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    Snow falls near the spot where five members of a backcountry snowboarder group were found dead after they were trapped by an avalanche on Loveland Pass, Colo., Saturday, April 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

    DENVER (AP) - Six men who set off on a backcountry tour in mountains west of Denver had avalanche gear, had scanned an avalanche forecast, and were hiking toward a safer area to snowboard when they felt a collapse and heard a "whumpf."

    Within seconds, the six were swept into a gully, and all but one was completely buried in last weekend's avalanche that was roughly 800 feet wide, 600 feet long and as deep as 12 feet, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's final report on the accident.

    With just his lower left arm sticking up from the snow, the lone survivor cleared snow from his face. He struggled to free the rest of his body and screamed for help.

    There was no one around to hear him.

    "It covered everybody," Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene said Wednesday. "There was nobody left to call 911, nobody left to look for the buried, to help the one person who wasn't buried but couldn't get out."

    The man remained stuck for four hours until rescuers arrived, the center's report said.

    The state's deadliest slide since 1962 was large enough to bury or destroy a car, the center said. Of the men who died Saturday, one was buried under 10 to 12 feet of snow.

    The avalanche was tragic but avoidable, the center said.

    The center's report offered new details on the avalanche that occurred as snowboarders and skiers converged near Loveland Pass for the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, a day for riding but also avalanche gear and safety demonstrations.

    The four snowboarders and a skier who died were all from Colorado. The Clear Creek County sheriff's office identified them as Christopher Peters, 32, of Lakewood; Joseph Timlin, 32, of Gypsum; Ryan Novack, 33, of Boulder; Ian Lamphere, 36, of Crested Butte; and Rick Gaukel, 33, of Estes Park.

    Friends identified the survivor as Jerome Boulay of Crested Butte, who has declined requests for interviews.

    All had proper avalanche equipment. At least two had avalanche airbags, and some had Avalung breathing devices but apparently were unable to use them, the report said.

    "Nobody's immune from getting caught in avalanches. It doesn't matter how long you've been doing this, how athletic you are. ... Everybody can get killed. It's an equal-opportunity hazard," Greene said.

    The center has said the avalanche was a deep persistent slab avalanche, in which a thick layer of hard snow breaks loose from a weak, deep layer of snowpack underneath. Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters had alerted people about the potential for such avalanches Saturday following a string of April storms.

    "If you find the wrong spot, the resulting avalanche will be very large, destructive, and dangerous," the forecast said.

    On Saturday, Boulay's group had left the parking lot of Loveland Ski Area, which wasn't affiliated with the backcountry gathering, for a one-hour tour.

    They read the center's avalanche bulletin, were aware of the deep persistent slab problem, and aimed to avoid threatening north-facing slopes as they planned to climb a few hundred vertical feet onto northwest-facing slopes, the report said.

    But to get to that safer spot, they had to cross a dangerous area, Greene said. They decided to reduce the risk by leaving 50 feet between each person as they trekked. The buffer might have worked to prevent all six from getting swept away all at once, Greene said, but it turned out not to be enough for the large avalanche they triggered around 10:15 a.m.

    It took a while for anyone to realize the group was trapped.

    Two Colorado Avalanche Information Center highway avalanche forecasters spotted the slide around 12:15 p.m. from Interstate 70. When they reached the scene about 30 minutes later, their avalanche beacons detected no signals. Even with binoculars, they couldn't see tracks heading into the slide area, the report said.

    After forecasters drove back to the ski area to ask others at the backcountry gathering whether anyone might be trapped, several people rushed to the scene.

    The center urges even expert backcountry enthusiasts to know the conditions, have rescue equipment and get educated on avalanches.

    "We owe it to these guys to learn from a really horrible accident they were involved in," Greene said. "The only thing worse than all these guys getting killed is not to have us learn anything from it."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 10 Amazing Survival Stories from Mount Everest

     

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    In this Tuesday, April 23, 2013, file photo, heavy machinery moves sandbags as others sit staged, ready for possible use in the fight against floodwaters in Dutchtown, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

    ST. LOUIS (AP) - For 40 years, Shirley Moss has lived in the same home in a tiny southeast Missouri town, but as the sandbags piled up yet again, she didn't hesitate when asked if she would take a government buyout.

    "In a New York minute," Moss said from her double-wide mobile home in Dutchtown, which sits in a Mississippi River bottom. "I'm 75 years old - I can't fight this."

    Flooding has become a fact of life for many quiet towns like Dutchtown, where 100 or so residents live unprotected against the worst the water has to offer. Fed by days of drenching downpours, the Mississippi is again chugging at high levels, raising new fears that days of sandbagging won't suffice against the rush.

    Residents of Missouri, Indiana and Michigan are trying to stem the tide of murky river water, and towns along the Illinois River - Peoria, Beardstown and LaGrange - are setting new high-water records. By Wednesday, problems remained plentiful if not catastrophic.

    Floodwaters had begun an inch-by-inch retreat in inundated Peoria, Ill., after the Illinois River crested Tuesday at 29.35 feet, eclipsing a 70-year record. In central Indiana, more heavy rain through Wednesday morning prompted a request for voluntary evacuation along the Tippecanoe River near Lafayette. The Grand River at Grand Rapids, Mich., which reached record levels, was expected to fall below flood stage Thursday and some of the hundreds of people evacuated were starting to return home.

    Along the Mississippi, the biggest concern was that the flood is expected to linger into May, potentially straining longstanding earthen levees and hastily-built sandbag walls. No towns were in imminent danger.

    Dutchtown was dry, but thousands of sandbags were at the ready in anticipation of a crest Thursday 10 feet above flood stage.

    Doyle Parmer, who doubles as town clerk and emergency management chief and called "Dutchtown Doyle" in these parts, figured that if the predicted crest holds, the town about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis will be spared.

    As far as he's concerned, the town shouldn't even exist.

    Parmer said Dutchtown has been "jumping through hoops" for three years seeking a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency - property owners sell to the local city or county, which uses money from FEMA for most of the purchase; grants often fund the rest. Bought-out land cannot be developed - in most cases, it is set aside for green space or a park.

    He's hopeful the latest round of flooding will speed the process.

    But in order for that money to arrive, towns must prove that flooding is frequent and devastating enough for a buyout to be cost-effective, and Dutchtown hasn't filed a suitable one yet, said Melissa Janssen, mitigation branch chief for the FEMA region that includes Missouri.

    Parmer said they'll try again. Though he, like Moss, is ready to get out.

    "Sell the house, cut the grass and get the hell out of Dodge," he said.

    It isn't yet clear how many places will seek buyouts from the 2013 floods, but FEMA said the program has been a huge success. More than $2 billion has been spent to buy out nearly 40,000 properties since the devastating Mississippi River floods of 1993, but FEMA said money is saved in the long run: When the next flood comes, taxpayers aren't on the hook for sandbagging, emergency operations and cleanup.

    According to a 2005 study conducted for Congress, every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves $4 in future costs.

    A Dutchtown buyout would dissolve the town. Farther down river in southeast Missouri, the village of Pinhook wants to relocate as a community, just to higher ground.

    Pinhook has a rich history, founded by black farmers nearly 100 years ago. It was essentially wiped away when the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally exploded the Birds Point levee near New Madrid in 2011, flooding 130,000 acres to relieve what was then record flooding on the Mississippi.

    Today, only the shells of a few homes remain. Vandals have stolen metal for scrap and even set fire to the Union Baptist Church, where most of the community met every Sunday.

    Village chairwoman Debra Tarver said Pinhook residents have dispersed, waiting to see if FEMA will approve the buyout of 17 residential properties and two public buildings.

    "They (corps officials) have control to blow us out any time they want," said Tarver, a lifelong resident. "We just can't keep doing that."

    Another southeast Missouri town, Morehouse, also considered a buyout after the 2011 flood but opted against it, even though 75 homes were so badly damaged they had to be demolished.

    Mayor Pete Leija said city officials were put off by FEMA's prohibition of rebuilding on bought-out land.

    "We don't need property all over town just sitting idle," Leija said.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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    This computer generated graphic provided by NASA shows images of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. (AP Photo/NASA)

    BERLIN (AP) - Experts want to use nets and harpoons to haul in space junk threatening the $100 billion worth of satellites currently in orbit round Earth.

    What sounds like a cosmic fishing trip is part of a raft of proposals to come out of a global conference on space debris ending Thursday in Darmstadt, Germany.

    Others ideas include kamikaze robots and even lasers that act like "Star Trek" tractor beams.

    Heiner Klinkrad of the European Space Agency says thousands of tons of debris are already orbiting Earth.

    He says 5-10 large objects need to be collected each year to prevent what is known as the Kessler Syndrome - when a few major collisions trigger a cascade effect in which each crash vastly increases the amount of dangerous debris in orbit.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    While the situation is not serious, frequent rainfall, chilly conditions and muddy soil over much of the Midwest this spring has put the skids on planting for the time being.

    During the last several years, it has been one extreme or the other for agriculture in portions of the Central states.

    Wet weather and flooding was the theme in many areas during 2011. Last year, spring warmth turned to blistering heat and drought during the summer. This season so far from the Mississippi Valley into the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region, it is flooding as well as a lingering chill.

    The good news is that the weather pattern that brought frequent waves of cold throughout the region and ongoing snowstorms to the Plains and Great Lakes is easing. Most farmers are willing to deal with wet conditions and planting delays, rather than drought.

    A spell of warmth with only spotty rainfall may present a window of opportunity for planting in part of the Midwest later this weekend into early next week.

    However, later next week, additional rounds of rain will occur, and there can be one more invasion of cold air that can add to planting delays.

    One particular system AccuWeather.com meteorologists are watching is what could be a large and slow-moving storm set to develop during the middle of next week.

    The worst case scenario would be for several days of rainy and cool conditions that leads to new flooding problems in some areas and ongoing soggy ground for agricultural interests. A freeze could again drive southward over wheat areas of the Plains with a narrow zone of snow for the Upper Midwest.

    According to expert senior meteorologist Henry Margusity, "The storm next week appears as though it will tap a significant amount of gulf of moisture, while a puddle of cool air settles over the Midwest."

    Setups like this have the potential to unleash rounds of heavy rainfall: some of it from thunderstorms, some by other means.

    The area at greatest risk for additional flooding or continuing soggy conditions would be from Iowa and Missouri to Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. Much of this area has already received from 150 to 200 percent of their normal precipitation since Jan. 1, 2013.

    One way the storm next week could bring less rainfall is if a second storm forms in the Deep South. Such a storm would prevent Gulf of Mexico moisture from flowing northward over the Midwest. However, such a storm could lead to flooding problems in parts of the South.

    RELATED:
    Red River of the North Flooding Expected Next Week
    Flooding This Week in Illinois, Surrounding States
    Weather Maps Next Week


    However, areas which have escaped the worst of the rain thus far could also have several days of wet weather farther south and east from Arkansas to Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.

    It is possible that if the soil remains too wet too long into the spring season, farmers in some locations will have to switch from later-maturing crops to the early-maturing varieties. Many of the early-season varieties deliver lower yields than the main-season ones.

    According to agricultural weather expert Dale Mohler, "In typical conditions on soil that is well-drained, most farmers can get into the fields and plant four of five days after a heavy rain.

    However, the lower temperatures that have been occurring this spring are resulting in slower evaporation rates. By the time the soil is about ready to be worked, the next rainstorm was overspreading the area."

    In parts of the northern Plains and the Upper Midwest, the ground is still frozen and still has a great deal of snow on top as of the middle of this week.

    While much of the snow will melt this weekend in the northern tier, the point at which the ground will be warm and dry enough for planting in a large part of the Midwest is still weeks away.

    There is hope that warmer weather spreading from the Plains to the Midwest this weekend into early next week may be enough to allow some planting to take place in some well-drained areas of the southern and central part of the region, ahead of the next storm system.

    While temperatures will turn around dramatically this weekend, record lows for so late in the season occurred over the northern Texas Panhandle and vicinity Wednesday morning.

    "Freezes such as this as well as earlier this spring and perhaps next week could impact some of the winter wheat grown over the Great Plains," Mohler said.

    Plains weather expert and senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Mike Smith raises concerns for the wheat as well and has more information in his blog.

    There are some indications that wheat in some of the southern areas was entering the jointing phase and could be more vulnerable.

    The winter wheat matures from south to north from late spring to the summer.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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    Snow depths on April 23, 2013. (Credit: NOAA)

    Spring has gotten off to a colder- and snowier-than-average start in parts of the United States, particularly in the eastern Rockies and Upper Midwest.

    Duluth, Minn., for example, has seen 51 inches of snow this April. That's not only the most snow the town has seen in any April - breaking the old mark of 31.6 inches - but the most snow the town has received in any month, ever, according to government records. As of Monday (April 22), a total of 995 snowfall records have also been broken so far this month, according to AccuWeather. Over the same time period last year, 195 snowfall records had been broken.

    More than 91 percent of the upper Midwest also has snow on the ground as of April 24, meteorologist Jason Samenow wrote at the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog. "Snow cover in the previous 10 years on this date hasn't even come close to reaching this extent (ranging from 19 percent to much lower)," he wrote.

    So why has spring failed to take hold? Blame the jet stream.

    The record snow and below-average cold is due to a trough or dip in the jet stream, which has brought blasts of freezing air as far south as the Mexican border, said Jeff Weber, a scientist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

    Whence the snow?

    This dip in the jet stream has also brought moisture from the Pacific to the Eastern Rockies. Boulder, Colo., for example, saw 47 inches of snow in April, breaking the old record of 44 inches.

    From the dip, the jet stream then swoops up to the north toward Minnesota, bringing new moisture with it from the Gulf of Mexico, Weber said. That has made for snowy conditions throughout the region.

    This persistent trough has largely stayed in place during much of April, due in part to a stubborn mass of warm air over Greenland and the North Atlantic, Weber said. A similar system was also responsible for the record cold seen in March throughout much of the Eastern United States.

    This mass of air has blocked the normal eastward progression of the jet stream, which normally brings warm air from the south and west into the central United States. Instead, this "buckled" jet stream has been stuck in place, bathing the Rockies and Upper Midwest in cold, and often moist, air, Weber said.

    Warming up

    But now, the mass of warm air over the North Atlantic is finally dissipating, and higher temperatures are expected by this weekend from Colorado to Minnesota, Weber said. While temperatures have recently dipped into the single digits (below 10 degrees Fahrenheit), they should reach above 80 F by the weekend throughout much of this region, he said. [6 Signs that Spring Has Sprung]

    This will lead to a lot of melted snow, which could cause some of the worst flooding ever seen in the Upper Midwest, Weber said.

    The persistent cold has helped tamped down severe weather and tornadoes, which thrive on the interaction of warm, moist air with cold, dry air, Weber said. However, he expects to see a lot more severe weather and tornadoes in the near future, particularly in the Southeast.

    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: The 10 Snowiest Places on Earth

     

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    Amateur astrophotographer Rhys Harris of Bodmin, Cornwall, England sent in a photo of the March 2013 full moon. (Credit: Rhys Harris)

    This month's full moon, which falls on Thursday (April 25), always reminds me of one of the first times I viewed the April full moon.

    When I was very young boy living in New York, there was a popular television weathercaster by the name of Carol Reed. While not a meteorologist, she had an upbeat personality and always finished her reports with what became her personal catchphrase: "And have a happy!"

    One evening, Carol commented that it would be clear for everyone to get a good view of that night's "pink" full moon. When it got dark, my mother accompanied me outside expecting to see a salmon-colored moon, but all we saw was a full moon that looked the way it always did: yellowish-white with not a hint of pink.

    While I don't recall the year of this episode, I can state most definitely that it took place in the month of April, since many years later I learned that traditionally the full moon of April is called the "pink moon," a reference made to the grass pink or wild ground phlox which is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring season. [How 2013's Full Moons Got Their Peculiar Names]

    So on Thursday night, when you look skyward at this year's version of the "pink" April full moon, remember not to take the term literally!

    A bit of an eclipse

    While this month's full moon may not look pink, if you live in Europe, Africa or much of Asia, you will notice something a bit different about it, because it will take place on the night of a lunar eclipse.

    Unfortunately, in North America, none of this eclipse will be visible, since the actual instant of full moon occurs on Thursday afternoon (April 25), when the moon is below the horizon.

    Beginning at 2:04 p.m. EDT, the moon begins to meet the Earth's shadow; a little over two hours later it arrives under the middle of that shadow. By then the moon will have just risen and will be visible low to the east-southeast horizon as seen from Ireland, and will be setting over south-central Japan in the morning hours of Friday, April 26.

    Feeble at best

    If we were to rank a total eclipse of the moon as a first-rate event, then what is scheduled to be seen on Thursday for those living in the Eastern Hemisphere would almost certainly fall into the third- or even fourth-rate category; in fact it might add new meaning to the term "underwhelming."

    During the first 110-minutes of the eclipse, the moon's northern hemisphere pushes ever-so-gradually into the Earth's partial shadow, called the penumbra. The outer two-thirds of this are too subtle to detect; but then perhaps by 3:30 p.m. EDT you may realize you are beginning to detect the ever-so-slight gradient of a soft grey darkening around the top of the moon.

    At 3:54 p.m. EDT, the moon's northern limb finally makes contact with a much more abrupt shadow, the blackish-brown umbra. This chord of shadow on the moon grows and retreats over a span of less than half an hour; yet at its deepest at 4:07 p.m. EDT, the partial eclipse will reach its peak at a puny 1.48 percent as the moon's northern (upper) limb literally grazes the umbral shadow and remains in contact with it until 4:21 p.m. EDT.

    This dark shadow's coverage can be described as feeble at best. To the unaided eye, even to those with acute visual skills, it will hardly cause a perceptible dent on the lunar disk. However, anyone who glances up at the moon around that time will likely notice that the uppermost part of the disk of the moon will appear smudged or tarnished. This effect will probably fade away by around 5 p.m. EDT, with the moon appearing as its normal self. Officially, though, the moon will not completely free itself from the outer penumbral shadow until 6:11 p.m. EDT.

    In spite of the fact that this isn't much of an eclipse, I suspect that more than a few skywatchers across the big pond will still take time out to watch it. That is, after all what a true amateur astronomer is: patient, undemanding, and willing to accept even the smallest crumbs from the star tables.

    Oh - and have a happy!

    Update: Find out how to watch the April lunar eclipse online in our latest story: Partial Lunar Eclipse Occurs Thursday: Watch It Live.

    Editor's note: If you have an amazing picture of the full moon or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

    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 and Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.

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

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    (NOAA)

    Paging all comic book creators. For the first time, scientists have linked mysterious dark lightning to its dazzling visible counterpart, a new study reports.

    Dark lightning, also called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, is a burst of powerful gamma-ray radiation produced in thunderstorms. Two satellites caught a flash of dark lightning just before a lightning bolt raced across a powerful thundercloud in Venezuela in 2006, according to a study published April 15 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

    Scientists reanalyzed the satellite data with a new processing technique and discovered the one-two punch, which was previously overlooked, lead study author Nikolai òstgaard, a space scientist at the University of Bergen in Norway, said in a statement.

    Scientists are trying to track dark lightning to better understand the phenomenon, which was discovered in 1991. Researchers think dark lightning forms via strong electrical fields at the tops of thunderstorms, but there are still many questions about how often the gamma bursts occur, and how they form. The short-lived radiation bursts may last less than a second and are so bright they can blind satellites, yet generate very little visible light.

    òstgaard thinks a strong electric field in the Venezuela storm generated the dark lightning, according to the statement. The electric field whirled electrons to nearly the speed of light. When the electrons smashed into air molecules, they triggered high-energy gamma-ray bursts - the dark lightning.

    Visible lightning also results from charged particles in clouds. But in this case, the lightning is the massive release of built-up electrostatic charges, either between two clouds or a cloud and the ground.

    Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook & 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.

     

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    Rain water pools in a field near Sprague, Neb., Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Farmers who have spent the past several months staring at parched fields have a new problem: mud. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

    DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - As spring rains soaked the central United States and helped conquer the historic drought, a new problem has sprouted: The fields have turned to mud.

    The weekly drought monitor report, released Thursday by National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., showed the heavy rains that also caused some flooding in the last week brought drought relief to the upper Midwest, western Corn Belt and central portions of the Plains.

    Farmers may be thankful the land is no longer parched, but it's too wet to plant in corn country and freezing temperatures and lingering snow have ruined the winter wheat crop.

    "Right now, we're wishing it would dry up so we can get in the field," said 74-year-old Iowa farmer Jerry Main, who plants corn and soybeans on about 500 acres in the southeast part of the state. He's measured more than 9 inches of rain since April 18 - and farmers in his area prefer to plant corn by May 10 - at the latest.

    Aside from being too wet to plant, it's been too cold for seed to germinate. Main said temperatures dipped to 27 on Tuesday and to 32 on Wednesday, a chill that's been widespread across the Midwest.

    "We need some heat, it's been down in the upper 30s at night," said Darren Walter, 41, who farms near Grand Ridge, Ill. And farmers in southwest Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas have lost a significant portion of their wheat crop because of unusually late freezes, and have begun knocking it down to feed it to livestock.

    But just as better crop technology helped U.S. farmers harvest one of their biggest corn crops ever amid the worst drought in decades, it's likely to save them from a late, wet planting season. There are corn varieties that mature faster, nearly 30 days in some cases, but the shorter the time to maturity, the lower the yield.

    Kevin Malchine, who farms 2,100 acres in southeastern Wisconsin, said he did better than expected last year thanks to drought-resistant corn - harvesting 80 percent more than in 1988, the last time there was a comparable drought.

    "We took a hit, but it was much better than I would have thought, and that's just due to the genetics of today," Malchine, 51, said.

    Sandy Ludeman's 2,500-acre farm in Tracy, Minn., about 50 miles east of the South Dakota border, is covered with snow. A year ago, he had finished planting corn. This year, he'll be lucky if he can start in two weeks.

    Ludeman says he'll consider switching from his typical 105-day corn to 95-day corn if planting runs late.

    "I guess I'm not abnormally concerned about it," he said. "I've farmed close to 40 years, and we've had wet springs before, but if it gets too late, it affects our yield."

    Declaring an end to drought requires looking at how much moisture an area has received, how much soaked into the ground and the impact on agriculture, said Richard Heim, a climate scientist at the National Climatic Data Center who helps draft the drought monitor.

    "It takes a while for that moisture to percolate down especially if it's been dry for a long time," he said. "When the soil is moist enough it can sustain crops, it can sustain other activities you aren't really in a drought."

    In Illinois, where corn production plunged 34 percent last year, soggy conditions meant only 1 percent of it has been sown this year.

    Rob Asbell farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad and uncle in Peoria County in central Illinois. The last week brought more than 6 inches of rain, saturating the fields and putting him woefully behind.

    "Everybody's behind," the 42-year-old said. "We're getting to the point now where it's time to go, tired of sitting around."

    The dry spell hasn't snapped everywhere, though. It remains solidly in place in parts of California, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the drought monitor. It intensified across western Texas, southeastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma panhandle.

    It likely won't keep farmers out of the fields, though. Agriculture giant Monsanto tested a drought-resistant variety of corn last year, and DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta are also marketing similar varieties.

    Southwest Kansas farmer Clay Scott said he was one of 250 to test Monsanto's during last year's drought and said it yielded more bushels per gallon of water than his fully irrigated corn. He plans to plant about 10 percent of the drought-resistant corn this year, noting that things are again looking extremely dry.

    "The countryside's hurting every time the wind blows," he said. "It's really starting to be an issue with blowing dirt," he said.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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    This Saturday, April 20, 2013, file photo shows a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter droping water on a fire burning on the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Monrovia, Calif. (AP Photo/John Antczak,File)

    LOS ANGELES (AP) - Californians can expect a dangerous summer wildfire season due to a dry winter that has left the normally green hills of spring parched and tinder-dry, authorities warned.

    State fire crews have responded to more than 680 wildfires since the beginning of the year - some 200 more than average for the period. They included several 300- and 400-acre blazes around the state.

    Local fire crews also have been busy. Last weekend, a fire in the foothills above Monrovia, northeast of Los Angeles, prompted the evacuation of about 200 homes. A wind-whipped, 170-acre wildfire earlier this month burned two houses and threatened 160 others in rural Ventura County before.

    Last week, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection increased staffing in Southern California and moved air tankers to bases in preparation for what promises to be one of the driest years on record, according to a statement released Wednesday.

    The Angeles National Forest, which covers more than 1,000 square miles north of Los Angeles, planned to raise its fire danger level from moderate to high on Friday and to bring in dozens of seasonal firefighters early Sunday.

    Lack of rain has left chaparral and brush as dry now as they usually get in June, said forest fire information officer Nathan Judy. It would take a storm dumping 2 1/2 inches of rain to reduce that danger - and that is unlikely, he said.

    "We're coming into the summer and we're not going to get a whole lot of rain, we know that," he said.

    Judy urged campers and visitors to be careful with their campfires and cigarettes and to avoid parking cars on the dry brush, where a hot muffler or a spark could set it ablaze.

    Humans cause at least 90 percent of fires in the forest, he said.

    The water content of California's snowpack, which normally provides about a third of California's water, was only 52 percent of average at a time when it normally is at its peak, according to a Department of Water Resources survey released last month.

    That was due, in part, to a record dry January and February, the agency reported.

    Cloudy days have failed deliver, dropping only scattered showers measurable in the hundredths of an inch.

    The country has been locked into a weather pattern that has seen storms roll down from Alaska eastward, bringing rain and snow to the center of the country but only dry winds to California, said Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

    Since Jan. 1, downtown Los Angeles has received about 2 inches of rain, instead of the usual 10 inches, and much of the state has seen record dry conditions, he said.

    "We're about two months ahead of where we should be in terms of drying out," Boldt said. "People might notice as they're driving the freeways that the hills are getting brown. Typically, they'd be green."

    With its wettest months behind it, California probably won't see any significant rain until fall, Boldt said.

    "It doesn't look promising," he said.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space

     

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    This aerial view shows levees and the downtown seawall protecting Beardstown from near-record water levels on the Illinois River on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, Chris Young)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 100 crucial gauges that warn of imminent flooding or lack of needed water will be shut down starting next month as part of the federal government's automatic budget cuts.

    Some are in the nine states threatened with spring flooding, U.S. Geological Survey officials said in interviews with The Associated Press.

    In rivers where flooding is imminent, such as near Fargo, N.D., officials are scrambling to keep needed monitors working and make the cuts elsewhere. Details are still to be worked out, officials said.

    Jerad Bales, the agency's chief scientist for water, said at least 120 gauges, and as many as 375 in a worst-case scenario, will be shut down because of the mandatory cuts known in Washington budget language as sequestration.

    "It's a life and property issue. It's a safety issue," Bales said in a telephone interview.

    Agency flood coordinator Robert Holmes said that without a full fleet of stream gauges, it is harder to warn people about flooding. For example, he said, the Illinois River was rising fast a few nights ago and the National Weather Service forecast was so dire that officials figured it wasn't worth fighting the flood if they were going to lose anyway.

    But then new stream gauge data showed that it wouldn't quite be as bad and that the levee could be strengthened enough to hold. So far it has worked, he said.

    There are 8,000 gauges across the country, paid for by a combination of federal, state and local governments. The federal government last year spent nearly $29 million on gauges, while other governments pitched in $116 million.

    The sequester cuts 5 percent from the federal share and that means shutting down a handful of gauges in each state.

    Because it is a joint program, decisions on which gauges to shut down are being made only after federal and state officials meet.

    For example, USGS officials originally proposed shutting four gauges in North Dakota, including two on the Red River which is facing what might be a record flood. After meeting with state officials, those two gauges will stay working, but two others may be closed, said Gregg Wiche, who runs the USGS North Dakota Water Science Center.

    Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the Red River gauges are crucial not just to weather forecasters, but to the public. Gauges are monitored at times on an hourly basis because "our level of protection is based on what the river is doing," he said.

    In Illinois, 10 gauges have hit record high levels, with 53 others at or above flood levels, according to the USGS.

    James Lee Witt, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration during the 1993 Mississippi flooding, said, "There are as many as nine states that will be impacted by spring floods and this not the time to make such harmful budget cuts."

    Paul Higgins, a meteorologist who is associate director of the American Meteorological Society's policy program, said cutting federal programs that help the country avoid natural disasters is "a costly mistake."

    The gauges will be shut down at different times in different states, starting in May in Idaho and Maine, according to the USGS.

    Water levels are important for monitoring drought and keeping nuclear power plants on the river operating, USGS officials said. In Idaho, fisherman and whitewater river rafters use monitors to tell them where they should go, said Michael Lewis, head of the USGS Idaho Water Science Center.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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    In this Oct. 26, 2012 file photo, residents walk past tree branches and power lines felled by Hurricane Sandy in Santiago de Cuba. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

    HAVANA (AP) - Many people in eastern Cuba are still living with family or in houses covered by flimsy makeshift rooftops six months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the island's eastern provinces, residents and aid workers said Thursday.

    Many praised the government's efforts to rebuild Santiago and other cities but said much work remains to recover from the storm, which caused 11 deaths in Cuba before raging up the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard and killing 72.

    "It was very hard-hit, but Santiago is once again blossoming," Aristides Zayas, a receptionist in Santiago said in a phone interview. "Of course the magnitude was such that not everything can get off the ground in six months. It will take time."

    The half-year mark comes amid preparations for similar commemoration by states up and down the U.S. East Coast, where Sandy blew ashore in New Jersey on Oct. 29 as a monster storm that resulted in billions of dollars in damage.

    Sandy had raked eastern Cuba four days earlier, causing major crop losses and damaging an estimated 130,000 to 200,000 homes. The government has not said how many of those have yet to be repaired or rebuilt.

    Cuban scientists say Sandy's surge penetrated 50 yards (meters) inland and permanently altered much of the eastern coastline, washing away entire beaches and depositing sand elsewhere.

    Shortly after the storm hit, Cuban President Raul Castro visited Santiago and said the city looked like it had been "bombed."

    Cuba's highly organized civil defense brigades mobilized to get newly homeless people into shelters, distribute food and water and replant uprooted trees. Authorities also extended loans for rebuilding and knocked 50 percent off the price of home materials for storm victims.

    Communist Party newspaper Granma said Thursday that for visitors today, "the first thing that catches one's attention and impresses ... is to find a clean and well-ordered city."

    But residents said problems remain.

    "From what I hear some things are still lacking," said Sister Mirtha, a Roman Catholic nun in the town of El Cobre, 30 miles east of Santiago. "Some people have roofs, but others still do not. There are people who are getting rained on, and it's thanks to neighbors that they have somewhere to go."

    She said some who live in informal housing situations have had difficulty getting their hands on building materials, because residents are required to show property titles to get the discounted items.

    An international aid worker who has been closely involved in the relief effort said construction materials like bricks and corrugated iron rooftops are in short supply since local production is not meeting demand, and many items must be imported. Some families have moved back into damaged homes with just plastic sheets covering the roofs.

    "They've done really well on re-establishing access to services like electricity and water, reopening roads, clearing out trees that have fallen down," the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to maintain the organization's relationship with island authorities. "All of that was quite quick given the scale of the impact."

    "But at the individual level there's still a lot of work that needs to be done ... and my sense is that the government can't tend to every family's individual needs."

    State-run news agency Prensa Latina reported this week that Santiago provincial authorities are prioritizing construction to make sure everyone displaced by Sandy has a safe place to live, a mission that takes on more urgency with the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season set to begin June 1.

    There's also still plenty of work for international aid groups, which are continuing to distribute things like water tanks, purification tablets, mattresses, sheets, towels and other household goods.

    "There's still a lot of families that are living in very precarious situations," the aid worker said. "Now that's a bit of a concern, because the rainy season's coming and you want to make sure that people have proper shelter."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy
    Superstorm Sandy

     

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    Updated Friday, April 26, 6:53 p.m. ET


    A strengthening storm Friday will bring the potential for severe weather in the southern Plains Friday evening and overnight.

    The storm will track slowly eastward over the southern third of the nation through the weekend.

    The threat of strong, potentially severe, thunderstorms will stretch from northeastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, much of Arkansas and southern Missouri.

    With these storms, the greatest risks will be damaging wind gusts, flash flooding and a few incidents of large hail.

    These impacts will not affect every place in the outlined area, but gusts could potentially bring down trees and power lines. While there is a low risk of tornadoes with this event, severe thunderstorms occasionally produce such dangerous conditions.

    The rain from Friday's storms is not expected to bring widespread problems, like the dangerous flooding in the Midwest earlier this week, initially. However, as the excessive water from the northern portions of the Mississippi works downstream and meets up with the rain falling this weekend, significant rises are possible on stretches of the Lower Mississippi into next week.

    Flash and urban flooding is the primary concern farther east this weekend.

    RELATED:
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    Current Severe Weather Watches and Warnings


    Like all thunderstorms, these will also pose the threat of lightning strikes. As reported by NOAA recently, the first lightning death of 2013 occurred on Tuesday, April 23. In Pomona City, Missouri, a woman was struck and killed while standing under a tree.

    Developing or fast-moving thunderstorms can give little or no notice of lightning about to strike. Severe thunderstorms can cause multiple lightning strikes within a small area. Seek shelter indoors as storms approach.

    A car or truck can offer adequate protection from lightning. However, avoid remaining in a vehicle beneath a tree during a storm as strong winds can case large limbs to crash down. Golf carts and picnic pavilions do not offer sufficient protection from lightning.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Epic Storm Photos from the Twittersphere

     

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    \ipt>Southeast Regional Weather Forecast
    try{document.getElementById("fivemin-widget-blogsmith-image-71210").style.display="none";}catch(e){}\ipt>
    Heavy rain moving into the South will result in the threat for localized flooding and severe storms over the weekend.

    Rain has already started to fall in parts of Tennessee and Georgia and will continue to expand heading into Sunday.

    This heavy rain and severe weather is all due to an area of low pressure that will be moving from Oklahoma up into Ohio by the end of the weekend.

    The main threat from this system is flooding from widespread, long duration rainfall. Low-lying areas and locations along rivers and streams will be the most vulnerable for flooding.

    Rainfall totals through Sunday night in many areas will be upwards of 2 inches with locally over 3 inches possible.

    The Mississippi River is especially at risk for flooding from this system. River levels are already on the rise as water continues to make its way downstream following last weeks flooding rain in the Midwest.

    The additional rainfall flowing into the Mississippi River from its tributaries will only add to the flooding potential along the river.

    Severe weather will also be a threat with this system on Saturday. Severe storms will not be widespread, being limited to Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

    The greatest risks from these storms will be damaging winds and hail. Wind gusts up to 60 mph in these storms can bring down tree branches and power lines.

    RELATED:
    Major Flooding Potential on the Red River Next Week
    AccuWeather.com Severe Weather Center
    Too Wet to Plant in the Midwest

    The potential for an isolated tornado does exist, but the main ingredients for tornado formation will not be likely.

    Rain from this system will continue in parts of the South into early next week, extending the risk for flooding.

     

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    Spectacular NASA Time-Lapse Video of the Sun

    A mesmerizing new video showcases the sun's life over three years, stitched together from gorgeous snapshots taken by a NASA spacecraft in orbit around our nearest star.

    The video is made up of photos captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) - two images a day for three years. The eye-catching images offer an unprecedented glimpse of the daily commotion waxing and waning on the surface of the sun.

    SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly records an image of the sun every 12 seconds in 10 different wavelengths, according to NASA officials. The images seen in the video are in the extreme ultraviolet range.

    "In this wavelength it is easy to see the sun's 25-day rotation as well as how solar activity has increased over three years," agency officials said in a statement.

    In the video, the size of the sun appears to subtly fluctuate. These changes are caused by the variation over time in the distance between SDO and the sun. Despite these tiny variations, the shots are fairly stable and consistent.

    With SDO maintaining this steady and unbroken gaze, heliophysicists regularly observe the sun's active regions, and have been able to watch solar storms as they occur. By closely monitoring changes in the sun's activity, researchers can catch solar flares and other major spaceweather events in the act.

    "SDO's glimpses into the violent dance on the sun help scientists understand what causes these giant explosions - with the hopes of some day improving our ability to predict this space weather," NASA officials said.

    NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched in February 2010 and is equipped with a suite of instruments to stare at the sun for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This type of uninterrupted coverage allowed scientists to monitor the star as it ramps up toward a period of solar maximum this year in its regular 11-year cycle of activity.

    Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. 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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    YouTube user Karim Turanov took this video showing flooding in Houston.

    HOUSTON (AP) - A Houston fire spokesman says firefighters responded to at least 50 calls for water rescues after heavy downpours and thunderstorms hit the area.

    Spokesman Jay Evans says most of the calls Saturday came from motorists who mistakenly drove into high water and became trapped. He says there have been no reports of injuries or deaths.

    The Houston Chronicle reports that officials are warning people to stay off the roads. Flood Control District officials reported as much as 6 inches of rainfall in some parts of Harris County in three hours, mostly in the west, southwest and central parts of the area.

    County officials say at least three bayous and creeks are close to capacity, which could potentially cause surrounding streets and low-lying areas to flood.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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    North Dakota state Sen. George B. Sinner, D-Fargo, places a sandbag on an emergency dike in southwest Fargo, N.D., where residents were finishing up preparation for flooding, Saturday, April 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

    FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Fargo officials made one last call for sandbaggers Saturday to help residents in a southwest Fargo neighborhood that's a mile away from the rising Red River but needs protection from a nearby coulee.

    The final preparations came on a day when the National Weather Service said the Red River appears to have crested about 50 miles upstream of Fargo, and it came in lower than expected. The river likely reached its peak in Wahpeton at lower than 14.5 feet after initial forecasts - before a favorable snowmelt pattern and a downward trend in precipitation - placed the crest at 17 feet.

    City officials said the upstream crest report was good news, but Fargo fire Capt. Randy Weiss said flood fighters were respecting the weather service's predicted range of a 37-to-39-foot peak in Fargo. Weiss joked that the gambling line around the fire hall was between 36 and 37 feet.

    "We make pop bets at the fire station every day. That's about how much we follow it," Weiss said. "They're the professionals at the weather service. We're going to go with them."

    Although most structures in Fargo are protected to 39 feet, workers are building miles of clay levees and volunteers are sandbagging at least 134 homes as an insurance policy. The last of the sandbag preparation was being done Saturday in the Oakcreek neighborhood, where 16,000 sandbags were expected to be placed.

    "We couldn't have better weather for doing this, obviously," Weiss said of the first 70-degree day of the year, which came one day after the mercury topped 50 degrees for the first time in 2013. "We've got a lot accomplished. We've had a lot of volunteers and they've been happy to do it."

    Fargo residents battled three straight major floods beginning with a record crest of 40.84 feet in 2009. Since then, the city has built 14 miles of permanent levees and bought out hundreds of homes in low-lying areas, including a handful this year in the Oakcreek area.

    Resident Rusty Papachek received help from neighbors Saturday to place a small sandbag dike near the pool in his Oakcreek backyard. He said he has been offered a buyout from the city but would like to stay in his house at least until his youngest child graduates from high school next year.

    "It's a great neighborhood," he said. "I think it has some of the best lots in the city."

    Ursula Hegvik, who lives down the street, said neighbors were having a good time in the sandbag line.

    "You've got to save the neighborhood," she said, smiling. "I love the camaraderie and everybody coming together. It's kind of fun."

    The Red River was measured at 26.46 feet on Saturday afternoon on its way to a crest perhaps on Wednesday. Weiss said the city should be finished with the last defense measures by Monday.

    "Fargo has done this many years," Weiss said. "Fargo is actually getting pretty good at it."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Flooding Continues Across Midwest

     

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