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SKYE on AOL

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    Firefighters attack to keep a line during the fire that started near Lory State Park in Fort Collins, Colo., Friday. (AP Photo/The Coloradoan, V. Richard Haro)

    FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - The wildfire season that Coloradans have been nervously awaiting arrived in a wind-whipped frenzy in the foothills near Fort Collins.

    The year's first major along the populous Front Range was spotted late Friday morning and raced across 750 to 1,000 acres by Friday night. More than 50 homes were threatened, and authorities issued hundreds of evacuation orders.

    The fire was 5 percent contained, and crews were hoping for calmer weather Saturday.

    Firefighters saved two homes and the visitors' center at Lory State Park from flames, authorities said. They said no homes had been destroyed.

    The fire was burning west of Horsetooth Reservoir, near the scene of a large wildfire last summer that burned 259 homes and killed one person. The cause was under investigation.

    Firefighters controlled a second, smaller fire nearby earlier Friday.

    The Larimer County Sheriff's Department said 860 phone lines got automated calls ordering evacuations ahead of the larger fire, but some addresses have multiple lines and other numbers were cellphones, so the exact number of homes in the evacuation area was not known.

    Residents of a neighborhood north of the fire were allowed to go home Friday night. Authorities said 281 evacuation calls had been made to that area.

    Some people believed to be hiking in the state park were unaccounted for, but sheriff's spokesman Nick Christensen said they were not believed to be in imminent danger. Park rangers were looking for them.

    The fire came as much of the state dealt with drought conditions after a relatively dry winter. The snowpack in the mountains was low, leaving farmers wondering how many crops to plant and raising the possibility of lawn-watering restrictions along the Front Range.

    Colorado's wildfire season also started in March last year.

    "This is a really bad start," said Angela Dietrich, whose home was not in the fire's immediate path but was shrouded by smoke.

    Strong, changing winds caused havoc on Friday, first pushing the fire north, then south.

    "We've had variable and erratic winds all day long," said Patrick Love, a spokesman for the Poudre Fire Authority.

    The sudden shift prompted deputies and state troopers to barricade a neighborhood on the southwest side of the reservoir that hadn't been officially evacuated.

    "It's pretty ridiculous to shut things down and not let anyone know," said Mark Martina, a mortgage broker who was heading home to get his dog when he reached the new roadblock not far from his house.

    When authorities began allowing some residents back in for brief visits to retrieve valuables, Martina said he planned to stay as long as necessary to collect birth certificates, guns and other important items.

    "I'm not a complete idiot. I'm going to leave if it's coming close," he said.

    Chicago resident Terry Jones and his family were in a vacation house they own when they saw smoke billowing toward them, and then officers pounded on their door and told them to leave.

    Late Friday afternoon, as the sun turned hillsides pink and smoke obscured the reservoir, Jones was asked if he'd rather be back home in Chicago.

    "No," he said. "Not even with the fire."

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    Onlookers stop to watch the fire on the east side of Horsetooth Reservior west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Friday. (AP Photo/The Coloradoan, V. Richard Haro)

    FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - People forced from their homes by a wildfire in the foothills west of Fort Collins have been given the OK to return.

    Fire officials said that all evacuees could return as of 8 p.m. Saturday, but warned that some should remain prepared to leave again if necessary.

    The blaze had charred 750 to 1,000 acres and was 45 percent contained, officials said.

    It was spotted Friday morning and strong, erratic winds helped push it through rugged terrain west of Horsetooth Reservoir, near the scene of a large wildfire last summer that burned 259 homes and killed one person.

    Calmer weather on Saturday allowed crews to gain the upper hand.

    Tony Simons with Larimer County Emergency Services said cloud cover and higher relative humidity helped the more than 100 firefighters battling the blaze.

    No injuries were reported, and no structures were damaged.

    After the fire was spotted Friday, 860 phone lines received automated calls ordering evacuations, but some addresses have multiple lines and other numbers were cellphones, so the exact number of homes in the evacuation area was not known. Officials said a second round of 579 phone lines received the calls later that day.

    The fire, which authorities say was accidentally sparked and was not the result of a prescribed burn, comes as much of the state deals with drought conditions after a relatively dry winter.

    Colorado's wildfire season also started in March last year.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    Updated 4:49 p.m. EDT, Sunday, March 17, 2013.
    Hovering Leprechaun on St Patrick's Day

    DUBLIN (AP) - Never mind the fickle Irish weather. A chilly, damp Dublin celebrated St. Patrick's Day with artistic flair anyway Sunday as the focal point for a weekend of Irish celebrations worldwide.

    More than 250,000 revelers braved the occasionally snowy, sleety skies to line the streets for the traditional holiday parade, a 2-mile jaunt through the city's heart involving performers from 46 countries.

    Unusually, 8,000 tourists in town for the festivities led this year's procession in a "people's parade." Many donned leprechaun costumes or deployed banners and flags of their home nations or U.S. states, with the Texans making the biggest impression as they sported "Happy St. Paddy's Day, Y'All!" T-shirts.

    One marcher, a 22-year-old engineer from Calgary, Canada, defiantly showed it wasn't so nippy at all - by doing the hour-long walk shirtless, with only a painted-on shamrock covering his chest.

    "It's not cold!" Oliver Feniak declared as he, like many in the leisurely paced 2 1/2-hour parade, stopped to shake hands with onlookers standing five-deep on O'Connell Bridge spanning the River Liffey.

    Sunday's decision to put tourists in the vanguard was connected to a year-long tourism promotion called The Gathering that is organizing hundreds of clan reunions nationwide in hopes of boosting the economy. That's sorely needed in an Ireland struggling with 14 percent unemployment, heavy emigration and a household-debt crisis following the 2008 collapse of its Celtic Tiger boom.

    St. Patrick's Day always marks the start of Ireland's full-court press for tourists. Since 1997 Dublin has expanded the holiday into a multi-day festival featuring special children's playgrounds, street amusement parks, concerts and walking tours. Irish President Michael D. Higgins is hosting a nationally televised TV show Monday night featuring many of Ireland's top artists and musicians, including Bono and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

    "We cherish the creativity, community spirit and rich culture for which we, as a nation, are renowned," Higgins said in a speech after the parade. "I have said on many occasions that while the experience of the so-called Celtic Tiger failed to live up to the best versions of Irishness, we have not been failed by our artists. In fact, our artists are a huge moral resource and great reputational asset for Ireland."

    St. Patrick's Day is being marked in skylines across the world as part of a global campaign to floodlight landmarks green at night. This year the pyramids of Giza, the leaning tower of Pisa, Niagara Falls, and the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio are among dozens of iconic spots going green for the occasion.

    While tens or thousands of foreigners have made a beeline for Dublin, practically the entire Irish government has gone the other direction, sending 19 ministers to 21 countries to capitalize on a marketing opportunity unique among nations.

    Prime Minister Enda Kenny marched in Saturday's biggest U.S. parade in New York and is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, when the U.S. political establishment marks the Irish holiday.

    It hasn't all gone smoothly. The government deputy leader, Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, caused diplomatic waves in Atlanta, Georgia, by snubbing the second-biggest American parade in nearby Savannah - because, Gilmore said, he didn't want to attend a dinner hosted by an Irish-American group that bans women from attending.

    Most of Irish-America marked the holiday a day early, reflecting the view that such a notoriously boozy holiday shouldn't happen on a Sunday. But the Irish diaspora in most of the rest of the world stuck to marking St. Patrick's Day on March 17 as usual.

    Many of Sunday's revelers suggested they were in Dublin specifically to soak up the pub atmosphere.

    "We came all the way from Kansas City to drink some Guinness!' declared one banner on the parade route displayed by John Mullen, a 46-year-old lawyer, and his 17-year-old son Jack.

    The senior Mullen, whose roots lie in the western county of Mayo, said he and his boy actually were golfing their way through Ireland, not drinking. He said the key to enjoying Ireland was to soak up the locals' exceptionally good conversation regardless of the foul weather.

    "Yesterday we got rained on, sleeted on, snowed on as we golfed. There was even some sun here and there. It was four seasons in one round," Mullen said. "People back home say I've got the gift of the gab, but I've got no game here. The conversations here are magnificent. But you sometimes wonder how you're ever going to get out of them!"

    In the world's first major St. Patrick's party Sunday, about 30,000 spectators soaked up the sun as Sydney's Irish-Australians paraded through the city. Australia always marks St. Patrick's Day on a Sunday. After the event, partiers rallying at the city's Hyde Park saw 45 Irish men and women receive Australian citizenship. That's increasingly common as tens of thousands of Irish job-seekers have made Australia a favored new home while Ireland's own economy remains in the doldrums.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Places Where Green Reigns Supreme for St. Paddy's Day

     

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    Red Cross volunteers distribute food and water to residents in Henryville, Ind., after a tornado destroyed their homes March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

    CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - A new warning system launched by the American Red Cross will alert users of iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones whenever a tornado is near.

    The Tornado App is the latest in a series of mobile apps created by the Red Cross to help save lives during hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters, The Journal Review reports (http://bit.ly/Y9X9nZ ).

    Denise Maxwell, director of the Montgomery County Red Cross chapter, said the app issues a high-pitched siren whenever a tornado is near.

    "It's really great because most tornadoes happen at night when people are sleeping. This app will wake up you in the middle of the night and give you a chance to get in a safe place," she said.

    The app also provides tornado, severe thunderstorm and flood watch and warning alerts tied to the user's location, along with enhanced weather maps. Users receive an "all-clear" message when the threat has passed and can also use the app to alert family and friends that they are safe.

    Other features include checklists to create an emergency plan, a flashlight and a list of open Red Cross shelters.

    The free app is available in English and Spanish.

    The app was launched this month as part of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week. Maxwell said early feedback has been positive.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes
    Tornado

     

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    Debris lies on yard after a tornado moved through Adairsville, Ga., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    ATLANTA (AP) - Photos and mementos that were snatched up and blown hundreds of miles during a Southern tornado outbreak two years ago are giving researchers new insight on how debris is carried by the storms and how it could threaten the public.

    A new study has documented how one photo traveled nearly 220 miles over Alabama and Tennessee, said John Knox, an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia who led the research. That is among the longest-documented trajectories of tornado debris.

    The slightly scratched snapshot, which shows a stream flowing through a mountainous landscape, traveled from the northwest Alabama town of Phil Campbell to the east Tennessee town of Lenoir City.

    The study was recently published online by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

    It tracked the direction the items traveled in relation to the storms that struck Alabama and other Southern states on April 27, 2011.

    The researchers analyzed the takeoff and landing points of the items using geography software and mathematical models.

    Most debris fell slightly to the left of the storm's track. But the items that traveled the farthest were found to the right of the path.

    Knowing where the debris is likely to fall could help protect the public if a tornado were to strike a hazardous site and suck up toxic biological or radioactive debris, Knox said.

    "We need to get enough understanding so we can get fairly reasonable predictions of where the stuff goes," said John Snow, a professor of meteorology and dean emeritus at the University of Oklahoma who studied tornado debris in the 1990s. Knox's study builds on research done by Snow and others.

    Though nuclear reactors are designed to withstand the force of tornadoes, radioactive materials such as fuel rods are often stored nearby, Snow said. A direct hit on such material is one of many catastrophic scenarios involving tornado-blown debris.

    Tornadoes have struck toxic materials in the past. In May 2008, a twister slammed into the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma, where mountains of mining waste tower over the landscape.

    Joshua Wurman, an atmospheric scientist who founded the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., was not involved in the Georgia research but thinks it could have benefits.

    "Let's say a tornado struck some kind of toxic waste dump. Sure, some of the debris or dust would have some contaminants in that," Wurman said. "Understanding which direction those contaminants would go could be useful."

    The 934 objects studied by Knox and his students were posted on a Facebook page and later claimed by their owners.

    Patty Bullion created the site hours after the tornadoes struck, when several photos and scraps of paper were found in her neighborhood in the northern Alabama town of Lester. She began posting the pictures on her site. More than 2,000 of those photos and documents eventually were claimed by their owners and returned to them. That gave the researchers a gold mine of raw data on which to build.

    "I was very thankful that the page could be a help," Bullion said. "I never dreamed that it would send as many pictures home as it did and then help with research like that. God works in mysterious ways."

    Bullion has since taken down the Facebook site. The items pictured there are highly personal, she said, and she didn't want them to be on Facebook forever.

    The historic 2011 tornado outbreak in the South, combined with Bullion's social media effort, represented a unique opportunity for the new study, Knox said.

    On April 27, 2011, more than 120 tornadoes caused more than 300 deaths across the South.

    The items studied from the 2011 outbreak represent "just a small cross section of debris that just carpeted the Southeast," said Knox. "What was amazing was that there was so much debris that went so far."

    An earlier study on tornado debris by Snow and his colleagues identified only two objects that had traveled more than 135 miles. By contrast, the Georgia study identified 44 items that traveled a comparable distance or farther.

    The nearly 220 miles covered by the landscape photo sucked up by one of the Alabama tornadoes rivals the record path taken by a canceled check from Stockton, Kan., on April 11, 1991. The check was carried 223 miles from Kansas to a farm near Winnetoon, Neb., according to the World Meteorological Organization.

    Robert Melcher, now 77, recalls finding the check while he repaired fences on his farm near Winnetoon. He returned it to the Kansas bank, and later received a letter from its owner, Ernestene Swaney, whose home near Stockton had been hit by a tornado. She thanked him and inquired whether he'd found any items from her collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia, Melcher said in an interview. The check was the only item he found.

    In the Georgia study, Knox and his students categorized the items by weight. Among the heavier items, a Hackleburg Panthers cheerleading jacket flew from Hackleburg, Ala. to Elkmont, Ala., a distance of just over 66 miles.

    Many of the items held deep significance to their owners, such as the metal sign that used to hang above the bleachers of the high school football stadium in Smithville, Miss.

    The sign was a tribute to former Smithville marching band member Lee Frederick, who had died of bone cancer in 1998. It was found in Russellville, Ala. - approximately 50 miles away - about a month after one of the tornadoes destroyed Smithville High's stadium and much of the town.

    Knox said the response from his students, who became co-authors of the research paper, was phenomenal.

    Knox said he sought to teach them how to conduct the research in a way that was ethical and sensitive to the victims since the tornadoes destroyed lives and homes.

    "Hopefully that's a message that the students will take with them," he said. "In this case, we had people whose houses were destroyed and the family members killed and the only thing they may have gotten back was a picture of Grandma and Grandpa that went 150 miles into another state."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes

     

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    Firefighters set a boundary as cabins burn on Black Bear Cub Way in Sevier County, Tenn., Sunday March 17, 2013. (AP Photo/The Mountain,Curt Habraken)

    PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (AP) - A wildfire burning in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee has destroyed more than 30 large rental cabins.

    Ben Bryson, a fire resources coordinator with the Tennessee Division of Forestry, says the 145-acre fire was first reported around 5 p.m. EDT Sunday in Sevier County.

    Bryson says two National Guard helicopters are being dispatched Monday to help fight the fire, which has been contained and isn't expected to spread.

    Bryson says some of the cabins were occupied and about 150 to 200 people were evacuated, but no injuries were reported.

    The area is home country star Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park, which Bryson says is not being threatened by the fire.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    The Mont Blanc massif, in the Alps, near Chamonix, France, is one of Europe's most popular - and deadly - climbing areas. (AP Photo/David Azia)

    PARIS (AP) - Police say a British climber and his 12-year-old son have been found dead after plunging several hundred yards down a mountain in the French Alps.

    Capt. Patrice Ribes of the mountain gendarme service in Chamonix said the father alerted rescuers by telephone Saturday that his son had fallen. Rescuers found both of them dead early Sunday on a slope between Bossons and Les Houches beneath Mont Blanc.

    Ribes said the father, who was 48, had apparently fallen himself while trying to rescue his son. He said the two were well-equipped for climbing in summer conditions, but not enough for winter.

    Their identities were not released. The British Foreign Office was helping the family.

    The Mont Blanc massif is one of Europe's most popular - and deadly - climbing areas.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Amazing Survival Stories from Mount Everest

     

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    Yet another snowstorm is taking aim at the Northeast with northern New England and the St. Lawrence Valley bracing for the snowstorm's worst.

    The snow that accumulated up to a half of a foot in northern Kentucky will spread northward from the central Appalachians to New England and the St. Lawrence Valley through Tuesday night.

    Enough cold air is even in place for snow and/or a wintry mix to occur across Virginia's Shenandoah Valley through Monday morning, leading to 2 to 4 inches of snow in the cities of Winchester and Harrisonburg.

    The snowstorm will be disruptive, bringing interruptions to daily routines and treacherous travel.

    The snow reached the western I-80 corridor in Pennsylvania by daybreak on Monday and will fall just north of the New York State Thruway and western Massachusetts by sunset on Monday. By the start of Tuesday, the snow will have begun across the St. Lawrence Valley and most of northern New England.

    For a larger version of this map, please visit the AccuWeather.com Winter Weather Center.
    The storm will be gaining strength during that time, allowing it to unleash more than a foot of snow in the higher terrain of northern New England by Wednesday.

    Widespread amounts of 6 to 12 inches are expected elsewhere across northern New England and the St. Lawrence Valley, including the cities of Burlington, Vt., Concord, N.H., Caribou and Bangor, Maine.

    Similar totals (15-30 cm) are also in store for the neighboring Canadian cities of Montreal and Quebec City.

    Farther to the south -- along and south of the northern shore of Lake Ontario, the eastern New York State Thruway, the northern Massachusetts border and the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine -- the snow will mix with or change to sleet, freezing rain and/or rain.

    However, that will not prevent significant totals from being measured.

    AccuWeather.com meteorologists still expect between up to 6 inches of snow along the Twin Tiers of northern Pennsylvania/southern New York, with up to a foot of snow in the Catskills of New York and the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

    While heavier totals will be measured to the north and west, residents of Portland, Maine, will be digging out of 4 to 8 inches after the storm winds down on Tuesday night.

    "As we have warned about this past week, there is potential for the rate of the snow to be intense and the accumulation heavy and wet," stated AccuWeather.com expert meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

    "Enough wet, clinging snow can fall to down tree limbs and power lines in some areas," continued Sosnowski. That danger that is greatest from Elmira, N.Y., and Lock Haven, Pa., to Portland, Maine.

    RELATED:
    Snowstorm to Graze I-95: DC to NYC to Boston
    New England Flooding, Coastal Concerns
    Severe Weather Threat: Shreveport, Nashville, Birmingham


    Other cities in this threat zone include Binghamton and Albany, N.Y., Pittsfield, Mass., and Concord and Portsmouth, N.H.

    Rain, meanwhile, will win out over the snow along the Interstate 95 corridor from Boston to New York City to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., potentially leading to minor flooding issues in southern New England.

    Snow and sleet will fall in Philadelphia and New York City this evening before changing over to rain, so roads could be slippery for the evening commute.

    The Tuesday morning commute in Boston could be a slippery one with snow and sleet expected. Around 1-3 inches of snow and sleet will accumulate in Boston, while 3-6 inches will fall west of 128. Worcester Hills and southern New Hampshire will get buried by up to a foot of snow.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 22 People More Sick of Winter Than You Are

     

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    The Upper Midwest is bracing for the return of snow and blizzard conditions to start the workweek.

    Snow will fall for much of Monday across the northern two-thirds of Minnesota and then spread into northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan as the day progresses.

    Even as the steadier snow pushes to the east on Monday, travel problems will persist across Interstates 29 and 94 in the Dakotas and Minnesota as strong winds cause snow to blow and drift back onto the roadways.

    The significant snow will bypass Chicago and Detroit, but storm's winds will not. Gusts could be strong enough to break tree limbs, leading to the chance for power outages.

    RELATED:
    Heavy Snow Headed Back to the Northeast
    Severe Weather Threat Monday
    AccuWeather.com Winter Weather Center


    As this storm joins up with the storm that will return heavy snow to the Northeast, winds will become even stronger, with the potential to top 50 mph from Minneapolis to Cincinnati on Monday night and Tuesday.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Editor's note: Video includes profanity near the ending, beginning at 2:22.

    It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a ... Norwegian in a wingsuit? That's exactly what early risers in Rio de Janeiro saw - well, two Norwegians in wingsuits, to be exact - flying between skyscrapers in their metropolis. The two daredevils pulled off the unauthorized stunt at 5:45 in the morning to avoid air traffic. Watch the video at 1:13 as they approach and glide through the two skyscrapers. One unexpected wind gust could have been deadly.

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

     

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    (Fox 4 News/YouTube)

    Do TV weathercasters really know what they're talking about?

    TV weathercasters are a unique breed. They have to understand highly scientific information about future events and deliver that information with top-notch communication skills. There's a reason why you don't see many meteorologists with PhDs on television, though a few do exist. Most have focused their love of weather on research and teaching rather than mass communication.

    Roughly 90 percent of local weather forecasters have a degree or certificate in meteorology, after taking theoretical coursework in thermodynamics, kinematics, synoptic and mesoscale meteorology, fluid dynamics and forecasting. Sound difficult? It is.

    If these meteorologists were in full control of your local weathercast, they would make the segment roughly five to seven minutes long. It would be chock full of meteorological data and include upper-air charts, and each factor influencing the weather would be explained. Meteorologists love weather and want to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with viewers. But because of the push for higher ratings and the fast-paced nature of TV news, the typical full-length weathercast is only two to three minutes long. The science isn't fully explained. Instead, you see impact-based, entertaining graphics geared to answer a viewer's simple questions about temperatures and precipitation.

    The other 10 percent of local weather forecasters fall into the category of "rip-and-read" weathercasters. Ripping-and-reading involves a broadcaster using the local National Weather Service forecast as their own. This style of weathercasting is loathed by many meteorologists because they believe it demeans their profession.

    But rip-and-readers have found a place in TV news because those who hire meteorologists -- TV news directors -- are concerned about more than whether the forecast is right. They're worried about ratings.

    Women certainly have it more difficult than men. News directors are always seeking the latest "hot weather babe." While plenty of attractive female meteorologists know their stuff, often it isn't their knowledge of weather alone that lands them a gig. Much like models, women forecasters are forced to stay in great shape and are ridiculed by viewers over clothing choices and gaining a few extra pounds. Those who have "the look" tend to advance quickly.

    For men, the story is much different. Research with focus groups suggests men's looks aren't as important as whether they can develop trust with viewers. Men generally advance further in their career as they age. Much as air travelers feel safer with an older pilot steering a plane, viewers find comfort in having an older male meteorologist guide them through life-threatening weather.

    Humor is always a highly sought-after quality. In the 1960s and '70s, weathercasting was viewed purely as entertainment. In fact, broadcasters such as David Letterman and Pat Sajak began their television careers as TV weathercasters. Plenty of funny forecasters still work today, though the emphasis at many stations has shifted to a more serious presentation of the weather with humor sprinkled in.

    Knowledge does play a factor in earning ratings. News directors seldom cite a meteorologist's academic credentials, but they do cite certifications known as "seals of approval." The two key certification programs are the National Weather Association's Broadcaster's Seal of Approval and the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval. They're the meteorological equivalent of becoming a certified public accountant. To earn these, a meteorologist must pass a rigorous exam and submit a tape of his or her work to a panel of broadcast meteorologists.

    Knowledge is considered particularly crucial in markets where inclement weather is common, like Oklahoma City and Kansas City. During severe weather, meteorologists are often given great freedom in how they handle the coverage. News directors in these regions place a premium on their meteorologists' abilities to cover these events.

    But for weather-quiet markets such as Los Angeles or San Diego, the emphasis is more squarely on entertainment.

    Got a question for our weather expert? Ask SKYE.

    Follow SKYE on Twitter @SKYEonAOL and Facebook.

     

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    Hail rains down on Alabama town Monday, March 18, 2013.

    JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Severe thunderstorms Monday raked across a wide area of the South, packing strong winds, rain and some baseball-size hail.

    In Mississippi, authorities reported two people were hit on the head by large hail as the enormous storm front crossed the region. Fire official Tim Shanks said baseball-sized hail smashed windows in several vehicles in Clinton, where the two people were hit. He had no immediate word on their condition.

    National Weather Service meteorologist Anna Weber said there were reports of hail the size of softballs in some areas around Jackson. Baseball-sized hail was reported in Jackson and its suburbs, including the cities of Jackson, Clinton, Madison, Pearl and Brandon.

    "This is the time of year that we get hail storms, but hail this size is pretty rare," Weber said.

    Emergency officials said there were reports of homes damaged in at least five Mississippi counties.

    Meteorologists issued tornado warnings for parts of northwest Georgia and severe thunderstorm warnings around the state.

    Flights were delayed by more than an hour Monday afternoon at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after officials there ordered a ground stop, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Elsewhere, Alabama Power officials said 198,000 customers were without power as of 5 p.m.

    In Tennessee, heavy rain helped firefighters contain a wildfire that burned nearly 60 rental cabins in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    The fire forced up to 200 people who had been staying in cabins in the area to evacuate.

    Fire officials had worried earlier that wind-whipped flames might jump a ridgeline and threaten Pigeon Forge, a popular tourism destination that's home to country star Dolly Parton's amusement park, Dollywood.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 22 People More Sick of Winter Than You Are

     

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    A vehicle went into a ditch and rolled onto its passenger side on a snow-covered street in Northumberland County, Pa., on Monday, March 18, 2013. (AP Photo/The News-Item, Larry Deklinski)

    BOSTON (AP) - A last blast of winter blew through the Northeast on Tuesday, with snow and sleet delaying the start of school in some areas and making the morning commute an icy, slippery mess a day before spring starts.

    The nasty weather led some schools in upstate New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut to close, adding a few more snow days to school calendars.

    The winter storm that started overnight Monday and early Tuesday might even continue into Tuesday night for northern areas. Snow is expected to cover newly bare patches of ground and force people to gas up their snow blowers again on the last day of winter.

    At Ashburnham True Value Hardware, in north-central Massachusetts, employee Andrew Stanley said he hadn't noticed extra sales of shovels and salt, though the National Weather Service forecast 7 to 19 inches of a mix of snow and sleet. He did hear a little grumbling, though.

    "Everybody's about sick of winter," he said Monday.

    But some were welcoming the forecast, as the coming storm looked to extend the ski season. Just a year ago this week, local temperatures hit the 80s, prompting skiers in Maine to strip down to shorts and bikini tops and forcing an end to the season at many mountains.

    At Sugarbush Resort in Vermont, communications manager Patrick Brown said more snow now could make spring the best time of year for many.

    "Skiers like both of those things: great sunny warm days and lots of snow," Brown said.

    The forecasts called for as much as 20 inches of snow in parts of northern New England, with lesser amounts mixed with sleet further south. Boston and Providence, R.I., could each get 4-8 inches, and Hartford, Conn., 4-8 inches of snow and sleet. Portland, Maine, could get at least a foot of snow. Montpelier, Vt., was expecting at least 10 to 18 inches and Concord, N.H., 7 to 13 inches. But those totals could go much higher if the storm continues into Tuesday night.

    The likelihood of school cancellations Tuesday led Massachusetts officials to postpone the English composition section of its standardized state test until next Monday, to keep all schools on the same test date. Boston, which kept schools open for the most recent storm, cancelled classes for Tuesday.

    After a storm earlier this month dumped over a foot of snow in some areas and caused coastal flooding in Massachusetts, some New Englanders weren't looking forward to more winter weather.

    In downtown Concord, N.H., Jennifer Hutchins said: "I hate it ... I guess I like to watch it fall, but I don't like when it sticks around."

    "I'm tired of it," said Paula Lochhead. "But we live in New Hampshire, what are you gonna do?"

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    An exterior view of the governor's beach house at New Jersey's Island Beach State Park is photographed, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Island Beach State Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

    JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) - A plan to repair Superstorm Sandy damage in its state parks and beaches with unemployed workers will give work to about 1,000 people, New Jersey officials said Monday.

    New Jersey has already hired about 700 unemployed residents statewide thanks to a $15.6 million federal grant and plans to hire 300 more - all in a state where the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, one of the highest in the nation.

    "It feels so good to get these people back to work," Labor Commissioner Hal Wirths said.

    The program dispatches workers to state and county parks, trails and beaches throughout the state that have sustained substantial storm damage.

    Wirths announced the program at Liberty State Park, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline. The park on the banks of the Hudson River sustained substantial damage during Sandy after it was inundated by a 15-foot storm surge during the Oct. 29 storm.

    Debris reached chest-high in the park after Sandy, its waterfront walkway was badly damaged and its visitor's center remains still closed because electricity has not been fully restored.

    Crews have so far hauled 1,000 pounds of debris out of the park and restored 75 percent of the waterfront walkway and are working to fix the rest before the weather warms.

    Thirty-five New Jersey parks received some type of damage during the storm and are all fully or partially open. Wirths said the state wants the parks to be fully open by Memorial Day.

    While crews are working on dunes and beaches along the hard-hit coast, they're also busy in the interior sections of the state.

    Although those areas received far less property damage, many trees were felled. About 1,100 miles of trails received some sort of damage and crews have cleared about 80 percent of them.

    "As spring comes, we'll be bringing more people in," Wirths said.

    Wirths said hiring for the positions started about two months ago and thousands have applied.

    New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in November that a federal grant would put 5,000 unemployed New Yorkers to work cleaning up Sandy damage.

    Wirths and other state officials stood in a cold, blustery park ahead of a storm, and said regardless of the conditions many are glad to be back at work.

    "On a day like today, as cold as it is out, they're just grateful to be working," Wirths said.

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    The remains of cabins can be seen, Monday, March 18, 2013, where a fire destroyed or damaged 65 structures and charred 165 acres between Pigeon Forge and the Wears Valley area of Sevier County, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

    PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (AP) - Heavy rain helped firefighters contain a Tennessee wildfire Monday after flames burned nearly 60 rental cabins in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    The fire spread across about 160 acres and forced up to 200 people who had been staying in cabins in the area to evacuate.

    At the height of the fire, about 100 firefighters from about 30 fire departments battled the blaze that was reported Sunday afternoon, said Ben Bryson, a fire resources coordinator with the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

    Firefighters had the fire contained Monday morning, but flames broke through the lines early Monday afternoon before rains from a passing storm system began dousing the flames.

    Fire officials had worried earlier that wind-whipped flames might jump a ridgeline and threaten Pigeon Forge, a popular tourism destination that's home to country star Dolly Parton's amusement park, Dollywood.

    The National Guard sent in helicopters to scoop up water from a nearby lake to air drop on the fire. But then the series of downpours moved in, dropping more water than the helicopters could.

    "We had about three downpours that allowed them to get the fire back under control," said Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

    Flener said there had been two minor injuries but no deaths. Most firefighters were being pulled back though a small crew was to remain on duty during the night to make sure the blaze didn't start growing again, he said.

    Officials have not said what caused the fire.

    John Helt was cleaning a cabin Sunday afternoon in Black Bear Ridge Resort when someone alerted him to the spreading fire, he told The Knoxville News Sentinel.

    "I went running down there, and I noticed the fire started on the porch where there was a hot tub. I found out (the cabin) was empty."

    Helt said he ran through the area knocking on cabin doors to alert people to the fire, running past cabins in flames.

    "I don't ever want to see nothing like that ever again," Helt said. "The flames were so hot I nearly passed out from the heat."

    The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a state emergency Monday morning to make resources available, said Dean Flener, a TEMA spokesman. He said the declaration did not mean the situation was escalating.

    Andy and Cassie Endris told the Knoxville newspaper that they traveled to the resort from Indiana with another couple to celebrate a birthday. After hiking and then watching a show and having dinner in Pigeon Forge, they headed back to their cabin and found the roads closed and saw an orange glow from the mountaintop.

    "It's just stuff. Everything is replaceable," Cassie Endris said of their clothes and a laptop left in the cabin.

    "We're all safe. I'm just shook up," she said.

    Paul and Megan Reagan live in the area. They went to church Sunday night and firefighters later escorted them to their home to retrieve medicine, diapers and formula for their daughter.

    "We've got what we need," Megan Reagan said, fighting back tears.

    The couple planned to spend the night with Megan's mother.

    "We've got our family, and we've got God, but it's still just scary," she said.

    A separate brush fire was extinguished at Dollywood on Saturday night but park officials said that fire would not affect the season opening this weekend.

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    (AP Photo)

    Lately, around this time of year, I often get letters from people wondering why spring begins early this year. Many folks assume the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere - also known as the vernal equinox - has always come on March 21. But this year seems to be an exception, for in 2013 the first day of spring comes on Wednesday, March 20, at 11:02 UT, or 7:02 a.m. EDT/4:02 a.m. PDT.

    Now, this doesn't seem right. When many of us were growing up the first day of spring was always on March 21, not March 20, right? Now, all of a sudden, spring comes on March 20. How did that happen?

    While it's true that we've tended to celebrate the beginning of spring on March 21 in recent years, astronomers and calendar manufacturers alike say that this year, the spring season starts one day earlier, March 20, in all time zones in North America.

    Unheard of, you might think. But not if you look at the statistics.

    In fact, did you know that during the 20th century, March 21 was actually the exception rather than the rule for the first day of spring? The vernal equinox landed on March 21 only 36 out of 100 years. And from 1981 to 2102, Americans have (and will) celebrate the first day of spring no later than March 20. [Earth's Equinoxes & Solstices (Infographic)]

    In 2016, those living in Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific, Mountain and Central time zones will see spring begin even earlier: March 19. And in 2020, it will start on March 19 for the entire United States.

    There are a few reasons why seasonal dates can vary from year to year.

    1) A year is not an even number of days and neither are the seasons. Earth's year - the length of time it takes to circle the sun once - lasts about 365.25 days. To try to achieve a value as close as possible to the exact length of the year, our Gregorian Calendar was constructed to give a close approximation to the tropical year, which is the actual length of time it takes for the Earth to complete one orbit around the sun. It eliminates leap days in century years not evenly divisible by 400, such as 1700, 1800, and 2100, and millennium years that are divisible by 4000, such as 8000 and 12000.

    2) Another reason is that the Earth's elliptical orbit is changing its orientation relative to the sun (it skews), which causes the Earth's axis to constantly point in a different direction - a process called precession. Since the seasons are defined as beginning at strict 90-degree intervals, these positional changes affect the time Earth reaches each 90-degree location in its orbit around the sun.

    3) The pull of gravity from the other planets also affects the location of the Earth in its orbit.

    The current seasonal lengths for the Northern Hemisphere are:

    Winter: 88.99 days
    Spring: 92.76 days
    Summer: 93.65 days
    Autumn: 89.84 days
    As you can see, the warm seasons, spring and summer, combined are 7.573 days longer than the colder seasons, fall and winter (good news for warm weather admirers).

    However, spring is currently being reduced by approximately one minute per year, and winter by about one-half minute per year. Summer is gaining the minute lost from spring, and autumn is gaining the half-minute lost from winter.

    Winter is the shortest astronomical season, and with its seasonal duration continuing to decrease, it is expected to attain its minimum value - 88.71 days - by about the year 3500.

    The situation for different parts of the world, being in different time zones and hemispheres, varies. For Europe, the last time spring began on March 21 was in 2007, and it won't happen again until 2102.

    For places much farther to the east, such as Tokyo, Japan (nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time), spring will fall on March 21 in two out of every four years from 2014 through 2023 (2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, etc.), then once every four years from 2027 through 2055. But then that's it until 2101.

    Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

    Night Sky: Visible Planets, Moon Phases & Events, March 2013
    6 Signs That Spring Has Sprung
    How Change of Seasons Affects Animals and Humans

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


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    The comet that may put on a spectacular light show during a November date with the sun was observed by the Deep Impact mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD (Tony Farnham)

    Astronomers are already getting set for the arrival of Comet ISON, which may become one of the brightest comets ever seen when it cruises through the inner solar system this fall.

    NASA has brought together a small team of experts to organize an observing campaign for Comet ISON, which could potentially shine as brightly as the moon when it makes its closest pass by the sun in late November if the most optimistic scenarios play out.

    Coordinating the efforts of observatories on the ground and in space should help wring as much quality science as possible out of the comet's solar flyby, Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) officials said.

    "It's a rare opportunity that we've got such a long heads-up time, so we actually have time to organize a campaign like this," said Karl Battams, a scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington and a member of the eight-person CIOC Team. "There's a lot of new science that we could get from this." [Photos of Comet ISON in Night Sky]

    Bringing everyone together

    Russian amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok discovered Comet ISON in September 2012 after poring over photographs taken by a telescope run by the International Scientific Optical Network. Hence the comet's official name, which is C/2012 S1 (ISON).

    ISON is a "sungrazing" comet, meaning its long, looping path through space takes it extremely close to our star. Indeed, ISON is forecast to zoom just 680,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) above the solar surface on its closest approach, which will take place on Nov. 28.

    Comet ISON could put on a spectacular show around this time, experts say, potentially glowing so brightly that it's visible in the daytime sky. (The comet poses no impact threat to Earth.)

    Skywatchers aren't the only people looking forward to the icy wanderer's solar encounter. Astronomers are excited as well, for ISON's flyby could give them a rare window into comet composition.

    "Sungrazers experience the most intense thermal and gravitational stresses of any comet. There's a lot of sublimation of material that doesn't normally sublimate," Battams told SPACE.com. "Once [ISON] gets really close in to the sun, then we could start to see some of the composition that you wouldn't normally get."

    So Battams and his colleagues have contacted major ground-based observatories, raising awareness of the comet's flyby and encouraging them to solicit ISON-observing proposals. The response has been warm, with telescope operators typically voicing enthusiasm about the campaign, Battams said.

    The CIOC crew has also reached out to some spacecraft mission teams, asking them to consider taking a look at the comet at some point. And a number of them are already on board.

    "Observing campaigns are planned by the SOHO, STEREO and SDO solar missions; by Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble space telescopes; and by the Deep Impact, JUNO, Mercury MESSENGER, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter missions," the CIOC website states. "Other missions at or on Mars are looking into observing ISON, as are a handful of other NASA Planetary missions. We welcome and encourage our international partners to contact us and join in the fun!"

    In fact, Deep Impact has already begun its ISON work. The NASA probe, which has also studied several other comets in deep space, snapped its first photos of Comet ISON in January.

    Sizzle or fizzle?

    There's no guarantee that ISON will live up to the hype; it may fall apart before even making its closest solar approach. Comets are notoriously unpredictable and sometimes fizzle out despite great expectations, as Comet Kahoutek did in 1973.

    The wild-card factor with ISON is especially high, Battams said, since this is apparently the comet's first trip through the inner solar system from the distant, icy Oort cloud. Astronomers and skywatchers probably won't get a real sense of how the comet is going to behave until early August, when water ice should start sublimating in earnest, he added.

    But the CIOC Team is proceeding as if Comet ISON will put on a dazzling show, because that's the scientifically prudent thing to do.

    "We have to go forward with optimism and prepare for something really special, something really spectacular, and hope that it happens," Battams said. "If it does, we're absolutely going to be in place to take an unprecedented and comprehensive set of observations of the comet."

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

    Comet of the Century? Sun-Grazing Comet ISON Explained (Infographic)
    Amazing Comet Photos of 2013 by Stargazers
    Comets: Frozen Seeds Of Life From Beyond The Solar System | Video

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


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