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Study: Lion Populations Dropping in Africa


Lions at the Lion Park in Camperdown, near Durban, South Africa. (AP)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - The lions that roam Africa's savannahs have lost as much as 75 percent of their habitat in the last 50 years as humans overtake their land and the lion population dwindles, said a study released Tuesday.

Researchers at Duke University, including prominent conservationist Stuart Pimm, warn that the number of lions across the continent have dropped to as few as 32,000, with populations in West Africa under incredible pressure.

"Lion numbers have declined precipitously in the last century," the study, published Tuesday by the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, reads. "Given that many now live in small, isolated populations, this trend will continue. The situation in West Africa is particularly dire, with no large population remaining and lions now absent from many of the region's national parks."

Fifty years ago, nearly 100,000 lions roamed across the African continent. In recent years, however, an ever-growing human population has come into the savannah lands to settle and develop. That has both cut down the amount of land lions have to roam, as well as fragmented it, researchers said.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers determined the amount of land now available for lions that remains wild and minimally impacted by human growth. Those lands are rapidly diminishing, and more territory will likely be lost in the next 40 years, the report said.

Five countries in Africa have likely lost their lions since a 2002 study was run, the report said. Only nine countries contain at least 1,000 lions, while Tanzania alone has more than 40 percent of the continent's lions, it said.

"An obvious caveat is that areas for which we detect little conversion of savannahs to croplands may still suffer human impacts that make them unsuitable for lions," the report said. "Over-hunting for trophies, poaching - of lions and of their prey species - and conflict with pastoralists may not have any visual signal to satellites. Even where there are low human population densities and areas designated as national parks, there (may) not be lions within them."

The report calls for more mapping and studying to be done to ensure the lions' protection.


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The Daily Rush: Whitewater Kayaking Chile

NHC Modifies Hurricane Warning Definition in Wake of Sandy

Dec. 5, 2012


Following the criticism of the National Hurricane Center's handling of Hurricane Sandy and the non-issuance of hurricane warnings north of North Carolina, it has been decided that the NHC will now have more flexibility in their policy regarding the issuance of advisories.

Beginning in 2013, the NHC will have the flexibility to issue multiple advisories on post-tropical cyclones for landfalling systems or close passersby.

More from AccuWeather: A Cool National Christmas Tree Lighting

According to the NHC, this required a revision of the Hurricane Warning definition, which will now be as follows:

An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are expected somewhere within the specified area in association with a tropical, sub-tropical, or post-tropical cyclone. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds. The warning can remain in effect when dangerously high water or a combination of dangerously high water and waves continue, even though winds may be less than hurricane force.

"The main issue is: We want people to get ready for hurricane conditions, and that's why we are changing the definition of hurricane warning to be a little more inclusive of other things than just a hurricane," Chris Landsea, Science and Operations Officer at the National Hurricane Center, told AccuWeather.com.

More from AccuWeather: Weekend Snow Potential for Southern Rockies, Plains

Additionally, the NHC eventually plans to begin differentiating between wind hazards and storm surge hazards.

"Sandy was not ideal, and the way we handled it was not right. But we're fixing it," Landsea told AccuWeather.com.

"We realize this was not satisfactory and we want to make it better for next year."

See AccuWeather.com for more weather forecasts.

Barry Myers, AccuWeather CEO, is supportive of the decision.

"We are pleased to see NOAA's new policy. It will accomplish for the future, what AccuWeather advocated be done prior to the landfall of Hurricane Sandy," Barry Myers, AccuWeather CEO, said today.

Myers had granted an interview to AccuWeather.com about eight hours before Sandy's landfall and urged the government to issue hurricane warnings for the affected New Jersey and New York areas. He called Sandy a "hurricane embedded in a winter storm" that necessitated hurricane warnings.

RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy


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Watch: The Black Marble Sparkles with City Lights

Dec. 5, 2012

NASA released a breathtaking new view of the Earth at night. Using cloud-free images acquired by the new NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite, scientists created a composite image of the nighttime world sparkling with city lights. It took the satellite 312 orbits in April and October 2012 and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of the planet's land surface and islands.

NASA explained the significance of the new imaging technology -- the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, which collected the data:

With its night view, VIIRS is able to detect a more complete view of storms and other weather conditions, such as fog, that are difficult to discern with infrared, or thermal, sensors. Night is also when many types of clouds begin to form.

PHOTOS ON SKYE: The Breathtaking Black Marble


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Black Marble: 5 Breathtaking Photos of Earth at Night



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About 350 Die in Philippine Typhoon, 400 Missing


Residents cross a river in the flash flood-hit village of Andap, in the southern Philippines on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

NEW BATAAN, Philippines (AP) - A powerful typhoon that washed away emergency shelters, a military camp and possibly entire families in the southern Philippines has killed almost 350 people with nearly 400 missing, authorities said Thursday.

More bodies were retrieved from hardest-hit Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental provinces and six others impacted by Tuesday's storm, the Office of Civil Defense reported.

At least 200 of the victims died in Compostela Valley alone, including 78 villagers and soldiers who perished in a flash flood that swamped two emergency shelters and a military camp.

"Entire families may have been washed away," said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who visited New Bataan on Wednesday. The farming town of 45,000 people was a muddy wasteland of collapsed houses and coconut and banana trees felled by ferocious winds.

Bodies of victims were laid on the ground for viewing by people searching for missing relatives. Some were badly mangled after being dragged by raging floodwaters over rocks and other debris. A man sprayed insecticide on the remains to keep away swarms of flies.

A father wept when he found the body of his child after lifting a plastic cover. A mother, meanwhile, went away in tears, unable to find her missing children. "I have three children," she said repeatedly, flashing three fingers before a TV cameraman.

Two men carried the mud-caked body of an unidentified girl that was covered with coconut leaves on a makeshift stretcher made from a blanket and wooden poles.

Dionisia Requinto, 43, felt lucky to have survived with her husband and their eight children after swirling flood waters surrounded their home. She said they escaped and made their way up a hill to safety, bracing themselves against boulders and fallen trees as they climbed.

"The water rose so fast," she told The Associated Press. "It was horrible. I thought it was going to be our end."

In nearby Davao Oriental, the coastal province first struck by Typhoon Bopha as it blew from the Pacific Ocean, at least 115 people perished, mostly in three towns so battered that it was hard to find any buildings with roofs remaining, provincial officer Freddie Bendulo and other officials said.

"We had a problem where to take the evacuees. All the evacuation centers have lost their roofs," Davao Oriental Gov. Corazon Malanyaon said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies issued an urgent appeal for $4.8 million to help people directly affected by the typhoon.

The sun shined brightly for most of the day Wednesday, prompting residents to lay their soaked clothes, books and other belongings out on roadsides to dry and revealing the extent of the damage to farmland. Thousands of banana trees in one Compostela Valley plantation were toppled by the wind, the young bananas still wrapped in blue plastic covers.

But as night fell, however, rain started pouring again over New Bataan, triggering panic among some residents who feared a repeat of the previous day's flash floods. Some carried whatever belongings they could as they hurried to nearby towns or higher ground.

After slamming into Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley, Bopha roared quickly across the southern Mindanao and central regions, knocking out power in two entire provinces, triggering landslides and leaving houses and plantations damaged. More than 170,000 fled to evacuation centers.

On Thursday, the typhoon was over the South China Sea west of Palawan province. It was blowing northwestward and could be headed to Vietnam or southern China, according to government forecasters.

The deaths came despite efforts by President Benigno Aquino III's government to force residents out of high-risk communities as the typhoon approached.

Some 20 typhoons and storms lash the northern and central Philippines each year, but they rarely hit the vast southern Mindanao region where sprawling export banana plantations have been planted over the decades because it seldom experiences strong winds that could blow down the trees.

A rare storm in the south last December killed more than 1,200 people and left many more homeless.

The United States extended its condolences and offered to help its Asian ally deal with the typhoon's devastation. It praised government efforts to minimize the deaths and damage.

PHOTOS ON SKYE: Typhoon Bopha Slams into Philippines


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Rare Tornado Kills 3 in New Zealand's Largest City

Three Dead as Rare Tornado Hits New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - An unusually destructive tornado swept through neighborhoods around New Zealand's largest city Thursday, killing three people and forcing 250 more to evacuate damaged and powerless homes.

The small tornado hit Hobsonville and Whenuapai, western suburbs of Auckland, during a midday storm that also uprooted trees, damaged buildings and caused flooding that closed roads.

Authorities said that as well as those who died, seven people suffering a range of injuries were admitted to hospitals.

The tornado was the deadliest in New Zealand in more than 60 years. Although the country reports about seven tornados on average each year, most are small, mild and do little damage. New Zealand's temperate maritime climate means it isn't prone to the large, destructive tornados that plague places like the American Midwest.

Auckland Council spokesman Glyn Walters said the storm made about 150 homes uninhabitable. He said some of those homes had roofs torn off or were severely damaged while others had more minor damage or had lost power. He said 250 residents were taken to an air force base at Whenuapai, where council staff and welfare workers were assisting them.

The worst weather appeared to have passed by midafternoon, Walters said. "It's clearing up slightly but people need to be careful out there," he said.

Auckland Fire Service Area Commander Larry Cocker told The Associated Press that three people had died in the storm.

Walters said one person was killed when hit by a tree and that some others who were killed or injured were workers who were building a school.

Several New Zealand media outlets reported that two of those who died were in an accident involving a slab of concrete.

Richard Turner, a meteorologist with New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), said New Zealand isn't prone to the intense surface heating that helps create the huge and violent tornados seen in the central United States. But he said even relatively small tornados like the one on Thursday can cause damage and death.

Tornados in New Zealand are typically about 100 feet wide and last for only a few minutes.

Daniel Corbett, a meteorologist with government forecaster MetService, said there had been some very warm, humid air "like soup" sitting over Auckland for several days before thunderstorms hit, creating the conditions for Thursday's tornado. He said he expected the weather system would move away from the country Thursday night.

The tornado equaled the deadliest recorded in New Zealand's history. In 1948, three people were killed when a tornado hit a suburb in the city of Hamilton.

RELATED ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes


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Middle East Beginning to Embrace Solar Energy


The Beam Down Pilot project takes conventional concentrated solar power design and literally turns it to on its head at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. (AP)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Covering nearly 300 football fields in a remote patch of desert, the Shams 1 solar project carries off plenty of symbolic significance for the United Arab Emirates.

It will be the first, large-scale solar project in the oil-rich country when it is completed at the end of the year, and the largest of its kind in the Middle East. At full capacity, the 100-megawatt, concentrated solar project will be able to power 20,000 homes. For those behind the project, it's the surest sign yet that solar is coming to the region in a big way.

"We truly believe solar will be a major contributor to meeting our own requirements," said Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the UAE's Special Envoy for Energy and Climate Change and the chief executive officer of government-funded Masdar, which is the majority investor in the project.

"We are not like many other countries today that are in desperate need for complimentary sources of power," Jaber said, adding Abu Dhabi plans to generate 7 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. "We are looking at it from strategic point of view ... we want to become a technology player, rather than an energy player."

With its vast deserts and long stretches of sunny days, the Middle East would seem to be an ideal place to harness solar energy. But until now, the region has largely shunned solar because it has cost about three times more than heavily-subsidized fossil fuels. There are also few laws in place to regulate solar power and it faces some unique technological hurdles, given the Middle East's harsh climate, which is much hotter and dustier than say Europe, where solar thrives.

But technological advances have pushed costs down dramatically, and many oil-gas rich countries are reconsidering renewables amid growing demands for power to fuel their booming economies and rapidly increasing populations. There are also fears, especially in Saudi Arabia, that their once seemingly limitless oil resources may have peaked and they could one day become net oil importers. Countries also understand they can get much more revenue for their oil - as much as $90 a barrel at current prices - if they export it rather than use it domestically.

"We are in the middle of a radical rethinking of the energy future of the region," Adnan Z. Amin, director general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency, told The Associated Press.

"One of the real wake up calls for Saudi Arabia, which is a heavily hydrocarbon country, is that they are seeing their current energy demand growing at such a high rate that they risk becoming a net energy importer in 20 years. That would be a major economic issue to deal with."

Amid the buzz over solar, countries have begun rolling out ambitious renewable targets.

Egypt and Qatar which say they will produce 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020 and 2024 respectively. Algeria has plans to produce 22,000 megawatts of power from renewables between now and 2030. Saudi Arabia announced targets of 10 percent by 2020 and Kuwait 15 percent by 2030.

Tarek El Sayed, a principal with the consulting firm Booz & Company, projected that countries in the Middle East and North African could become significant renewable energy players in the coming decades.

Although he said in a report that the sector is currently "underfunded or not funded at all," several projects across the region are on the drawing board and El Sayed expects Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia to be big players along with the smaller Gulf countries like the UAE that are investing heavily in the sector.

"If you had talked renewable energy five or six years ago to anyone in the region, they would have said, 'come on we can't do that. It's like shooting ourselves in the foot. We are our oil producers.' Today, nobody would tell you that," El Sayed said.

Vahid Fotuhi couldn't agree more. A longtime proponent of solar in the region, he first worked for an oil giant struggling to sell solar in the region before it gave up on the project a few years back. He has since joined an American solar systems provider, Alion, which set up shop the region six months ago. Fotuhi, who also heads the Emirates Solar Industry Association, admits he is desperate to get a "piece of the pie."

"The real prize is Saudi Arabia," Fotuhi said, noting that it has promised to build 41,000 megawatts of capacity by 2032. "Anyone who is looking at the Middle East will have their eyes sharply focused on the Saudi market. It's the 800-pound gorilla of the Middle East solar market."

But not everyone is so bullish.

Imen Jeridi Bachellerie, a researcher associated with the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, questioned some of the renewable targets as overly ambitious adding that countries would be better off focusing improving energy efficiency of buildings and upgrading existing infrastructure before investing heavily in renewables. She said they will need years to change attitudes about energy, offer significant subsidies that would make solar competitive with fossil fuels and develop the regulatory framework required to help the industry thrive.

"I don't think there should be a rush to renewables," said Bachellerie, warning that a hasty push into the field without first sorting out technological glitches could pose problems.

To some degree, governments in the region understand this.

On the sidelines of U.N. climate talks, Qatar Science & Technology Park, GreenGulf Inc. and Chevron Qatar inaugurated a solar testing facility. The 35,000-square-meter facility will be used to determine what types of solar are best for the region, looking at how dust, heat and humidity impacts various technologies. Qatar, a tiny desert nation which has promised to host a carbon neutral 2022 World Cup, also is looking at ways to make solar more efficient.

"We are one of the biggest believers in solar," Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former Qatari oil minister who is the president of the climate conference, told reporters. "We have technical problems with solar but I'm a big believer that technology will solve it."

RELATED ON SKYE: Off-the-Charts Hottest and Coldest Places on Earth


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New Arctic Ice Melt Report Worries Scientists


SAN FRANCISCO - Arctic glaciers retreated at record levels in 2012, while summer snow melted in the region much more rapidly than it has in the past, according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The findings, presented here Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, are part of the annual "Arctic Report Card," which was assembled by more than 140 scientists to assess the state of the North Pole.

The report found that Greenland's Arctic sea ice and glaciers were melting at a record rate and that sea-level rise has accelerated in the region. That has caused a population boom in lower-level organisms such as plankton, but has disrupted the life cycles of animals ranging from lemmings to the Arctic fox.

But the impacts of the warming Arctic may reach beyond the northern latitudes, said Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and the atmosphere for NOAA, during a press conference.

"What happens in the Arctic doesn't always stay in the Arctic. We're seeing Arctic changes in the ocean and the atmosphere that affect weather patterns elsewhere," she said.

Major melt

In 2012, Greenland saw the warmest summer in 170 years, said Jason E. Box, of the Byrd Polar Research Center.

And September sea-ice extent - the area of water with at least 15 percent sea ice - throughout the Arctic is the lowest on record (which dates to 1979), beating the previous record set in just 2007.

Melting of the Greenland ice sheet also beat previous records set in 2010, with almost the entire sheet melting by mid-July, Box said.

"The 40 largest glaciers lost an area about twice that of the previous decade average," he said. "Extensive surface melting was documented for the first time at the highest elevations of the ice sheet." [Images of Melt: Earth's Vanishing Ice]

That's contributing to fast-rising seas and warmer ocean waters, Box added.

In addition, the higher melting has reduced the reflectivity of the ice surface, causing land areas to absorb more heat, which causes more melt in a self-reinforcing cycle, he said.

Summer snowmelt in the Northern Hemisphere also accelerated further decreasing the reflectivity of the land - as snow reflects more sunlight back to space than exposed land - and causing the land to trap more heat in a positive feedback cycle.

Life changes

All this warming has caused a change in the organisms that live in the North, said Martin Jeffries, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska and an editor of the report card.

"Unexpectedly large phytoplankton blooms have been observed this summertime," Jeffries said. Prior estimates of how much plankton was blooming may have been 10 times too low, he added.

In areas near melting sea ice, the tundra's permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, is also greening, with a longer summer season and warmer summers, he said. Permafrost temperatures 66 feet below the surface were the highest on record at eight of 10 observatories in Alaska, and matched the 2011 records at two sites.

That soil warming is affecting some of the iconic species of the Arctic, such as the lemmings or small rodents, whose life cycles are getting more chaotic and unpredictable, Jeffries said. Warming weather has also increased pressure on the Arctic fox, which relies on the lemming as its main food source.

"The larger red fox has been expanding its range northward, leading to predation on and competition with the Arctic fox for food and resources," he said.

These changes could impact areas other than the Arctic, Lubchenco said.

"We know that melting ice in Greenland can contribute to sea-level rise around the world, and many of the biological changes we are seeing around the world affect systems elsewhere, for instance migratory birds."

For instance, rising sea levels may have contributed to record surge heights along the U.S. coastline during Hurricane Sandy, Lubchenco told LiveScience.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Image Gallery: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth
The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted
50 Interesting Facts About The Earth

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

RELATED ON SKYE: Off-the-Charts Hottest and Coldest Places on Earth


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Mayor: NYC Working on Storm, Climate Prep


A Brooklyn building has electrical power while much of the lower Manhattan skyline, top, was without electrical service, following superstorm Sandy. (AP)

NEW YORK (AP) - The city will work on upgrading building codes and evacuation-zone maps, hardening power and transportation networks and making sure hospitals are better prepared for extreme weather after Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.

As a start, utility Consolidated Edison has agreed to spend $250 million to get its electrical, steam and gas systems in shape to withstand a Category 2 hurricane, Bloomberg said. City officials, meanwhile, will work on more comprehensive plans to help Sandy-ravaged areas recover and prepare the city for future weather disasters. That will include examining the pros and cons of building berms, dunes, levees and other coast-protection structures, Bloomberg said, though he remains cool to the idea of massive sea walls.

"Let me be clear: We are not going to abandon the waterfront," the mayor said in a speech Thursday at a meeting sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and the League of Conservation Voters. But "we have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainable."

The city is still focused on recovering from the Oct. 29 storm, but officials have started to think about preparing for natural disasters, in light of the prospect of more extreme weather and higher seas because of global warming, Bloomberg said. He has long been outspoken about the risks of climate change, teaming up at times on environmental and anti-global-warming initiatives with former Vice President Al Gore, who praised Bloomberg's efforts before his speech Thursday.

While Gore said Sandy "was related to climate change," Bloomberg was less explicit in drawing a connection.

"Whether or not one storm is related to climate change or is not, we have to manage for risks," he said, noting that severe storms, rainfalls and heat waves in recent years show "that the dangers from extreme weather are already here."

Before Sandy, the city had already made and touted its efforts to prepare for climate change and storms, through measures ranging from studying coast-protection strategies to changing construction laws. But Sandy's storm surge, a modern record, flooded beyond the area officials had expected and made it clear that utilities, hospitals, and transit systems need to be prepared for worse inundation than they were.

Bloomberg says officials also will revisit its construction laws, particularly height restrictions that could discourage people from elevating their homes.

And he has instructed economic development and planning officials to assess what it will take to make power grids, transportation networks and hospitals able to handle a Category 2 hurricane, record-breaking heat wave or other natural disaster.


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2012: The End of the Arctic Era?


Greenland's arctic tundra landscape (Alamy)

This year's record ice melts in Greenland and the Arctic ocean aren't flukes, but confirmation that the Arctic is racing ahead into a new and unknown climate state, said top US climate scientists today.

Video on Discovery: Monitoring Climate Change

The announcement came with the release today of the 2012 Arctic Report Card, which calls on the expertise of 140 scientists from 15 countries to summarize the state of the Arctic.

Photos on Discovery: Norway's 'Galapagos' in the North

"If we are not already there, we're clearly on the verge of seeing a new Arctic," said Martin Jeffries of the Office of Naval Research. Jeffries and other scientists spoke at a press conference today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Highlights from the 2012 report include record low snow coverage in June and record low sea ice extent in September, a longer growing season with greener tundra, record high permafrost temperatures in northernmost Alaska, longest melt season ever seen on the Greenland ice sheet and a rare, nearly ice sheet-wide melt event in July.

Related on Discovery: July Scorcher Turns Greenland Into Giant Slushy

What's more, the thinner sea ice is letting more light through to the water, which is leading to masssive phytoplankton blooms in the summer that could mean the productivity at the bottom of the food chain of those waters is ten times what was previously thought. On land the arctic fox is close to extinction in Fennoscandia -- the region that includes the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula -- and falling prey to the larger Red foxes moving north with warmer temperatures. The Arctic fox is also suffering as a result of changes in the lemming cycle, which is an important food source for the small predator.

There were even severe weather events including extreme cold and snowfall in Eurasia and two major storms off western and northern Alaska.

"2012 has been an astounding year," said Jason Box, who studies Greenland at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. It was the warmest summer in 170 years, he said, and the vast extent of melting ice seems to indicate something has fundamentally changed. "This year Greenland crossed a threshold. We can expect Greenland to be melting across its entire surface from now on."

Related on Discovery: Arctic Summer Sea Ice Gone By 2015?

The loss of all this ice in the Arctic is not simply a consequence of global warming, however, it also adds to the problem. Ice and snow are terrific reflectors that keep a lot of solar energy from being trapped in Earth's atmosphere. When ice melts, darker ground and waters are exposed and absorb that sunlight.

"The Arctic is one of the Earth's mirrors and that mirror is breaking," said researcher Donald Perovich of Dartmouth College.

RELATED ON SKYE: The Arctic Fox and More Amazing Cold Weather Creatures


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10 Stunning 'Blue Marble' Images of Earth



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Celebrating the Iconic 'Blue Marble' Shot



Forty years ago this week, on Dec. 7, 1972, three young men were on their way to the moon, racing away from the Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. Some ways out (about 28,000 miles), their ship passed a narrow tunnel of light, directly between the Earth and the sun. In that moment, they looked out the window and saw the Earth as almost no one had ever seen it: a giant, full, beautiful circle. The sands of the Sahara were in full sunlight. The snows of Antarctica shone bright white. The ocean resonated a deep blue hue.

At that point, one member of the Apollo 17 crew picked up a specially made Hasselblad camera and took several photos. No one knows who did this, because all three astronauts recalled taking the photo. Whomever did, it was a stunning, rare shot. You could see nearly all of Africa - the cradle of humanity - as well as the island of Madagascar, the Arabian peninsula and the clouds swirling over the ocean.

The photo would eventually become known as the "Blue Marble," and it would become one of the most enduring pictures of all time. In fact, that photo probably changed the way we viewed our place in the cosmos more than any other.

To be fair, the change was already underway. Four years earlier, astronauts brought back the famous "Earthrise" photo. Before that, in the face of acid rain and oil spills and DDT, we had begun to lose the sense that the planet was immense and inexhaustible. It had already started to seem smaller and more fragile than we had previously thought.

The Blue Marble was the perfect illustration of this feeling. Here you could see that our planet was an island of warmth, water and life in the black, cold ocean of space. The Blue Marble drove home just how beautiful the planet was, in the color and movement the photo captured. But there was something else: the edge. The void. The thin line between the blue and the black carried the most powerful message of all: Beyond that line, the Earth was finite.

SEE ON SKYE: 10 Stunning 'Blue Marble' Images
The photo became a global sensation, splashed across the pages of nearly every newspaper in the world. It inspired a children's TV show called "Big Blue Marble" and became the official Earth Day flag. It was printed on so many T-shirts, posters and bumper stickers -- "most any surface you can print on," as Al Reinert observed -- that it's hard to remember not having seen it at all.

The Apollo 17 astronauts flew on. They landed on the moon, scooped up some moon rocks and came home. But no one was very interested in their rocks. They were dusty and dead. Maybe that was why the public lost interest in going to the moon at all - there was nothing there for us, it seemed. No one has been back since.

Our thoughts had turned to our home.

Starting in 2002, NASA began trying to recreate the impact and excitement of Blue Marble by melding satellite images together so that it appeared in the form of planetary spheres from different angles. These images - known as the Blue Marble series - are beautiful, as well. Some are even breathtaking.

But when you see them, you know: They aren't real. There is something too perfect about them, too clear. They don't quite convince all the way. Forty years later, Blue Marble remains the only true photo of the whole planet; one of the few times a human eye has actually taken in the entire Earth.

Some astronauts, when they leave the Earth and watch it get smaller out their window, report a sudden overwhelming sense of how interconnected everything down there is. It's known as the "overview effect." And while most of us will never go into space, and never have that experience, in the Blue Marble, there has always been a bit of that feeling for us all to share.

Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis, Minn.

Watch: Black Marble Earth Sparkles at Night


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Amid Typhoon Bopha's Devastation, a 'Miracle Survivor'

Philippines Man Rescued Two Days After Being Swept Away By Typhoon

A powerful typhoon ravaged the southern Philippines on Tuesday, leaving at least 350 dead and another 400 missing. Amid the tragedy and chaos is one man's shocking tale of survival.

Flash floods swept away Carlos Agang's home and family, leaving him trapped for two days under rocks and debris.

The 54-year-old lived on coconuts and water until aid workers found him. He was carried out of the rubble on a stretcher and airlifted to a hospital.

"It's a miracle that I survived," Agnang told reporters.

Read more about Typhoon Bopha here.

RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Hurricane Photos from Space


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The Daily Rush: Jaw-Dropping Double Back Flip in Chamonix

Death Toll from Philippine Typhoon Climbs Past 500


A resident searches for victims of Tuesday's devastating storm in New Bataan township in the southern Philippines on Thursday. (AP)

NEW BATAAN, Philippines (AP) - Rescuers were digging through mud and debris Friday to retrieve more bodies strewn across a farming valley in the southern Philippines by a powerful typhoon. The death toll from the storm has surpassed 500, with more than 400 people missing.

More than 310,000 people have lost their homes since Typhoon Bopha struck Tuesday and are crowded inside evacuation centers or staying with their relatives, relying on food and emergency supplies being rushed in by government agencies and aid groups.

"I want to know how this tragedy happened and how to prevent a repeat," President Benigno Aquino III said during a visit to New Bataan town, the ground zero of the disaster, where ferocious winds and rains lashed the area.

Officials have confirmed 252 dead in Compostela Valley, including New Bataan, and 216 in nearby Davao Oriental province. Nearly 40 others died elsewhere and more than 400 are still missing, about two-thirds in New Bataan alone.

Aquino told New Bataan residents gathered in the middle of toppled coconut trees and roofless houses that he was bent on seeking answers in order to improve their conditions and minimize casualties when natural disasters occur. Fatal storms and typhoons blowing from the Pacific are common in the Philippines, but most of them hit northern and central areas, and southern Mindanao Island is usually spared.

"We are going to look at what really happened. There are allegations of illegal mining, there are allegations of the force of nature," said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who traveled with Aquino. "We will find out why there are homes in these geohazard locations."

The economic losses began to emerge Friday after export banana growers reported that 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) of export banana plantations, equal to 18 percent of the total in Mindanao, were destroyed. The Philippines is the world's third-largest banana producer and exporter, supplying well-known brands such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte mainly to Japan and also to South Korea, China, New Zealand and the Middle East.

Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, said losses have been conservatively estimated at 12 billion pesos ($300 million), including 8 billion pesos ($200 million) in damaged fruits that had been ready for harvest, and the rest for the cost of rehabilitating farms, which will take about a year.

Government geological hazard maps show that the farming town of New Bataan, population 45,000, was built in 1968 in an area classified as "highly susceptible to flooding and landslides."

Most of the casualties were killed in the valley surrounded by steep hills and crisscrossed by rivers. Flooding was so widespread here that places people thought were safe, including two emergency shelters, became among the deadliest.

Poverty is widespread in the Philippines, and the disaster highlights the risks that some take in living in dangerous areas in the hope of feeding their families.

"It's not only an environmental issue, it's also a poverty issue," Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said. "The people would say, 'We are better off here. At least we have food to eat or money to buy food, even if it is risky.'"

On another part of Mindanao last December, 1,200 people died when a powerful storm overflowed rivers. Then and now, raging flash floods, logs and large rocks carried people to their deaths.

The Bureau of Mines and Geosciences had issued warnings before the typhoon to people living in flood-prone areas, but in the Compostela Valley, nearly every area is flood-prone.

PHOTOS ON SKYE: Typhoon Bopha Slams into Philippines


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Snow-Savvy Midwest Cities Breaking No-Snow Records


Skaters make their way across ice covered with a light snow at Brenton Skating Plaza in downtown Des Moines, Thursday. (AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - No snow boots needed in Milwaukee. Chicago commuters aren't dodging knee-deep snow drifts frozen along city sidewalks. And children in Des Moines are settling for ice shavings dumped from a Zamboni.

Many cities in the Midwest haven't seen any decent snow this season - and some are even setting records for the number of days without it, in part because last winter was so mild and any precipitation that does fall gets soaked into the drought-parched land.

On Thursday, Des Moines matched a record set in 1889 when it hit its 277th consecutive day without measurable snowfall, according to the National Weather Service. Iowa's capital city is expecting clear skies Friday.

That may not sit well with local youngsters, according to ice skating rink manager Dave Roquet. He said that after he emptied the accumulated ice from his Zamboni recently in downtown Des Moines, a group of children ran straight for the man-made snow.

"The kids just went crazy for it," he laughed. "They saw it, and I think they hadn't seen snow in so long. They just started throwing snowballs at each other."

In Nebraska, Omaha recorded its 285th consecutive snowless day Wednesday - breaking its previous record set in 2006 - and Lincoln extended its record on Thursday to 297 days without measureable snow. Lincoln's former record was 295 snow-free days in 2004.

Chicago and Milwaukee are just days away from breaking their records. Other areas also are either setting or close to records, while some cities are far off their usual snowfall totals.

But fear not, white Christmas dreamers: Snow is coming, at least for some people. Forecasters are calling for snow in parts of Nebraska and Iowa starting Saturday night and into Sunday, and possibly in Chicago the next day.

Florida-native Patricia Dryden admits she doesn't mind the whiteless weather at her home in suburban Des Moines.

"Two years ago, there was a snowstorm," she said. "Now it's around 60 degrees. Selfishly, I'm happy."

National Weather Service program manager Jim Keeney said the country's drought conditions this year are to blame for snow not sticking to the ground.

"At this point it doesn't matter what falls from the sky, snow or rain," he said. "To get precipitation would be beneficial for a chunk of the country."

He also noted some cities that have seen snow are well below their averages this time of year.

Minneapolis usually has about 11 inches of snow on the ground by early December - but the measurement stands at less than an inch right now. Green Bay, Wis., is more than four inches off its normal snowfall.

Data shows Chicago will be just two days away Friday from breaking its 1994 record of 280 days without measurable snow. Milwaukee also will be two days away from breaking its 1999 record of 279 consecutive days without measurable snow, though there is a slight chance for snow Friday night.

Keeney said just a small portion of the country around Kentucky and Tennessee is expected to have above normal precipitation in the months ahead.

"We might all just expect more of the same," he said.

RELATED ON SKYE: The Arctic Fox and More Amazing Cold Weather Creatures


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To the Moon? Firm Hopes to Sell $1.5 Billion Trips


(AP Photo/NASA)

WASHINGTON (AP) - Attention wealthy nations and billionaires: A team of former NASA executives will fly you to the moon in an out-of-this-world commercial venture combining the wizardry of Apollo and the marketing of Apple.

For a mere $1.5 billion, the business is offering countries the chance to send two people to the moon and back, either for research or national prestige. And if you are an individual with that kind of money to spare, you too can go the moon for a couple days.

Some space experts, though, are skeptical of the firm's financial ability to get to the moon. The venture called Golden Spike Co. was announced Thursday.

Dozens of private space companies have started up recently, but few if any will make it - just like in other fields - said Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks launches worldwide.

"This is unlikely to be the one that will pan out," McDowell said.

NASA's last trip to the moon launched 40 years ago Friday. The United States is the only country that has landed people there, beating the Soviet Union in a space race to the moon that transfixed the world. But once the race ended, there has been only sporadic interest in the moon.

President Barack Obama cancelled NASA's planned return to the moon, saying America had already been there. On Wednesday, a National Academy of Sciences said the nation's space agency has no clear goal or direction for future human exploration.

But the ex-NASA officials behind Golden Spike do. It's that old moon again.

The firm has talked to other countries, which are showing interest, said former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern, Golden Spike's president. Stern said he's looking at countries like South Africa, South Korea, and Japan. One very rich individual - he won't give a name - has also been talking with them, but the company's main market is foreign nations, he said.

"It's not about being first. It's about joining the club," Stern said. "We're kind of cleaning up what NASA did in the 1960s. We're going to make a commodity of it in the 2020s."

The selling point: "the sex appeal of flying your own astronauts," Stern said.

Many countries did pony up millions of dollars to fly their astronauts on the Russian space station Mir and American space shuttles in the 1990s, but a billion dollar price tag seems a bit steep, Harvard's McDowell said.

NASA chief spokesman David Weaver said the new company "is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama administration's overall space policy" which tries to foster commercial space companies.

Getting to the moon would involve several steps: Two astronauts would launch to Earth orbit, connect with another engine that would send them to lunar orbit. Around the moon, the crew would link up with a lunar orbiter and take a moon landing ship down to the surface.

The company will buy existing rockets and capsules for the launches, Stern said, only needing to develop new spacesuits and a lunar lander.

Stern said he's aiming for a first launch before the end of the decade and then up 15 or 20 launches total. Just getting to the first launch will cost the company between $7 billion and $8 billion, he said.

Besides the ticket price, Stern said there are other revenue sources, such as NASCAR-like advertising, football stadium-like naming rights, and Olympic style video rights.

It may be technically feasible, but it's harder to see how it is financially doable, said former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University. Just dealing with the issue of risk and the required test launches is inordinately expensive, he said.

Company board chairman Gerry Griffin, an Apollo flight director who once headed the Johnson Space Center, said that's a correct assessment: "I don't think there's any technological stumble here. It's going to be financial."

The company is full of space veterans; American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy called them "heavy hitters" in the field. Advisers include space shuttle veterans, Hollywood directors, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and engineer-author Homer Hickam.

PHOTOS ON SKYE: The Breathtaking Black Marble


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Watch: 7.3 Earthquake Rattles Japan


TOKYO (AP) - A strong earthquake Friday struck the same Japanese coast devastated by last year's massive quake and tsunami, generating small waves but no immediate reports of heavy damage. Several people along the northeastern coast were reportedly injured and buildings in Tokyo and elsewhere swayed for several minutes.

The earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.3 and struck in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Miyagi prefecture at 5:18 p.m., the Japan Meteorological Agency said. The epicenter was 6.2 miles beneath the seabed and 150 miles offshore.

The area was shaken by repeated, smaller aftershocks, the agency said.

After the quake, authorities issued a warning that a tsunami potentially as high as 2.2 yards could hit. Sirens whooped along the coast as people ran for higher ground.

Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi, reported a tsunami 1 yard high and other towns reported smaller tsunamis.

About two hours after the quake struck, the tsunami warning was cancelled. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center earlier said there was no risk of a widespread tsunami.

Aiko Hibiya, a volunteer for the recovery in Minami-Sanriku, a coastal town devastated by last year's tsunami, said she was at a friend's temporary housing when the quake struck.

"It shook for such a long time," she said.

She said other volunteers who had been in coastal areas were evacuated to a square and a parking lot as they waited for the tsunami warning to be lifted.

Japan has barely begun to rebuild from last year's magnitude-9.0 earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that swelled to 20 meters high in some areas, ravaging dozens of coastal communities in Miyagi and elsewhere. About 19,000 people were killed and some 325,000 people remain displaced from their homes, living in barracks and other temporary quarters.

Miyagi prefectural police said there were no immediate reports of damage from Friday's quake and tsunami, although traffic was being stopped in some places to check on roads.

Public television broadcaster NHK reported that five people were injured, including a 75-year-old woman in Miyagi who fell while fleeing the tsunami. Police said they could not immediately confirm those reports.

Shortly before the earthquake struck, NHK broke off regular programming to warn that a strong quake was due to hit. Afterward, the announcer repeatedly urged all near the coast to flee to higher ground.

The Meteorological Agency has an early warning system that, using data from seismographs scattered across Japan, enables it to provide advance warning of the estimated intensity and timing of a major quake. The warning for Friday's quake was issued six minutes before it struck, according to an unnamed official from the Meteorological Agency who spoke on national television more than an hour after the quake.

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that slammed into northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, killed or left missing some 19,000 people, devastating much of the coast.

Last year's earthquake and tsunami also caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl in 1986.

Immediately following Friday's quake, there were no problems at any of the nuclear plants operated by Fukushima Dai-Ichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., said a TEPCO spokesman, Takeo Iwamoto. Only two of Japan's 50 nuclear plants are currently operating; the rest have been shut down for maintenance and safety checks while the country re-examines the future of nuclear power there.

All Nippon Airways spokesman Takuya Taniguchi said government officials were checking on the runways at Sendai airport. The two jets that were in the air went to other airports and all seven flights scheduled to go to Sendai for the day were cancelled, he said.

RELATED ON SKYE: Incredible Natural-Disaster Photos from Space


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2012 Almost Certain to Be Warmest on Record


(AP Photo)

It appears all but guaranteed that 2012 will be the warmest year on record for the continental United States, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center announced Thursday.

Only a freak cold spell could set this year's national average off its record-breaking course, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Temperatures this month would have to be more than 1.0 degree F chillier than the coldest-ever December for the 2012 average to miss its record-high target. The coldest December on record occurred in 1983, when the nation's average temperature dipped to 25.54 degrees F.

So far this year, the average national temperature was 57.1 degrees F through November, marking the warmest first 11 months of any year on record. That's also 3.3 degrees F above the 20th-century average for the January-November period, and 1.0 degree F above the previous record set for those 11 months in 1934. Such records have been kept since 1895.

Last month tied November 2004 for the 20th-century warmest November on record, led by warmer-than-average conditions in the western half of the country.

It was also the eighth driest November. The climate report indicated that over 62 percent of the contiguous United States was in a state of drought as November came to a close.

The current record for the warmest year in the Lower 48 was set in 1998, with an average of 54.3 degrees F.

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