that farmers bring in their corn crops as soon as possible.

    "The farmers are going to have a tougher time with bears," Hammond said.

     

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    Aug. 9, 2012


    A satellite image of Hurricane Ernesto taken on August 7. (NOAA)

    MIAMI (AP) - The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy, producing a few more storms than originally predicted, which could come early before tapering off, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

    Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific may suppress storms later in the season.

    The season so far has produced four tropical storms and two hurricanes. Twelve to 17 tropical storms were expected with as many as five to eight hurricanes, compared to a normal Atlantic season that produces about a dozen named storms, forecasters said. A couple could become major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.

    Last year was one of the busiest seasons on record with 19 named systems, including Irene, one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.

    The high activity in the Atlantic has been happening since 1995 because of the right ocean and atmospheric conditions, said Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

    Early-season activity in the deep tropics off Africa's coast, which produced Ernesto and Tropical Storm Florence early this month, also generally indicates a more dynamic season, Bell said.

    "Conditions are more conducive right now, but we expect them to become less favorable if El Nino develops as expected," Bell said.

    El Nino, which is expected to form this month or in September, warms Pacific waters near the equator and increases wind shear over the Atlantic, tearing storms apart. The peak of the Atlantic hurricane season runs from August through October.

    "We have a high confidence that El Nino will develop this month or next, but also that its influence will be delayed until later in the season," Bell said.

    The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an earlier-than-official start this year when Tropical Storm Alberto formed May 19 off the South Carolina coast.

    Forecasters name tropical storms when their top winds reach 39 mph; hurricanes have winds of at least 74 mph.

    No major hurricane has made a U.S. landfall in the last six years, since Hurricane Wilma cut across Florida in 2005. This August marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew's catastrophic landfall in South Florida as a Category 5 storm.

    Laura Furgione, acting director of NOAA's National Weather Service, warned U.S. coastal residents not to be complacent about the risks of a hurricane striking their homes. Andrew was the first storm of a slow season that produced just six storms.

    Ernesto, which had been a Category 1 hurricane, weakened to a tropical storm this week as it drenched the Yucatan Peninsula, where it caused little damage. The storm spun into the southern Gulf of Mexico, crossing waters dotted with oil rigs operated by Mexico's state oil company, and was expected Thursday to bring torrential rains and flooding to Veracruz state's lush Los Tuxtlas region.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Nearly 400,000 galaxies are represented in this animated fly-through of the new universe map. (Miguel A. Aragón (Johns Hopkins University), Mark SubbaRao (Adler Planetarium), Alex Szalay (Johns Hopkins University), Yushu Yao (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NERSC), and the SDSS-III Collaboration)

    The largest 3D map yet of the universe's huge galaxies and bright black holes may serve as a springboard toward solving some of astronomy's greatest mysteries, its creators say.

    The map, which was released Wednesday (Aug. 8), uses new data to reveal the locations of more than a million galaxies over a total volume of 70 billion cubic light-years. (A light-year is the distance light travels in one year - about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion kilometers.)

    David Schlegel of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California said this kind of atlas could help scientists get to the bottom of perplexing mysteries such as the invisible, untouchable dark matter and dark energy that seem to be rampant in space.

    "Dark matter and dark energy are two of the greatest mysteries of our time," Schlegel said in a statement issued with the map's release. "We hope that our new map of the universe can help someone solve the mystery."

    The new data come from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), and they include measurements from the ongoing SDSS-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which calculates the distances to galaxies as far as 6 billion light-years away and humongous black holes that lie up to 12 billion light-years from Earth.

    The SDSS-III project publically released a large amount of its data, including the map, for use by astronomers around the world in their own studies.

    "Our goal is to create a catalog that will be used long after we are done," said Michael Blanton of New York University, who led the team that prepared the data release.

    The release contains photos of 200 million galaxies and spectra (measurements where an object's light is split into its constituent wavelengths) of 1.35 million galaxies.

    "We want to map the largest volume of the universe yet, and to use that map to understand how the expansion of the universe is accelerating," said Daniel Eisenstein of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the director of SDSS-III.

    Scientists think the prevalence of dark energy in the universe is the force causing space to accelerate in its expansion to a greater and greater volume.

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

    The Universe: Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps
    Amazing Universe Fly-Through: Largest Sky Map Revealed | Video
    The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)

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

     

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    Aug. 9, 2012


    A vendor recovers a cooler after vendors were caught unprepared when high waves dragged their beach stalls into the sea in Veracruz, Mexico, Thursday. (AP)

    By Miguel Angel Hernandez

    VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto made landfall Thursday near the port city of Coatzacoalcos and moved inland while drenching Mexico's southern Gulf, an area prone to flooding.

    Ernesto came ashore after spinning across the far southern Gulf of Mexico in waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

    Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, already had gotten seven inches (177 millimeters) of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles (kilometers) away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches (273 millimeters).

    "It's raining intermittently. It rains, its stops, and then it rains again," said Juventino Martinez, the civil defense chief in Coatzacoalcos. "We have some flooding, some water building up" on streets in lower-lying sections of the city. He said 40 shelters were ready but hadn't been used yet.

    Municipal employee Brito Gomez reported water was waist high in some neighborhoods.

    About 2,000 army and navy personnel were on stand-by to head to inland mountains to help in rescue work if needed, said Noemi Guzman, Veracruz state civil defense director. Guzman said no flooding had been reported so far at any of the state's many rivers.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's sustained winds had declined to about 45 mph (75 kph) by early evening as it interacted with land. It had grown into a hurricane shortly before landfall Tuesday night near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula. Ernesto then steamed back out into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

    The storm was centered about 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of Coatzacoalcos on Thursday evening, moving to the west at 11 mph (18 kph) and creating the threat of torrential flooding.

    The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto could produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca, before weakening and dissipating in a day or two.

    With many small communities clinging to hillsides in those states, authorities worried about potential flash floods and mudslides.

    Soldiers and state police evacuated three communities in Los Tuxtlas due to rising rivers and streams, taking residents to emergency shelters. People in two neighborhoods in the town of Alvarado were also temporarily relocated due to flooding after intensifying rains around the state.

    Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, announced it had evacuated 61 workers from a drilling platform and had taken other safety precautions, but it said production had not been affected.

    A new tropical depression formed in the tropical Atlantic on Thursday far from land. It was the seventh tropical depression to form in the Atlantic and forecasters said it had maximum sustained winds of 20 mph (32 kph) and was 1,155 miles (1,860 kilometers) east of the Windward islands.

    The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy; producing a few more storms than originally predicted, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

    Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific that may suppress storms later in the season.

    In the Pacific, Gilma weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm and was not seen as a threat to land. Early Thursday afternoon, it was about 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph (110 kph).

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Satellite weather image for August 10. (NOAA)

    A low-pressure system moves up the Ohio River Valley and into the Northeast on Friday. The system will push a cold front northeastward, which will extend from the Northeast through the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Warm and moist air will pour in ahead of this system from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

    Expect widespread showers and thunderstorms to develop ahead of this front, some of which will turn severe, with damaging winds and large hail. If storms turn severe, they will most likely be contained to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

    Behind this activity, expect cooler conditions to return to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes, due to the passage of the cold front. Highs will remain in the 70s for most of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes. However, the Central and Southern Plains will remain hot and dry as high pressure builds. Expect highs to range in the 90s for most areas, and into the lower 100s in central and southern Texas.

    In the West, a ridge of high pressure will remain the dominant weather feature. This will maintain offshore flow which keeps moisture and clouds away. Expect sunny skies and hot temperatures to continue, with highs surpassing 110 degrees in the deserts of California, Arizona and Nevada. In the Rockies, a weak trough of low pressure will continue moving eastward throughout the day. This will support more widespread shower and thunderstorm activity from the Northern Rockies and Intermountain West, through the Great Basin and Central Rockies.

    Temperatures in the lower 48 states Thursday have ranged from a morning low of 36 degrees at Meacham, Ore. to a high of 108 degrees at Lawton, Okla.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    Vendors try to recover their belongings from the sea in Veracruz, Mexico on Thursday. (AP)

    VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) - Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland early Friday, though forecasters warned it could still dump dangerous rains in the mountains of Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf region.

    In Tabasco state, two fishermen drowned when the stormed passed through the area Thursday, Gov. Andres Granier told reporters.

    Granier said the storm's strong winds ripped rooftops from several homes but residents refused to evacuate, fearing their possessions might be stolen. "People have chosen to stay in their homes and we are helping them," he said.

    Ernesto came ashore near the waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company in the far southern Gulf of Mexico. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

    Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, got seven inches (177 millimeters) of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles (kilometers) away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches (273 millimeters).

    About 2,000 army and navy personnel were on standby to head to inland mountains to help in rescue work if needed, said Noemi Guzman, Veracruz state civil defense director. Guzman said no flooding had been reported at any of the state's many rivers.

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto's sustained winds had decreased to 35 mph (55 kph) by early Friday. It said the storm would continue weakening and should dissipate by midday Friday, although it warned that heavy rains could continue into Friday night.

    Ernesto was a weak hurricane when it made its first landfall late Tuesday near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula and then spun into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

    Early Friday, the storm was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Oaxaca, Mexico, and moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

    The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto still had the potential to cause flooding and could produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca states before dissipating.

    There were no reports of major flooding in Veracruz state and there have been only minor landslides on some roads, said Raul Zarrabal, the state's communications secretary.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    The Perseid meteor shower will peak from Aug. 11 through Aug. 13 with a stunning array of stars and planets visible. Discover tips for watching the shower, including when to watch and where to watch for the best visibility.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 20 Dazzling Photos of the Northern Lights

     

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    Aug. 11, 2012


    Residents stand next to a home that was destroyed after the Jamapa River overflowed in the town of La Antigua, Mexico, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland Friday, killing seven people and dumping rains in the mountains of Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf region. (AP)

    VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) - Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland Friday, killing seven people and dumping rains in the mountains of Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf region.

    In Veracruz state, two people were killed early Friday, including a teenage girl who was inside a car dragged by a river current and a 62-year-old man who was struck by lightning, the state's civil protection department said in a statement.

    It said three members of a family died Thursday night when strong winds knocked down a tree that fell on their car, the state's civil protection department said in a statement.

    A 38-year-old man, his wife and their 8-year-old boy were killed, it added.

    In neighboring Tabasco state, two fishermen drowned when the stormed passed through the area Thursday, Gov. Andres Granier told reporters.

    Granier said the storm's strong winds ripped rooftops from several homes but residents refused to evacuate, fearing their possessions might be stolen. "People have chosen to stay in their homes and we are helping them," he said.

    Ernesto came ashore Thursday near the waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company in the far southern Gulf of Mexico. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

    Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, got seven inches (177 millimeters) of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles (kilometers) away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches (273 millimeters).

    The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto's sustained winds had decreased to 35 mph (55 kph) by early Friday. It said the storm would continue weakening and should dissipate by midday Friday, although it warned that heavy rains could continue into Friday night.

    Ernesto was a weak hurricane when it made its first landfall late Tuesday near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula and then spun into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

    Early Friday, the storm was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Oaxaca, Mexico, and moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

    The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto still had the potential to cause flooding and could produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca states before dissipating.

    There were no reports of major flooding in Veracruz state and there have been only minor landslides on some roads, said Raul Zarrabal, the state's communications secretary.

    A new tropical depression formed in the Atlantic on Thursday far from land. It was the seventh tropical depression to form in the Atlantic and forecasters said it could strengthen into a tropical storm Friday as it took a path toward the Caribbean. Early Friday, it had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and was 930 miles (1,495 kilometers) east of the Windward Islands.

    The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy, producing a few more storms than originally predicted, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

    Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific that may suppress storms later in the season.

    In the Pacific, Gilma weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm and was not seen as a threat to land. It was about 665 miles (1,070 kilometers) west-southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 65 mph (100 kph).

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    Storm clouds over Indiana. (AP)

    Unsettled weather will spread eastward into the Midwest on Monday as a low pressure system from the Central Plains advances into Illinois. An associated warm front will extend ahead of the low through the Ohio Valley, while the associated cold front trails behind and extends from the low through the Southern Plains.

    Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico will meet with energy from this system to produce light to moderate scattered showers and isolated thunderstorms ahead of the associated frontal boundaries and around the low, from parts of the Mid-Mississippi Valley and the southern Upper Great Lakes through the Ohio Valley and into the Southern Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley. There is a slight risk of severe thunderstorm from the Lower and Mid-Mississippi Valleys through the Tennessee and lower Ohio Valleys with damaging wind, large hail, and isolated tornado threats.

    Meanwhile, additional shower activity is anticipated to the north of this region as a cold front skirts across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

    To the east of this activity, areas of showers and thunderstorms in much of the Eastern Seaboard will taper down as the frontal system stalling across the region exits into the Atlantic and high pressure expands across the region. Expect continued shower and thunderstorm activity in Florida.

    In the West, monsoon moisture will kick up areas of afternoon showers and possible thunderstorms from the central and southern valleys of inland California through the Four Corners. Meanwhile, a strong high pressure system will remain over the Southwest on Monday, resulting in another day of very hot temperatures. Daytime highs across the Dessert Southwest are expected to range from 110 to 115, while high temperatures in the central and southern inland valleys and foothills of California range from 100 to 110. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Sunday have ranged from a morning low of 30 degrees at Stanley, Idaho to a high of 114 degrees at Thermal, Calif.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Electrifying Photos of Lightning Bolts

     

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    This past weekend saw the Perseid meteor shower reach its peak, affording stunning views of shooting meteors, stars and brightly glowing planets. The meteors appeared across the sky, but they radiated from a point in the constellation Perseus the Hero. Here's footage of the 2009 Perseid meteor shower.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 20 Dazzling Photos of the Northern Lights

     

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    Screenshot, Myunhauzen74 @YouTube

    A video taken of the Antarctic research station Neumayer-Station III appears to show what some are calling a UFO over the South Pole.

    The video posted to YouTube seems to show a round, blurry object floating above the station on Aug. 10. Speculation has run rampant, with conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs swapping explanations ranging from government collaboration with aliens to a top-secret test of some new cutting-edge secret weapon.

    While a definitive explanation has not been found, several elements suggest a prosaic answer. The supposed UFO appears more or less directly over the research station; it also appears to be nearly perfectly round and about the right size for a balloon. Neumayer-Station III, a scientific research station, carries out tests and experiments in a wide variety of areas, including geophysics, meteorology and atmospheric chemistry. Weather balloons are used extensively to study and sample the atmosphere at different times and altitudes above Antarctica.

    One UFO buff admitted that most of the evidence suggested it was indeed a balloon, except for one mysterious fact: "none could explain why the object appeared in just a few frames." It's true that the object appears in only a few frames of the footage. However this becomes much less mysterious when you realize that the original video has been sped up. That's what happens in time-lapse photography: objects that are not stationary for long periods of time (people, vehicles, animals, clouds, etc.) only appear in a few frames - depending of course on the frame rate of the video and how fast they move. There's nothing mysterious about it. [UFO Quiz: What's Really Out There?]




    If it were a balloon that had been put aloft for hours, it would have been visible for a longer duration than seen in the video. On the other hand, not all experiments using balloons necessarily last for hours; some may only take a few minutes. It's also possible that someone at the station was merely conducting a routine equipment test in preparation for an upcoming experiment or sampling: The balloon went up, everything worked perfectly, so it came back down.

    Though the "Neumayer UFO" is being discussed on various UFO and conspiracy theory websites, there's a glaring contradiction in suggesting it's evidence of extraterrestrials. If it is indeed a spacecraft instead of a balloon or some other mundane object, why would the government - which is routinely accused of going to extraordinary lengths to cover up all evidence of aliens - intentionally release the video to the public?

    Unlike an Air Force base where people live and work nearby and can usually photograph or videotape what's in the skies above at will, Neumayer-Station III in Antarctica is essentially inaccessible to the public - except in limited ways such as a Web cam that the government has exclusive access and control over. Did this somehow get past the global UFO censors?

    Conspiracy-minded people will always search for, and often find, anomalies, things that they don't understand or believe to be odd or unusual for some reason. For some people any ambiguous light or object in the sky they don't recognize can be turned into a possible UFO sighting.

    Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

    The World's Greatest Hoaxes
    Top Ten Unexplained Phenomena
    7 Things That Create Convincing UFO Sightings

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: Breathtaking Photos of Antarctica

     

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    (NASA)

    The source of an enormous floating mass of pumice spotted this week in the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of New Zealand has been discovered: NASA satellite images and other sleuthing science have pinpointed an erupting undersea volcano called the Havre Seamount as the culprit.

    On Aug. 9, the HMNZS Canterbury ship observed the floating pumice "island" - measuring a whopping 300 miles (482 kilometers) in length and more than 30 miles (48 km) wide - along a voyage from Auckland to Raoul Island, New Zealand. A maritime patrol aircraft, RNZAF Orion, had seen the weird mass and reported it to this Royal New Zealand Air Force ship. Soon after, the HMNZS crew saw the thick mass of porous rocks.

    "The rock looked to be sitting two feet above the surface of the waves, and lit up a brilliant white colour in the spotlight. It looked exactly like the edge of an ice shelf," said Lieutenant Tim Oscar, a Royal Australian Navy officer, in a statement.

    Pumice, which forms when volcanic lava cools quickly, is riveted with pores due to gas getting trapped inside as the lava hardens. The result: lightweight rocks that can therefore float. (Recent research suggests such pumice replenishes the Great Barrier Reef with new coral.)

    Where the huge floating mass came from was a mystery. At the time, according to the Royal Navy, scientists thought an underwater volcano, possibly the Monowai seamount, which has been erupting along the so-called Kermadec arc, was responsible. [See Photos of the Pumice Raft]

    However, though Monowai is several hundred miles to the north of the pumice raft, and it was known to have erupted on Aug. 3, scientists have now ruled it out: An airline pilot reported seeing pumice as early as Aug. 1, according to a statement by NASA.

    To finger the source, scientists looked to earthquake records and satellite imagery. New Zealand's GNS Science organization and scientists from Tahiti suggested a connection between the pumice raft and a cluster of earthquakes in the Kermadec Islands on July 17-18. (As magma rises from undersea volcanoes, pushing its way through cracks in the seafloor, the pressure can lead to earthquakes.)

    As for imagery, volcanologist Erik Klemetti, an assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University, and NASA visualizer Robert Simmon looked through a months' worth of satellite photos taken by NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. And that's where they gleaned the first evidence of the offending volcano. Images taken on July 19, from 9:50 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. local time, revealed ash-stained water, gray pumice and a volcanic plume.

    By overlaying the satellite imagery onto the ocean floor bathymetry, or seafloor topography, Klemetti identified Havre Seamount as the likely source. Heat from the eruption showed up in MODIS' nighttime imagery on July 18 at 10:50 p.m. local time, according to Alain Bernard of the Laboratoire de Volcanologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles. That suggested the eruption was strong enough to breach the ocean surface from 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) below.

    The Havre eruption had tapered off by July 21, leaving behind the sprawling raft of pumice. Winds and currents since have spread the porous rocks into "a series of twisted filaments," according to the NASA statement. As of Aug. 13, the pumice was spread over an area about 280 by 160 miles (450 by 258 kilometers).

    Samples taken by crew aboard the HMNZS Canterbury are expected to be analyzed by GNS Science. In addition, when the Canterbury returns through the area in the next few days, "we are hoping to get some better photos or information on the 'raft' back at this time," Todd O'Hara, a press officer with the New Zealand Defence Force, told LiveScience in an email.

    To seal the deal, researchers will need to observe the undersea eruption firsthand. "Now, to confirm Havre as the source, research vessels will need to head out there and try to find evidence on the seafloor for the eruption, so confirmation might take months to occur," Klemetti writes on his blog on Wired.com.

    Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

    Image Gallery: Wild Volcanoes
    Image Gallery: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth
    Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures

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

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    This extraordinary mosaic image of a storm swirling over the Arctic Ocean was captured by NASA's Aqua satellite on Aug. 5. The storm was unusual because it had very low central pressure. One NASA scientist estimated that only eight August storms in 34 years of satellite records showed similar strength.

    We can't help but wonder what Vincent van Gogh would make of the image. It looks like the kind of moody, impressionistic painting that might have emerged from his time in Arles on a particularly stormy day.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos From Space

     

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    (AP)

    Active weather will move from the Eastern Valleys and toward the East Coast on Tuesday. A low pressure system advances northeastward up the Ohio River Valley toward the Northeastern US. A cold front associated with this system will extend down the East Coast, kicking up scattered showers and thunderstorms from the Northeast through the Gulf states.

    The tail end of this front will extend southwestward and linger over Texas. Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean will feed energy into this frontal boundary. There is a slight chance that these storms will turn severe across parts of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states. Expect periods of heavy rainfall with gusty winds and possibly large hail in these areas.

    Behind this system, another cold front will drop across the Northern US, pulling cooler air in from Canada. This will maintain slightly cooler and more comfortable temperatures across the Midwest and Great Lakes. Further west, a trough of low pressure moves off the Northern Rockies and into the Northern Plains. This will bring a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms to the Dakotas and Central Plains, moving into the Upper Midwest in the evening hours.

    Meanwhile, the West Coast will see the beginning of a gradual cooling trend as a ridge of high pressure starts to weaken and a low pressure off the coast edges eastward. Coastal areas will be cloudy and cooler, while inland areas will remain hot and sunny. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Monday have ranged from a morning low of 32 degrees at Stanley, Idaho to a high of 114 degrees at Thermal, Calif.

     

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    (AP)

    The Northeast will continue to see showers and thunderstorms on Wednesday as a cold front slides through the region. Wet weather will also extend southward down the coast to Florida. Some of the storms in New England could become severe with the possibility of large hail and strong winds.

    Another cold front will push through the Northern Tier states bringing strong thunderstorms with it. Thunderstorms are expected from Montana and Wyoming into Wisconsin, northern Minnesota and north-central Nebraska.

    Behind the cold front, temperatures across Montana and North Dakota will plummet, with highs on Wednesday more than 20 degrees below normal in the coldest locations.

    In the West, temperatures are expected to remain warm with highs running a few degrees above normal for most locations. The Northwest will see some of the highest departures from normal.

    The Southwest will continue to see scattered thunderstorms on Wednesday, and highs are expected to be close to normal. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Tuesday have ranged from a morning low of 32 degrees at West Yellowstone, Mont. to a high of 109 degrees at Palm Springs, Calif.

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    Wildfires Rage in the Northwest US

    CLE ELUM, Washington (AP) - The extreme fire conditions across the U.S. West have exploded, with several burning across the region Wednesday and about 70 homes destroyed in Washington state.

    In recent days, one firefighter died in Idaho after being struck by a falling tree. Another suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation after a blaze along the Nevada-Oregon border forced her to crawl into an emergency fire shelter.

    In a rural part of Washington state, three separate fires were sparked in just 90 minutes. Firefighters put out two quickly, but the third left authorities scrambling to evacuate hundreds of residents.

    "Chaotic," Kittitas County Undersheriff Clayton Myers said. "It was one of those things you never felt like you were in control, because things kept changing with the wind."

    About 70 homes and hundreds of outbuildings had burned, officials said.

    "I'm watching my house burn down right now," a tearful Haley Lindelof, 16, told The Seattle Times newspaper.

    No injuries have been reported, but fire danger is extreme due to wind, heat and dry conditions, incident commander Rex Reed said.

    "We've had a long prolonged dry period - three weeks with no precipitation at all," he said.

    Across California, thousands of firefighters were contending with dry conditions and strong winds. In the southern part of the state, residents of dozens of homes in sparsely populated inland areas evacuated as wildfires thrived in the desert heat.

    One person in Riverside County was airlifted to a hospital for treatment of serious burns, state fire officials said. No details on the person's identity or injuries were released.

    At least one house was destroyed. Animal control officials were helping homeowners remove livestock from the area.

     

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    Water haulers and well drillers across the Midwest say they're working long hours to keep up with demand. (AP)

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - After months of record-breaking heat and drought, many rural Americans who rely on wells for water are getting an unwelcome surprise when they turn on their faucets: The tap has run dry.

    The lack of running water can range from a manageable nuisance to an expensive headache. Homeowners and businesses are being forced to buy thousands of gallons from private suppliers, to drill deeper or to dig entirely new wells.

    Mary Lakin's family drained the last of its well water late last month in the small northern Indiana community of Parr. Since then, Lakin, her husband and two children have bathed and done laundry at relatives' homes and filled buckets from their backyard pool every time they need to flush a toilet.

    Having water is "just something you take for granted," she said. "It's a big hassle, but we're surviving."

    No one tracks the number of wells that go dry, but state and local governments and well diggers and water haulers report many more dead wells than in a typical summer across a wide swath of the Midwest, from Nebraska to Indiana and Wisconsin to Missouri.

    It's not unusual for rural wells to stop producing toward the end of a hot summer. But this year is different. Some of the same wells that are known to run dry in August or September instead ran out in June.

    Water suppliers and well drillers across the Midwest say they're working long hours to keep up with demand.

    "It's seven days a week, man," said Carl Marion, a water hauler in Athens, Ill., north of Springfield. "I work until 12 or 1 o'clock every single night."

    Wells are typically drilled 30 or 50 feet down. Some go hundreds of feet before hitting water. And the deeper the well, the more expensive it is, with costs starting at several thousand dollars and climbing in extreme cases into tens of thousands.

    In the summer, when lawns, gardens, pools and livestock all drive up use, water levels can drop below a well's pump. If rain doesn't replenish the supply, sometimes the only option is to drill deeper or dig an entirely new well.

    Older wells are particularly vulnerable because they may not hold water as efficiently or they may have been dug in places where most of the water is gone.

    "It's sort of Darwinism," said George Roadcap, a hydro-geologist with the Illinois Water Survey. "The weak wells get shaken out at a time like this. Many people are using wells that are a hundred years old."

    In other cases, well owners have hurt themselves with careless water usage, said Richard Hubert, who owns Hubert Water Hauling Service in Smithville, Ill., about 20 miles southeast of St. Louis.

    "We've had a lot of people who were silly enough to take their water out of their well and put it into their pool. Or they ran around watering stuff when we've been dry for 10 weeks," Hubert said. "I don't know what you're thinking when you've got a shallow well, and it hasn't rained."

    In many places, the effects of heavy water use go beyond an individual well owner. A large water user such as a farmer irrigating fields or filling livestock ponds can accelerate the drawdown for nearby households.

    That appears to have happened to the Lakins and their neighbors, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which recently reviewed about a dozen dry wells in the area.

    "In each of them, it was pretty obvious they were being impacted by pumping," said Mark Basch, head of the agency's water rights and use section.

    Under Indiana water law, the department will determine to what extent large users are responsible for nearby wells running dry and assess them a proportional share of the cost of the solution, Basch said.

    In Missouri, state officials said last month they would help farmers pay to keep wells pumping using deeper drilling or other means. Through the first week of August, they had agreed to spend more than $18 million on 3,700 wells.

    Many homeowners hire water haulers to deliver weekly shipments straight into their wells to temporarily restore the flow.

    Since June, Pamela Lashley has been paying $130 to $150 a week to sustain the four wells at Country Estate Kennel in Shiloh, Ill., about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis. The kennel owner has to spend the money to hose down dog runs, launder bedding and fill water bowls.

    "It certainly adds to our boarding costs," she said. "It's not something that I put on my clients. It's something that I absorb."

    She once considered connecting to a nearby municipal water system, but the initial hookup cost - $28,000 - quickly changed her mind. In the short run, water hauling is far cheaper.

    Marion, who drives a water-delivery truck in the area around his home about 15 miles north of Springfield, charges $60 for 2,100 gallons, enough to refill many of the wells he serves for about a week.

    A typical American household uses up to 2,800 gallons a week, though the figure can vary widely by location and other factors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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