From the ABC 7 Weather team

Archive for December 2011

Comet Lovejoy shows off its two 'tails' in Australia (VIDEO)

December 21, 2011 - 11:01 AM
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Comet Lovejoy, the cosmic kickball that last week amazed astronomers by escaping from the Sun, is doing a sort of flashy victory lap around the Earth. Skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere have spotted C/2011 W3, as it's known to its comet buddies, trailing a luminous dust plume across darkened skies.

Actually, it's more impressive than that: Lovejoy is rocking two so-called "tails." The first is a dust tail of particulate matter shedding off the comet's icy epidermis; this is the kind of dandruff that can later pass through the atmosphere as meteors. Lovejoy's exhaust pipe is also spraying out a gas tail composed of electrically conductive ions that glow in the blackness of space. The gas tail is magnetically active and is blown around like a windsock by waves of solar wind. Sometimes it is blown off entirely as was the case with Comet Encke in 2007. (There's also a third tail made of sodium, although we generally don't get to see it. Here's an example from Hale-Bopp.)

People in Australia have had a great shot at seeing Lovejoy tour our solar system just before the Sun rises. Below, find a wonderful time lapse taken by Colin Legg of Mandurah in southwest Australia. Says Legg: "Had a beautiful view of the comet this morning. I took this sequence to try to capture the changing face of the comet as twilight progressed."

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Strange rodlike cloud appears in the sky over Poland (VIDEO)

December 21, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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The forecast in Poland for Dec. 19, 2011, called for a strange, rod-shaped cloud with glowing edges to span the entire skybowl, like a massive airborne snake with a broom handle shoved up its GI tract. Or so I'd like to think after watching this footage of such a cloud over Rybnik, the origin of which is now the subject of much Internet Speculation.

Pardon the disco soundtrack; Poland just can't seem to help itself.

Some people think it's the plume from a rocket launch or satellite reentering the atmosphere. Others see a smoke track left by a large meteor. The chemtrail fanatics have their unorthodox views, of course. And there's always the possibility that the Eye of Sauron has sent out an incendiary death ray. Anybody feeling hot right now?

But you know what: This airy brushstroke is probably, no, almost definitely an airplane contrail, those tubes of jet exhaust that are slightly warming the weather around the planet. Look. You can even see a strobe light. The incandescent patches in the body of the trail are likely due to golden sunlight filtering through from the horizon.

Nice try, Europe. Stick to your alarming mushroom clouds in the future.

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NOAA's assessment of historic April 27th Tornado Outbreak

December 20, 2011 - 03:56 PM
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came out with an assessment on the April 27th Tornado Outbreak. There were some interesting findings, some of which I'll paste here to give you an idea of the Q & A. There were 122 tornadoes that day which killed 316 people and injured more than 2400. Damage surpasses $4 billion. The 77 page document goes over everything from the set up of the system to best practices in watches and warnings, to societal impacts.

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Unsettled pattern through Christmas Day for D.C., MD and VA

December 20, 2011 - 03:10 PM
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Five-day precipitation forecast from the HPC

First we have to worry about the remnants of a giant system that caused blizzard conditions in parts of the western Plains States the past few days.

Anyone miss February 2010? Because that's what that video reminds me of. No worries you snow haters, this will not bring any of the white stuff, or even cold temperatures to the D.C. area. If anything, this system will make for a damp but warm day in our region on Wednesday, with high temperatures around 15 degrees above normal. I would say enjoy the mild temperatures while they last, but it appears they WILL last! Highs Thursday should still hang around 60 degrees as an area of high pressure briefly hangs on around the region.

Why do I say briefly? Well a more potent system (for the East Coast) will traverse the D.C. area Thursday evening into Friday night, bringing with it the potential for some heavy rain. It appears this system may surpass an inch of total rainfall from Thursday night through Friday morning in some areas.

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Slippery stairs doom Russians to weeks of butthurt (VIDEO)

December 20, 2011 - 01:57 PM
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In the Machiavellian battle of Humanity V. Weather, the warfare is cruel and constantly evolving: Weather harnesses the power of a tropical storm to crush a parking garage full of cars, for example, while mankind pollutes river water until it turns the color of hog blood.

But sometimes the tactics are more subtle. Take this amateur film, presumably from Russia, showing lines of unassuming humans tottering and toppling on a slippery stairway landing. You can almost hear the pelvises fracturing. Why the videographer didn't warn these people is anybody's guess. Perhaps he just needed some really metal footage to dub a soundtrack to.

According to Russian news outlet E1, this video got the stairway designer into some trouble for the genius idea of laying a slab of granite where it snows. Here's part of the garbled Google translation:

Video, shot from the underpass on the street in Ekaterinburg Weiner, looked not only citizens, but the prosecutor's office. Clip in two minutes under the title "architect and contractor Debilizm" begins with the phrase "What happens if the underpass make a floor of polished granite?".

In the picture you can see how one after the other falling people. Can not stay on his feet nor adults nor children.

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WATCH: Low-flying planes at Maho Beach: Scariest vacation, ever

December 20, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Forget Gravelly Point: There's a beach in the Caribbean that's so close to an airport that bathers are literally blown into the ocean by jet engines.

Say hello to Maho Beach, located on the Dutch side of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the "smallest island in the world ever to have been partitioned between two different nations." (France claims the other half.) The stretch of crystal sand features 80-degree temperatures throughout the winter and is an ideal vacation spot if you are deaf and blind. If you have all your senses intact, however, the constant roaring of Airbuses flying into Princess Juliana International Airport might start to make you wish for Disney World.

This review of the ultimate "Aviation Vacation" posted at IGoUGo will give you an idea of how little relaxing is going on at Maho:

Float on your back in the warm Caribbean water while a 747 jumbo jet from Paris thunders less than 50 feet over your head. Experience a 150-mile-per-hour jet blast across your body as a plane takes off less than 50 feet in front of you! Sip cocktails at a beachside bar while watching people think that standing on a sandy beach during a 150-mile-per-hour jet blast is a good idea!!!

And another review clarifies the exquisite agony brought upon those who choose Maho for a weekend getaway. As the planes furiously crank their engines to make it off the short runway, they create a powerful current of superfast air that screams down to the beach, filling every orifice with sand:

Ever experienced 150 mile per hour winds? You will if you're standing at the fence or on the beach! It creates a big wave in the water which sends a wake a good half mile out into the sea.

Many people think it will be fun to stand on the beach and experience this jet blast, without thinking that with 150 mile per hour wind comes 150 mile per hour SAND. And thus, it is quite amusing to stand on the observation deck at La Terrasse, or at the Sunset Beach Bar right next to the beach, and watch the spectators line up for a 747 departure. Seconds later they all being shrieking in pain and alarm, and either dive to the ground or run for the water as the sand blasts into their skin. It's really funny! Take a camcorder. 

The reviewer goes on to say that the air whistles with turbulence a good 5 minutes after each plane has landed. I'm guessing the ringing in the ears doesn't stop until you're back in the United States... if ever.

Video follows the jump.

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Huge Midwest blizzard seen from space (PHOTO)

December 19, 2011 - 03:35 PM
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Here's hoping nobody is trying to fly into Oklahoma today for the holidays. An abominable blizzard is howling in the Midwest and Southern Plains, and places like northwest Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle stand to receive 12 to 16 inches of snow.

The list of current blizzard warnings is longer than a Microsoft end-user license agreement. Other states in the path of this monster include New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Mississippi, where there's a risk of severe thunderstorms. If you visit the National Weather Service's map of active warnings, you'll spot what looks like an angry Eye of Cthulhu glaring out from the center of the country. (Red = blizzards conditions.) By the time the storm moves out toward the Ohio Valley on Tuesday, a "stripe of roughly 12 inches of storm total snow" will likely paint the ground from New Mexico to Kansas.

Here's another shot of the system taken by GOES West:

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It snowed on Saturday in D.C., but how much? (MAP)

December 19, 2011 - 02:35 PM
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While walking in Crystal City on Saturday night, I caught a glimpse of a snowflake right before it smacked me in the face and melted. That seemed to be it for this nonproducer of an upper-level disturbance that passed over D.C. this weekend.

Or was it? Turns out that when you don't live at sea level your snow chances all of a sudden shoot up. Towns in the high plains and mountains got sprayed with a thick confetti of snow, which added up to 1 or even 1.5 inches on the ground.

For the 411 on who got what, check out the below accumulations list from the D.C./Baltimore office of the National Weather Service. Temperatures this week appear to remain above freezing, so while it does look like it'll be raining around Friday and Christmas Eve a White Christmas is still not in the outlook. But keep checking the latest ABC7 forecast for last-minute game changers on the W.C. front.

Here are the snow totals:

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First batch of Japanese tsunami debris reaches the U.S.

December 19, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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The first wave of debris from the March 2011 Japan tsunami, composed of large black buoys, has washed up in Washington State. Pictured: U.S. sailers help clear debris from the waters off Oshima Island one month after the disaster. (Eva Marie Ramsaran / Navy Visual News Service)

Last week, the StormWatch 7 blog covered a new model for predicting the movement of floating Japanese debris washed away by the March 2011 tsunami. U.S. researchers believed that the winter of 2011 was a likely time for the drifting horde to start arriving on American shores. Turns out they were spot-on: Large, charcoal-colored buoys have been spotted in Washington State that were likely once used by Japanese oyster farmers. Here's one:

tsunami debris buoy

That buoy shot comes from a presentation given recently by Jim Ingraham and Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, seafaring rubber-duckie expert and the brain behind exquisite niche periodical Beachcombers' Alert! Ebbesmeyer, speaking at Peninsula College (scroll down for the audio), noted that seven of the "strange black objects" had been found in the waters near Seattle and were likely ripped out of their moorings in Japan by the force of the Tohoku tsunami.

Now Japan would like them returned, please. According to the Japan Times:

One of the 1-meter-long polyethylene buoys bears the name of a Japanese producer. Yuuki Watanabe, a senior official in a fisheries cooperative association in Miyagi Prefecture, examined a photo of one of the buoys and confirmed it looks like the type commonly used in oyster cultivation in the Miyagi area.

"I'd like the buoys to be given back to us," Watanabe said.

The reason for that should be clear enough: One U.S. beachcomber's flotsam might be a treasured object to those in Japan who lost loved ones in the disaster. In his presentation, Ebbesmeyer actually gives a checklist for people who find such items, which includes treating the debris "as a crash scene," checking it for radioactivity (!) and notifying the likely owners in Japan. He also says that U.S. citizens should expect more unusual things to begin bobbing up in the Pacific in the months to come, including car tires, the wings of airplanes and – Jesus – "feet in sneakers." (At least West Coasters are used to the severed feet.)

Here's the whole slideshow from Ebbesmeyer's talk:

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WATCH: Japanese tsunami debris travels across the Pacific Ocean

December 16, 2011 - 02:49 PM
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After the tsunami rolled over Japan in March 2011, entire neighborhoods looked like they had been blown away by a gang of EF-5 tornadoes. The land was so barren that the horizons swept back to infinity, with foundations of buildings serving as the only indication of a previous civilization.

But what happened to all the stuff that used to be there?

The short answer is the heaviest objects sank close to shore as the wave pulled away. As to the debris that remained buoyant, well, the U.S. government is still trying to determine where it is.

And where it's heading. Scientists at NOAA's Marine Debris Program are doing a pretty good job of scouting out the paths of the massive debris cloud that has spread throughout the Pacific Ocean. Carried on the currents like the North Pacific Gyre, the horde of trash is slowly making the rounds of the ocean and will soon visit the United States. According to NOAA:

Right now, models tell us some debris could pass near or wash ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as early as this (2011/2012) winter (based on reported sightings of debris by the Russian ship STS Pallada (September 2011)), approach the West Coast of the United States in 2013, and circle back to Hawaii (main Hawaiian Islands) in 2014 to 2016.

You can see the garbage's shipping schedule in the above map, which is color-coded by year. It was created by a NOAA researcher named (no joke) J. Churnside using a modeling program called the Ocean Surface Current Simulator. FYI, if you're ever out sailing or walking the beach and happen to spot some ocean-faring debris, there's an app you can use to report it to government scientists. It's fun for the whole family!

Here's another, newer animated model depicting the likely dispersion of tsunami trash. NOAA’s Earths System Research Laboratory created it by drawing upon five years of historical weather patterns. You can see the blob of debris crawling like a thicket of snakes toward Puget Sound, heading down the California coast to Mexico and wandering back out to sea to loll around Hawaii's beaches. Then, in an unfun twist, some of it seems to return to Japan:

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Huge slabs of ice fall from 1,600-foot TV antenna (VIDEO)

December 16, 2011 - 01:21 PM
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When the weather begins to mimic the sights and sounds of the battlefield, it's probably time to step indoors.

This lesson was lost on the gawking onlookers in this Oklahoma parking lot after the terrible Midwest ice storms of 2007. The object of their fascination: a 1,600-foot-tall TV tower that is shaking off its thick coating of ice. The plummeting blocks, which resemble white T-beams, make a sick whistling noise not unlike mortars before they smack wetly into the pavement. Of course, that's when one guy decides to run out into the barrage for a closer look.

Still, the rubberneckers got away with no injuries and only major automobile damage, so in the end chalk up this win to Humanity. Says YouTube commenter FlyingC4r: "I can't wait for the michael bay sequel to this." (Note: This video has mild profanity.)

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The latest on our snow chances (IMAGES)

December 16, 2011 - 06:03 AM
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Continued from a previous blog:

The latest data points toward a cold rain briefly mixing with wet snowflakes mostly south of D.C. from roughly 5 P.M. to 1 A.M. It will be light and no snow accumulation is expected with the exception of some ridge tops along the Blue Ridge. In the higher elevations up to an inch is possible especially in Highland, Augusta and Nelson Counties.

 
Precipitation forecast

The best chance for this rain/mix is along and south of Hwy 3 in Virginia and in southern Maryland starting around 5 P.M. That said, it won't take much for this precipitation to clip the D.C. metro area, but it would just cause some reduced visibilities and wet roads for a brief period of time this evening. Even the rainfall totals should be slim with this weak system (0.01"-0.10").

As a side note, don't be surprised if you witness a few flurries early Sunday morning caused by a shot of upper level energy. Neither is a big deal, and my snow excitement factor remains very low at this time - even for the extended outlook.

The bigger story today is the dropping temperatures and gusty winds. We have already hit our high temperature for the day (DCA: 62 4:12 A.M.), and the cooler air will continue to spill into town throughout the morning and midday.

Expect readings in the 40s for the majority of our Friday with northwesterly gusts up to 35 mph. The weekend looks seasonable and partly cloudy with a slight chance of a few snow flurries very early Sunday morning.

 

 

Friday's Forecast

 


 

Weekend forecast

As always, you can follow my latest forecast and updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comet Lovejoy defies expectations by beating the Sun (VIDEO)

December 16, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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One of the brightest comets ever recorded in the modern age of optics, Comet Lovejoy, passed within a hair's width of the Sun's blistering surface last night. Whether it would survive with a significant loss of ice mass or would be blasted into a plume of gas by the ever-chugging solar furnace was an unresolved question. What was apparent, though, was that this comet is  special, a glowing military flare compared to the other candle-bright comets that buzz the Sun.

NASA has said that Lovejoy, also known as C/2011 W3, is the brightest comet ever observed by its Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, launched in 1995. That's because it's a real bloater in the astro-world, measuring as wide as two football fields. Most suicidal Sun-divers span only about 30 feet.

Lovejoy's bulk is giving it the ability to shine like a Saturn V moon rocket. Look at it flare up in this footage from Dec. 12, 2011:

comet lovejoy

And this is another short movie showing the effects that the Sun's forceful wind is having on Lovejoy's tail. The sense of overwhelming doom is palpable:

comet lovejoy

These videos were produced by Karl Battams, who helps NASA and the Naval Research Lab capture star-struck comets in their final throes of flaming ecstasy. Battams also runs the site Sungrazing Comets, required reading for anyone with a passing interest in huge objects crashing into each other. Here he is on Tuesday opining about Comet Lovejoy's "imminent destruction":

It's almost a little sad when you think about it: Originally as part of a much larger object, Comet Lovejoy has existed for billions of years, since the formation of the solar system. It has outlived countless species on Earth. Indeed, it existed before life on Earth! And now it will almost certainly be completely destroyed within 72hrs. That is a long time spent doing very little, to have such a short remaining time doing so much. But while it may have gone through most of its existence unnoticed, the same can certainly not be said now as increasing numbers of astronomers and enthusiasts alike are following its spectacular demise.

That is pure science poetry right there. But is there a chance that Lovejoy could overcome its brush with the baddest orb in the solar system?

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Snow possible in D.C. on Friday night - what are the odds?

December 15, 2011 - 11:11 PM
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5:45 A.M. Good morning, Adam Caskey here.  The latest data points towards a cold rain briefly mixing with wet snowflakes mostly south of D.C. from roughly 5 P.M. to 1 A.M. It will be light and no snow accumulation is expected with the exception of some ridge tops along the Blue Ridge.  Along the higher elevations of Highland, Augusta and Nelson Counties up to an inch is possible. The D.C. metro area could get clipped by this precipitation, but it would just cause some reduced visibilities and wet roads for a brief period of time this evening. Even the rainfall totals should be slim (0.01"-0.10"). As a side note, don't be surprised if you witness a few flurries early Sunday morning caused by a shot of upper level energy. Neither is a big deal, and my snow excitement factor remains very low (0.5 out of 10).

11:00 P.M.  Bob Ryan here. The trend is a bit more north so light mix Friday evening to Friday 3 a.m. There's now a 50 percent chance that the D.C. area could see flakes but no accumulation. Light rain is expected in southern Maryland. Flurries are possible Sunday with colder air coming in.

4:45 P.M.: Chad Merrill joins the fray:

I see a few sprinkles along I-66, mixed with a flurry or two from about 5 p.m. Friday to about 1 a.m. early Saturday morning. South of I-66 along the I-95 corridor could see up to 0.1 inches of rain. Places like Shenandoah, Va., and Charlottesville would stand the best chance at an inch of snow… Culpeper, Va., could get a dusting to a half inch. The highest peaks of the Blue Ridge could get 2 or 3 inches along that latitude (well south and west of D.C.).

It looks like a quick moving system that would stay south of the metro area, with the only snow chances falling in the extreme southwestern part of the D.C. area (where there could be a winter weather advisory issued for one or two counties). North of I-66 will be dry. Sunshine by sunrise. Snow melts by midday in the areas that get snow. Those are my thoughts on the early weekend weather hiccup.

3:15 P.M.: Here is ABC7's Devon Lucie giving his thoughts about Friday:

I’d give a 20 to 30 percent chance of light snow/flurries mainly south of D.C. The south metro area could see some of these flakes with little to no accumulations on grass and trees only. North metro probably doesn’t see a thing with northern Maryland even receiving a healthy dose of sun Friday.

UPDATE 2:40 P.M.: New intel from the ABC7 weather team has arrived. Here's the outlook from senior meteorologist Bob Ryan:

I think this storm will be a “sleeper.” If anything much happens it will be when we are sleeping Friday night. There is a 30 percent chance of some light snow/mix in the southern suburbs and southern Maryland, but right now everything I see and the weather ensembles indicate a “TOSOUTS” storm: To Our South Out Uneventful To Sea :>).

And meteorologist Chris Naille chimes in:

Cold air will be in place but there is not much moisture to work with, so even if we see some rain/snow there is no chance of it causing problems. Also, most of the weather guidance keeps the heart of this system to our south and only southern area have a slight chance of seeing some moisture.

ORIGINAL: This winter is being such an unimaginable wuss that it's hard to write this: There is a chance of snow in the D.C. region on Friday night. A slight one, but a chance nonetheless.

The temperature at Reagan National is currently 60 degrees. It's 61 at BWI. However, a cold front will be barreling down onto the Mid-Atlantic late tonight. People living on the far side of the Appalachians could even see some drifting flakes.

On Friday, cold air hissing into the 202 will chill things down to the lower 50s or upper 40s. A stalled front is expected to sprinkle light precipitation along the East Coast and, when night falls, a bit of it could freeze into snow. How likely is that? This morning, the local office of the National Weather Service gave it a one-in-five chance:

snow dc friday dec 16 2011

But! The NWS has just revised its forecast to omit even those crumby odds:

snow dc friday dec 16 2011

Over here at ABC7, meteorologist Alex Liggitt explains that the big Friday storm bullet is traversing to the south of D.C. That means that any snow that falls is likeliest to whiten the skies of southern suburbs, like Fredericksburg south Maryland. Liggitt thinks it's possible that the precipitation will take the form of a "wintry mix" of rain and flakes. No accumulations are expected. (Check out Liggitt's video discussion about Friday.)

And then D.C. will be back to its mild winter. Check out this map from NOAA – last month ranked as the twelfth warmest November on worldwide record, with D.C. in particular basking in heat:

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WATCH: The Geminid meteors in time lapse, from Joshua Tree

December 15, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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If you missed the Geminid meteor shower on Tuesday night, don't worry: This great time-lapse video from last year's display above the southern California desert is all you need to see.

Henry Jun Wah Lee, nature videographer and Physician of Chinese Medicine, recorded the footage while on a three-night camping trip in the Alabama Hills and Joshua Tree National Park. The latter park is a strange, almost unwelcoming place. The barren land is littered with creosote bushes that create waterless "dead zones" around themselves and (durr) Joshua trees, a spiky agave that can easily cause a blood-dripping head wound. Nineteenth-century explorer John Fremont called the dagger-wielding plants "the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom." However, he probably would've been more disgusted if he had put his foot into a big pile of "cryptobiotic crust," aka "desert glue," a hidden soil layer of microfungi and bacteria that spreads via tentaclelike fibers.

Into this bizarre landscape strides Henry J.W.L., with his ultrawide Canon lens and headlamp to catch 2010's final significant meteor shower. The Geminids are known for spraying fireballs all over the sky, and the Joshua tree footage does not disappoint. Henry says he spotted dozens flaming out per hour at the display's peak. Note that the slower-moving firelines in the sky are planes.

Says the cameraman:

Because I was filming the night sky, I slept on location while the camera was clicking away. It’s a magical feeling falling asleep with nothing over my head but the sky and the universe.

Seeing the meteors also got me thinking: there are no do-overs in life. Like a meteor that burns up while entering Earth’s atmosphere, there are no rewind buttons or undo commands to make up for missed opportunities, lost time, should-haves, could-haves, mistakes or regrets. Whether we like it or not life keeps moving with or without us.

Zen. You can watch the short film below, philosophically titled "Fleeting Light."

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Happy holidays from NOAA

December 14, 2011 - 02:15 PM
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OK, so you're going to hate this after about the first 15 seconds, but it is a little on the humorous side.

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Google Maps adds Japan tsunami destruction to 'Street View'

December 14, 2011 - 01:24 PM
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On Monday, Google unveiled its latest innovation, GoogleDisasterTour. Or so you might call the latest bundle of Google Maps "street view" images, which show the utter destruction of Japanese neighborhoods following the history-rocking March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The search giant had pledged earlier this year to document the aftermath of the catastrophe as a service to scientists and historians as well as the general public, who might not yet have comprehended the extent of the damage. Camera-toting vans chugged over 27,340 miles of northeast Japan, snapping 360-degree vistas of browned land that looks as if a colossal lawnmower had taken a whack at it. The images are also housed on a site called "Memories for the Future" (alternatively, "Build the Memory"), where you can switch between photos taken before and after the giant wave passed through. It's truly awful.

Here's what Google's Kei Kawai had to say about the project on the company's Lat Long blog:

A virtual tour via Street View profoundly illustrates how much these natural disasters have transformed these communities. If you start inland and venture out toward the coast, you’ll see the idyllic countryside change dramatically, becoming cluttered with mountains of rubble and debris as you get closer to the ocean. In the cities, buildings that once stood proud are now empty spaces.

In the bottom left corner of each image you’ll also see a month and year that tells you when a particular photograph was taken. When looking at images of the magnificent cities side-by-side with images of the ruins left in their place, this additional context demonstrates how truly life-changing this tragedy has been for those who live there and witnessed the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods and even entire districts.

So, are you ready to drive through the wastes? Let's go.

Here's what Watari, south of Sendai, looks like:

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The National Christmas Tree is weirdly misshapen (PHOTO)

December 14, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Seeing as this blog covered a weird-looking Christmas tree yesterday, here's another one, located right in front of the White House inside President's Park.

The tree in the photo above is the National Christmas Tree, the official U.S. TOTUS. It's not to be confused with the White House Christmas Tree, which arrives in the Blue Room each year as a gift from Christmas tree lobbyists competing for the president's attention (no joke). The nation's highest spruce outdid itself this year in environmental friendliness, using General Electric's LED lights to burn at just under 2,000 watts. It's the most energy-efficient tree of its kind in U.S. history.

But, uh, something is wrong here.

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2011 Geminid meteor shower peaks bigtime tonight, Dec. 13 - 14

December 13, 2011 - 02:25 PM
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Starting around 10 p.m. tonight, the constellation Gemini will erupt in a fiery outpouring of white-hot missiles that could number in the hundreds. It's the annual peak of the 2011 Geminid meteor shower, and NASA says that the astral firefight this year is likely to provide a "good show."

Plan on getting to a secluded neck of the woods far away from the mercury-and-halogen haze of the city. The time window runs from 10 p.m. to sunrise on Wednesday. The moon will be out and doing its thing spreading light all over the danged place, cutting down the number of visible meteors by about half. But the Geminids, which originate from Asteroid 3200 Phaethon rather than the standard comet, are ferocious enough to burn through the natural light pollution and into our retinas. There could be as many as 40 to 50 fireballs, or violently flaring meteors, screaming across the night sky each hour.

Despite the looming near-60 degree temperatures on Thursday, the nation technically has entered winter and the night lows will waver from the mid-20s to lower-30s. (Latest forecast.) So if you've bought a fur-lined Santa suit for the holidays, tonight would be a good time to test it out. A Thermos of adulterated coffee is also suggested.

Where to look? The Geminids can pop up anywhere in the sky, but there is one place from which you can expect them to spurt forth. That's slightly to the left of Gemini, above Cancer, as you can see in this sky map produced by NASA's Tony Phillips:

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WATCH: Using a frozen banana to hammer nails in Minnesota

December 13, 2011 - 01:22 PM
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Imagine this: You're out in the Minnesota wilderness, shivering in -10 degree temperatures. You must make a shelter or perish in the cold. Timberwolves start howling in the distance. Or maybe they're moose, which is bad, because you have a deathly fear of moose.

There are plenty of sturdy branches lying around for you to fashion into some kind of lean-to. Randomly enough, you happen to have brought a couple boxes of nails on this expedition. But no hammer. Maybe you should use your forehead to whack those nails instead....

But that didn't work out too well the last time this happened. Thinking twice, you recall that you packed a banana in your survival kit. Pulling out the dolphin-shaped golden fruit, you note that the terrible cold of the American North has frozen it to the hardness of diamond. Could you use this seedless wonder to hammer those nails?

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