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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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.

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

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