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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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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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