Tag Archives: storm

New trial will try to stop the “cytokine storms” that make COVID-19 cases deadly

Our own immune systems may be to blame for producing some of the worst symptoms of COVID-19, through a process known as a “cytokine storm”. Now, new research plans to fix this.

image credits Engin Akyurt.

The prolonged, high fevers, severe respiratory distress, and lung damage seen in some critically ill patients are actually caused by our immune systems trying (way too hard) to fight off the infection, not by the virus itself. New research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine plans to test the efficiency of a prescription drug called an alpha-blocker as a protection against this process.

A cure for storms

“The approach we’re advocating involves treating people who are at high risk early in the course of the disease, when you know they’re infected but before they have severe symptoms,” says Bert Vogelstein, chief investigator on this project.

The team is setting up a clinical trial with patients ages 45 to 85 who have COVID-19 but who aren’t on a ventilator or in the ICU. These participants will help establish whether alpha blocker prazosin can be used to stop macrophage activation syndrome, or “cytokine storms“, by preventing hyper-inflammation in response to the infection.

Such an effect has been documented in mouse studies, the team explains. If alpha blockers are found efficient in humans as well, they could help keep more people safe at home where they can recover without taking up hospital resources, which are already spread thin.

Exaggerated immune responses aren’t unique to COVID-19, as people with autoimmune diseases and cancer patients receiving immunotherapy can attest.

Cytokines are chemical messengers used by our immune systems to organize against a threat. In moderation, they help immune cells converge to where they’re needed and fight off the infection. However, our bodies also use signaling molecules called catecholamines when a more heavy-handed response is needed, and they trigger the release of more cytokines — this process can form a feedback loop that drives our immune cells berserk.

“It seems that once this process starts, there’s this inability to properly switch it off,” says Maximilian Konig, a rheumatologist at Hopkins who is helping to coordinate the trial.

Alpha blockers interfere with the signaling pathways of cytokines, and Vogelstein’s past research on mice has found that they can be used to lessen cytokine storms and decrease mortality rate without having adverse effects on our immune response.

Giving mice with bacterial infections an alpha-blocker lessened cytokine storms and decreased deaths, Vogelstein’s team reported in the journal Nature in 2018. And, the researchers found, the treatment didn’t seem to harm other aspects of the immune response.

The patients in this trial will be given gradually-increasing doses of prazosin over six days, and will then be monitored to see if they have a lower ICU admission rate or ventilator use than patients who received the standard treatment. The trials will last for 60 days but preliminary data could be available within a few weeks, according to the team.

The paper “Preventing cytokine storm syndrome in COVID-19 using α-1 adrenergic receptor antagonists” has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Hagibis storm intensifies and becomes strongest on Earth

Currently the strongest storm on the planet and on its way to possibly becoming the strongest of the year, Super Typhoon Hagibis has already gathered strength with astonishing speed. Winds surged at over 144 km/h (90 mph), and it took just 18 hours for Hagibis to reach super typhoon status.

The U.S. National Weather Service issued a typhoon warning for the islands of Saipan, Tinian, Alamagan and Pagan in the Northern Marianas, with the worst impacts from the storm expected soon in the region. A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the islands of Agrihan, Rota, and Guam.

Hagibis is set to bring strong winds and torrential rainfall to the Northern Marianas, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific. Flash flooding and high surf are also likely in Guam as the center of the storm moves towards the north. From there, models diverge somewhat on the eventual path of the storm, but the official track takes it on a path close to Japan’s northern islands.

This means Hagibis could also affect the Rugby World Cup, currently held in Japan. The World Rugby Federation has said they are monitoring the situation in the hope Hagibis does not prove to be a danger to World Cup fixtures and training sessions. A World Rugby spokesperson said:

“We are currently monitoring the development of a typhoon off the south coast of Japan in partnership with our weather information experts. It is still too early to determine what, if any, impact there will be on match or training activities.”

Hagibis’ tiny circulation took advantage of plentiful warm ocean water, low wind shear and winds aloft that were spreading apart from its core — tropical cyclones with small inner cores of convection are notorious for rapidly developing and weakening much faster than expected.

Hagibis became the fourth Category 5 tropical cyclone on Earth in 2019, according to Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University — following Super Typhoon Wutip in February, Dorian in early September and Lorenzo in late September.

“This is the most intensification by a tropical cyclone in the western North Pacific in 18 hours since Yates in 1996,” Klotzbach said.

Hagibis joined an impressive list of Atlantic hurricanes that rapidly intensified since 2017, including Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, and Lorenzo. Rapid intensification is a tropical cyclone is defined as an increase in wind speed of at least 35 mph in 24 hours — it’s very unusual for a storm to develop so quickly, but the process seems to become more common in recent years. The most likely culprit for this is climate change.

Extreme hurricane intensification such as what we just witnessed with Hagibis could further increase in the future from climate change, according to recent research from Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane scientist working at MIT.

“Rates of intensification increase more rapidly than intensity itself as the climate warms, so that rapidly intensifying storms like Michael may be expected to become more common,” said Emanuel.

Puerto Rico braces for tropical storm Dorian

Tropical Storm Dorian is on track to slam the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico — an island still grappling with the devastation of Hurricane Maria. US President Donald Trump has already declared a state of emergency, with the national guard already in place.

Credit: Flickr

Dorian is considered a very compact storm, with tropical-storm-force winds, ranging from 39 mph to 73 mph, extending only 45 miles from the center. Dorian is expected to dump up to 10 inches of rain over the Windward Islands and up to 8 inches in Barbados and Dominica.

But it could also become a hurricane, according to meteorologists. Dorian is forecast to intensify into a hurricane after it passes the Windward Islands and moves into the Caribbean Sea. Dorian is the fourth named storm of this hurricane season, which is now on its peak.

Puerto Ricans are scrambling to stock up on supplies before Dorian approaches Wednesday evening. Rescue teams are also preparing for the storm. A team of over 200 people from nearly 30 different fire departments in South Florida were preparing for deployment to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.

“We ask our citizens to stay calm, not speculate on the possibilities, stay informed from official news sources, take necessary precautions and to know that the PRNG is vigilant and ready to assist them if necessary,” said Maj. Gen. Jose J. Reyes from Puerto Rico National Guard.

Puerto Rico has struggled to recover from the back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people just months after the territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end?” Trump wrote on Twitter. Trump, who has been criticized for his administration’s response to the 2017 storms, has accused the island’s leaders of squandering billions in disaster relief aid.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency late on Monday. She said there would be about 360 shelters open across the island.

“I want everyone to feel calm,” she said. “Agency directors have prepared for the last two years. The experience of Maria has been a great lesson for everyone.”

“We are better prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island,” she told a news conference.

Rain.

Water from thin air: a look at how rain and precipitation forms

When it rains, it pours — but why does it rain in the first place?

Rain.

Image via Pixabay.

Water is a vital part of life on Earth and, luckily for us, it always keeps moving around. There’s always a bit of it floating around in the air as vapor, for example. If enough of it builds up in the atmosphere, it falls as precipitation — most commonly as ‘rain’. It sounds simple enough, but the mechanisms that generate precipitation are actually very complex and finely-tuned. So let’s break them down and see how each part works, and how they fit together.

Water vapor and clouds

Water in puddles, rivers, lakes, or oceans evaporates constantly and builds-up in the atmosphere as vapor. However, there’s only so much water that air can hold, which we call its ‘saturation value’. This value fluctuates with changes in temperature; the warmer the air, the more water it can hold.

Air tends to be warmest near the surface of the Earth and cools down when it rises. As it cools down, its water saturation value drops progressively. At a certain point, it drops enough that the air has to shed water, at which point the vapor starts to condense. This temperature is known as the ‘dew point’. Further cooling will cause excess vapor to condense onto solid surfaces (i.e. dew), or onto condensation nuclei (this forms droplets). These condensation nuclei, or ‘aerosols‘ are tiny particles of various origins (such as dust, fog, pollen, or pollution).

The water droplets formed as air reaches its dew point clump together and scatter incoming sunlight. Our eyes perceive this as white, diffuse clouds. Air masses with little buoyancy relative to the surrounding atmosphere don’t rise very fast, and generate ‘fair wind’ clouds. Air that’s very buoyant compared to its surrounding atmosphere rises rapidly and much higher, forming thick clouds that produce heavy rains. Clouds can also form from the cooling and condensation that occurs as air flows over physical obstructions like mountain ranges.

So around this point, we have our clouds all ready to go. Let’s see how it all comes down.

Precipitation

The droplets that create clouds are really, really tiny — about one-hundredth of a millimeter in diameter. They’re so small that they can just remain suspended in the air, essentially floating around freely. However, they’re not motionless: they do move when pushed by air currents. As they do, some collide, growing larger and heavier and start a slow descent through the cloud. They collide with even more droplets on the way, which makes them grow even heavier.

Meteorologists define rain as liquid water drops that have a diameter of at least 0.5 millimeters when they reach ground level. Drops smaller than this are considered drizzle. Drizzle is generally produced by low-level clouds (Stratus clouds) in temperate areas. It’s very thin — drizzle feels like a mist — and forms when there aren’t enough rising air currents to keep small droplets within the cloud.

If the cloud is dense enough that droplets grow to over one-tenth of a millimeter in diameter, they will survive all the way to the ground despite evaporation. This forms ‘warm rain’, which in temperate zones are thin rains. In the tropics, this process leads to heavy rainfall from clouds lower than 5km above ground level.

Clouds.

Image credits Engin Akyurt.

In temperate areas, heavy rains tend to be generated by a process that involves frozen particles. Temperatures at cloud level tend to be below 0ºC, but the droplets remain liquid. However, they do feel the temperature and spend their time in a state known as ‘supercooling‘. In such a state, even a slight disturbance, such as a collision or contact with an aerosol particle causes them to freeze solid almost instantly.

Water vapor condenses faster onto solid ice particles than it does on liquid droplets, so these little bits of ice grow much faster than surrounding drops and fall sooner. They also grow more as they fall. Warmer masses of air closer to the surface melts the ice as it’s falling, and they reach the ground as rain.

Very thick clouds, however, can create hail. The process is largely similar to the one above, with the exception that the ice particles they form are so large that they can’t melt before reaching the ground. Powerful storms can also generate upward winds that yank these falling bits of ice back into the cloud and re-freeze them. The process is repeated several times as the particles fall, grow larger, and are pulled back up. Eventually, they grow too heavy for the wind to affect them any more and fall to the ground as large, layered hailstones.

How air temperature influences things

Hailstones.

Image credits Etienne Marais.

Drizzle can also be produced by thick clouds if the drops that fall out of them go through a very dry and warm layer of air and evaporate until they are less than 0.5mm in diameter. If drops pass through a layer of cold air, you get snow. If the layers of air within the cloud and those between the cloud and the ground alternate between below and above freezing, you get all kinds of precipitation.

Hail, as we’ve seen, can form when drops go through a succession of warm-cold layers. Freezing rain forms in a similar fashion. If a droplet or ice particle falls through a moderate or warm layer of air (enough to make it fully liquid) but hits a very cold layer right above the ground, it becomes supercooled — and freezes right as it hits the cold ground. This coats everything in a thin layer of ice that becomes progressively ticker as more drops fall down. Frozen rains have been known to snap tree limbs and down power lines with the weight of the ice coat.

Fun facts about rain

  • Although raindrops are depicted in the classic teardrop shape, they’re actually dome-shaped as they fall; the bottom is flat due to air resistance.
  • The USGS estimates that one inch of rain per acre is equal to roughly 27,000 gallons (102,206 liters) of water.
  • Mawsynram, a village in Meghalaya, India, receives the most annual rainfall — about 10,000 millimeters of rain per year on average; most of it falls during the monsoon season.
  • Yungay, Chile, is the driest village on Earth, by comparison — around 0.1 mm each year on average.
  • Acid rain forms when pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (some are natural but mostly man-made) bind with water vapor in the atmosphere. The mix is acidic enough to damage organic material, but can also corrode steel and weather stone.
  • While Earth’s rains are made of water drops, other planets have much more exotic rains — boiling sulfuric acid, sideways glass rains, and diamond hailstones are just a few.
Neptune.

Hubble captured the first evidence of a Great Dark Spot storm forming on Neptune

NASA has spotted one of Neptune’s Great Dark Spots as it was forming, a new study reports. This is the first time humanity has witnessed such an event.

Neptune.

“Does this picture make my spot look dark?”
Image credits NASA / JPL / Voyager 2.

By peering through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA researchers have captured one of Neptune’s storms at is was brewing. While six such dark spots have been observed on Neptune in the past, this is the first time we’ve seen one during formation.

The findings will help us better understand our neighboring planets, as well as those far away — exoplanets — in general, as well as the weather patterns and nature of gas giants in particular.

There be a storm a’brewin!

“If you study the exoplanets and you want to understand how they work, you really need to understand our planets first,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and lead author of the new study.

“We have so little information on Uranus and Neptune.”

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is perhaps the best-known alien storm — but it’s far from the only one. Neptune, as well as our other gaseous-if-somewhat-unfortunately-named neighbor Uranus also boast their own storms in the form of Great Spots.

Neptune’s storms take the shape of Great Dark Spots. Researchers have, so far, spotted six such Spots on Neptune since 1989, when Voyager 2 identified the first two. Hubble has spotted four more since its launch in 1990. The authors of this study have analyzed images Hubble has taken of Uranus over the past several years to chronicle the growth of a new Great Dark Spot that became visible in 2018. The wealth of data recorded by Hubble helped the team understand how often Neptune develops dark spots and how long they last, and gain a bit of insight into the inner workings of ice giant planets.

Voyager 2 saw two storms on Neptune, the (Earth-sized) Great Dark Spot and the Dark Spot 2, in 1989. Images taken by Hubble five years later revealed that both spots had vanished.

“It was certainly a surprise,” Simon said. “We were used to looking at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which presumably had been there for more than a hundred years.”

However, a new Dark Spot reared its head on the face of Neptune in 2015. While Simon’s team was busy analyzing Hubble images of this spot, they found some mysteriously-white clouds in the area where the Great Dark Spot used to be. Then, in 2018, a new Great Dark Spot splashed across its surface; it was nearly identical in size, shape, and position as the one seen in 1989, the team reports, right where those clouds used to be.

“We were so busy tracking this smaller storm from 2015, that we weren’t necessarily expecting to see another big one so soon,” Simon said.

These high-altitude white clouds, the team says, are made up of methane ice crystals. The team suspected they somehow accompany the storms that form dark spots, likely hovering above them the same way that lenticular clouds cap tall mountains here on Earth.

Lenticular cloud.

A lenticular cloud spotted over a mountain in the Snæfellsjökull National Park, Iceland.
Image credits joiseyshowaa / Flickr.

So the team set out to track these clouds from 2016 (when they were first spotted) to 2018 (when the Spot gobbled them up). They were brightest in 2016 and 2017, the team found, just before the new Great Dark Spot emerged. The team turned to computer models of Neptune’s atmosphere to understand what they were seeing. According to the results, these companion clouds are brighter over deep storms. The fact that they appeared two years before the Great Dark Spot and then lost some brightness when it became visible suggests dark spots may originate much deeper in Neptune’s atmosphere than previously thought, the team explains.

They also used data from Voyager 2 and Hubble to measure how long these storms last, and how frequently they occur, on which they report in a second study. Each storm can last up to six years, though most only survive for two, the paper reads, and the team suspects new storms appear on Neptune every four to six years or so. This last tidbit would make the Great Dark Spots of Neptune different from those on Jupiter, whose Great Red Spot is at least 350 years old (it was first seen in 1830).

Jupiter’s storms endure as they’re caged in by thin jet streams, which keep them from changing latitude (north-south) and hold them together. Neptunian winds flow in much wider bands, and instead push storms like the Great Dark Spot slowly across latitudes. They can generally survive the planet’s westward equatorial winds, and eastward-blowing currents close to the equator, before getting ripped apart in higher latitudes.

“We have never directly measured winds within Neptune’s dark vortices, but we estimate the wind speeds are in the ballpark of 328 feet (100 meters) per second, quite similar to wind speeds within Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Wong.

Simon, Wong and Hsu also used images from Hubble and Voyager 2 to pinpoint how long these storms last and how frequently they occur. They report in a second study published today in the Astronomical Journal that they suspect new storms crop up on Neptune every four to six years. Each storm may last up to six years, though two-year lifespans are more likely, according to the findings.

The paper “Formation of a New Great Dark Spot on Neptune in 2018” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Sunset.

Massive solar storms are naturally-recurring events, study finds — and we’re unprepared for them

Solar storms can be even more powerful than what our measurements so far have indicated — and we’re still very unprepared.

Sunset.

Image via Pixabay.

Although our planet’s magnetic field keeps us blissfully unaware of it, the Earth is constantly being pelted with cosmic particles. Sometimes, however — during events known as solar storms, caused by explosions on the sun’s surface — this stream of particles turns into a deluge and breaks through that magnetic field.

Research over the last 70 years or so has revealed that these events can threaten the integrity of our technological infrastructure. Electrical grids, various communication infrastructure, satellites, and air traffic can all be floored by such storms. We’ve seen extensive power cuts take place in Quebec, Canada (1989) and Malmö, Sweden (2003) following such events, for example.

Now, new research shows that we’ve underestimated the hazards posed by solar storms — the authors report that we’ve underestimated just how powerful they can become.

‘Tis but a drizzle!

“If that solar storm had occurred today, it could have had severe effects on our high-tech society,” says Raimund Muscheler, professor of geology at Lund University and co-author of the study. “That’s why we must increase society’s protection again solar storms.”

Up to now, researchers have used direct instrumental observations to study solar storms. But the new study reports that these observations likely underestimated how violent the events can become. The paper, led by researchers at Lund University, analyzed ice cores recovered from Greenland to study past solar storms. These cores formed over the last 100,000 years or so, and have captured evidence of storms over that time.

According to the team, the cores recorded a very powerful solar storm occurring in 600 BCE. Also drawing on data recovered from the growth rings of ancient trees, the team pinpointed two further (and powerful) solar storms that took place in 775 and 994 CE.

The result thus showcases that, although rare, massive solar storms are a naturally recurring part of solar activity.

This finding should motivate us to review the possibility that a similar event will take place sooner or later — and we should prepare. Both the Quebec and Malmö incidents show how deeply massive solar storms can impact our technology, and how vulnerable our society is to them today.

“Our research suggests that the risks are currently underestimated. We need to be better prepared,” Muscheler concludes.

The paper “Multiradionuclide evidence for an extreme solar proton event around 2,610 B.P. (∼660 BC)” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wutip becomes earliest ever super-typhoon, with gusts over 180 mph

During the past few days, the world has been hit with some of the most unusual weather ever. In the UK, warm Mediterranean air masses pushed temperatures to unprecedented peaks, while in the US was hit by flash floods in Tennessee and a massive blizzard storm in the northern plains. Now, another freak weather event is set to hit US territory: Wutip is set to become the earliest super-typhoon in recorded history, hitting Guam with gusts of up to 180 mph (289 km/h).

The typhoon started as low-pressure just south of the Marshall Islands on February 16. It then began to gradually pick up steam while moving westward, finally receiving the name Wutip from the Japan Meteorological Agency on February 20. A day later, Wutip strengthened a severe tropical storm, before intensifying further into a typhoon later that day. It continued to intensify, reaching what was initially predicted to be its peak as a Category 4-equivalent.

But Wutip continued to surprise meteorologists, blowing up into a full Category 5 super-typhoon, becoming the strongest February storm of any kind ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. Sustained winds reached 160 mph (257 km/h).

February typhoons are extremely unusual. The last such storm to brush by Guam was Irma in 1953 — thankfully, the island escaped with minimal damage at the time.

NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite provided an infrared look at Typhoon Wutip on February 21, 2019. Image credits: NASA/NOAA/Williams Straka III/UWM/CIMSS.

Wutip continues its movement towards the Philippines, but thankfully, the storm’s intensity has decreased substantially. In order for such a storm to continue picking up steam, it would need warm ocean waters and weak upper winds — which are a rare occurrence in February. Even the level it reached was extremely unlikely to start with. While previous research has shown that climate change makes extreme weather more likely and tends to exacerbate big storms, there’s no evidence yet to suggest that Wutip is directly connected to climate change.

A typhoon is a mature tropical cyclone that develops in the Northern Hemisphere between 180° and 100°E. Typhoons are differentiated from other major storms (such as a cyclone or a storm) solely on the basis of location. Typhoons occur in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, whereas hurricanes occur in the northeastern Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean.

A hurricane is a storm that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean or the northeastern Pacific Ocean, a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and a tropical cyclone occurs in the south Pacific or the Indian Ocean. There are several scales used for classifying these storms, but most common is the Saffir Simpson wind scale, which classifies storms on a scale of 1 (least severe) to 5 (most severe). This scale estimates potential property damage. Category 5 storms can cause catastrophic damage, tearing down house roofs and collapsing walls and trees. These storms have wind speeds of 157 mph (252 km/h) or higher.

How climate change leads to more frequent thunderstorms

For decades, scientists have known that rising sea temperatures lead to more intense and frequent storms, as well as other extreme weather such as hurricanes or drought. Now, researchers at NASA have performed the first study that provides a quantitative estimate of how much thunderstorms are likely to increase. Their projections suggest that every 1°C (1.8°F) rise in ocean mean temperatures increases storm frequency at the tropics by 21%.

Credit: Pixabay.

The research team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California analyzed 15 years of satellite data acquired by the federal agency’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument over the tropical oceans. According to the results, extreme thunderstorms — defined as those producing at least 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) of rain per hour over a 25-kilometer (16-mile) area — form when sea surface temperatures are higher than 28°C (82°F).

Oceans act as planetary heat sinks, absorbing about 20 times as much heat as the atmosphere over the past half-century. In fact, the top three meters of ocean water trap more heat energy than the entire atmosphere. Since the 1980s, oceans have absorbed roughly one-billion times the heat energy released by the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the study’s authors estimate. Some of this energy naturally escapes into the air, driving the strength and frequency of storm systems.

Based on established climate models, tropical ocean surface temperatures might rise by as much as 2.7°C (4.8°F) by the end of the century, meaning we could see 60% more extreme storms than today. Averaged as a whole, the global ocean surface temperature for January 2018 was 0.56°C (1.01°F) above the 20th century average of 15.8°C (60.5°F), according to NOAA.

“Our results quantify and give a more visual meaning to the consequences of the predicted warming of the oceans,” Hartmut Aumann, lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “More storms mean more flooding, more structure damage, more crop damage and so on, unless mitigating measures are implemented.”

This graph shows how the average surface temperature of the world’s oceans has changed since 1880. Credit: NOAA, 2016.

This graph shows how the average surface temperature of the world’s oceans has changed since 1880. Credit: NOAA, 2016.

Besides increasing the severity and frequency of storms, warmer oceans put coastal communities at risk (and incur extra costs) due to rising sea levels and threaten marine wildlife such as coral reefs and fisheries due to ocean acidification (a byproduct of CO2 absorption).

The findings appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

El Reno, OK EF-5 Tornado: Credit: Jeff Snyder.

Tornadoes form from the ground up, not the other way around as previously believed

El Reno, OK EF-5 Tornado: Credit: Jeff Snyder.

El Reno, OK EF-5 Tornado: Credit: Jeff Snyder.

Scientists used to think tornadoes originate far up in the clouds but a new evidence seems to point towards an opposite model of formation. According to new research, tornadoes may first form at ground level, generating a funnel that extends upwards. The findings could improve tornado forecasting models, which might offer precious extra time for people to get out of harm’s way during a natural disaster.

“We need to reconsider the paradigms that we have to explain tornado formation, and we especially need to communicate this to forecasters who are trying to make warnings and issue warnings,” said Jana Houser, a meteorologist at Ohio University and co-author of the new study. “You are not going to really ever be finding strong evidence of a tornado descending, so we need to stop making that a priority in our forecasting strategies.”

Houser and colleagues drove a truck-sized rapidly scanning radar through storms, hoping to catch the birth of tornadoes. The researchers eventually collected data on a couple of tornadoes of varying intensities on the Enhanced Fujita (EF), which rates the intensity of tornadoes in the United States and Canada based on the damage they cause. Two of the tornadoes were rather small (EF1) while the others varied from moderate (EF3) to extreme (EF5). The latter storm, called the El Reno tornado, formed on May 31, 2013, in central Oklahoma, shattering previous tornado records. The terrifying El Reno tornado was the widest ever recorded, peaking at 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) wide, and had wind speeds of more than 480 kilometers per hour (300 miles per hour), which is the second-highest wind speed recorded on Earth.

While residents fled the onslaught, the researchers drove their state-of-the-art mobile Doppler radar through the storm. This specialized radar uses the Doppler effect to produce velocity data about objects at a distance by bouncing a microwave signal off a desired target and analyzing how the object’s motion has altered the frequency of the returned signal. A tornado of such an intensity as El Reno also gathered the usual thrill-seeking storm chasers, who recorded hundreds of photos and videos from different angles and at different times, showing how the tornado was developing.

El Reno, OK Supercell – Photo courtesy Brennan Joseph.

These citizen images proved essential to the current research. The footage clearly showed a visible tornado at the ground several minutes before the researchers’ radar picked it up. This was the first hint that the currently accepted meteorological model of top-down tornadogenesis may be flawed.

When Houser and colleagues were in the lab they analyzed the data again — this time with a careful eye on data for ground-based radar. They found clear evidence of rotation at the ground before there was rotation at higher altitudes. This seemed to be the case for all five datasets that the authors analyzed — the tornado’s rotation formed at or near the ground first, rather than starting in the cloud itself.

“The coupled visual and near-surface radar observations enable an analysis of the tornadogenesis process that has never before been obtained, providing a missing link in the story of tornado formation: the rotation associated with the tornado was clearly present at the surface first. Subsequently, rotation contracted aloft nearly simultaneously over the depth of the column for which data were collected, providing distinct evidence that for this case, the tornado formed from the bottom-up. Furthermore, in the 5 datasets that were examined, NONE of the tornadoes formed following the top-down process,” the authors wrote in the study’s abstract.

Five is a pretty small sample size, which means that many more tornadoes will have to be analyzed before the new model supersedes the previous cloud-ground one. If confirmed, residents close to a high-intensity tornado could be alerted with a couple of seconds, maybe minutes in advance. In some situations, this can mean the difference between life and death.

The findings were presented on December 14 at the 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Opportunity dusty.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death “very premature”, despite three-weeks silence

NASA’s last contact with the Opportunity Rover took place over three weeks ago. Despite this, the agency believes it’s too early to assume the worst case scenario — the rover’s demise.

Opportunity dusty.

Opportunity covered in dust on Mars.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the huge dust storm that’s engulfed Mars of late, and of how NASA’s two rovers — Opportunity and Curiosity — are weathering the event. Out of the two, Curiosity has been served the much sweeter side of the dish: powered by a nuclear reactor and sitting out of the storm’s way, it’s been free to leisurely capture pics of the weather (and itself).

The older and solar-powered Opportunity, however, is stuck in the massive storm. Besides getting pelted by dust that may harm its scientific instruments, the rover is also unable to recharge. Dust blocks so much of the incoming sunlight that Opportunity’s solar panels just can’t create a spark. Bereft of battery charge, the rover stands a real chance of freezing to death on — fittingly– Mars’ Perseverance Valley.

Tough as old (ro)boots

Opportunity has been on duty for some 14 years now. It’s a veteran space explorer that relayed treasure troves of data for researchers back here on Earth. I’m rooting for the bot to weather the storm. By this point, however, it’s been three weeks since it last established contact with NASA — enough to make even the most resolute worry about its fate.

Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, says we shouldn’t assume the worst just yet.

Talking with Space Insider, Dr. Rice explains during its last contact with NASA, Opportunity also sent back a power reading. It showed the rover managed to scrape a meager 22 Wh of energy from its solar panels. For context, the rover managed to collect 645 Wh of energy from its panels just ten days before. This chokehold on energy is the NASA’s main concern at the moment.

However, he adds that the same storm which prevents Opportunity from recharging its batteries may ultimately also be its salvation.

One of the reasons NASA was caught offguard by the storm is that they simply don’t generally form around this time of the Martian Year. It’s currently spring on the Red Planet’s Southern Hemisphere, but dust storms usually form during summer. The only other dust event NASA recorded during the Martian Spring formed in 2001, and even that one came significantly later in the season than the current storm.

Mars storm.

The first indications of a dust storm appeared back on May 30. The team was notified, and put together a 3-day plan to get the rover through the weekend. After the weekend the storm was still going, with atmospheric opacity jumping dramatically from day to day.

Still, at least it’s not winter — so average temperatures aren’t that low on Mars right now. The dust further helps keep Opportunity warmer, as it traps heat around the rover.

“We went from generating a healthy 645 watt-hours on June 1 to an unheard of, life-threatening, low just about one week later. Our last power reading on June 10 was only 22 watt hours the lowest we have ever seen” Dr. Rice explained.

“Our thermal experts think that we will stay above those low critical temperatures because we have a Warm Electronics Box (WEB) that is well insulated. So we are not expecting any thermal damage to the batteries or computer systems. Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring and the dust, while hindering our solar power in the day, helps keep us warmer at night,” he added.

The storm has reached 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) in size this June. It poses a real risk to Opportunity’s wellbeing, but ground control remains optimistic. Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin believes that the massive storm may have already peaked — but, considering that it took roughly a month for it to build up, it could take a “substantial” amount of time before it dissipates completely.

“As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday (June 30) this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We had a chance to conduct an uplink last night at the potential low-power fault window. We sent a real-time activate of a beep as we have done over the past two weeks. We had a negative detection of the beep at the expected time,” Dr Rice added.

“A formal listening strategy is in development for the next several months.”

Among all this, or rather also because of all that’s happening to Opportunity, I can’t help but feel genuine admiration for it as well as the people who helped put it together. Opportunity was first launched in 2004 and along its sister craft Spirit, was supposed to perform a 90-day mission. Spirit kept going until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong today (and hopefully for longer). That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of.

Based in part on the rover’s rugged track record, Dr. Rice believes that “rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature at this point.”

Curiosity mars.

Mars’ huge dust storm is now a “global” storm

The dust storm battering Opportunity is now a global storm, NASA reports.

Curiosity Mars.

Curiosity approaching Mars in December 2012.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Mars hasn’t been enjoying the fairest weather as of late. A massive dust storm has engulfed Perserverence Valley, pinning NASA’s Opportunity rover in place; all the dust is blocking out sunlight, preventing the bot from recharging its batteries — so much so that ground control fears it might freeze out, as its dwindling power supply can’t feed the rover’s inbuilt heaters.

According to NASA, the weather is only getting worse. The dust storm has grown in size and is inching in even on the Curiosity rover, half a Mars away from the beleaguered Opportunity. The storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” or “global” dust event.

Mars Stormborn

NASA reports that dust is rapidly and steadily settling down on Curiosity. The quantity of dust settling on the rover has more than doubled over the weekend, they note. The storm’s light-blocking factor, or “tau”, has grown to over 8.0 above Gale Crater (where Curiosity is currently rovering about) — the highest value the bot has ever recorded during its mission. For context, Opportunity is experiencing 11 tau, a value high enough to prevent its instruments from making any accurate measurements.

However, NASA is confident Curiosity will remain unaffected by the grime. Unlike its cousin, it draws power from a nuclear reactor, so the lack of light isn’t really a big issue. Curiosity’s cameras are having a hard time, however, as the lack of light means it has to use long exposure times. NASA is having it point its cameras down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its lenses.

However, there’s a silver lining. Because Curiosity can keep functioning in the storm, NASA hopes to use the rover to understand the phenomenon better. One of the main questions they want to answer is why some Martian dust storms remain small and stall before a week has passed, while others grow and grow and last for months.

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.

Together with the craft in orbit around Mars, Curiosity will collect data on the storm to help patch up our understanding.

Mars dust storm.

This animation, pieced together from pictures taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, shows the weather darkening over Mars. The rover is currently standing inside Gale Crater, and peeking its camera over its rim. The photos were taken over a few weeks, with the first one snapped before the storm appeared.
Image credits NASA.

The images above were taken roughly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the storm. The haze is about six to eight times thicker than what’s usual for this time of the Martian year, NASA estimates.

Dust storms on Mars are actually quite commonplace. Surprising for a dusty planet, I know. They’re especially frequent in the southern hemisphere during both spring and summer months (Mars’, not the ones on Earth). These are the months during which Mars is closest to the Sun, and the temperature imbalances in the atmosphere generate winds that mobilize dust grains (this dust is about as fine as talcum powder). Carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) embedded in the planet’s polar ice caps also evaporates during these months, making the atmosphere extra-thick — this increased pressure helps suspend dust in the air. Dust clouds have been spotted up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) high.

However, Martian dust storms don’t usually cause a ruckus. They tend to hang out in a confined area and dissipate within a week. By contrast, the current storm is bigger than North America and Russia combined, according to Guzewich. It’s even more impressive when you consider the size of Mars relative to Earth:

Mars-Earth.

Mars (diameter 6790 kilometers) is only slightly more than half the size of Earth (diameter 12750 kilometers). The image shows the true relative size between the two planets.
Image credits Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA SP-441, p. 14.

The size difference is one of the elements that allows Martian dust storms to grow to such immense sizes. Earth’s gravitational pull is almost double that of Mars, which helps settle the dust. Vegetation also binds the soil, preventing particles from getting airborne, and rain washes whatever gets in the atmosphere back down.

Opportunity.

Opportunity braves the worst sand storm it’s ever faced, might not make it

Shoutout to the Opportunity rover for signaling home amid the worst Martian sandstorm it’s ever faced.

Mars map.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity.
Image and caption credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On Sunday morning, NASA received a transmission from the Opportunity rover. Usually, that’s not really out of its character — but the bot is currently braving a massive sandstorm on the Red Planet. The rover hailed home to let ground control know it still has enough juice in its battery to maintain communications, according to NASA. Science operations, however, remain suspended in a bid to conserve energy.

Oppy phone home

The transmission was a welcome break for NASA engineers, as the dust storm has been steadily picking up steam in the past few days. The rover is weathering it out in Perseverance Valley, shrouded in perpetual night. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1. The rover team began preparing contingency plans soon afterward.

It’s not the first such storm Opportunity had to face — it braved another in 2007. This event, however, is much worse than the last one. The storm’s atmospheric opacity (how much light it blocks) has been estimated at 10.8 tau as of Sunday morning — the 2007 storm only reached about 5.5 tau. This is roughly equivalent to the incredible smogs we’ve seen in China. Because of this, the bot cannot use its solar panels to recharge.

The storm has grown to over 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles) since its detection. Such storms aren’t extreme for Mars, but they are infrequent. NASA doesn’t yet fully understand how they form or build in strength, but they seem to be self-reinforcing — a feedback loop that amplifies itself as it grows. Such storms can last up to several months at a time.

This dust blanket could be what makes or breaks Opportunity’s resolve.

Dusty but not yet dead

Opportunity.

You could say it’s an Opportunity to show what you’re made of, little rover!
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

I say that because the dust is both a boon and a curse for Opportunity as of now. The rover’s main problems are that it cannot recharge (its solar panels are dusted over, and there’s not enough sunlight) and that communication with ground control is spotty at best (radio signals can’t pierce through the storm).

But the dust also hides a silver lining. Data beamed back by the rover shows its internal temperature is roughly stable at about minus 29 degrees Celsius (minus 20 Fahrenheit). The dust storm — which retains heat — seems to be insulating Opportunity from the extreme temperature swings on Mars’ surface. It’s not an ideal temperature by any means, but it’s still not as bad as it could get.

The team’s worst fears right now is that if the rover experiences cold temperatures for too long, it might damage its batteries. This fate befell Spirit, Opportunity’s twin craft in the Mars Exploration Rover mission, in 2010. Engineers plan to use the network to monitor and administer the rover’s energy levels in the following weeks — they need to somehow save as much battery charge as possible while keeping the rover from getting too cold. It has onboard heaters for this purpose, but they drain a lot of energy. One idea the team is considering is activating other equipment to expel energy, which would heat up the bot.

Science operations have been temporarily put on hold for sunnier days. Mission control has requested additional coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency’s deep space probes, in an effort to maintain contact with Opportunity.

But I wouldn’t count Opportunity out just yet. It has proved its mettle aplenty in the past. Not only has it gone through dust storms before, but it made it with surprising gusto — the rover has accrued 15 years in the line of duty despite only being intended to last 90 days.

So hang in there little buddy, and don’t let the cold bite your batteries.

Jupiter’s Red Patch Heats up the Entire Planet

Acoustic waves from the red spot storm may be creating the heat.

Astronomers have been wondering for years why Jupiter’s atmosphere is so hot, and now they may finally have the answer: it’s all because of the red spot.

As most of us have learned in school, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a huge storm lasting for 186 years already, and with many more to come. Such storms are quite common in gas giants, owing their formation to the turbulent and extremely violent atmospheres. Recently, a joint team from the US and the UK used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to measure the temperature of the red spot, and came up with an enormous value: 1,500C (2700 Fahrenheit) — hundreds of degrees hotter than anywhere else on the planet. They believe that the high temperatures are created by soundwaves “breaking” in the thin upper reaches of the atmosphere.

The red spot itself is huge — bigger than Earth, constantly moving and changing its size (though not drastically). According to the study, which was published last week in Nature, as the storm roars on, its roar blasts the upper atmosphere, exciting particles there and raising their temperature. This came as a surprise because researchers didn’t believe something so low in the atmosphere (the spot) can affect something so high (the upper atmosphere).

Of course, this isn’t the only source of heat on the planet. The stripes (which move in one direction) and the clouds (which move in the other) create heat through friction, and the magnetic field heats the two poles which zip past each other at speeds comparable to that of light. But we knew all this – what we didn’t know is the effect of the red spot. This is the anomaly responsible for Jupiter’s so-called energy crisis.

This is another reminder that there are still many things we have yet to find out about the gas giant. Jupiter’s system remains a mystery, but one that we’re slowly starting to crack.

Huge waves of foam wash over Froggy Beach after last week’s storm

Stormy weather has an unusual upside if you happen to live on Australia’s eastern coasts: giant waves of sea foam. A video taken a few days after a powerful storm hit Froggy Beach shows a man enjoying this rare phenomenon.

Image via youtube

Big storms or cyclones can sometimes cause the sea to form thick layers of foam according to NOAA, similarly to what you’re used to see in a bathtub rather than in the open ocean.

The foaming is caused by winds and waves stirring the water so proteins, dead algae, and other tiny particles bind together to form longer chemical chains. Grey Leyson captured a stunning video of this phenomenon on Saturday at Froggy’s Beach near Coolangatta, Australia.

While the sea looks inviting enough like this, locals tell that people usually stay away from the ocean after storms as sea snakes have a habit of washing up on the shore.

“The biggest hazard I suppose is sea snakes, there are a lot of sea snakes that get washed in from out further,” Leyson told the Brisbane Times. “You are very unlikely to get bitten by one, but if you do, they are pretty venomous.”

This particular storm brought bigger dangers than a few sea snakes, however. It hit parts of New South Wales with a fury, causing floods and bringing very destructive surfs of over 5 meters (17 feet) on average, reaching up to 12 meters (40 feet) in height.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes and seek shelter elsewhere as the storm destroyed beachfront properties and brought heavy rains threatening the area around Narrabeen Lakes in Sydney with flooding. Four people died, and three people have been reported missing during the storm, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company.

Conditions over New South Wales and Tasmania improved by Tuesday as the storm passed.

Scientists find a tiny star with a huge storm — just like Jupiter’s

Scientists have found one storm that no umbrella can keep you safe from — because that umbrella is going to burn in your hand.

While the windy and overcast weather of a stormy day isn’t surprising on telluric planets, it’s not something most of us readily associate with stars. But it does happen — the best evidence for this is W1906+40, a distant dwarf star recently described in a study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

This illustration shows a cool star, called W1906+40, marked by a raging storm near one of its poles. Image via washingtonpost

This illustration shows a cool star, called W1906+40, marked by a raging storm near one of its poles. Image via washingtonpost

Being small for a star (about as big as Jupiter) W1906+40 is classified as an L-dwarf, more towards planets on the planet-star spectrum. The coolest stars in this class are known as brown dwarfs, “failed stars” that aren’t big or don’t have enough heat to sustain fusion and generate light as most stars do and resemble giant gas planets. However, they form very differently than planets and scientists often have to use the cosmic object’s age to classify it correctly.

With an estimated 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit of surface temperature,  W1906+40 might still have some fusion going on, but nothing powerful enough to stop mineral clouds from forming in its atmosphere, blurring the line between a planet and a star. But just like on Jupiter, the planet-and-star combination of features led to the formation of a massive storm.

On Jupiter, the Great Red Spot has been churning and raging on for as long as humanity has been able to see it — some 400 years. It’s been slowly getting smaller and smaller, though it being roughly three times the size of Earth means the term “smaller” is used loosely here.

“The star is the size of Jupiter, and its storm is the size of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” study author John Gizis of the University of Delaware said in a statement. “We know this newfound storm has lasted at least two years, and probably longer.”

The storm on W1906+40 was spotted using the Kepler exoplanet hunting telescope. It searches for exoplanets by measuring the dimming of distant stars’ light, which can be used to determine if there are any objects passing in front of it.

 

In the case of W1906+40, Gizis and his team saw a dark spot that didn’t waver. This wasn’t unusual — patches of concentrated magnetic field can make dark blotches on a star’s surface known as star spots (on sunspots on the Sun,) behave the same way and are relatively common.

But further investigation in infrared light revealed that the dark spot had nothing to do with magnetic fields. The whopping storm makes a dark mark on top of the star, rotating around it about every nine hours.

Scientists aren’t sure why these storms last so long or how common they are, but the researchers involved in the study plan on seeking out more stormy dwarfs to learn more.

Climate change might increase the chance of ‘Grey Swan’ storms

A new studied explore the possibility of unprecedented catastrophic storms – storms so bad that there’s no recorded precedent in the past 10,000 years. According to the study, the chance for such an extremely rare event to occur in this century are drastically increased by climate change.

The 1921 Tampa hurricane compared with two grey swans. Image credits: Lin and Emanuel, 2015.

‘Black swans’ is an umbrella term for every event that is extremely unlikely and impossible to predict. ‘Grey swan’ is, similarly, a term used for events which are again extremely unlikely, but might be predicted based on an analysis of past events. A new study takes this concept into the realm of weather and climate, finding that global warming might sharply increase the odds of grey swan hurricanes over the 21st century. The results are in accordance to previous studies which found that tropical cyclones (hurricanes) will become more severe as the planet heats up.

None of the recent storms, bad as they have been, compare to the type of storms they analyzed. Katrina, Sandy, Haiyan, had massive impacts, but they wouldn’t qualify as grey swans. Ning Lin, a civil and environmental engineer at Princeton University, and Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane and climate researcher at MIT wanted to look at bigger storms, and they set out to calculate the odds of storms that don’t appear in the record for a given location, but which could theoretically appear based on the local conditions. This is how they defined grey swan storms.

It’s an interesting perspective, one that hasn’t been discussed in previous literature.

“I think it’s a great, great question to ask,” Jim Kossin, a hurricane-climate researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who wasn’t involved with the study, said.

They used a model pioneered by Emanuel which places a high-resolution hurricane model inside a coarser general climate model and runs it several thousand times to see all the storms that could theoretically take place there. They focused specifically on some places: Tampa, because of its large population; Cairns, Australia, because it is in a cyclone-prone area and in the Southern Hemisphere; and the Persian Gulf (with Dubai), where no hurricane has ever been observed.

What they found was that general warming drastically affects the odds of such a storm happening. For Tampa, even moderate warming increased the likelihood of such a storm happening from once in 10,000 years to once in 2,500 years (or even once in 700 years, depending on how much the planet warms). The Dubai case was even more surprising: even though there was never a massive storm in recent history there, if the planet continues to warm, a storm with up a surge up to 23 feet could take place (though the odds still aren’t very likely, it becomes a plausible possibility).

“Those results are quite surprising,” Lin said, given that no storm has ever been observed in the Persian Gulf “and we got very intense storms there.” (While the Gulf’s waters are very warm, a boon to hurricanes, the area’s low humidity and high wind shear aren’t conducive to storm formation.)

These are quite alarming results, but they are still results which may help officials better prepare for such possibilities. When we consider that they didn’t even use rising sea levels in their models (which also increases the likelihood of violent storms), things become even more threatening. There’s always an uncertainty when working with climate models, but we can draw a line and clearly state that global warming will certainly make freak storms more likely, and that’s not a good felling.

Journal Reference: Ning Lin & Kerry Emanuel – Grey swan tropical cyclones. Nature Climate Changedoi:10.1038/nclimate2777

 

global-lightning-activity

Map compiled by NASA shows how lightning strikes the Earth

By the time you’ve finished reading this sentence, thousands of lightning bolts have already discharged enormous amounts of energy onto Earth’s surface. Now, a map compiled by NASA using two decades worth of measurements shows which places are hit most often. For instance, land is hit more frequently than the ocean, as is the equatorial region compared to other regions of the globe.

global-lightning-activity

Image: NASA

Lightning is a giant discharge of electricity accompanied by a brilliant flash of light and a loud crack of thunder. The spark can reach over five miles (eight kilometers) in length, raise the temperature of the air by as much as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (27,700 degrees Celsius), and contain a hundred million electrical volts. Like all of nature’s powerful mechanisms, lightning may actually be the ultimate life bringer, thought it may sometimes cause fatalities.  The immense heat and other energy given off during a stroke has been found to convert elements into compounds that are found in organisms, so during the planet’s primal period lightning may have helped spur life – like a defibrillator.

The following map was made by researchers at NASA taking note of data taken by the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) on NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite between 1998 and 2013 and the Optical Transient Detector (OTD) on the OrbView-1/Microlab satellite between 1995 and 2000. A researcher explains how the instrument works:

“It’s taking very rapid updates,” said Daniel Cecil, a member of the Global Hydrology and Climate Center’s lightning team. “So it will measure a background scene, and then with very rapid updates check to see if there’s a sudden change in brightness from that background scene.” If there is, the instrument records that as a flash of lightning.

In the map, areas with the fewest lightning strikes are gray and purple, while those with the highest number are in pink. We can immediately distinguish that land gets much more pounded by lightning than the ocean. That’s because land absorbs heat much faster from sunlight, causing stronger convection and higher atmospheric instability, which ultimately causes lightning storms.

Westward on the map, lightning flashes run down Mexico and Central America, before reaching their peak in Colombia and Venezuela; eastward, they peak in Singapore and Malaysia. But the fiercest lightning storms can be found, by far, in Congo. Also, lightning is far more likely to occur near the equator.  Roughly 90 percent of the lightning strikes on Earth occur between the 38th parallel south and 38th parallel north latitudes, said Cecil.

Maps, satellite imagery and more such data is essential to expanding our view of how the climate really works, and consequently help build better models that reflect reality. Soon, NASA plans on mounting lightning imaging sensor to the International Space Station from where it will be continuously able to track certain spots on the planet for storms.

“Right now, we’re piecing together snapshots,” Cecil said. “As a satellite goes over, we get to look at a storm for about a minute and a half. And in this next generation a few years from now, we’re going to have continuous measurements. So as a storm pops up, we’re going to see its entire life cycle from the first flash to the last.”

Thick smog engulfs Beijing.

Asian pollution drives storms in the Pacific

While pollution is most felt locally, where its produced, some of it eventually winds up in remote locations proving to be a global hazard even places in the world where there isn’t any kind of fossil industry. For instance, a while ago I reported how 29% of San Francisco’s pollution comes from China – be you didn’t know that. Air pollution from China and other heavy burning Asian countries travel through the Pacific on their way to mainland North America. Apparently, these pollutants are strengthening storms above the Pacific Ocean, which feeds into weather systems, thus posing a significant threat.

China is one of the most polluted countries in the world. It’s enough to look at their most populous and most industrialized city, Beijing to get an idea. Here, smog can get so thick that most of the time you can’t see the sun directly from ground level; other times, smog intensifies so much that cars can’t run anymore and people need to be off the streets. The local government reports an air quality index (AQI) of 500, the highest possible reading – basically, the pollution is so high it’s off the charts. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that life expectancy is cut by 15 years for those living with the smog.

Pollution intensifies storms in the Pacific, and elsewhere

Things are rough, no doubt about it, and the government is making steps to curve the smog and pollution, but in the face of massive and rapid industrialization of the whole country, there’s no chance they’ll pollute any less than now. When pollution is concerned, this isn’t a problem that affects China alone – it becomes a global peril.

Yuan Wang and team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology have gathered important evidence that suggests East Asian pollution is moving further afield. These were reached after the researchers performed computer models of the effects Asian pollution might have on weather systems.

The tiny polluting particles interact with water droplets in the air above the North Pacific and cause clouds to grow denser, resulting in more intense storms above the ocean. What this means is that global climate is becoming threatened by this sort of pollution and the effects of them are only recently beginning to be understood.

Dr Yuan Wang said: “Since the Pacific storm track is an important component in the global general circulation, the impacts of Asian pollution on the storm track tend to affect the weather patterns of other parts of the world during the wintertime, especially a downstream region [of the track] like North America.”

Commenting on the study, Professor Ellie Highwood, a climate physicist at the University of Reading, said: “We are becoming increasingly aware that pollution in the atmosphere can have an impact both locally – wherever it is sitting over regions – and it can a remote impact in other parts of the world. This is a good example of that.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

NASA Satellite Reveals Tropical Storm Andrea’s Towering Thnderstorms – Tropical Storm Warning in effect

andrea storm

Towering thunderstorms are a bad sign, often announcing a strong tropical cyclone – and NASA’s satellites observed just that. The TRMM satellite spotted thunderstorms reaching heights of almost 9 miles high within Tropical Storm Andrea, while the Aqua satellite provided an infrared view that revealed very cold cloud top temperatures that coincided with the towering thunderstorms that TRMM saw.

Subtropical Storm Andrea was the first named storm and first subtropical cyclone of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm produced rough surf along the coastline from Florida to North Carolina, causing beach erosion and significant, but not massive damage. This year, things can be much worse.

A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for the west coast of Florida from Boca Grande to Indian Pass, from Flagler Beach, Fla. to Cape Charles Light, Va., the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, and the lower Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort, Va. If you’re in one of those areas or nearby, or you have loved ones living there, check the National Hurricane Center web page at: www.nhc.noaa.gov.

andrea 2

Andrea is expected to head to the North East after it goes through Florida, powering through the American coast on June 8.

Via NASA

Saturn creates largest, hottest gas storm ever recorded in the Solar System

The Cassini spacecraft recorded the aftermath of the largest, hottest gas vortex ever recorded in our solar system, making astrophysicists think there’s much more to Saturn’s atmosphere than meets the eye.

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft (often just called Cassini) is a robotic ship sent out to monitor the Saturn system. It sent out surprising, valuable data not only from Saturn itself, but also from its many satellites (most notably Titan). This time, something truly remarkable caught its mechanical eye.

Not only was the storm of Gargantuan size (it could cover North America from top to bottom and go round the Earth many times), but what it was made of also baffled astronomers. The event was created when two warm spots on Saturn merged, and even though the result was invisible to the human eye, it was easily observed in infrared wavelength.

“This temperature spike is so extreme it’s almost unbelievable,” said Brigette Hesman, the study’s lead author who works at Goddard. “To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you’d be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert,” Hesman said in a statement released by NASA.

All this action was caused by the “Great Springtime Storm” that raged on Saturn in 2010 and 2011. The storm was so huge that it actually reached its own tail at the other end of the planet, and created huge temperatures. Researchers believed the hype was over, but continued to study the aftermath.

What they found was that the two remaining warm spots refused to cool down and continued to roam the planet, getting closer and closer to each other – finally merging in a catastrophic event. Temperatures in the storm skyrocketed to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and a huge amount of ethylene suddenly appeared. Ethylene is an odorless hydrocarbon not usually found on Saturn; the amount of released ethylene is 100 times more than scientists believed possible – and no one knows where the hydrocarbon comes from.

The storm is expected to cool down by 2013, but astronomers are reluctant to make any more predictions, as they expect Saturn to hold even more surprises. Goddard scientists describe the unprecedented belch of energy in a paper which will be published in the Nov. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA