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SKYE on AOL

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    Feb. 19, 2013


    A storm system set to emerge from the Rockies later in the week will bring blizzard conditions, as well as needed moisture, to portions of the central Plains.

    There is the potential for flight and ground travel disruptions from Denver to Chicago. There is also the potential for significant moisture in the drought-stricken region.

    While the storm will affect a vast area from Texas to the Dakotas, the wintry side of the storm will affect areas from the Rockies to the Upper Midwest during the second half of this week after hitting areas from California to Utah, Arizona and New Mexico with snow, wind and cold.

    Locally blinding, heavy snow will fall over the passes of the Rockies.

    As the storm pulls away from the Rockies, it will reorganize, causing wind-whipped snow to redevelop.

    The first trouble spot on the Plains will be around Denver Wednesday night, where enough snow and plunging temperatures can occur to create travel problems.

    As the storm progresses farther east, howling winds and driving snow will bring several hours of blizzard conditions to places from Goodland, Kan., to Grand Island and Omaha, Neb., Huron and Sioux Falls, S.D., and Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday night into Thursday. The strongest winds will be on the front side of the storm and its snow. Severe blowing and drifting snow in the wake of the storm are not likely.

    RELATED:
    First: Snow, Mix Monday Midwest, Tuesday Northeast
    Big, Cold Storm to Blast California, Southwest U.S. First
    Midweek Severe Weather Risk Texas to Mississippi


    Farther southeast, areas such as Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., are projected to receive a mixture of rain, ice and snow Thursday. Significant icing could potentially take down tree limbs and lead to scattered power outages across central and northern Missouri to central Illinois.

    Mostly snow is forecast to fall around Chicago later Thursday and Thursday night with the storm likely to be not only the biggest storm of the winter so far, but also a very disruptive one at that.

    Accumulating snow can reach as far north as Minneapolis with significant snow likely over southern Wisconsin.

    Expect travel problems due to snow and/or ice along I-29, I-35, I-70, I-80 and I-90.
    The winter storm will be set up by a fresh push of arctic air Tuesday. The charge of cold air is being preceded by windswept snow to start this week in part of the northern Plains and the Upper Midwest.

    According to Agriculture Weather Expert Dale Mohler, "In addition to the likelihood of travel disruptions, a general half a foot to a foot of snow can deliver the equivalent to one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch of rain on average over the central Plains."

    Farther south, the storm is likely to bring a significant severe weather outbreak from Texas to Mississippi spanning Wednesday night to Thursday night.

    Be sure to stay with AccuWeather.com as our meteorologists continue to unravel all the details.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Feb. 19, 2013

    An artist's illustration of a Golden Spike Company moon lander on the lunar surface. (Golden Spike Company)

    A private startup aiming to launch manned lunar expeditions has started a crowdfunding campaign to get the public involved.

    The company, Golden Spike, aims to get its first mission off the ground by 2020. To help achieve that goal, the startup's leaders are reaching out via the crowdfunding site Indiegogo in hopes of raising $240,000 - "a dollar for every mile on the way to the moon," said Golden Spike's president and CEO, planetary scientist Alan Stern.

    "Ever since we launched [the company], we've been getting emails and tweets and Facebook posts about, 'How can I help?'" Stern told SPACE.com. "It just seems like there's a hunger out there to participate in grand exploration."

    Contributors during the 10-week campaign can secure rewards ranging from printed thank-you notes and subscriptions to Golden Spike's mailing list (for a $25 donation), to VIP trips to see the company's first moon launch (for a contribution of $50,000). Other options include nominating names for the lunar test vehicles, and having your name flown to the moon during Golden Spike's first lunar landing mission.

    Stern said the money raised would be used to help Golden Spike get off the ground. But moreover, he added, it's a way for people excited about the idea of private moon travel to get involved, and a way to raise awareness about the venture. [How Golden Spike's Moon Landing Plan Works (Infographic)]

    "We hope that this campaign and all the projects it enables will generate a degree of participation in space exploration that has never existed before," Gerry Griffin, former Apollo flight director and the chairman of Golden Spike's board of directors, said in a statement.

    Golden Spike plans to use existing or already-in-development rockets and space capsules to transport crews to and from the moon. The firm plans to build its own lunar lander, though, and has hired veteran aerospace firm Northrop Grumman, which built NASA's Apollo moon landers, to work on the design.

    The missions will sell for around $1.5 billion and will be aimed at corporations, countries without their own space programs and even some wealthy individuals.

    "I think people are really excited about the idea of sending human expeditions to the moon from countries all over the world," Stern said. "It could be all different kinds of people, for all different kinds of purposes. It's a very different, forward concept."

    To help keep costs down, Golden Spike plans to sell branding opportunities and advertising time during live broadcasts of missions.

    "We plan to make these lunar expeditions television extravaganzas, like the Olympics," Stern said. "We'll sell the advertising time like they do with the Super Bowl."

    To learn more about the company, visit Golden Spike's Indiegogo campaign page.

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

    Private Company Wants Bootprints On The Moon By 2020 | Video
    Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos
    Private Space Travel to Make Giant Leaps in 2013

    Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

     

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    It's astonishing that back in the 1960s humans were so focused on exploring space and looking outward, away from Earth, that few thought to consider the consequences of looking back at Earth from space.

    Suffice to say, the consequences were profound, for the astronauts themselves, and for those of us who would see the planet from their perspective in photos and videos.

    Images of our round, blue planet floating in a sea of black space have changed the way many think about Earth and our place in the cosmos - that's the overview effect.

    This beautiful, short video explores the phenomenon and features five astronauts reflecting on this modern, life-changing view of Earth.

     

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    One of the coldest storms of the winter with rain, low snow levels and thunderstorms will roll across California and the deserts and mountains of the Southwest through the middle of the week, threatening major travel disruptions.

    The storm began to impact northern California Monday night, but the greatest impact in Southern California is coming late Tuesday and Tuesday night.

    The storm will then swing eastward across Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado Tuesday night and Wednesday with temperatures plunging to very chilly levels.

    Temperatures will be slashed by 20 to 30 degrees in many locations of the Southwest U.S., when compared to highs from the past weekend.

    The storm is expected to eventually affect a large part of the nation through the week with adverse weather conditions ranging from snow and ice to rain and severe thunderstorms.

    RELATED:
    Blizzard from Omaha to Des Moines
    Dramatic Changes Headed to California Tuesday

    California Impacts

    The storm will bring snow and slippery travel to the Grapevine, other passes and the high deserts. Some of these roads may close for a time, due to sudden heavy snow and whiteout conditions.

    There is the potential for people to get stuck venturing over the passes of Southern California Tuesday evening.

    With this setup, snow can cap the coast ranges throughout California.

    According to Western Weather Expert Ken Clark, "Snow will mix in as low as 2,000 feet in northern California and to 2,500 feet in southern California with several inches of snow as low as 3,000 feet."

    A foot of snow can fall on the resorts in the northern Sierra Nevada with 1 to 2 feet of snow in the southern Sierra Nevada.

    "The greatest impacts will be the Grapevine, Highway 14 through Soledad Canyon, I-8 across southern San Diego County and some of the higher passes on I-15 before Primm," according to Clark.

    While the storm is not likely to unload a half a foot of rain, it can bring enough rain to be of benefit for the drought situation. Moisture will reach the deserts.

    "On average, from one-third to two-thirds of an inch of cold rain is forecast to fall in the central and northern areas of California with one-half to one inch of rain in Southern California," Clark said.

    Unfortunately, much of the rain will fall during a 6- to 12-hour period, which can cause flash and urban flooding. There could be a few incidents of mudslides (debris flows).

    Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico Impacts

    Gusty winds will kick up dust over the deserts ahead of the rain Monday night and Tuesday.

    Snow can mix in around Las Vegas with the cold storm Tuesday night. Up to a half a foot of snow can fall on Salt Lake City with a foot or more possible in the Wasatch Range.

    "A foot of snow or more is possible over Rim Country at elevations at and above 6,500 feet with several inches of snow around 5,000 feet," Clark stated.

    Overall, snow levels in Arizona will drop to around 3,000 feet with several inches and slippery travel just above that level.

    Motorists should expect difficult travel along I-40 Tuesday night and Wednesday and may want to select a more southern route as heavy snow will also fall across the mountains of northern New Mexico.

    Other major routes affected include I-5, I-15, I-17, I-70 and I-80 in the Southwest U.S.

    There should be more than enough rain to settle the dust in the desert areas. With very little moisture over the winter, any rainfall will be welcomed.

    One-quarter to one-half of an inch of rain on average is expected in the deserts.

    During the middle of the week, the storm will also swing farther east over the Colorado Rockies and Great Plains.

    A blizzard could affect areas from the central Rockies to the central Plains Wednesday night into Thursday. There is also the risk of a major severe weather outbreak over the southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley.

     

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    Interstate 80 traffic is held at a standstill due to a snow storm in Colfax, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Auburn Journal, Kim Palaferri)

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A winter storm brought California much-needed rain and even a rare tornado, but the breadth and severity of snowfall in much of the state caught drivers by surprise and left hundreds stranded on mountain highways.

    A late barrage of snow forced the shutdown of a 60-mile stretch of Highway 58 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield late Tuesday, California Highway Patrol Officer Ed Smith said.

    "Travel conditions deteriorated quickly," Smith told KCAL-TV. "The freeways just aren't safe to pass on right now."

    The snow brought hundreds of vehicles to a stop and sent the patrol and road crews scrambling to the scene, where they were helping drivers to slowly exit near Tehachapi. No injuries were reported.

    A similar scene played out shortly about 300 miles to the north, where dozens of cars were either stuck in the snow or involved in accidents near the rural community of Sonora. About 50 to 75 vehicles became stranded or were in collisions on Highway 49 and nearby roadways when it started snowing heavily in the Sierra Nevada foothills, said CHP Lt. Scott Clamp.

    "Travelers were just not prepared," Clamp said. There were a handful of minor injuries, but no major injuries, he added.

    The storm from the Gulf of Alaska brought the first significant rainfall to the region in several weeks, the National Weather Service said.

    Periodic showers, including hail, hit the Bay area in time for the morning commute, while new snow fell in the Sierra Nevada, where ski resorts around Lake Tahoe were expecting up to 8 inches.

    Flurries were spotted high in the hills in Oakland and in neighboring Berkeley, said Rick Canepa, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey. The top of Mt. Hamilton near San Jose and the tips of Mt. Diablo in the East Bay also got a dusting.

    In the Sacramento area, a tornado with wind speeds between 40 to 70 mph was spotted north of Red Bluff shortly after 1:30 p.m., according to the weather service. It caused little or no damage.

    More rain was forecast for the Bay area and for parts of Southern California. Authorities warned of more hazardous conditions for drivers on mountain and interior valley roads into early Wednesday, when the storm was expected to move east.

    Even though San Francisco saw highs in the 70s last week, California has had a colder-than-normal winter overall.

    "We went from about 10 degrees above normal this past weekend to 10 degrees below today," said Austin Cross, another weather service meteorologist based in Monterey. "We're usually somewhere in the 60s, temperature-wise, at this time of year."

    San Francisco has gotten nearly 14 inches of rain since October, or about 85 percent of its normal rainfall during the fall-winter season, Cross said. Oakland received 83 percent and San Jose had about 80 percent, he added.

    The far-reaching storm also was expected to bring rare moisture and colder-than-average temperatures to central Arizona. The metropolitan Phoenix area was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of rain as the storm moves inland, and temperatures were forecast to drop to the 50s, about 15 degrees below average.

    The storm's eastward march also was expected to drop as much as nearly a foot of snow as it moves into parts of Nevada, Colorado and Utah.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    When snow forced the delay of a college baseball game in Boiling Springs, N.C., earlier this week, the two teams saw no reason to sit idly by watching snowflakes fall. Instead, a friendly snowball fight erupted between the two teams, much to the delight of fans in the stands.

    RELATED ON SKYE: The world's most extreme sports

     

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    Italy's Mount Etna sent lava and gas shooting toward the stars early Tuesday morning, the first big eruption for the volcano in 2013.

    The famous Sicilian volcano burst to life overnight, sending a fountain of fire into the air. The dramatic scene was captured in a video by Klaus Dorschfeldt, a videographer and webmaster at Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

    Mount Etna, one of the world's most active volcanoes, had emitted signs of an imminent paroxysm in recent weeks. On Jan. 22, lava and strong flashes in the volcano's New Southeast Crater were clearly visible from the Sicilian foothills; these often herald a new paroxysm: short, violent eruptive bursts.

    Dorschfeldt said he knew Mount Etna's recent signals could precede new activity. "[I've] followed the activity of Etna for many years, and with time you learn to know it as if it were your friend," he said in an email interview. "Following it constantly [you] learn to be a keen observer and a minor change can lead to something important," he told OurAmazingPlanet.

    The tallest volcano in Europe, Mount Etna is almost constantly spewing gas or lava. Its Bocca Nuova crater also erupted earlier this year, from Jan. 10 to Jan. 20. In 2011, Etna's violent bursts were spotted from space.

    Reach Becky Oskin at boskin@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @beckyoskin. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    The World's Five Most Active Volcanoes
    Image Gallery: Volcanoes from Space
    50 Amazing Volcano Facts

    Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Breathtaking Volcanic Eruptions Seen from Space

     

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    Feb. 20, 2013


    A storm system set to emerge from the Rockies later in the week will bring blizzard conditions, as well as needed moisture, to portions of the central Plains.

    There is the potential for flight and ground travel disruptions from Denver to Chicago. There is also the potential for significant moisture in the drought-stricken region.

    While the storm will affect a vast area from Texas to the Dakotas, the wintry side of the storm will affect areas from the Rockies to the Upper Midwest during the second half of this week while hitting areas from California to Utah, Arizona and New Mexico with snow, wind and cold.

    Locally blinding, heavy snow will fall over the passes of the Rockies. Snow broke out over portions of Kansas and as far south as central Oklahoma Wednesday morning. Winds were increasing over western and central Kansas with the snow.

    The area of snow will expand reaching from Denver, Colo. to Grand Island, Neb. and Kansas City, Mo. by Wednesday night.

    Snow will continue to expand to the north and east during Thursday reaching Iowa, a large part of South Dakota, part of North Dakota, southern Minnesota, northern Illinois and central and southern Wisconsin.

    The strongest winds will be on the front side of the storm and its snow, creating low visibility and extensive drifting. Several hours of blizzard conditions are possible as far north as Omaha.

    Since the storm will mature and diminish quickly, severe blowing and drifting snow in the wake of the storm are not likely.

    RELATED:
    Blizzard to Slightly Ease Wheat Belt Drought
    Big, Cold Storm to Blast California, Southwest U.S. First
    Midweek Severe Weather Risk Texas to Mississippi


    Wichita, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo. will be on the edge of very heavy snow to the northwest and lesser snow to the southeast. A dry sweep of air will limit snowfall relatively speaking in this swath. A foot or more of snow is possible north and west of these cities, where more snow rotates in during the second part of the storm.

    Omaha, Neb. and Des Moines, Iowa are forecast to be on the receiving end up upwards of half a foot of snow.

    Mostly snow is forecast to fall around Chicago later Thursday and Thursday night with the storm likely to be not only the biggest storm of the winter so far, but also a very disruptive one at that.

    Accumulating snow can reach as far north as Minneapolis with significant snow likely over southern Wisconsin.



    Farther southeast a mixture of rain, ice and snow is forecast Thursday from Arkansas through southeastern Missouri to southern Illinois. Significant icing could potentially take down tree limbs and lead to scattered power outages.

    Expect travel problems due to snow and/or ice along I-29, I-35, I-40, I-70, I-80 and I-90.
    The winter storm will be set up by a fresh push of arctic air Tuesday. The charge of cold air is being preceded by windswept snow to start this week in part of the northern Plains and the Upper Midwest.

    According to Agriculture Weather Expert Dale Mohler, "In addition to the likelihood of travel disruptions, a general half a foot to a foot of snow can deliver the equivalent to one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch of rain on average over the central Plains."

    Some areas in the storm will pick up even more snow and more soil moisture from this storm.
    Farther south, the storm is likely to bring a significant severe weather outbreak from Texas to Mississippi spanning Wednesday night to Thursday night.

    Another storm with snow, moisture and severe weather may follow early next week over part of the same areas being impacted Wednesday into Thursday. More information will be available in the coming days on AccuWeather.com.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    One or more storms maturing over the Plains have the potential to spin off new storms along the Atlantic Seaboard bringing a chance of snow to some areas this weekend into next week.

    The pattern we are entering will create an atmospheric roadblock for storms moving from the Plains and bring warm air bodily northward.

    The pattern is referred to as an Omega Block by meteorologists, because steering winds high in the atmosphere, known as the jet stream take on the shape of the Greek letter Omega.

    In a simple sense, the pattern allows cold air to sneak in or hold its ground more than what you might expect and could open the window of opportunity for snow along part of the Atlantic Seaboard.

    RELATED:
    Blizzard from Omaha to Des Moines
    Blizzard to Aid Wheat Belt Drought
    Snow, Icy Mess Spreads Into the East


    Sometimes this pattern can lead to a rain changing to snow situation as the storm strengthens and draws in colder air.

    AccuWeather.com meteorologists foresee two to three attempts at storm formation along the middle part of the Atlantic coast with the first system this weekend.

    The form (rain versus snow), coverage and intensity of the precipitation from the storms at the local level are uncertain at this time. The storms have not been birthed yet and are still days away. The question is not so much will they form, but how close to the coast will they track and how strong will they become.

    However, for those desperate for snow, the short-lived pattern may offer the best chance at significant snowfall for areas from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and other areas in the mid-Atlantic that have seen so little this winter.

    It could also mean more heavy snow for some locations that have been hammered by heavy snow in recent weeks, such as Long Island and New England.

    The details will unfold over the next few days.

    Interestingly, the Omega Block is already likely to give a large part of the Plains a big boost in snow and moisture Wednesday into Thursday and could end the snow drought in some areas.

    For now, you can talk turkey like a weather pro around the dinner table by mentioning that an Omega Block could lead to snowstorms along the East Coast this weekend into next week.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    This photo taken on February 2, 2013, shows the new Qianximen Bridge and the Grand Theatre from across the Jialing River in Chongqing. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

    BEIJING (AP) - A Chinese businessman angry about a filthy river has come up with an equally dirty dare: He'll give an environmental official about $32,000 just for swimming in the polluted waterway.

    Businessman Jin Zengmin posted on his microblog photos of a garbage-filled river in his hometown of Rui'an city in the eastern province of Zhejiang. He dared the local environmental protection chief, Bao Zhenming, to swim in it for a cash prize of 200,000 yuan.

    The challenge, made Saturday, reflects growing frustration among the Chinese public over widespread pollution and lack of governmental action. It quickly inspired at least one other offer: A posting Tuesday under an alias on an online forum offered a 300,000 yuan ($48,000) cash prize to the environmental protection chief in the nearby county of Cangnan if the official swam in polluted rivers there.

    Jin said on his microblog that a rubber shoe factory has been dumping wastewater into the river, and that the area had an exceptionally high cancer rate.

    A Rui'an government official who would give only his surname, Chi, would not say Wednesday whether Bao would accept Jin's challenge. But Chi said the bureau had contacted Jin and will take some measures, including working with residents to clean up trash in the river and putting up signs warning against dumping.

    "We will also step up efforts in controlling industrial pollution sources," Chi said.

    He also said that the public should shoulder responsibility in protecting the environment, and that the environmental protection bureau welcomes public supervision and participation in cleaning up local rivers.

    China's booming economy has brought more water pollution, some of it shockingly serious. High-profile industrial accidents along major rivers have disrupted water supplies to big cities in recent years.

    Hu Siyi, vice minister of water resources, said last year that 20 percent of China's rivers were so polluted that their water quality was rated too toxic for human contact, and that up to 40 percent of the rivers were seriously polluted, according to state media.

    Last month, about nine tons of aniline, a chemical used to make polyurethane, leaked into a river in northern China. It took five days for the leak to be reported, and by then it had contaminated the water supply of a city in a neighboring province.

    Yang Jianhua, a researcher at the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-run China News Service that the cash-prize challenges reflect the public's deep worries about pollution.

    "The environmental agencies are obligated to make efforts and solve the problem," Yang told China News.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Updated Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 5:04 p.m. ET

    A wrecked car sits in the middle of US Highway 54 near downtown Wichita, Kan., as heavy snow falls on Wednesday morning, Feb. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - Blinding snow, at times accompanied by thunder and lightning, bombarded much of the nation's midsection Thursday, causing whiteout conditions, shutting down large swaths of interstate highways and forcing schools, businesses and even state legislatures to close.

    Kansas was the epicenter of the winter storm, with parts of the state buried under 14 inches of powdery snow, but winter storm warnings stretched from eastern Colorado through Illinois. Freezing rain and sleet were forecast for southern Missouri, southern Illinois and Arkansas. St. Louis received all of the above - a treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.

    Several accidents were blamed on icy and slushy roadways, and two people died Wednesday. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states, were closed. Legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Massive Blizzard Slams Plains
    "Thundersnow" rumbled through Kansas and Missouri earlier Thursday. National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said that's the result of an unstable air mass, much like a thunderstorm.

    "Instead of pouring rain, it's pouring snow," Truett said. And pouring was a sound description, with snow falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.

    Topeka got 3 inches of snow in one 30-minute period, leaving medical center worker Jennifer Carlock to dread the drive home.

    "It came on fast," Carlock said as she shoveled around her car. "We're going to test out traction control on the way home."

    Snow totals passed the foot mark in many places: Monarch Pass, Colo., had 17½ inches, Hutchinson, Kan., 14 inches and Wichita, Kan., 13 inches. A few places in far northern Oklahoma saw between 10 to 13½ inches of snow. The National Weather Service said up to 18 inches of snow were possible in central Kansas.

    With that in mind, Kansas transportation officials - and even the governor - urged people to simply stay home.

    Drivers were particularly warned away from the Kansas Turnpike, which had whiteout conditions. Interstate 70 was also snow-packed, and a 200-mile stretch was closed between Salina and Colby.

    "If you don't have to get out, just really, please, don't do it," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said.

    But some people came down with cabin fever, like Jennifer McCoy of Wichita. She loaded her nine children - ages 6 months to 16 years - in a van for lunch at Applebee's.

    "I was going crazy, they were so whiny," McCoy said, adding they were going to build an igloo after.

    Just south of Wichita near the small community of Clearwater, Scott Van Allen had already shoveled the sidewalks and was on his tractor clearing the driveway of the 10 inches of snow. For once, he didn't mind the task.

    "I kind of enjoyed it this time," he said. "We were certainly needing the moisture terribly."

    The storm brought some relief to a region of the country that has been engulfed in the worst drought in decades. Climatologists say 12 inches of snow is equivalent to about 1 inch of rain, depending on the density of the snow.

    Vance Ehmke, a wheat farmer near Healy, Kan., said the nearly foot of snow was "what we have been praying for."

    "The big question is, 'Is the drought broke?' " Ehmke asked.

    Near Edwardsville, Ill., farmer Mike Campbell called the snow - or any precipitation - a blessing after a bone-dry growing season in 2012. He hopes it is a good omen for the spring.

    "The corn was just a disaster," Campbell said of 2012.

    In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service planned to take advantage of the snow to burn piles of dead trees on federal land.

    Near the Nebraska-Kansas border, as much as 8 inches fell overnight, while western Nebraska saw about half of that, National Weather Service forecaster Shawn Jacobs said. Areas in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow. And Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation - a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others.

    Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning. Kansas City International Airport shut down by midmorning; more than 320 flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. Traffic throughout the state was snarled by hundreds of accidents and vehicles in ditches.

    The Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City put out an urgent call for blood after the storm forced the organization to close its six donation centers and halt blood drives. It said the storm has caused it to lose two full days' supply, and it now has less than one day's worth on hand.

    The University of Missouri canceled classes for one of the few times in its 174-year history. At a nearby Wal-Mart, some students passed the ice scrapers and snow melt, heading directly to the aisles containing sleds and alcohol.

    "This isn't our usual Thursday noon routine," Lauren Ottenger, a senior economics major from Denver, said as she stockpiled supplies.

    Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist for Accuweather, said the storm will push off into the Great Lakes and central Appalachians, and freezing rain could make it as far east and south as North Carolina. He also said a "spin-off" storm was expected to create heavy snow in New England on Saturday, and could push Boston to a February record.

    Accuweather said that by the time the storm dies out, at least 24 states will be affected.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Massive Blizzard Strikes Plains

     

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    Another weekend is approaching and it appears another snowstorm may be in the works for part of weather-weary New England with a close call for part of the mid-Atlantic.

    On Tuesday, AccuWeather.com informed its followers that a developing weather pattern over the United States could lead to big East Coast snow events during the next week or more. See the Omega Block story for more information.

    A significant storm will impact New England Saturday into Sunday. The question is how will marginal temperatures affect the extent and duration of rain and snow.

    If the storm develops to its full potential, portions of central New England could be on the receiving end of a foot or more of wet snow with strong wind and colder air being drawn into the storm.

    RELATED:
    Big Snow from Kansas to Nebraska Under Way
    Storm Potential on East Coast Starting This Weekend: Omega Block
    February 2013 Could Finish Snowiest on Record in Boston

    If the storm ends up being on the weak end of the spectrum, more rain would be involved with much lower snowfall totals.

    There is also the possibility that the storm may develop fast enough to throw significant rain, snow or both over portions of the mid-Atlantic.

    The overall weather pattern suggests that storms will tend to strengthen quickly and overachieve not only in the East, but also over the Central states.

    The problem is this for the storm in the East this weekend, we do yet not know exactly where the cutoff will be for accumulating snow versus a wintry mix versus all rain.

    At this early stage, the most likely swath for heavy snow all, or in part, would be from Connecticut to central Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire. Finding a place to put the snow may be a problem. Where deep snow remains on roofs, the added weight of the new snow could lead to roof failures.

    The New York City metro area appears to be near the southwestern edge of the snowstorm with all or mostly rain for Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

    However, where the storm develops and slows its forward speed could push the heavy snow area either farther west toward New Jersey and southeastern New York state, farther south and east over Long Island and Cape Cod or possibly even farther north and west over northern New England and eastern upstate New York.

    This could be the type of storm where some locations are hit with a foot of heavy, wet snow and areas just 20 miles away have non-accumulating snow and rain, or plain rain.

    Additional big storms are in the making through next week, not only for the East, but also for central, southern and western parts of the nation.



    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    In this Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, photo after Superstorm Sandy, a PSE&G employee unloads new electrical transformers in a staging area in Lawrence Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

    New Jersey's largest utility company wants to spend nearly $4 billion over the next decade to stormproof its electric and gas system after Superstorm Sandy's high winds and devastating surge knocked out power to nearly all its customers last October.

    PSE&G on Wednesday filed a proposal outlining plans to raise or bunker electrical substations in flood-prone spots, line old cast-iron gas lines with plastic and make other changes designed to prevent the kind of outages that affected most of New Jersey after Sandy struck.

    "We could make incremental repairs," PSE&G Chairman Ralph Izzo said on a conference call, "or we could be truly prepared and make long-term investments."

    He said it made sense to be bold now because, with two electricity surcharges due to expire over the next few years, the money can be raised without raising customers' bills.

    Labor and business groups quickly announced support for the plan, which would need to be approved by the state Board of Public Utilities. Consumer advocates had reservations about the financial aspects.

    Jennifer Kim, state director for the liberal consumer protection and environmental organization New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, said she doubts the claim that ratepayers won't see their bills rise. She also said she wants to make sure the project is closely examined and the company pays for some costs out of what it has already collected from customers.

    "Shouldn't some of this stuff have been taken care of already?" she asked.

    New Jersey, like other places, recently has seen more frequent and more damaging storms, including Tropical Storm Irene and an ice storm in 2011. During Superstorm Sandy, the state's worst natural disaster, 2 million of PSE&G's 2.2 million customers lost power as trees took down power lines and substations flooded. The company says 800,000 would not have been knocked out if the proposed upgrades were in place and the rest would have had service returned sooner.

    For instance, company officials said the Newark Liberty Airport would have had a shorter shutdown after Sandy if the Newark electrical substation had been protected from flooding.

    PSE&G serves about three-fourths of New Jersey electrical customers, including many in the Philadelphia and New York City suburbs.

    The company said ratepayers would see no increases or small ones on their bills because of the two surcharges due to come off bills in the next few years. Thanks to lower natural gas supply costs, Izzo said, the average residential customer with gas and electric service pays about $2,400 per year to the company, $600 less than in 2008. He said the aim is that the bills would not rise because of the proposed project.

    But the estimates do not include $250 million to $300 million the company needs to pay for repairs for damage caused by Sandy. It's unclear how those repair costs might be passed on to customers.

    Generally, there's an incentive for investor-owned regulated utilities like PSE&G to invest in large projects such as power plants, transmission lines and substations because that's how they can best increase profits for shareholders.

    Regulators allow utilities to earn a greater rate of return, typically around 10 percent, for big capital-intensive projects than for simply delivering electricity. The reason is that regulators need to give utilities an incentive to invest in big-ticket items that could improve the system. New Jersey does not have a set rate of return on infrastructure investments but rather decides them on a case-by-case basis.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    In this Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, photo provided by the Wellington Zoo, a royal penguin rests in an enclosure at the Welling Zoo in Wellington, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Wellington Zoo)

    WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - Thirsty and thin, a royal penguin has been found stranded on a New Zealand beach more than 1,000 miles from its sub-Antarctic home.

    The penguin was found by hikers Sunday and is now being cared for at the Wellington Zoo. Staff say it remains in a critical condition, emaciated and suffering from kidney failure. But it has made small improvements each day.

    The penguin's arrival has revived memories of another penguin, an emperor nicknamed Happy Feet, that arrived in 2011 and whose recovery at the zoo captured the hearts of many before he was released.

    Royal penguins have a yellow crest, eat krill and squid and generally live on and around Macquarie Island, about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica. Just four have been recorded landing on the North Island over the past 100 years.

    Jenny Boyne, who lives near Tora Beach where the penguin was found, said she drove it to the zoo in a fish crate after staff suggested she bring it in.

    "It sat down like a little quiet lamb," she said.

    The bird stood up briefly a couple of times and honked but generally lay still for the two-hour journey, she said. She blasted the air conditioning and spritzed the bird with water after zoo staff instructed her to keep it cool. She said she was surprised it had no significant smell.

    Lisa Argilla, the veterinary science manager at the zoo, said the penguin weighed about 2.7 kilograms (6 pounds) when it arrived. She said it has put on a small amount of weight since then but remains severely underweight. She said it was dehydrated, and staff at the animal hospital have been keeping it on an intravenous drip. She said the penguin had tried to nip her a few times but didn't have much strength. She added she'd feel more confident about its prognosis if and when it regained the strength to stand properly.

    The penguin is about 1 year old, 20 inches long and its sex hasn't been determined, Argilla said.

    Royal penguins can grow to about 30 inches and 12 pounds. They are considered a threatened species but not endangered. They shed all their feathers during an annual molt, which the New Zealand penguin is doing now.

    "These penguins tend to stay out at sea," she said. "This guy's probably been following food, and he might have caught a current. There's obviously not enough food out there - either he didn't know where to look, or the warm weather might be causing a shift in the food supply."

    Boyne said she'd named the penguin Tora after where it was found. Others have nicknamed it Happy Feet, Jr.

     

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    A saguaro cactus dusted with snow? It's not a sight you see often, that's for sure. Still, this week's massive Plains blizzard has stretched so far and wide that it's brought snow to a wide swath of locales, including Phoenix. Snow from the winter storm covered the ground and the surrounding mountains, leaving a beautiful, if unexpected, landscape.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Massive Blizzard Strikes Plains

     

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    The night skies above Death Valley National Park. (bumeister1/Flickr)

    Death Valley National Park - famous for being the site of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth - is being honored with a new superlative after being named a dark sky park, the largest in the world.

    The International Dark-Sky Association announced the designation of Death Valley as a "Gold Tier" International Dark Sky Park on Feb. 20. That tier is the highest bestowed by the IDA and means that you can view night sky objects only visible in the darkest skies on the planet.

    Death Valley is a 3.4-million-acre park located in California in the Mojave Desert, near the border with Nevada. It contains the lowest point in the United States, at 282 feet below sea level.

    The park is far enough away from the light-polluted cities of the West that its views of the night sky are "near pristine," offering a glimpse of what could be seen before such cities were erected, according to an IDA statement. [6 Stellar Places for Skywatching in the US]

    The often cloudless skies also make Death Valley an excellent stargazing spot. (The park averages less than 2 inches of rainfall a year, with some years seeing no rain at all, according to the park website.)

    "Death Valley is a place to gaze in awe at the expanse of the Milky Way, follow a lunar eclipse, track a meteor shower, or simply reflect on your place in the universe," National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in the statement.

    The park hosts regular astronomy events. The next will be its Mars Fest from March 1-3.

    The distant lights of Las Vegas and other major cities do pose a potential threat to the park's skies and nocturnal wildlife, the statement said. Park staff, volunteers and astronomy clubs have urged local towns and private groups to use dark-sky friendly lighting, the IDA noted. The park itself is developing a plan to use light fixtures that direct light downwards, instead of allowing it to spill out sideways or upward toward the sky, according to its website.

    The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was made there at Furnace Creek Ranch in July 1913; it was a scorching 134 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Other 'Gold'-level dark sky sites include a large portion of New Zealand's South Island, as well as Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument and Texas's Big Bend National Park.

    Reach Andrea Thompson at athompson@techmedianetwork.com and follow her on Twitter @AndreaTOAP and on Pinterest. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    Hell on Earth: Tour Death Valley
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