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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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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]

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