The Latest on Hurricane Irma

Florida is on alert ahead of Hurricane Irma's arrival this weekend. Residents across almost the entire state are evacuating and preparing for one of the worst storms to threaten in years. Hurricane Irma is still a high-end category 4 storm with destructive 155 mph winds. The storm has been remarkably resilient so far, maintaining its intensity for longer than just about any hurricane we've ever seen in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm will tear through parts of Cuba and the Bahamas before making landfall in southern Florida on Sunday. It's already knocked out power in Puerto Rico and savaged several Caribbean islands, including Barbuda, Antigua, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center shows a hurricane that's been disrupted by its interaction with Cuba and smaller islands nearby, but they're not disrupting it enough to spare Florida from a very strong hurricane. The storm is still teetering on scale-topping category 5 intensity, and it's got plenty of very warm water to trudge through before it makes it to the United States. Meteorologists expect the storm to reach land on Sunday morning with maximum winds greater than 140 mph and slowly track up the entire length of the state before heading into Georgia and beyond.

Hurricane Irma’s forecast track as of 2 PM EDT September 8, 2017.
Hurricane Irma’s forecast track as of 2 PM EDT September 8, 2017.

This is a large hurricane that will have far-reaching impacts. Hurricane force winds currently extend 70 miles away from the center of the storm and tropical storm force winds extend 185 miles from the middle of the eye. Florida is only about 135 miles wide at its widest point, so this storm will easily engulf every part of the state outside of the panhandle. The greatest wind threat exists for the Florida Keys and communities that find themselves under the hurricane's northeastern eyewall. Although the worst conditions will depend on exactly where the hurricane makes landfall, the storm's sheer size ensures that the entire state will feel its full effects.

Irma's track up the entire state is unusual. Many hurricanes hit Florida's Atlantic or Gulf coasts and cross over land, exposing a smaller number of towns and people to strong winds. This hurricane will do what we feared Hurricane Matthew would do last year, but luckily didn't; by following the entire length of the peninsula, Irma will expose tens of millions of people to potentially life-threatening weather conditions in the 36 hours following landfall.

The storm's impacts aren't limited to Florida. Irma will slowly weaken as it travels up the Florida peninsula, but it will still produce strong winds and heavy rain across Georgia, the Carolinas, and parts of the interior southeast through early next week. Heavy rain could lead to flash flooding in some low-lying areas, and the rain will soften the soil and make it easier for winds to topple trees and power lines.

Hurricane Irma has been a weather forecasting success story. We've been following the wave that would become Irma since the middle of August, before it even emerged off the coast of Africa. The storm quickly cranked up in the eastern Atlantic, and we've watched it steadily make its way toward the United States over the past two weeks. Residents in the path of the storm have had ample time to prepare, and it seems to be paying off.

Highways started filling up with evacuees earlier this week, and just about everything is closed. Walt Disney World will close its parks early on Saturday and remain closed on Sunday and Monday—something that's happened fewer than a dozen times in the resort's five decades in operation. Most flights to and from Florida airports will be cancelled ahead of the storm. All schools in the state are closed through Monday.

The preparations leading up to this storm are proof that weather forecasting has made huge improvements over the past couple of decades, and that people in the path of the storm are actually heeding the warnings. The long lead-up to this storm will hopefully limit the number of people hurt once it makes landfall, which is always the ultimate goal of forecasting disasters as great as Hurricane Irma.

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.

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]

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