What Are Microbursts?

NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It's monsoon season in the American Southwest. Daily thunderstorms popping up over a dry landscape provide countless opportunities for passersby to take pictures and videos of the torrents as they bring an annual dose of rain to the otherwise parched desert. One of the more striking features of these desert thunderstorms is a term you see all over social media: microbursts. These destructive wind events can be terrifying to live through, but beautiful to watch from afar.

A microburst is a downward burst of damaging winds, rain, and hail that literally drops out of the bottom of a thunderstorm. A microburst occurs over a relatively tiny area; the extent of the strong winds is usually only a mile or two wide. From a distance, a microburst can look like a water balloon falling toward the ground, splashing outward upon impact like a mushroom cloud unfolding in reverse. Pictured above is a microburst with a classic water balloon appearance, spotted by NOAA scientists around 1980.

Meteorologists didn't give much thought to this phenomenon until the 1970s, when Dr. Ted Fujita—famous for his pioneering research into tornado intensity that led to the creation of the Fujita Scale—started to study the distinct pattern of damage that these windstorms leave behind.

You don't want to find yourself beneath a microburst. Just as with other destructive thunderstorms, some folks who experience these damaging winds insist that they really lived through a tornado. These winds come on suddenly, often going from a gentle breeze to a nightmarish windstorm within seconds, and can blow away anything not nailed down to the ground. Winds in a microburst can easily exceed 60 mph—but the strongest microbursts mimic the intensity of weak tornadoes, with winds peaking above 100 mph in some spots.

Microburst, circa 1980
Well-developed thunderstorm with microburst, circa 1980
NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Different parts of the United States are prone to different types of microbursts. A wet microburst occurs with heavy rain or hail; these are common in humid areas like the southeast. A dry microburst, on the other hand, isn't accompanied by any precipitation at all; blowing dust and debris at the surface is often the only indication one of these events is occurring. Dry microbursts are common in places where there's not much humidity, like higher elevations or the desert.

Microbursts form due to two factors: evaporation and the weight of rain and hail. Evaporation is a cooling process; when liquid water turns to water vapor, it absorbs heat and cools the air around it. If dry air starts to invade the environment in or around a thunderstorm, it can cause rain to evaporate and leave behind large sections of air that are suddenly cooler than their surroundings. This less dense air sinks toward the ground, falling faster and faster until impact. The weight of the rain and hail also contributes to the speed of a microburst. Water is heavy, and that weight plays a big role in dragging cool air down from a thunderstorm. The two processes combined help create microbursts.

The biggest danger posed by microbursts is their sudden, sneaky formation. Microbursts happened with almost no notice at all until just the last decade or two. You didn't know it was happening until it happened. This surprise downward burst of winds and resulting wind shear can be potentially lethal to aircraft that are taking off and landing during thunderstorms. Microbursts have contributed to numerous airplane crashes over the years, killing hundreds of people.

We've gotten much better at detecting microbursts. The prevalence of Doppler weather radar across the United States, including smaller radars installed near most major airports, allows meteorologists to give people on the ground and in airplanes a little bit of advance notice before a microburst occurs. Wind shear detection systems both on the ground and installed in aircraft have also helped tremendously when pilots are flying into nasty weather.

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What Do the Terms on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Mean?

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

There's a reason your parents used to scold you for not turning off a light when you left a room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American household uses up to 5 percent of their total energy expenditure on lighting. Living rooms get flooded with light. Dining rooms and dens are full of lighting accents. Motion lights, hallway lights, bathroom vanity lights, lamps—we like our lives to be nice and bright.

Fortunately, energy-saving lighting sources have largely replaced the conventional incandescent bulbs that once used up a substantial amount of power. Those bulbs heated up a coil, or filament, of tungsten wire that gave off light. Roughly 90 percent of the energy they passed on was in the form of heat, which siphoned off energy and kept utility bills inflated. Today's bulbs brighten without the waste. That's the good news. The bad? The varieties of bulbs can be confusing. If you've ever been lost in the fixtures section of the hardware store, here's a quick primer on what these terms mean.

Halogen Incandescent:

These are incandescent light bulbs that contain a halogen gas-filled capsule around the filament to help increase energy efficiency. While cheaper to operate than a conventional incandescent bulb—they use 25 to 30 percent less energy—they don't produce as much of a cost savings as other options. On the plus side, they reach full brightness immediately. Other choices may take time to warm up.

Compact Florescent Lamp (CFL):

When you see a coiled light bulb, it’s likely to be a CFL, which is simply a downsized version of the tubular florescent lighting seen in commercial spaces. Instead of an electric current traveling through a filament like in an incandescent bulb, the current goes through a tube containing argon and mercury vapor. The resulting ultraviolet light activates phosphor inside the tube, which emits light. It uses one-third of the energy of a halogen incandescent. The downside? They can take a little time to warm up, especially if used outdoors. They also contain mercury, a potential health hazard if the bulb breaks. (See the "mercury" entry below.)

Light Emitting Diode (LED):

This type of bulb uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. In addition to being energy-efficient, they usually last eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs and four to eight times longer than CFLs—perhaps as long as 18 to 46 years. You'll probably pay more up front, but the expense is offset by their durability. Most LEDs are compatible with dimming switches, too. Most CFLs aren't, so if that's important to you, you'll want to stick with LED.

Energy Star:

A bulb with an Energy Star label was evaluated by a third party to make sure its energy-saving claims are accurate, and they'll typically have a longer warranty than bulbs without the endorsement.

But what about the "nutritional label" style information box that appears on light bulb packaging? Let's take a closer look.

An example of a label that appears on energy-efficient light bulb packaging is pictured
Federal Trade Commission

Brightness:

You have probably inferred that brightness refers to the light output given off by a bulb. This is measured in lumens and rounded off to the nearest five. (A bulb will never be 822 lumens. It's 820.) The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. Since you're probably used to shopping by wattage, consider that a bulb with 800 lumens is roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent. A 1100 lumen bulb will resemble a 75-watt bulb.

Estimated Energy Cost:

This is a rough estimate of much it will cost an average household to operate the bulb. What's average? The wattage of the bulb is calculated with three hours of daily operation at a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt. Your actual cost will go up or down whether you use it more or less or pay your energy supplier a different amount.

Life:

This is how long the bulb is expected to last based on the same usage estimated for the energy cost and rounded to the nearest tenth of a year.

Light Appearance:

This refers to the color temperature of the bulb measured in Kelvin, a temperature scale measuring light color. The range is from 2600 K (yellow and warm) to 6600 K (blue and cool). Bright white is about 3500 K. You should probably avoid anything above 3000 K for any interior room.

Energy Used:

This is how much energy the bulb will require and is measured in watts. The lower the wattage, the cheaper it costs to operate. This is where the energy savings materializes, as a 10-watt LED bulb may give off as much light as an old 60-watt incandescent.

Color Rendering Index (CRI):

It's not on all bulb packaging, but if you see it, it refers to how accurate colors will appear under the bulb's light on a scale of 0 to 100. Halogen incandescent bulbs score high. CFLs and LEDs aren't quite as accurate, though they may still get the job done. Try to get a high CRI if you'll be using the bulbs in a bathroom, as skin tone can appear off with lower CRI numbers.

Mercury:

You might see some CFL bulb packaging with a mercury disclosure. This isn't an issue if the bulb remains intact, but if it breaks, it might release potentially hazardous mercury vapor and the introduce the very small possibility of mercury poisoning. Avoid using CFL bulbs in kids' rooms if there's potential for knocking over a lamp or light. Broken bulbs that contain mercury should be cleaned up by following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines—picked up with tape, not vacuumed—and disposed of properly. Old bulbs should be recycled.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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