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SKYE on AOL

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    Skydiver Speaks Out After Surviving Crash

    To look at Craig Stapleton today, you'd never know he survived a horrifying skydiving accident on Sunday. Stapleton's spinning free fall and crash was all caught on tape. "I knew it was bad when I was living it and when I saw the video I said, 'Wow. That's a lot worse than I thought. How did I walk away from that? How did I manage to survive?'" Stapleton told FOX40.

    RELATED ON SKYE: The world's most extreme sports

     

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    Whale Finally Freed From Ropes Off Coast of Hawaii

    A humpback whale caught in fishing gear off the coast of Hawaii for several days was finally freed by rescuers after several attempts to remove the gear from the mammal. This is the third whale caught in ropes this year, but the first successful rescue.

     

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    March 14, 2013

    This 2011 image shows a real CMS proton-proton collision in which four high energy electrons (green lines and red towers) are observed. (AP Photo/CERN)

    GENEVA (AP) - The search is all but over for a subatomic particle that is a crucial building block of the universe.

    Physicists announced Thursday they believe they have discovered the subatomic particle predicted nearly a half-century ago, which will go a long way toward explaining what gives electrons and all matter in the universe size and shape.

    The elusive particle, called a Higgs boson, was predicted in 1964 to help fill in our understanding of the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang. The particle was named for Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who proposed its existence, but it later became popularly known as the "God particle."

    Last July, scientists at CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced finding a particle they described as Higgs-like, but they stopped short of saying conclusively that it was the same particle or some version of it.

    Scientists have now finished going through the entire set of data year and announced the results in a statement and at a physics conference in the Italian Alps.

    "To me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is," said Joe Incandela, a physicist who heads one of the two main teams at CERN that each involve about 3,000 scientists.

    Its existence helps confirm the theory that objects gain their size and shape when particles interact in an energy field with a key particle, the Higgs boson. The more they attract, the theory goes, the bigger their mass will be.

    But, it remains an "open question," CERN said in a statement, whether this is the Higgs boson that was expected in the original formulation, or possibly the lightest of several predicted in some theories that go beyond that model.

    But for now, it said, there can be little doubt that a Higgs boson does exist, in some form.

    Whether or not it is a Higgs boson is demonstrated by how it interacts with other particles and its quantum properties, CERN said in the statement. The data "strongly indicates that it is a Higgs boson," it said.

    The discovery would be a strong contender for the Nobel Prize, though it remains unclear whether that might go to Higgs and the others who first proposed the theory or to the thousands of scientists who found it, or to all of them.

    The hunt for the Higgs entailed the use of CERN's atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, which cost some $10 billion to build and run in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border.

    It has been creating high-energy collisions to smash protons and then study the collisions and determine how subatomic particles acquire mass - without which the particles would fail to stick together.

     

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    Children line up to receive a meal at a food distribution center in the Hodan area of Mogadishu, Somalia, in this Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, photo. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

    AIROBI, Kenya (AP) - Human-induced climate change contributed to low rain levels in East Africa in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of Somalia's famine and the tens of thousands of deaths that followed, a new study has found.

    It is the first time climate change was proven to be partially to blame for such a large humanitarian disaster, an aid group said Friday.

    Three climate scientists with Britain's national weather service studied weather patterns in Somalia in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Niña.

    But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of "the systematic warming (of Earth) due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations on the long rains," said Peter Scott of Britain's National Weather Service, known as the Met Office.

    The British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from the famine. But the new research doesn't mean global warming directly caused those deaths.

    Ethiopia and Kenya were also affected by the lack of rains in 2011, but aid agencies were able to work more easily in those countries than in war-ravaged Somalia, where the al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist group al-Shabab refused to allow food aid into the wide areas under its control.

    Still, the new research proves for the first time that climate change was one of the triggers for the drought, which was one of the causes of the famine, said Senait Gebregziabher, the Somalia country director for the aid group Oxfam.

    "Climate change is not a threat that may hurt us in the future, because it is already causing a rise for humanitarian needs," Gebregziabher said. "In the coming decades, unless urgent action is taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures in East Africa will continue to rise and rainfall patterns will change. This will create major problems for food production and availability."

    Scott said that the evidence is "very strong" that the planet is warming due to an increase in greenhouse gases. He noted that the study found that both natural causes - La Niña and the short rains - and man-made causes contributed to Somalia's drought.

    The study found that between 24 percent and 99 percent of the cause of the failure of the 2011 rains can be attributed to the presence of man-made greenhouse gases, Scott said.

    The study was not able to predict how climate change will affect Somalia's rainfall in coming years, but some Somali leaders are concerned. Ahmed Awale works for the non-profit group Candlelight, which is dedicated to improving conservation and the environment. He said Somali's climate has been changing for many decades, with rainfall patterns becoming more erratic.

    A study by his group has found tree species dying on the coast because of the hotter weather. What he called "mist forests" exist in Somalia's highlands, he said, but they too are drying out because of decreasing rain and increasing temperatures. That led his group to carry out a study called "Climate Change Stole Our Mist."

    "If you miss one of the two rainy seasons we have a very severe drought. The other indicator is that there is a rise in temperature," he said, adding later: "This all negatively impacts the livelihood of the people. Most of Somalis depend mostly on pastoral production."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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    This photo from Feb. 26, 2013, shows dry, cracked land near a water reservoir in Kiwitahi, New Zealand. (AP Photo/New Zealand Herald, Christine Cornege)

    CARTERTON, New Zealand (AP) - Dairy farmer John Rose has sent more than 100 of his cows to the slaughterhouse over recent weeks as a severe drought browned pastures in New Zealand's normally verdant North Island.

    He had to thin his herd so the remaining 550 cows have enough to eat, and he's supplementing their diet with ground palm kernel as the grass in his fields withers.

    "We try and make sure they've got water and shade during the day and do the best we can for them," he said. "It's very hard to remember when the last rainfall was."

    The drought is costing farmers millions of dollars each day and is beginning to take a toll on New Zealand's economy. On Friday, the government officially declared its most widespread drought in at least 30 years.

    Parts of the North Island are drier than they've been in 70 years and some scientists say the unusual weather could be a harbinger of climate change. There has been little significant rainfall in the northern and eastern parts of the country since October.

    Still, some are finding the dry, sun-soaked days a boon. Vintners call the conditions perfect. And city dwellers are reveling in eating lunch outdoors or spending evenings at the beach in a Southern Hemisphere summer that never seems to end.

    Farmers estimate the drought has so far cost them about 1 billion New Zealand dollars ($820 million) in lost export earnings with the damage rising daily as they reduce their herds, which in turn reduces milk production.

    Farming, and dairy cows in particular, drives the economy in the island nation of 4.5 million and the drought is expected to shave about a percentage point off economic growth.

    New Zealand's last significant drought was five years ago and also cost farmers billions of dollars.

    Bruce Wills, president of farming association Federated Farmers, said North Island slaughterhouses are processing about 40 percent more cows and sheep this year as farmers reduce their herds. The increased numbers and lighter weight of the animals has resulted in plummeting prices, he said.

    North Island farmers are also sending stock to the South Island, which hasn't been so affected. Wills said farmers have sent 1.5 million lambs and other stock on ferries to the South Island to graze or be slaughtered there.

    "One of the challenges with a drought is that the impact can go on for a number of years," he said. "We'll have a lower lambing percentage next year because there hasn't been enough feed this year," he said of the impact on animal fertility.

    The official government designation of a drought provides farmers some financial relief through increased government funding of rural groups and tax breaks. Farmers facing serious financial hardship will also be eligible to apply for temporary unemployment benefits.

    "It's a very serious problem," said lawmaker David Shearer. "It's obviously affecting farmers, but the other part is it's also going to flow through to our rural communities - the retail shops and the businesses."

    Bill English, the country's finance minister, said that despite the economic difficulties caused by the drought, he believes the government can still maintain its goal of returning the national budget to surplus by the year beginning July 2014. The country was sent into the red after the 2008 global financial crisis.

    James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, said New Zealanders should expect more summers like the current one due to global warming. He said the dry subtropical weather that helps forms deserts in places like Africa and Australia is expanding toward the world's poles.

    He said the risk of drought in New Zealand will keep increasing and water resources will become more stretched. He said that in certain places, dairy cows, with their reliance on abundant water, may not be as viable in years to come but that other more drought-resistant crops and species could replace them.

    "We may need to change our approach to farming," Renwick said. "Whatever the climate is, there's always something you can do."

    Like, perhaps, growing grapes.

    "The weather for us is stunningly good," said Philip Gregan, the chief executive of New Zealand Wine, an association representing grape growers and winemakers. "We're getting warm, dry, cooler nights. It's the perfect recipe for fully ripe fruit with fabulous flavors."

    Gregan said winemakers across the country are expecting an excellent vintage as the annual grape harvest begins.

    New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is well-regarded internationally, but the industry remains small when compared to farming. Winemaking accounts for about 1.2 billion New Zealand dollars ($1 billion) in exports while farming accounts for about 25 billion New Zealand dollars ($20.6 billion).

    The sunny weather in the capital city Wellington has been drawing thousands of tourists and office workers to the waterfront.

    Simon Edmonds, who owns the waterfront cafe Tuatua, said late summer business is up 30 to 40 percent over the same time last year. But, he said, locals seem to have become so accustomed to sunny days this year that they're not arriving in the same numbers as they did on fine days in previous years.

    "People can't go out and buy lunch every single day," he said.

    Some relief may come with rain in the forecast on Sunday - although one dousing won't be nearly enough to undo the drought.

    For Rose, the dairy farmer, the end of the golden weather can't come quick enough.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

     

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    Three members of the Expedition 34 crew pose for photos. From left are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, commander, with Roscosmos Flight Engineers Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. (NASA)

    MOSCOW (AP) - Bad weather is delaying the return of three astronauts from the International Space Station.

    The astronauts were scheduled to land in a Soyuz capsule in central Kazakhstan early Friday morning. But fog and freezing rain prevented Russian rescue helicopters from flying to the touchdown site.

    NASA's Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin will stay at the space station for at least another day. They've been in space for nearly five months.

    The astronauts had already climbed into their capsule and where waiting to close the hatch when Russian officials called off their departure at the last minute. Their return trip is now set for Saturday, when the weather is expected to be better.

    Three other astronauts will remain at the space station.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Breathtaking Images of Earth from Space

     

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    An expanse of beach near Rockaway, Ore., is shown from Nea-kah-nie Mountain. The Oregon coast is considered at risk from a monster earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

    SALEM, Ore. (AP) - More than 10,000 people could die when - not if - a monster earthquake and tsunami occur just off the Pacific Northwest coast, researchers told Oregon legislators Thursday.

    Coastal towns would be inundated. Schools, buildings and bridges would collapse, and economic damage could hit $32 billion.

    These findings were published in a chilling new report by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, a group of more than 150 volunteer experts.

    In 2011, the legislature authorized the study of what would happen if a quake and tsunami such as the one that devastated Japan hit the Pacific Northwest.

    The Cascadia Subduction Zone, just off the regional coastline, produced a mega-quake in the year 1700. Seismic experts say another monster quake and tsunami are overdue.

    "This earthquake will hit us again," Kent Yu, an engineer and chairman of the commission, told lawmakers. "It's just a matter of how soon."

    When it hits, the report says, there will be devastation and death from Northern California to British Columbia.

    Many Oregon communities will be left without water, power, heat and telephone service. Gasoline supplies will be disrupted.

    The 2011 Japan quake and tsunami were a wakeup call for the Pacific Northwest. Governments have been taking a closer look at whether the region is prepared for something similar and discovering it is not.

    Oregon legislators requested the study so they could better inform themselves about what needs to be done to prepare and recover from such a giant natural disaster.

    The report says that geologically, Oregon and Japan are mirror images. Despite the devastation in Japan, that country was more prepared than Oregon because it had spent billions on technology to reduce the damage, the report says.

    Jay Wilson, the commission's vice chairman, visited Japan and said he was profoundly affected as he walked through villages ravaged by the tsunami.

    "It was just as if these communities were ghost towns, and for the most part there was nothing left," said Wilson, who works for the Clackamas County emergency management department.

    Wilson told legislators that there was a similar event 313 years ago in the Pacific Northwest, and "we're well within the window for it to happen again."

    Experts representing a variety of state agencies, industries and organizations expanded on the report's findings and shared with lawmakers how they have begun planning.

    Sue Graves, a safety coordinator for the Lincoln County School District, told lawmakers that high school students in her district take semester-long classes that teach CPR and other survival techniques in the wake of a giant earthquake. The class teaches students to "duck, cover and hold" when the ground starts shaking.

    Maree Wacker, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Oregon, said it is important for residents to have their own contingency plans for natural disasters.

    "Oregonians as individuals are underprepared," she said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    Just as portions of the Midwest will deal with rounds of snow and rain into the weekend, so will areas in the East. Depending on the time of day they hit, there could be slippery travel.

    One round of showers of snow, rain and wintry mix will affect upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania for a time on Friday. A more general area of snow, rain and wintry mix will occur later Friday night into Saturday, centered over the mid-Atlantic. A large cross-country storm will affect the entire region during the first part of next week.

    The wintry mix showers Friday will not amount to much.

    The next disturbance on deck will affect the eastern Great Lakes and central Appalachians region Friday night and then part of the mid-Atlantic coast Saturday.

    Snow accumulation is possible near and north of I-80 to along the New York Southern Tier Expressway with a few slushy areas as far south as the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But, but by the time it reaches the I-95 corridor Saturday will it will be too warm for accumulating snow.

    Snows during the night time or first thing in the morning will be the most troublesome. Your local AccuWeather.com forecast will have the details on the timing and nature of each of the precipitation events.

    A larger storm will take aim at the region during the middle of next week.

    These storms will each spread swaths of snow on different tracks, which will make for some rather challenging forecasts.

    Areas near and just north of the storm track will have snow or a wintry mix with surprisingly low daytime temperatures for the middle of March. Areas to the south of the storm track will have rain or spotty showers. However, where the sun breaks out just south of the storm track, temperatures can surge to amazingly warm levels (60s or higher). A matter of 100 miles south to north could mean a temperature difference of more than 40 degrees.

    RELATED:
    New Disruptive Snowstorm Northwest to Northeast
    Growing Season 2013: Better for the Corn Belt
    Winter Chill Returns: Philadelphia to New York City and Boston


    While these are not likely to bring much, if any, accumulation of snow to the coastal areas, this time of year it is a matter of timing of snow when it comes to accumulating on roads and sidewalks, whether at the coast, in the mountains or the interior valleys. The strengthening sun, even when not visible, plays a major role.

    While the same March rules apply to that storm in terms of time of day snow and snow versus rain, there are concerns for rising seas along part of the coast and a chance of rising rivers on a sub-regional basis.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    A storm forecast to roll ashore in the Pacific Northwest Saturday will spread a swath of snow, rain, thunderstorms and wind across a large part of the nation next week.

    The storm will be strong enough at times to cause travel disruptions, flooding and sporadic power outages from wind, rain, heavy snow and thunderstorms.

    The northern Cascades and northern Rockies will be the first to get snow from the storm, where over a foot can accumulate in the high country over the weekend. The snow can dip as low as Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 Saturday night into Sunday.

    During Sunday, the storm will emerge east of the Rockies. By then, it will throw snow and gusty wind over the Plains of Montana and North Dakota with portions of I-94 being affected. Local whiteout conditions are possible at times.

    The worst of the storm will stay north of Denver as discussed on AccuWeather.com earlier this week.

    As the caboose of Alberta Clipper storms exit the East later this weekend, the new cross-country storm will already be putting down heavy snow over part of the northern Rockies and northern Plains.

    Sunday night and Monday, the storm will begin to focus over the Midwest. Windblown snow is possible over portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Meanwhile, rain and thunderstorms will be gathering farther south over the Ohio and lower Mississippi valleys.

    The snow can be intense in some areas across the north, while the storms and downpours can be quite heavy farther south. The snow across the north could result in significant travel issues; the rain in the south could be heavy enough to cause incidents of flooding.

    The track of the storm will determine whether or not heavy snow swings as far south as Chicago and Detroit. Minneapolis appears to be in line for a heavy snowfall.

    After the storm reaches the Midwest, it may split into two parts Monday night and Tuesday with one center swinging toward the eastern Great Lakes and a new center developing near or east of the central Appalachians.

    At this point, a second area of drenching rain is possible over portions of the mid-Atlantic Tuesday, spreading into southeastern New England. For all intents and purposes, it appears this storm will be a rain producer for much of the I-95 mid-Atlantic. However, low visibility and low ceilings, combined with locally gusty wind, could lead to flight delays.

    Showers and thunderstorms are likely to affect the Southeast, including areas in need of rain from South Carolina to northern Florida. There is a possibility that some of the storms will become severe enough to cause damage, however.

    Exactly how that second, new low pressure area tracks and strengthens will determine the extent of snow from the central Appalachians to interior and northern New England.

    The greatest potential for heavy snow exists from parts of central and northern Pennsylvania to upstate New York, northern New England and neighboring Canada. However, depending on how much warm air is circulating around the storm (and there is likely to be a strong circulation with a great deal of wind), the area of snow could be smaller than this or be mixed with rain for a time over a large part of the same area.

    More Problems Likely with Next Week's Storm

    Because of snowfall over the winter and recent rain, there is the risk of flooding problems with the storm over the Northeast, particularly over New England. Some streams and rivers may rise to bank full. Unprotected areas prone to flooding in the spring will want to monitor this storm.

    As far as coastal flooding and beach erosion are concerned, with the track of the secondary storm anticipated, the greatest risk is for New England but may not be limited to eastern Massachusetts. Southeast winds could drive some water toward Long Island, the South Coast of New England and farther north along the New England coast. Fortunately, the astronomical impact will be minimal with the moon near the first quarter stage around the time of the storm.

    As previously stated, the storm will generate a significant amount of wind. Wind on the back side is likely to be greater for most areas than on the front side of the storm, especially from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes to the Ohio Valley, Southeast and mid-Atlantic, where flight delays are possible Tuesday night and Wednesday. This includes Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston.

    It is also possible the winds could be strong enough to cause sporadic power outages in these areas and on the front side of the storm in portions of New England, and generally in the heavy, wet snow areas of the interior Northeast.

    The storm system will create another big southward dip in the jet stream over the northeastern part of the nation, reinforcing cold air and favoring snow showers in a number of locations for the rest of next week.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 15 Photos of Monster Blizzards

     

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    (WPTV/Facebook)

    Some South Florida residents thought they witnessed a miraculous sign from above on Wednesday, when a cloud bearing a striking resemblance to an angel appeared shortly after a new pope was selected at the Vatican, according to WPTV in Florida. Many grabbed cameras to document the visage, snapping shots of the pink-hued cloud, which many WPTV viewers believed was a message from God.

    Still, some experts think there's a more earthly explanation for the cloud phenomenon. NBC News spoke with Ian Loxley, photo gallery editor for the Cloud Appreciation Society, who explained, "It could be cirrus, if high enough; however, it appears to be lower than the background altocumulus, which is the teaser. My best shot would be a virga remnant from an aircraft contrail."

    So, why do people think they saw an otherworldly shape in the cloud? As Alan Boyle, science editor for NBC News, explains, humans experience a type of pattern recognition known as pareidolia (a Greek word meaning "wrong shape"), meaning we are so prone to recognizing faces and other human patterns, that we often associate them to inanimate objects. Consider for a moment folks who see the face of Jesus in a piece of burnt toast or even the man in the moon.

    As for whether the cloud is a virga remnant or a sign of God's approval of a pope's selection -- well, we'll leave that to the eye of the beholder.

    RELATED ON SKYE: What Creatures Do You See in These Clouds?

     

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    Paramedics treat a marathon runner suffering from heat In Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, March 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Roni Schutzer)

    JERUSALEM (AP) - An Israeli soldier died of a heat stroke Friday after completing a half-marathon in Tel Aviv, prompting Israel's minister of public security to criticize organizers for allowing the race to take place during a heat wave.

    The soldier collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, but medics were unable to resuscitate him, said rescue services spokesman Zaki Heller. The race was run in temperatures around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The military identified the dead soldier as Sgt. Michael Michalevitch, 29, who served in the military's canine special forces.

    Four other runners who collapsed from the heat were put in medically induced comas and are on respirators at a Tel Aviv hospital, Heller said. In total, medics treated more than 50 runners at the race, he said.

    Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel's public security minister, said on Israel Radio that the incident was "very serious" and suggested that race organizers could be held responsible for not canceling the race after heat was predicted.

    The Tel Aviv municipality expressed regret over the death of the runner but defended its actions, saying it had followed the instructions of health officials. It postponed the full marathon of 26.2 miles initially scheduled for Friday in anticipation of the heat wave, and started the half-marathon of 13.1 miles earlier in the morning to avoid the hottest temperatures.

    The municipality said in a statement that when the runner died, Israel's national weather service had reported only a light heat wave.

     

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    This screenshot from a video taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft shows a coronal mass ejection (center) erupting from the sun on March 12, 2013. (NASA/SDO)

    Editor's note: Aurorae could appear as far south as New York and Idaho, according to NOAA.

    A recent solar blast may ramp up northern lights displays this Friday, giving well-placed skywatchers a treat, NASA officials say.

    The sun unleashed a huge cloud of superheated plasma Tuesday morning (March 12) in a solar eruption known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). This cloud is not headed straight for Earth, but it could deliver a glancing blow to our planet on Friday (March 15), researchers said.

    "There is now a 65% chance of geomagnetic activity on March 15 due to this event," officials wrote Wednesday (March 13) on the Facebook page of NASA's sun-watching Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. "High latitude watchers - [get] ready for possible aurorae."

    The eruption originated from a sunspot known as Active Region 1690, which at the time was centered on the Earth-facing side of the sun, they added. NASA also released a video of the solar eruption as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

    Powerful CMEs that hit Earth directly can wreak havoc on our planet, triggering geomagnetic storms that can disrupt radio communications, GPS signals and power grids for days at a time. But Tuesday's eruption is not expected to affect Earth beyond possibly sparking some souped-up aurora displays.

    The auroras, which are also known as the northern and southern lights, result when charged particles from the sun collide with molecules high in Earth's atmosphere, generating a glow. The phenomenon is usually restricted to high latitutes because Earth's magnetic field lines tend to funnel these particles over the planet's poles.

    Tuesday's eruption notwithstanding, the sun has been pretty quiet recently. That's something of a surprise, because many scientists had predicted that the sun's current 11-year activity cycle -known as Solar Cycle 24 - would peak in 2013.

    The lull has spurred some researchers to postulate that Solar Cycle 24 may actually have a double peak - one occurring in 2011, which saw many powerful sun storms, and another coming soon after the sun rouses from its mini-slumber.

    Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: The Best Places to See the Northern Lights

     

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    March 15, 2013
    Global Warming, Tornado
    A half-mile-wide tornado moves towards Piedmont, Okla., on May 24, 2011. With the planet heating up, many scientists seem fairly certain some weather elements like hurricanes and droughts will worsen. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Southerland, File)

    OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With the planet heating up, many scientists seem fairly certain some weather elements like hurricanes and droughts will worsen. But tornadoes have them stumped.

    These unpredictable, sometimes deadly storms plague the United States more than any other country. Here in tornado alley, Oklahoma City has been hit with at least 147 tornadoes since 1890.

    But as the traditional tornado season nears, scientists have been pondering a simple question: Will there be more or fewer twisters as global warming increases?

    There is no easy answer. Lately, tornado activity in America has been Jekyll-and-Hyde weird and scientists are unsure if climate change has played a role in recent erratic patterns.

    In 2011, the United States saw its second-deadliest tornado season in history: Nearly 1,700 tornadoes killed 553 people. The Joplin, Mo., twister was the single deadliest in American history, killing 158 people and causing $2.8 billion in damage.

    The following year, 2012, started even earlier and even busier. Through April there were twice as many tornadoes as normal. Then the twisters suddenly disappeared. Tornado activity from May to August of that year was the lowest in 60 years of record-keeping, said Harold Brooks, a top researcher at the National Weather Center in Norman, Okla.

    Meanwhile, Canada saw an unusual number of tornadoes in 2012; Saskatchewan had three times the normal number.

    That year, the jet stream moved north and "essentially shut down" tornadoes in the American Midwest said Greg Carbin, warning meteorologist at the federal storm center. A tremendous drought meant far fewer storms, which not only shut off the spigot on rain but on storm cells that spawned tornadoes.

    For much of America, tornadoes are seasonal. Typically, there are more during spring, and the numbers dwindle in the worst heat of the summer. Last year "essentially was an extended period of summertime conditions over the U.S.," Carbin said. "The real question is: What is spring now? Is it February?"

    "Summer may be happening earlier and may be muscling out what we consider a transition between summer and winter," he said.

    The last two seasons aren't alone in illustrating extremes in tornado activity.

    Tornado record-keepers tally things like the most and least tornadoes in a month. Records for that category have been set 24 times over the past 60 years. Ten of those records have been set in the past decade - six for the fewest tornadoes and four for the most, Brooks said. Also, the three earliest starts of tornado season and the four latest have all occurred since 1997, he said.

    What does that mean?

    "We've had a dramatic increase in the variability of tornado occurrence," Brooks said.

    The jet stream, a major player in tornado formation, has been in a state of flux, varying wildly in recent years, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann.

    "It's hard to predict future tornado seasons when we don't understand current tornado seasons," Brooks said between sessions at the National Tornado Summit here earlier this week. "We're not sure what's going to happen with the tornado numbers."

    A new study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society looks at all sorts of extreme weather, how it is changing because of global warming and how things are predicted to change in the future. The study says tornadoes and the severe thunderstorms that spawn them are the hardest to predict.

    Public opinion polls show Americans blame global warming for bad tornado outbreaks, but climate scientists say that's not quite right.

    One reason scientists can't figure out how global warming might affect tornadoes is that twisters are usually small weather events that aren't easily simulated in large computer models. And records of tornadoes may not have been accurate over the years as twisters twirled unnoticed around unpopulated areas.

    So Brooks and others are looking at the ingredients that cause tornadoes. But even that isn't simple. They look at two main factors: moist energy in the atmosphere and wind shear. Wind shear is the difference between wind at high altitudes and wind near the surface. The more moist energy and greater the wind shear, the better the chances for tornadoes.

    The atmosphere can hold more moisture as it warms, and it will likely be more unstable so that means more moist energy, several experts said. But wind shear is another matter. Brooks and Stanford University scientist Noah Diffenbaugh think there will be less of that.

    That would suggest fewer tornadoes. But if there's more moist energy, that could lead to more tornadoes. One ingredient has to win out and Brooks says it's hard to tell which one will. Diffenbaugh says recent computer simulations show the moist energy may overcome the reduced shear and produce at least more severe thunderstorms, if not tornadoes.

    Given what's happening lately, Brooks believes there will be fewer days of tornadoes but more twisters on the days when they occur.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes
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    An inflatable boat carries tourists past an iceberg along the Antarctic Peninsula in December 2009. (AP Photo/Aurora Expeditions, Andrew Halsall)

    ROSS ISLAND, Antarctica (AP) - Across most of Earth, a tourist attraction that sees 35,000 visitors a year can safely be labeled sleepy. But when it's Antarctica, every footstep matters.

    Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it's not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in "adventure tourism" like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

    In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off.

    The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force.

    "I think there's been a foot off the pedal in recent years," said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions. "If it takes five years, 10 years to bring even what you agree into force, it's very difficult to micromanage these sorts of developments."

    Antarctic tourism has grown from fewer than 2,000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08. Then the numbers plummeted, bottoming out at fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12.

    The Rhode Island-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators doesn't have its final 2012-13 figures yet but estimates close to 35,000 visitors this season, which runs from November through March. The industry group expects slightly more tourists next summer.

    It's not just the numbers of tourists but the activities that are changing, said Hemmings, who has been part of a delegation representing New Zealand in some Antarctic Treaty discussions.

    "What used to be Antarctic tourism in the late '80s through the '90s was generally people of middle age or older going on cruises and small ships where they went ashore at a few locations and they looked at wildlife, historic sites and maybe visited one current station," he said. "But there's an increasing diversification of the activities now so it's much more action orientated. Now people want to go paragliding, waterskiing, diving or a variety of other things."

    Visitors can also skydive over the frigid landscape, and London-based Henry Cookson Adventures took two and three-man submarines to Antarctica in the latest summer. Hemmings said he was once asked to advise on a Germany company's plan to fly gliders over the colossal Transantarctic Mountains to the South Pole, but that project was never carried out.

    On Ross Island, a stark black-and-white outcrop of ice on porous, volcanic rock, the active volcano Mt. Erebus stands as a warning of the dangers of tourism in this remote and hostile environment. In 1979, an Air New Zealand airliner on a sightseeing tour from Auckland slammed into the mountain in whiteout conditions, killing all 257 people aboard. After that disaster, sightseeing flights over Antarctica did not resume until the mid-1990s.

    Some of the earliest attempts at skydiving in Antarctica also ended in tragedy. Two Americans and an Austrian died in the same jump in 1997 near the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographic South Pole.

    Hypoxia - a lack of oxygen - is a suspected reason why the skydivers failed to deploy their parachutes in time. Antarctica is not only the world's coldest, driest and windiest continent, but also the highest. The South Pole is on an icy plateau 2,835 meters (9,301 feet) above sea level and the air is relatively thin.

    The last fatalities at sea near the continent were in February 2011, when a Norwegian-flagged, steel-hulled yacht with three crew vanished during wild weather in the Ross Sea.

    It's not only tourists who get into trouble. Searchers will wait until at least October to recover the bodies of three Canadians involved in scientific research who died in a plane crash in January near a summit in the Queen Alexandra range. A fire aboard a Japanese whaling ship in the Ross Sea killed a crew member in 2007. And anti-whaling activists lost a boat that collided with a whaler in 2010. No one was injured.

    Hemmings said tourist ships have been involved in several mishaps in Antarctica in the past five years.

    "Misadventure can befall anybody," he said, but he added that the number of tourist ships coming to Antarctica's busiest areas was a concern.

    While Antarctica is as big as the United States and Mexico combined, tourists and scientists for the most part keep to areas that aren't permanently frozen and where wildlife can be found. Those account for less than 2 percent of the continent.

    It's a land of many hazards, not all of them obvious. The dry air makes static electricity a constant threat to electronics and a fire risk when refueling vehicles. Residents quickly get into the habit of touching metal fixtures as they pass, and metal discharge plates are set beside all telephones and computer keyboards.

    Most tourists arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is easily accessible from Argentina and Chile. The next most popular destination is the Ross Sea on the opposite side of the continent, a 10-day sail from New Zealand or Australia.

    Both landscapes are intensely bright and profoundly silent during the 17 weeks between sunrise and sunset in the summer. The peninsula is a milder environment and has a wider variety of fauna and flora.

    The Ross Sea, where the Royal Society Range soars 13,200 feet above the ice-clogged waters of McMurdo Sound, demonstrates the colossal grandeur for which Antarctica is renowned. It was also the starting point of British expeditions to the South Pole during the so-called heroic era of Antarctic exploration from 1895 to 1915. The early explorers' wooden huts still dot the coast.

    The Ross Ice Shelf, the world's largest mass of floating ice covering an area almost as big as Spain, rises as steep, gleaming cliffs 200 feet from the sea.

    Two cruise ships visited the sea's Ross Island, connected to the continent by ice, last summer. Summer temperatures average 21 degrees but often seem colder due to wind chill.

    Passengers visited the largest settlement in Antarctica, the sprawling U.S. McMurdo Station, which can accommodate more than 1,200 people, as well as New Zealand's neighboring Scott Base, which sleeps fewer than 90. Many also visited a drafty hut built by doomed British explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in 1902 as an expedition base a few hundred yards from McMurdo Station.

    The two bases, separated by a 2-mile ice road, don't facilitate tourism, but tourists are generally welcomed. Both have well-stocked gift shops.

    Antarctic New Zealand's environment manager Neil Gilbert said more robust monitoring is needed to track impacts of tourism.

    "The Antarctic Peninsula ... is one of if not the most rapidly warming part of the globe," Gilbert said. "We really don't know what additional impact that those tourism numbers ... are having on what is already a very significantly changing environment."

    There are fears that habitat will be trampled, that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes or will transfer native flora and fauna to parts of the continent where they never before existed.

    A major fear is that a large cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers will run into trouble in these ice-clogged, storm-prone and poorly charted waters, creating an environmentally disastrous oil spill and a humanitarian crisis for the sparsely resourced Antarctic research stations and distant nations to respond to.

    To reduce the risk of spills, the United Nations' shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, barred the use of heavy fuel oil below 60 degrees latitude south in 2011.

    That was a blow to operators of large cruise ships. Steve Wellmeier, administrative director of the tour operators group, said the ban initially slashed cruise passenger numbers by two-thirds.

    But it was only a temporary obstacle to industry growth; large ocean liners can comply with the ban by using lighter distillate fuels in Antarctic waters. About 9,900 passengers are believed to have visited Antarctica on large cruise ships is the season now ending, double the total from 2011-12.

    The fuel-oil ban is a rare thing for Antarctic tourism: a binding rule.

    The 28 countries that comprise the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee have made 27 non-binding recommendations on tourism since 1966, but just two mandatory rules - and neither of those are yet in force.

    A 2004 agreement requiring tourism operators to be insured to cover possible rescue operations or medical evacuations has been ratified by only 11 of the 28 countries. A 2009 agreement barring ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing tourists - a measure to protect trampled sites - has the legal backing of just two countries, Japan and Uruguay.

    The United States, by far the biggest source of tourists and tourism operators, has not signed either measure.

    The International Maritime Organization intends to enforce a Polar Code, detailing safety standards for ships entering both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It was supposed to be force by 2013, but the IMO now says it won't be adopted before 2014, and after that it will take another 18 months for the code to be implemented.

    Hemmings said the current lack of standards is a problem because increasing numbers of cruise ships are negotiating the poorly charted and storm-prone seas without ice-strengthened hulls as Antarctic legs are added to South American, South Pacific and around-the-world cruises.

    Those ships "are not necessarily ice-strengthened, or if they are ice-strengthened, are not ice-strengthened to a high standard because at other times of the year they're doing something different," Hemmings said.

    Wellmeier, the industry group official, said the impending rules could knock some currently operating vessels out of Antarctica. In any case, he said he doesn't think tourism there will return to the explosive growth rates of the years before the financial crisis, simply because the ships needed for such expansion are not available.

    Tourists far outnumber the scientists and support staff at national scientific research stations in Antarctica during the peak summer season, though the researchers make more of an impact because they stay longer. The summer population at the 39 stations across the continent peaked at about 4,400 in the 2011-12 year.

    Wellmeier believes tourists should not be considered separately from the question of overall human impact on the Antarctic environment. He said too often it is research-station personnel who flout the rules.

    "We hear horror stories every season," he said. "A group will come ashore from a national program and they're on their day off ... and they're breaking the rules, right and left, smoking and getting too close to the animals."

    The United States has been criticized on environmental grounds for building a 995-mile ice road from McMurdo Station to the South Pole on which tractors drag fuel and supplies on sleds. The road provides a more reliable alternative to frequently grounded air services.

    Australia-based adventurer Tim Jarvis sees Antarctic tourists not as a problem, but as part of the solution for a frozen continent where the ice is rapidly retreating. If more tourists see its wonders and the impacts of climate change, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula, Jarvis said, the world will become more inclined to protect the continent.

    "It's a pity we live in a world that's a little bit overregulated in many respects," he said of the prospect of greater controls on tourism.

    Jarvis led a party of six in January and February on a 19-day reenactment of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's desperate sea and land journey to a South Georgia Island whaling station in the southern Atlantic Ocean in 1916. After his ship was crushed by sea ice, Shackleton left 22 of his crew on a remote island, then set sail in a lifeboat on an 800-nautical-mile voyage to get help.

    Jarvis's party encountered 26-foot waves, then repeatedly fell through crevasses as they trekked across the snow-covered mountains of South Georgia. Jarvis suffered frostbite to one of his feet but completed the journey. Three members of his party couldn't complete the climb because of trench foot, a condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions.

    While the journey seems death-defying, it was the product of tremendous planning. Jarvis and his party spent more than a year applying for five permits from various treaty countries accompanied by detailed risk assessments and environmental impact statements. They paid for their own backup boat to rescue them in case anything went wrong.

    "My broader message to people is that we all have the potential to do far more in our lives than we feel we're capable of doing and we should go and explore that ... but do it responsibly," Jarvis said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Breathtaking Photos of Antarctica

     

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    Stunning Photos Of Lightning Striking Erupting Volcano

    Sure you've heard about lava erupting from a volcano when it blows its top, but what about volcanic lightning? Photographer Martin Rietze took these photos of the Sakurajima Volcano in Japan getting struck by lightning in February.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Breathtaking Volcanic Eruptions Seen from Space

     

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