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Jay Paul/Getty Images
Jay Paul/Getty Images

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

Jay Paul/Getty Images
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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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iStock
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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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