We Have a Week of Wild Weather Ahead of Us

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iStock

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.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

Astronomers Want Your Help Naming the Largest Unnamed Dwarf Planet in the Universe

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iStock.com/jgroup

Part of the fun of becoming involved in science is naming things. Entomologists are notorious for branding new species of insects with fanciful names, like the Star Wars fans who labeled apoid wasps Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda. Sometimes scientists invite the public’s opinion, as in the 2016 petition by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to have internet users name a polar research ship. They dubbed it Boaty McBoatFace. (That choice was overruled, and the ship is now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.)

Now, astronomers are looking to outsource the name of a dwarf planet. But the catch is that there’s no write-in ballot.

The planet, currently known as (225088) 2007 OR10, was discovered in 2007 in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and may have a rocky, icy surface with a reddish tint due to methane present in the ice. It's bigger than two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt—Haumea and Makemake—but smaller than Pluto and Eris.

The three astronomers involved in its identification—Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California—are set to submit possible names for the dwarf planet to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). They’ve narrowed the choices down to the following: Gongong, Holle, and Vili.

Gonggong, a Mandarin word, references a Chinese water god who is reputed to have visited floods upon the Earth. Holle is a German fairy tale character with Yuletide connotations, and Vili is a Nordic deity who defeated a frost giant.

The team is accepting votes on the planet’s website through 2:59 EDT on May 11. The winning name will be passed on to the IAU for final consideration.

[h/t Geek.com]

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