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We Have a Week of Wild Weather Ahead of Us

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A kinky jet stream will bring a week of extreme weather to the United States, promising a grab-bag of atmospheric excitement that ranges from mountain snows and Plains tornadoes to the East Coast’s first decent heat wave of the season. The coming storm systems exemplify the feast-or-famine nature of springtime weather, especially as we get closer to the peak of tornado season at the beginning of June. You might either be begging the sky for a little water in your garden or sprinting for your basement as yet another tornado warning blares from your cell phone.

Most of the significant weather events we experience throughout the year are the result of the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that generally makes itself at home around 30,000 feet above sea level. It doesn’t seem like winds roaring along six miles above our heads can make much of a difference on the ground, but winds that blow in the middle- and upper-levels of the atmosphere are the driving force behind just about every major weather feature.

A weather model image showing the trough over the Rockies and the strong ridge over the East Coast.
A weather model image showing the trough over the Rockies and the strong ridge over the East Coast. This image shows the 500 millibar level, which is about 18,000 feet above sea level.
Pivotal Weather

These upper-level patterns are the reason it’s going to get toasty along the East Coast this week. High temperatures in the 90s are likely as far north as New England as a ridge of high pressure builds in place. Ridges, or northerly kinks in the jet stream, are the reason heat waves can get so intense. Ridges foster subsidence, or sinking air that clears the sky of clouds and makes the air quite toasty. The buildup of air at the surface leads to the formation of a high-pressure center. The more intense the high-pressure, the more intense the heat wave. It’s neither uncommon nor unprecedented to see summer-like heat in May, but it’s still uncomfortable nonetheless. The heat will be accompanied by humidity on Thursday and Friday, so those high temperatures hovering around the 90°F mark will feel even warmer thanks to the heat index.

Ridges are resilient. They don’t like to budge once they form, and this often leads to unsettled weather along the outer periphery of high-pressure systems. Several troughs will dig south out of the Rocky Mountains this week and lead to multiple opportunities for severe weather and heavy rain in the Plains and Upper Midwest. Significant severe weather is possible on Tuesday in the area traditionally known as Tornado Alley—storms from western Texas through western Nebraska could produce some violent tornadoes on Tuesday afternoon. More severe thunderstorms are possible in the central United States toward the end of the week.

The rainfall forecast through May 23, 2017
The Weather Prediction Center’s rainfall forecast through May 23, 2017
Dennis Mersereau

One the storms are finished tormenting the central Plains, they’ll continue raining as they travel around the edge of the heat dome over the East Coast. NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center expects that two to four inches of rain will fall across a swath of land from central Texas to Lake Superior, falling over areas that really don’t need rain these days. Rivers in the Midwest are still trying to recover from flooding rains earlier this month. Any additional heavy rainfall will make the situation worse. Precipitation at higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains will fall in the form of snow, with mountain peaks possibly seeing several feet of snow before the weather settles back down.

The lack of rain is making things worse in Florida, where the resilience of the ridge and prolonged summer-like heat will send Florida and Georgia deeper into drought. While the rest of the country has largely recovered from any sort of lasting drought, the extreme southeast hasn’t been so lucky.

Large sections of Florida were in a severe or extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s update on May 11. The dryness isn’t only affecting agriculture—it’s also allowing wildfires to quickly spread out of control.

A lightning strike at the beginning of April sparked the West Mims Fire, a blaze located right on the border between Florida and Georgia northwest of Jacksonville, Florida. Officials reported on May 15 that the fire had burned about 237 square miles of land—an area more than three times larger than Washington D.C.—and was only 18 percent contained. Crews likely won’t receive any natural help in fighting the fire until the weekend, when the stubborn weather pattern breaks and showers and thunderstorms are once again possible.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Last Month Was the Second-Warmest October on Record
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After an unseasonably toasty October, the numbers are in: Temperatures exceeded averages across the globe last month, making it the second-hottest October ever recorded, according to NASA.

As Mashable reports, worldwide temperatures reached 1.62°F (or 0.90°C) above the average in October. It just edged out global temperatures in October 2016 and came short of the all-time October record set in 2015. But while El Niño contributed to temperature spikes in 2015, there's no weather event to explain the anomaly this time around.

Records of global mean surface temperature changes date back to 1880. Of the 136 years in NASA’s database, the past three years (2014, 2015, 2016) have produced the greatest temperature anomalies. With the end of the year approaching, it looks like 2017 will end up breaking into the top three, and will likely be the warmest non-El Niño year on record.

While alarming, the record-breaking statistics shouldn't be surprising to anyone who follows global climate trends. The Earth has been warming at a rapid rate in recent decades, and climate scientists blame the carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere by human activity.

Following a hot autumn, the next few months aren't looking to be any cooler: Like last winter and the winter before that, this season is expected to be unusually warm.

[h/t Mashable]

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