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    'April 17, 2013
    Daredevil Flies Through 'Batman Cave' in Spain

    Italian wingsuit pilot Alexander Polli made waves this week when footage of one of his recent jumps went viral. In the video, Polli dives from a helicopter above Montserrat, Spain, reaching speeds of 155 mph, and whizzes through a narrow opening -- called the "Batman Cave" -- in the Roca Foradada Mountains. It's not the first time one of Polli's stunts has gotten attention: A video of his flights through New Zealand, Switzerland and Norway racked up more than 1 million hits on Youtube last fall.

     

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    This Dec. 5, 2012 file photo provided by The United States Coast Guard shows barges passing in tight quarters due to low water levels as they navigate the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - The Mississippi River, so low for much of the winter that barge traffic was nearly halted, could reach up to 10 feet above flood stage by the middle of next week in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, National Weather Service hydrologists said Wednesday.

    The weather service is predicting 3 to 4 inches of rain - and perhaps more - from Kansas City, Mo., to Chicago by Friday morning, the result of an unsettled weather pattern that prompted widespread tornado and thunderstorm watches. Soil is already saturated from an unusually wet early spring, raising concerns along the Mississippi from the Quad Cities, which are along the Iowa-Illinois border, south to St. Louis.

    "I'm worried," said Mark Fuchs, a National Weather Service hydrologist in suburban St. Louis. "Major flooding appears to be on the table at a lot of locations. North of St. Louis, we're looking at the kind of flooding we haven't seen since 2008."

    Floods in the spring of 2008 were particularly troublesome in Iowa, where hundreds of homes were damaged in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other towns. Maren Stoflet, a hydrologist for the weather service in the Quad Cities, said that with the ground already soaked, all the new rain will run off into rivers.

    The flooding is an ironic twist considering that the Mississippi was approaching record low levels all winter following months of drought. The Corps of Engineers worked feverishly to dredge the bottom of the river enough to keep barge traffic moving, though loads were limited for several months.

    But late-winter snow and frequent rains have pushed river levels back to normal and beyond. The Mississippi on Wednesday was at or near flood stage at several spots north of St. Louis, slightly lower to the south.

    The rain this week is expected to be furious at times, up to an inch an hour in some cases, Stoflet said. That could create flash flooding at smaller waterways. Tributaries to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers could also flood, and that water eventually pushes into the bigger rivers, which would crest next week.

    Fuchs said if the rain falls as predicted, minor flooding would occur on the Missouri River in Missouri, while the Mississippi could rise 8 to 10 feet in some spots, including St. Louis.

    Property buyouts, enhanced levees and flood walls will limit any damage, but several roads, thousands of acres of farmland and a few homes and businesses would be impacted and small levees could be overtopped.

    Emergency management operators say they've begun to brace for the worst.

    "I'll go into a full-scale flood fight," said John Hark, emergency management coordinator in Hannibal, Mo., the scenic hometown of Mark Twain.

    The historic downtown area, including Twain's boyhood home, is protected by an earthen flood wall, and buyouts have removed flood-prone homes outside the wall's perimeter. But Hark said the excessive rain could create a sudden rise that would cause Bear Creek, a Mississippi River tributary, to back up, closing roads and threatening some homes.

    About 30 miles to the south, Louisiana, Mo., has no flood wall. The downtown is far enough from the river that it is in no danger, but a flood reaching 8 to 10 feet above flood stage would push muddy river water over Highway 79 - the main north-south highway through town - and damage a few homes and businesses, City Administrator Bob Jenne said.

    "We do have sand and all the bags already stockpiled in the event we need them," Jenne said. "Right now, it's wait and see."

    Potentially worsening the flooding in the not-too-distant future is another strong snowstorm in the northern Plains, snow that will eventually melt and trickle into rivers. The newest system could drop as much as 15 inches of snow in western South Dakota by Thursday, forcing schools to close and making travel dangerous. It follows a weekend storm that dumped a single-day record 17.3 inches of snow on Bismarck, N.D.

     

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    April 17, 2013

    Johnny Torres is part of a large crew clearing the snow from seats at Coors Field after a spring snowstorm dumped close to a foot of snow downtown, canceling Monday's Rockies game. (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

    DENVER (AP) - Skiers rejoiced and stores pulled snowblowers out of storage as a persistent spring storm delivered another round of wet snow to parts of Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas on Wednesday.

    Slick conditions and reduced visibility closed big stretches of two interstates in Wyoming and Colorado. The storm delayed flights out of Denver and postponed another Colorado Rockies-New York Mets game.

    Three feet of snow has fallen in Colorado's mountains so far, building the snowpack at a time when, normally, the levels have already peaked for the year.

    The weather also has delayed the start of wildfire season in the northern and central mountains and foothills. By this time a year ago, Colorado already had one massive wildfire that killed three people.

    But the state still remains in a drought, and the storm has so far been weak or simply bypassed the farms and ranches of southern and eastern Colorado.

    The snow that fell along the Front Range captured both sides of the story. It carried different shades of dust likely from parched parts of Colorado, Arizona and Utah, said state climatologist Nolan Doesken. Meanwhile, crews in Rocky Mountain National Park burned brush piles to prevent wildfires in knee-deep snow.

    Doesken said the Front Range snowfall means homeowners can put off watering for at least three weeks, but it's not enough to pull the state out of the drought given how low reservoirs are after two dry years.

    "It's not good enough yet, but it's good," Doesken said.

    Colorado's snowpack has risen to 77 percent of the average seasonal peak, and the critical Colorado Basin, which provides water to more than 40 million people in seven western states, has grown to 85 percent of the average peak.

    The usual measurements that compare the snow level to the average for a particular day are even higher, but they're misleading because in a normal year, snow would have already started melting by now, said Mage Hulstrand of the National Resources Conservation Service.

    The storm is expected to move into Kansas and Nebraska later Wednesday.

    In Wyoming, Melody Berg, an assistant store manager at Lowe's in Cheyenne, said snow blowers and snow shovels have been selling well.

    The store already had put some of the winter implements away on storage shelves to make room for spring and summer season goods on the sales floor.

    "We thought the season was kind of over, but we should know better. We live in Wyoming, right?" she said.

    Forecasters said the storm could drop as much as 15 inches of snow in western South Dakota by Thursday and lesser but still-significant amounts farther east.

    The first round of snow postponed the opening game of the Rockies-Mets series Monday, but the teams took advantage of a break in the precipitation to play a frigid doubleheader Tuesday. One fan watched with a snowman in the next seat.

    The teams are scheduled to play again Thursday, when the storm should be gone, but no makeup date had been set for Wednesday's game.

     

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    In this April 11, 2011, file photo floodwaters from the Red River cover fields near Fargo, N.D. (AP Photo/The Forum, Michael Vosburg, File)

    FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Residents in the Fargo, N.D., area are being told to prepare for record flooding along the Red River.

    A forecast issued Wednesday by the National Weather Service shows a 40 percent chance that the river will top the 2009 record of just under 41 feet. That's up from a 15 percent chance last month.

    Flood stage, or when the river first tops its banks, is 18 feet. Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., are mostly protected to 38 feet. Beyond that, it requires sandbagging for more than 200 homes in the two cities.

    Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral says he's confident the area will be protected. He says a forecast closer to 44 feet would have made things "a little dicey."

    It will be the latest river crest in history.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 U.S. Cities Most at Risk from Rising Sea Levels

     

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    This Dec. 5, 2012, file photo shows barges passing in tight quarters due to low water levels as they navigate the Mississippi River near St. Louis. (AP Photo/United States Coast Guard, Colby Buchanan)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - The Mississippi River, so low for much of the winter that barge traffic was nearly halted, could reach up to 10 feet above flood stage by the middle of next week in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, National Weather Service hydrologists said Wednesday.

    The weather service is predicting 3 to 4 inches of rain - and perhaps more - from Kansas City, Mo., to Chicago by Friday morning, the result of an unsettled weather pattern that prompted widespread tornado and thunderstorm watches. Soil is already saturated from an unusually wet early spring, raising concerns along the Mississippi from the Quad Cities, which are along the Iowa-Illinois border, south to St. Louis.

    "I'm worried," said Mark Fuchs, a National Weather Service hydrologist in suburban St. Louis. "Major flooding appears to be on the table at a lot of locations. North of St. Louis, we're looking at the kind of flooding we haven't seen since 2008."

    Floods in the spring of 2008 were particularly troublesome in Iowa, where hundreds of homes were damaged in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other towns. Maren Stoflet, a hydrologist for the weather service in the Quad Cities, said that with the ground already soaked, all the new rain will run off into rivers.

    The flooding is an ironic twist considering that the Mississippi was approaching record low levels all winter following months of drought. The Corps of Engineers worked feverishly to dredge the bottom of the river enough to keep barge traffic moving, though loads were limited for several months.

    But late-winter snow and frequent rains have pushed river levels back to normal and beyond. The Mississippi on Wednesday was at or near flood stage at several spots north of St. Louis, slightly lower to the south.

    The rain this week is expected to be furious at times, up to an inch an hour in some cases, Stoflet said. That could create flash flooding at smaller waterways. Tributaries to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers could also flood, and that water eventually pushes into the bigger rivers, which would crest next week.

    Fuchs said if the rain falls as predicted, minor flooding would occur on the Missouri River in Missouri, while the Mississippi could rise 8 to 10 feet in some spots, including St. Louis.

    Already in southeast Iowa, heavy rain Wednesday led to some road closures and rising creaks, according to hydrologist Maren Stoflet. And more rain was in the forecast.

    Property buyouts, enhanced levees and flood walls will limit any damage, but several roads, thousands of acres of farmland and a few homes and businesses would be impacted and small levees could be overtopped.

    Emergency management operators say they've begun to brace for the worst.

    "I'll go into a full-scale flood fight," said John Hark, emergency management coordinator in Hannibal, Mo., the scenic hometown of Mark Twain.

    The historic downtown area, including Twain's boyhood home, is protected by an earthen flood wall, and buyouts have removed flood-prone homes outside the wall's perimeter. But Hark said the excessive rain could create a sudden rise that would cause Bear Creek, a Mississippi River tributary, to back up, closing roads and threatening some homes.

    About 30 miles to the south, Louisiana, Mo., has no flood wall. The downtown is far enough from the river that it is in no danger, but a flood reaching 8 to 10 feet above flood stage would push muddy river water over Highway 79 - the main north-south highway through town - and damage a few homes and businesses, City Administrator Bob Jenne said.

    "We do have sand and all the bags already stockpiled in the event we need them," Jenne said. "Right now, it's wait and see."

    Potentially worsening the flooding in the not-too-distant future is another strong snowstorm in the northern Plains, snow that will eventually melt and trickle into rivers. The newest system could drop as much as 15 inches of snow in western South Dakota by Thursday, forcing schools to close and making travel dangerous. It follows a weekend storm that dumped a single-day record 17.3 inches of snow on Bismarck, N.D.

    The National Weather Service on Wednesday told Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., residents to prepare for flooding along the Red River. It would be the fourth major flood in five years for an area that has about 200,000 people.

    The weather service said there's a 40 percent chance the north-flowing river would top the 2009 record of 40.84 feet, or nearly 23 feet above the point when the river spills its banks. That would likely mean sandbagging for more than 200 homeowners in Fargo and about 40 homeowners in Moorhead.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 U.S. Cities Most at Risk from Rising Sea Levels

     

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    Updated Thursday, April 18, 11:30 a.m. ET

    A person looks on as emergency workers fight a house fire after a near by fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. (AP Photo/ Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte)

    Update as of 9:50 a.m. CDT: Gusts continue to exceed 20 miles per hour, with a peak gust of 33 miles per hour at 6 a.m. CDT.

    Update as of 7:30 a.m. CDT: Heavy rain was sweeping through the area, and winds have shifted to the northwest averaging 15 to 25 mph with gusts between 30 and 45 mph.

    Update as of 6:50 a.m. CDT: Thunderstorms moving through the area may bring beneficial moisture to the blaze, however, winds behind the front will continue to be problematic for firefighters.

    The explosion of a fertilizer plant in Waco, Texas, left the ground shaking late Wednesday night.

    With the winds gusting ahead of a cold front that has been bringing severe weather across the center of the country, firefighters may face some challenges.

    These winds will make the fire following the explosion more difficult to contain.

    As of 11 p.m. CDT, winds were sustained at 23 mph and gusting out of the southeast at 35 mph.

    The current southwest wind direction could spread the fire towards a second tank at the fertilizer plant, potentially endangering those involved in the rescue and firefighting efforts.

    According to the Associated Press, at least five fatalities have been confirmed and more are anticipated along with many injuries.

    It was also reported that more than 50 homes and businesses were damaged, several of which were leveled.

    Even more life and property could be threatened as high winds continue into Thursday.

    Additionally, as the cold front passes the area, winds are expected shift to the northwest, causing even more challenges.

    Fire fighting efforts will need to pick up and move to a different location, slowing the process of containing the fire.

    For more weather news visit AccuWeather.com.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    The risk of dangerous and damaging thunderstorms will continue Thursday from Detroit and Indianapolis to Little Rock, Shreveport and Memphis.

    The storms will organize along an advancing cold front pushing eastward from the Plains and swinging into the Mississippi and Ohio valleys to near the upper Gulf Coast. The line of storms, also called a squall line, is over 1,000 miles long.

    The most widespread characteristic of the storms will be strong wind gusts, frequent lighting strikes and sudden downpours. Some communities will be hit with downed trees, power outages and flash flooding. People should seek shelter indoors, away from windows as the storms approach.

    However, a few of the strongest storms can bring a brief tornado.

    The risk of a few tornadoes is greatest over a zone from southeastern Michigan to the tri-state area of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

    Hail is also a possibility with some of the storms.

    The zone of strong to severe thunderstorms will cause slow travel on the highways and can lead to substantial flight delays in the region, rippling to other portions of the nation well outside of the severe weather threat area.

    RELATED:
    Current Severe Weather Watches and Warnings
    Risk of Flooding From Missouri to Michigan
    Live: Severe Weather Reports


    A more general area of heavy rain and an expanded flooding risk will occur north of the line of thunderstorms.

    During Thursday, this area will reach from portions of Missouri to northern and western Illinois to southern Wisconsin but will shift eastward across the Lower Peninsula of Michigan and northern portions of Indiana, Ohio and southwestern Ontario Thursday night.

    During Friday, the risk of strong to severe thunderstorms will reach the eastern Great Lakes and the Appalachians. By Friday night, the remnants of the storms will reach the Atlantic Seaboard with localized downpours, gusty winds and travel delays at the very least.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Epic Storm Photos from the Twittersphere

     

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    This illustration released by the MGM Resorts International shows the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd. and Flamingo Ave. in Las Vegas. (AP Photo MGM Resorts International)

    LAS VEGAS (AP) - Las Vegas is trying to beat its reputation as a shut-in.

    MGM Resorts International announced Thursday that it will sink $100 million into building a park and public promenade outside of its New York-New York and Monte Carlo casinos.

    The project runs counter to casinos' long-held strategy of trying to keep people inside, losing track of time as they buy more chips and flit from one pricey attraction to the next.

    "It's what customers were really excited about in the '80s and '90s - the convenience of being in a single environment when you could sample so many different kinds of entertainment," MGM CEO Jim Murren said in a telephone interview. "Tomorrow's consumer doesn't want that limitation. They are far more spontaneous."

    To that end, MGM is transforming the congested sidewalks in front of its New York City and European-themed casinos into an outdoor plaza featuring trees, benches, food trucks and shops. Construction is expected to begin in the coming weeks and last through 2014.

    Murren said he was inspired by New York City's small and cosmopolitan Madison Square Park, as opposed to the more sprawling Central Park.

    "We're not going to play Frisbee on the Great Lawn, but I would describe it as a city park with a dramatic boulevard," he said.

    Tourists will be able to stroll over a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, relax in a beer garden, and enjoy a cone of frozen custard from Shake Shack, an upscale burger stand that has become a New York favorite.

    Artist's renderings depict Gen Xers fiddling with smartphones under shade trees.

    MGM already controls the Strip's largest venue, the 17,000-seat MGM Grand Garden, located across the street at the MGM Grand.

    Strip casinos have traditionally invested in grand facades and outdoor gimmicks including exploding volcanoes and dancing fountains in the service of luring people inside.

    This is the town that has perfected the art of painting clouds, sun, and changing light onto the ceilings of malls and hotels to give visitors the illusion of being outside.

    Visitors to Las Vegas craving desert breezes, outdoor concerts and a sense time passing have traditionally had to travel a few miles north of the Strip to Freemont Street downtown, where lower-rent casinos open onto a promenade covered by an arching LED-screen canopy.

    Now, casino bosses are starting to believe their patrons might enjoy a bit of fresh air.

    The rise of pool parties and the success of the statue-filled plaza at Caesars Palace illustrate people's willingness to tolerate the 117 degree desert afternoons for a bit of people-watching and leg-stretching, Murren said.

    Caesars Entertainment Corp., which operates Caesars Palace, is planning its own outdoor shopping and dining "district" on the Strip. That project, Linq, is anchored by a 550-foot-tall observation wheel slated to open in 2014.

    Murren said he expects to see more casinos pursuing this tack as companies look to entice a new kind of patron. Modern visitors simply will not tolerate being confined to a single space anymore, he said.

    "They like darting in and out of events, bars, lounges, clubs," he said. "That's an encouraging sign for us, because in the old days, Las Vegas was a place where gamblers went on vacation. Now it's a place where people may go on vacation and not gamble at all."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Travel Hot Spots for 2013

     

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    Running Tap Water Creates Artistic Frozen Waterfall

    Leaving your tap running usually results in a disaster, but rarely of this magnitude. A 58-year-old man in China unknowingly created a frozen work of art outside of his building by letting his sink run to prevent his pipes from freezing.

     

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    April 18, 2013, updated at 1:24 p.m. ET

    Motorists drive through water on a flooded exit ramp from the Kennedy Expressway on April 18 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - Middle America was overwhelmed by weather Thursday, with snow in the north, tornadoes in the Plains, and torrential rains that caused floods and transportation woes - and a sinkhole in Chicago.

    Seemingly every community in the Plains and Midwest was under some sort of watch or warning. Up to a foot of snow was expected in parts of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Snow and ice closed highways in Colorado. Rivers were surging beyond their banks from downpours in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. Tornadoes caused scattered damage in Oklahoma. Frost warnings were in effect in Kansas and Oklahoma as a cold front pushed out warmer air.

    "It's a classic spring storm in many ways," Mark Fuchs of the National Weather Service said. "There's a wide variety of weather, a big temperature difference."

    Consider St. Louis. On Wednesday the temperature reached 85 degrees. Strong storms passed through on Thursday, and by Friday, the temperature is forecast to be around 40 degrees.

    There were no immediate reports of deaths related to the vast array of foul weather around the country.

    Chicago was pummeled by an all-night rainstorm that ripped open a sinkhole large enough to swallow three cars and injuring one driver badly enough that he had to be hospitalized. Police spokesman Mike Sullivan said the gaping hole opened up in a street on the city's South Side, near Lake Michigan.

    The injured man was driving when the road buckled and caved in. He was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries. The other two cars were parked.

    Flooding has also forced authorities to close sections of several major expressways around Chicago, canceled classes at some schools and scrapped around 550 flights at O'Hare International Airport. The gauge at O'Hare showed 5 inches of rain, and 2 more inches were expected Thursday.

    Winds, possibly from a tornado, damaged dozens of homes in Spavinaw, Okla., injuring one person. Another twister damaged a few buildings near Paris, Mo. High winds also blew two tractor-trailers off a highway near Monroe City, Mo.

    Up to a foot of new snow was expected in northern Minnesota. Duluth has already received 24 inches of snow this month, and the additional snowfall could push it past the April record of 31.6 inches set in 1950. Winter storm warnings were also posted for parts of North Dakota and South Dakota.

    Snow and ice forced closure of sections of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 in Colorado. The Wyoming Department of Transportation warned drivers to watch for black ice.

    Flash flooding was reported in many places. In north-central Illinois, fire departments and rescue crews helped stranded motorists and residents. In Utica, the fire department evacuated a mobile home park. In Marshall County, boats were needed to rescue morning commuters trapped in flash flooding.

    In Ava, Mo., a school bus carrying several children stopped because of water on the road. The driver turned around to go back, only to find flooding behind him, too. The driver and kids waited at a nearby home until help arrived. Outside the small town, an elderly couple was rescued from their mobile home after a fast-rising creek encircled the trailer.

    "There were places around here this morning that like in 45 minutes got 3 inches of rain," Douglas County Sheriff Chris Degase said.

    Roads in Oklahoma, Iowa and Michigan were shut down because of flash flooding.

    Several rivers were lapping over their banks, including the biggest one, the Mississippi. In Hannibal, Mo., the flood gates were installed in open sections of the levee that protects the Mark Twain sites and the rest of downtown. Emergency management director John Hark said he was in "full flood fight" mode.

    The river was expected to climb nearly 10 feet above flood stage by the middle of next week several spots north of St. Louis, including tiny Clarksville, Mo.

    Many of the town's 442 residents were filling sandbags Thursday as floodwaters began rising toward the unprotected downtown. City Clerk Jennifer Calvin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was bringing in 500,000 additional sandbags, the effort speeding up because the crest of the flood is expected over the weekend.

    "This is a short time frame we have to prepare for it," Calvin said. "That doesn't make it any easier."

    Strong storms rolled through the St. Louis area during the morning rush Thursday, snarling traffic with water over several roadways. Winds up to 60 mph caused scattered damage.

    In Chicago, the storm-swollen Chicago River was being allowed to flow into Lake Michigan, in part to relieve sewer backups downtown and in neighborhoods. The river was diverted away from the lake more than a century ago to keep pollution out of the lake, the source of the city's drinking water. Meanwhile, workers were furiously filling sandbags and putting up barricades along the north branch of the Chicago River in the Albany Park neighborhood.

    Making flood concerns even worse: Forecasters are calling for the heavy rain to continue in many places into Friday morning.

     

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    A false-color image, taken by the GOES-13 satellite April 17, 2013, shows a series of strong thunderstorms in the Midwest. (NASA)

    Ever wondered what thunderstorms look like from space? Wonder no longer.

    A false-color image, taken by the GOES-13 satellite taken April 17, 2013, shows a series of strong thunderstorms in the Midwest. The dark orange of the cloud tops indicate that they are very cold, a marked contrast to the warm, humid air surrounding it. (The warm air can't be seen since it is transparent in this image.)

    This contrast between cold, upper-level air and warm, humid air beneath powers instability in the atmosphere, which gives rise to thunderstorms and occasionally tornadoes, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and science writer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

    On April 18, a new cold front has moved across the center of the country, as can be seen in a second image from NCAR. This has created a "squall line" of cold, high level air that stretches from north to south across the country. This system also produces instability and wind shear, which involves wind speed and direction changing with altitude. This situation creates optimal conditions for tornado formation - in fact, there are tornado watches stretching from Michigan to Texas, Henson said.

    This cold front is particularly frigid for this time of year, and it has led to an impressive accumulation of snow throughout the Great Plains. Right now, there are more than 4 inches (10 centimeters) of snow stretching from Denver to Minneapolis, Henson said. On Sunday (April 14), a total of 17.3 inches (44 cm) of snow fell in Bismarck, S.D., the most snow ever to fall on the town in a 24-hour period, Henson added.

    The front has also brought record cold. Lubbock, Texas, is expecting freezing temperatures tonight, Henson said. That would be the latest freeze ever recorded for the city, by more than a week. Oklahoma is also expected to see freezing temperatures, which would be the first time this has happened since the 1950s, Henson said.

    Email Douglas Main or follow him @Douglas_Main. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook or Google+. Original article on LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space

     

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    April 18, 2013

    This artist's concept depicts Kepler-62f, a planet 1.4 times the size of Earth that circles in the habitable zone of its host star. The small shining object at right is Kepler-62e, another potentially habitable world in the five-planet system. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

    NASA's Kepler space telescope has discovered three exoplanets that may be capable of supporting life, and one of them is perhaps the most Earth-like alien world spotted to date, scientists announced today (April 18).

    That most intriguing one is called Kepler-62f, a rocky world just 1.4 times bigger than Earth that circles a star smaller and dimmer than the sun. Kepler-62f's newfound neighbor, Kepler-62e, is just 1.6 times larger than Earth, making the pair among the smallest exoplanets yet found in their star's habitable zone -- the just-right range of distances where liquid water can exist on a world's surface.

    Kepler-62e and f, which are part of a newly discovered five-planet system, "look very good as possibilities for looking for life," said Kepler science principal investigator Bill Borucki, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. [Three Possibly Habitable Super-Earths Found (Gallery)]

    The third potentially habitable planet, called Kepler-69c, is 1.7 times bigger than Earth and orbits a star similar to our own. It's the smallest world ever found in the habitable zone of a sunlike star, researchers said, and represents a big step toward discovering the first-ever "alien Earth."

    "We're moving very rapidly toward finding an Earth analogue around a star like the sun," Borucki told SPACE.com.

    Researchers announced these newfound planets -- all three of which are "super-Earths," or worlds slightly larger than our own -- today at a NASA news conference. The Kepler-62 discovery paper, led by Borucki, was also published today in the journal Science; the Kepler-69 study, led by Thomas Barclay of the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute in Sonoma, Calif., appeared today in The Astrophysical Journal.

    The three potentially habitable worlds are part of a larger haul. All told, the scientists rolled out seven new exoplanets today -- five in the Kepler-62 system and two in Kepler-69.


    This diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-62, a newfound five-planet system with two potentially habitable worlds. Kepler-62 lies about 1,200 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Lyra. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

    Alien water worlds?

    The five newfound planets in the Kepler-62 system, which is located about 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Lyra, range from 0.54 to 1.95 times the size of Earth. Only Kepler-62e and f are potentially habitable; the other three zip around the star at close range, making them too hot to support life as we know it, researchers said.

    Kepler-62e and f take 122 and 267 days, respectively, to complete one orbit around their star, which is just 20 percent as bright as the sun. While nobody knows what the two exoplanets look like, a separate modeling study suggests they're both probably water worlds covered by endless, uninterrupted global oceans. [Two Habitable Alien Water Worlds? (Video)]

    "There may be life there, but could it be technology-based like ours? Life on these worlds would be under water with no easy access to metals, to electricity, or fire for metallurgy," lead author Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

    "Nonetheless, these worlds will still be beautiful blue planets circling an orange star — and maybe life’s inventiveness to get to a technology stage will surprise us," she added.

    Not surprisingly, Kepler-62e should be warmer than its more distantly orbiting neighbor. In fact, Kepler-62f may require a greenhouse effect to keep its ocean from freezing over, researchers said.

    “Kepler-62e probably has a very cloudy sky and is warm and humid all the way to the polar regions," co-author Dimitar Sasselov of Harvard said in a statement. "Kepler-62f would be cooler, but still potentially life-friendly."

    The new modeling study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

    Searching for Earth's twin

    The $600 million Kepler observatory launched in March 2009 to hunt for Earth-size exoplanets in the habitable zone of their parent stars. Kepler finds alien worlds by detecting the tiny brightness dips caused when they transit, or cross the face of, their stars from the instrument's perspective.

    Kepler has used this technique to great effect, spotting more than 2,700 potential planets since its March 2009 launch. While just 120 or so of these candidates have been confirmed to date, mission scientists estimate that more than 90 percent will end up being the real deal.

    While Kepler has yet to discover a true Earth twin, it's getting closer and closer, Borucki said, pointing to the confirmation of Kepler-69c as an example. (That planet lies 2,700 light-years away, in the constellation Cygnus. Kepler-69c's neighbor Kepler-69b, which is about twice the size of Earth and too hot to host life, was also announced today.)

    "I think we're making excellent progress in that direction," Borucki said. "We have a number of candidates that look good."

    Such steady progress makes sense, since Kepler will of course spot more transits the longer it looks. The telescope needs to observe three transits to flag a planet candidate, so detecting a potentially habitable world in a relatively distant orbit can take several years.

    Kepler cannot search for signs of life on worlds like Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Kepler-69c, but the telescope is paving the way for future missions that should do just that, Borucki said.

    "This is one of the early steps, but there's no mistake — we are on our way to explore the galaxy, to learn about life in the galaxy," he said.

    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.

     

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    This image from the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite taken Oct. 29, 2012, shows Superstorm Sandy approaching the U.S. East Coast. (NOAA)

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Superstorm Sandy didn't just rattle the East Coast, it also jiggled the ground across the country ever so slightly, scientists reported Thursday.

    Earthquake sensors located as far away as the Pacific Northwest detected the storm's energy as it surged toward the New York metropolitan region last year. The network typically records the sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust, but it can pick up shaking triggered by ocean waves, mine cave-ins and tornadoes.

    As Sandy lashed at New York City and New Jersey, the force of waves slamming into other waves shook the seafloor, which was recorded by the system of 500 sensors.

    The energy generated by Sandy was similar to small earthquakes between magnitudes 2 and 3, seismologists at the University of Utah estimated.

    While they did not track Sandy's strength last October, they went back and analyzed seismic data before and after the storm churned ashore. The findings were presented at a meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Salt Lake City.

    Sandy, which started off as a hurricane that later merged with another storm system, caused widespread property damage, swamping homes and businesses along the Jersey shore and parts of New York City.

    Sandy wasn't the first storm to be sensed by quake stations. When Hurricane Katrina took aim at New Orleans in 2005, instruments in California tracked the path of the punishing waves.

    Other events also have been captured by seismic sensors in recent years. A deadly coal mine collapse in Utah in 2007 registered as a magnitude-3.9 quake. Earlier this year, a meteor that exploded over Siberia's Ural Mountains sent rippling shock waves that were detected by ground instruments.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    Updated April 19, 2013, 4:53 p.m. ET

    Octavio Castillo paddles a boat down a flooded street to reach the home of his cousin on April 19, 2013 in Des Plaines, Illinois. The suburban Chicago town is battling floodwater from the Des Plaines River which is expected to crest at a record 11 feet later today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - Flood fighters from small Mississippi River hamlets to the suburbs of Chicago staged a feverish battle Friday to hold back raging rivers, after days of torrential rains soaked much of the Midwest.

    Mississippi River communities in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri are expected to see significant flooding - some near-record levels - by the weekend, a sharp contrast to just two months ago when the river was approaching record lows. Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana had flooding, too. All told, dozens of Midwestern rivers were well over their banks after rains that began Wednesday dumped up to 6 inches of new water on already saturated soil.

    In Quincy, Ill., the normally slow to swell Mississippi River rose nearly 10 feet in 36 hours, National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said. One bridge in the town about 120 miles north of St. Louis was closed Friday, leaving one open.

    "That's pretty amazing," Fuchs said of the fast-rising river. "It's just been skyrocketing."

    Smaller rivers in Illinois seemed to be causing the worst of the flooding. In suburban Chicago, which got up to 7 inches of rain in a 24-hour period ending Thursday, record levels of water were moving through the Des Plaines River past heavily populated western suburbs and into the Illinois River to the south.

    As many as 1,500 residents of the northern Illinois city of Marseilles were evacuated after seven barges broke free from a towing vessel and struck a dam on the Illinois River. The swollen Spoon River topped a levee and inundated the central Illinois town of London Mills, and about half of the 500 residents had to be evacuated. Police Chief Scott Keithley said some homes were half under water, and abandoned cars were sent floating in the torrent of water.

    Mississippi River flooding wasn't as pronounced as its water level varies greatly but is typically highest in the spring, so minor flooding is not uncommon. "Flood stage" is a somewhat arbitrary term that the National Weather Service says is the point when "water surface level begins to create a hazard to lives, property, or commerce."

    When river levels exceed flood stage by several feet, serious problems can occur. Just days ago, the Mississippi was well below flood stage. Forecasters now expect it to climb up to 12 feet above flood stage at some spots in Missouri and Illinois.

    Already, high water has closed hundreds of roads and swamped hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland as planting season approaches. Transportation officials are planning to close the bridge at Louisiana, Mo. - about 75 miles north of St. Louis - at noon Saturday, citing rising water on the eastern approach.

    After the devastating Mississippi River floods of 1993, the government bought out thousands of homes that were once in harm's way, tore them down and replaced them with green space where development is not allowed. New and bigger levees have been built, and flood walls reinforced.

    Clarksville, Mo., is one of the few places at the mercy of the river. The quaint community of 442 filled with century-old historic homes has no flood wall or levee. But in 2008, it purchased a flood protection system that allows for a levee to be constructed - aluminum slats filled with sand - if the river rises.

    The waters have risen too quickly to install the system this time, so volunteers are using gravel, plastic overlay and sandbags to protect the business district, and they're layering sandbags around threatened homes, the American Legion hall and the Catholic church.

    "This just shocked us all because it just came up so quickly," alderwoman Sue Lindemann said. "We found out about the crest prediction Wednesday and we started sandbagging that night. It's going to be touch and go but we're hoping."

    Lindemann said Clarksville has opted against a levee or flood wall partly because of the cost, and partly because residents like the view.

    Also unprotected is Grafton, Ill., a tourist town near St. Louis that sits at the convergence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. But flooding happens so often there that people are taking it in stride.

    "If you live here, you understand the river," Mayor Tom Thompson said. "We'll get through this."

    The main thoroughfare leading into town - the Great River Road - was expected to be closed off by midday Saturday, and riverside merchants were clearing out merchandise. Among them was Laurie Wild, 51, who scrambled with volunteers to save her artisan shop's wares - jewelry, pottery, textiles and wood carvings.

    "It's a mess," the St. Louis transplant said. "We knew what we were getting into when we moved here. It's a beautiful town, and we'll be here after."

    On Friday afternoon, the Army Corps of Engineers said most of the locks and dams from the Quad Cities to near St. Louis were closed due to the flood, effectively halting barge and other traffic on that part of the Mississippi. Four Illinois River locks were also shut down.

    Widespread flash-flooding accompanied the week's rains. An 80-year-old woman died in De Soto, Mo., about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, when a creek flooded a street and swept away her car.

    Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency because of "rapidly rising rivers" and activated the Missouri National Guard for deployment to threatened Mississippi River towns.

    And in Michigan, Midland County Sheriff Scott Stephenson said a "major" rupture emerged in the Kawkawlin Dam, a 12-foot breach sending water through the structure. There were no reports of injuries.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Epic Storm Photos from the Twittersphere

     

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    A cold front that brought severe weather to the Midwest and the Mississippi Valley Thursday will reach the East on Friday producing heavy rain, locally gusty thunderstorms and travel disruptions.

    As the rain and storms push eastward from the Appalachians to the coast, travel delays will also become more extensive especially in the swath from New York City to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Charlotte and Atlanta during the afternoon and evening hours Friday.

    The storms could also disrupt evening ballgames.

    While the intensity of the thunderstorms will depend to some extent on the timing (morning versus evening) and on how warm locations become during the day, most locations from Florida to Maine will get a period of drenching rain.

    Spotty showers will occur ahead of the line of storms and downpours during the day Friday and Friday evening.

    Areas most likely to experience localized strong to severe thunderstorms will reach from part of the eastern Great Lakes to the west slopes of the central Appalachians. Buffalo and Pittsburgh could be clobbered by the storms during the morning and midday hours Friday.

    Next, the storms will advances toward the Atlantic Seaboard, generally near and south of the Mason-Dixon line.

    A prevailing cool wedge of air and/or clouds may limit the intensity of the storms over New England and part of the northern mid-Atlantic.

    Some locations can be hit by more than just a downpour and some lightning and thunder. A few places can have a severe thunderstorm that brings strong winds, torrential downpours and hail. As a result, there is the potential for downed trees, power outages and flash flooding in the vicinity of the storms.

    The storms will be the remnants of a squall line affecting the Central states into Thursday night.

    RELATED:
    Current Severe Weather Watches and Warnings
    Dangerous Storms Thursday Night Detroit to Tupelo, Miss.
    Live Updates on the Severe Weather in the Central States


    These storms and leftover downpours will swing into the Appalachians and eastern Great Lakes during the daylight hours Friday. It will not be until the evening before they reach most places along the middle and southern Atlantic coast and generally not until the overnight and early Saturday morning hours before they reach the east coast of New England.

    There is the potential for 1-2 inches of rain along a large part of the Atlantic Seaboard later Friday and Friday night.

    Much cooler and drier air will sweep in over much of the Eastern states this weekend. However, showers and thunderstorms may linger over central and South Florida. Spotty showers are likely over the central and northern Appalachians and eastern Great Lakes. Wet snowflakes could mix in over the highest elevations of northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York Saturday.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Epic Storm Photos from the Twittersphere

     

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    The Cira Centre is shown on Thursday, April 4, 2013, in Philadelphia. The classic Atari video game will come to life on the facade of the 29-story skyscraper. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A skyscraper-sized game of pong is ready to go in Philadelphia, hopefully under stars and not rainclouds.

    Frank Lee, a Drexel University game-design professor, said Friday's classic Atari video game is on schedule to be played on the facade of a mirrored, 29-story skyscraper, even if it rains. Hundreds of built-in LED lights embedded in the north face of the Cira Centre will replicate the familiar paddles and ball with gamers controlling giant, table-mounted joysticks across the Schuylkill River from the building.

    The event starts at 8 p.m.

    It just might be the world's largest "Pong" game, being played Friday and Wednesday to bookend Philly Tech Week, an annual series of events, seminars and workshops spotlighting the city's technology and innovation communities.

    It might, however, rain.

    "Everything is set up and ready to go on schedule, even though I'm looking at weather," Lee said.

    If that happens, tents will cover the equipment and controllers, but the hundreds of onlookers who are expected might get wet.

    The black-and-white arcade game introduced in 1972 had no complicated graphics, just geometric shapes. Players controlled digital paddles and tried to hit the ball so their opponents could not return it. A home version paved the way for the game console industry.

     

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    The artist's concept depicts Kepler-62f, a super-Earth planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun, located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. Image released April 18, 2013. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    Two newly discovered alien planets might be water worlds whose global oceans are teeming with life, scientists say.

    The existence of the distant exoplanets, called Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, was unveiled during a NASA press conference on April 18. The two worlds are perhaps the most promising life-hosting candidates yet found beyond our solar system, their discoverers said. Computer models suggest both planets are covered by uninterrupted oceans, which could theoretically support a wealth of aquatic lifeforms.

    "Look at our own ocean - it is just absolutely full of life," said Bill Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., leader of the team that discovered the two exoplanets. "We think, in fact, life [on Earth] might have begun there." [Habitable Super-Earths Ideal for Life (Gallery)]

    Borucki is science principal investigator of NASA's Kepler space telescope, which spotted Kepler-62e and f. The two alien worlds are 1.6 and 1.4 times bigger than Earth, respectively, and orbit in their star's habitable zone - the just-right range of distances that can support liquid water on a planet's surface.

    The five-planet Kepler-62 system lies 1,200 light-years away, making it much too distant for current instruments to study in detail. So any talk of potential life on Kepler-62e and f, if it exists at all, is just speculation for now, Borucki stressed.

    But such speculation is hard to resist. For example, Borucki raised the possibility that the newfound "super-Earths" - worlds just slightly bigger than our own planet - could host winged organisms, even if both planets are indeed water worlds.

    "At least in our ocean, we have flying fish. They 'fly' to get away from predators," Borucki said.

    "So we might find that they have evolved - birds - on this ocean planet," he added, referring to Kepler-62e.

    Water worlds are unlikely to host technologically advanced civilizations like our own, Borucki and other researchers said, because any lifeforms that take root there would not have easy access to electricity or fire for metallurgy.

    But if Kepler-62e or f has some dry land, Borucki said, the story could be different. The relatively high gravity of both exoplanets, however, might make the evolution of large bipedal organisms such as humans unlikely.

    "We might not have gotten off four legs" if our ancestors had evolved on Kepler-62e or f, Borucki said. Still, the gravity isn't too oppressive; we'd be able to walk around on Kepler-62f's surface if transported there today, he added.

    Kepler-62e and f are part of a trove of seven newfound planets announced today. Kepler spotted three other planets in the Kepler-62 system as well, all of them too hot to support life. The other two worlds are in the Kepler-69 system, which lies about 2,700 light-years from Earth.We'd have to take some special life-support gear if we made that 1,200-light-year journey. While Kepler-62e is likely hot and muggy all the way up to the polar regions, Kepler-62f orbits a bit farther away from the host star and is probably cooler.

    In fact, a thick atmosphere with lots of heat-trapping carbon dioxide may be required to keep Kepler-62f's surface water liquid. Such an atmosphere would be tough for humans to handle.

    "If you want to write a science-fiction story, and you land on both [planets], at least be sure that on f you don't want to take your mask thingy off," said modeling-study lead author Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    The newly discovered Kepler-69c, which is 1.7 times larger than Earth, may also be capable of supporting life, researchers said.

    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.


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