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Why Did We Just Have a Spring-Like Tornado Outbreak?

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Jay Paul/Getty Images
The remains of a house in Waverly, Virginia, where three people—two men and a child—were killed when a tornado tore through the structure earlier this week. 

The United States is always smack in the middle of some of the most dynamic weather in the world, and conditions this week are living up to that truth. A sprawling storm that covered almost the entire eastern half of the country produced just about every type of weather imaginable this week, including blizzard conditions near Chicago and deadly tornadoes in the southeast.

A snowstorm in the winter is hardly noteworthy, but why are we seeing a spring-like tornado outbreak in February?


Severe weather reports between 7:00 PM EST February 23, 2016, and 1:00 PM EST February 25, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

By Wednesday evening, the Storm Prediction Center had received 65 reports of tornadoes across eight states from Texas to Virginia, along with hundreds of reports of winds in excess of 60 mph. Severe thunderstorms even reached as far north as New England, where temperatures climbed into the 60s as a warm front passed through. The storms killed at least seven people, with many more injuries as a result of the tornadoes and damaging winds. Some of the tornadoes were particularly strong, causing extensive damage to towns small and large. One of the tornadoes moved through Pensacola, Florida, on Tuesday, receiving an EF-3 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale after meteorologists used the damage there to estimate that winds gusted to at least 155 mph.

Our active weather is the result of a substantial low-pressure system that formed in just the right spot to cause millions of headaches. The system began its life in Texas, growing into a formidable force that measured more than a thousand miles across and extended its reach from the Gulf of Mexico up through interior parts of Canada. Even though it’s winter, when you have a storm that large in our part of the world, it’s bound to cause issues no matter when it forms.


The weather radar on Wednesday evening showed the low-pressure system pinwheeling near the Great Lakes, producing snow in the Midwest and violent thunderstorms along the East Coast. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

The intensifying low-pressure system dragged warm, humid air north from typically tropical areas and provided the soupy, unstable air mass that thunderstorms need to fuel their ferocity. The high winds through the atmosphere also helped the thunderstorms develop and organize into the intense troublemakers they became.

If you experienced this system, you know that the winds were just ripping on Tuesday and Wednesday. The stiff southerly breeze at the surface veered clockwise with height, blowing even stronger from the west tens of thousands of feet above the surface. This vertical twisting of the winds allows thunderstorms that develop to begin rotating, sometimes leading to tornadoes. Stronger instability and stronger wind shear can foster stronger tornadoes, and that’s what we saw this week.

The storm is a reminder that we’re approaching the time of the year where violent thunderstorms will become more common than heavy snow and ice. A tornado outbreak during the winter isn’t common, but it’s also not unprecedented. We’re so used to hearing about “tornado season” that we forget that tornadoes are possible any time of the year—they’re just more common in certain spots during different seasons. The traditional tornado season runs from late March through late June, affecting what’s known as Dixie Alley (think Alabama and Mississippi) first in March and April, with the threat shifting to the central Plains (states like Oklahoma and Kansas) in May and June.


A map of all documented tornadoes that touched down during the month of February between 1950 and 2014. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

Many of the recent tornadoes occurred along the northern Gulf Coast, which is about where you would expect them to happen in February. The majority of tornadoes we’ve seen during the second month of the year have touched down along and east of the Mississippi River. However, it was very unusual to see such an intense severe weather outbreak in the Mid-Atlantic. Virginia has only recorded about a dozen tornadoes in February between 1950 and 2014, none of which would be considered strong. The region saw numerous tornadoes during this outbreak, not to mention hundreds of reports of wind damage as far north as Maine, which is a feat that’s hard to accomplish even during springtime outbreaks.

Despite the unusual nature of this early tornado outbreak, take some comfort in the knowledge that it’s probably not an omen of the year to come. Tornadoes require so many dynamic forces to come together just right that it’s hard to predict more than a week ahead of time whether or not they’ll form at all. Regardless of whether a season is quiet or active, every tornado is dangerous if it’s coming toward you. Always pay attention, and always have a plan.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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iStock

Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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