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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Airlines have one of their best years for arriving on time

The nation's largest airlines ended 2011 with one of their best records for getting passengers and their bags to their destinations on time.

A Hawaiian Airlines jet sits at Oakland International Airport on April 8, 2011. By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY

A Hawaiian Airlines jet sits at Oakland International Airport on April 8, 2011.

By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY

A Hawaiian Airlines jet sits at Oakland International Airport on April 8, 2011.

Data released Tuesday by the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics on the 16 biggest U.S. airlines show that:

•Nearly eight in 10 flights, 79.6%, arrived at gates within 15 minutes of their scheduled time during 2011. That's down slightly from 79.8% the previous year, but still the fourth highest for any year in the 17 years with comparable numbers.

•Airlines had their best December in 17 years. Flights arrived on time 84.4% of the time, and 0.8% of flights were canceled. In December 2010, 72% of flights were on time, and 3.7% were canceled.

•There was less chance that bags went awry, with 99.7% of fliers getting bags on time. Overall, the rate of mishandled baggage fell to the lowest on record in 2011, falling to 3.39 per 1,000 passengers from 3.51 the previous year.

•Fewer passengers were bumped from their flights last year. The rate for bumping passengers was 0.81 per 10,000 passengers, down from the 1.09 rate in 2010. That's the lowest since 2002.

Despite the performance, the Transportation Department got 3% more complaints against U.S. airlines in 2011 than the year before. Fliers lodged 9,425 complaints about service, which some analysts attribute to fewer flights and more crowded planes.

Crowded planes can mean greater competition for storing carry-on luggage or passengers having to pay extra fees to check their bags.

"Since you have fewer flights, the flights going out have much higher load factors than people are used to," says Addison Schonland, partner in AirInsight.com, which tracks the airline industry. "Everything is more constrained."

December is typically full of delays and cancellations because of weather and a high number of fliers. But it was calm by most standards. Winter weather was milder, and there were fewer service complaints than the year before.

Aware of the damage flight disruptions can do to their reputations, airlines have stepped up efforts to improve performance. Delta, for instance, went from eighth-most-on-time airline in 2010 to third last year, thanks to improved customer service training, expanded maintenance stations at key airports and updated technology, the airline says.

But flight cutbacks because fewer are traveling may have contributed to fewer delays, analysts say. "The air-traffic control system was busting at the seams in 2005 and 2006," says Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com. "It's sort of like having tollways with 90% the previous traffic. You are going to have fewer traffic jams."

No domestic flights stayed on tarmacs longer than three hours in December, and no international flight stayed on the tarmac for more than four hours. Federal law prohibits airlines from keeping passengers in planes on tarmacs for longer than that, which some analysts say makes airlines more likely to cancel flights. Year over year, flight cancellations were up slightly in 2011.

At the same time, fewer passengers were bumped from their flights last year. The rate for bumping passengers was 0.81 per 10,000 passengers, down from the 1.09 rate in 2010.

In December, the airlines with the best on-time performance were AirTran Airways, which is merging with Southwest Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, which benefits from favorable weather, and Delta. The carriers with the worst were Frontier Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Continental Airlines, which is merging with United Airlines.

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Weather pattern could fuel more Ala. tornadoes

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) – This isn't a tornado warning, nor is the siren about to go screaming across the Tennessee Valley.

A tornado roars through Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011. Dusty Compton, AP

A tornado roars through Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011.

Dusty Compton, AP

A tornado roars through Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011.

But the potential and the indicators are in place to make the upcoming spring tornado season a rocky one to ride out.

This follows a storm season in 2011 that saw several killer tornadoes lash Alabama.

John Christy, the state climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, cited the presence of the La Niña weather pattern as a cause for tornado apprehension this spring.

"In a La Niña type year, we tend to have more of these types of experiences with the trailing cold front creating the opportunity for those specific ingredients to provide the high contrast between cold and warm," Christy said.

"We are still in La Niña pattern. The long-range forecast for the spring is for warmer than usual. So that sets up an opportunity for a contrast along the way for these ingredients to come together."

If it happens, Kevin Knupp will be ready. A professor of atmospheric sciences at UAH who studies tornadoes, Knupp is working on research about the influence gravity waves have on tornadoes.

Knupp compared the gravity waves to the way water moves across a lake. As the gravity waves encounter a potential tornado, it can enhance the likelihood of a twister developing, according to Knupp's theory.

"When the waves intersect the storm, oftentimes - not always but most of the time - there is a response from the storm," Knupp said. "If there is an existing circulation, it intensifies that existing circulation there and if there is no tornado genesis, the formation of a tornado can occur at that time."

Watching gravity waves -- which is easier in a humid climate like Alabama -- can aid forecasters in identifying tornadoes. Knupp said the National Weather Service in Huntsville was already using gravity waves among its tools for distinguishing tornadoes.

"We can be more specific on when and where it might form," said Knupp, who is also studying the impact topography has on the intensity of tornadoes. "We want to do that because the false alarm rate on tornado warnings has been so high in this area."

So what's on the horizon for the Tennessee Valley as prime tornado season approaches in March and April?

"From a historical standpoint, Alabama gets about 60 tornadoes a year," Christy said. "Most of them come in the spring. So by any standard measure, you should be ready for something to happen this spring.

"With the way the global atmosphere circulation is set up (with the La Niña pattern), there is a bit more chance that number will be higher than average this spring."

The La Niña pattern, Christy and Knupp said, brings cold air from the Pacific Ocean into close proximity with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. Christy described it as an "opportunity" for the two air masses to "collide" over Alabama and that's when the atmosphere becomes unstable.

But Christy downplayed any seeming increase in tornadoes in recent years.

"We still have just as many tornadoes as we've ever had," he said. "We just put more stuff in their way to hit. So the damage from tornadoes will just continue to rise."

Of course, weather experts are loathe to look farther into the future than absolutely necessary. But history, in a sense, can be a crystal ball with a peek at what's to come.

"If it happened before, it'll happen again and probably worse," Christy said. "That's my general rule of climate."

Said Knupp, "I remember that word for word and that's what I tell my students."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to letters@usatoday.com. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.

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Winter in America: Bemidji, Minn.

George Brook took this shot of a barn surrounded by frost near Bemidji, Minn.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Recent extreme weather affected 80% of Americans

Violent and deadly weather events have affected more than 240 million Americans — about 80% of the nation's population — over the past six years, says a report out today from an environmental advocacy group.

An SUV attempts to cross a flooded section of Route 9 on Aug. 28 in Cortlandt, N.Y. Hurricane Irene dropped record-breaking amounts of rain in the lower Hudson Valley. By Joe Larese, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

An SUV attempts to cross a flooded section of Route 9 on Aug. 28 in Cortlandt, N.Y. Hurricane Irene dropped record-breaking amounts of rain in the lower Hudson Valley.

By Joe Larese, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

An SUV attempts to cross a flooded section of Route 9 on Aug. 28 in Cortlandt, N.Y. Hurricane Irene dropped record-breaking amounts of rain in the lower Hudson Valley.

Last year was particularly awful for weather in the USA, with at least 14 weather and climate disasters across the nation that each inflicted more than $1 billion in damage. They included a series of devastating tornado outbreaks in the central and southern USA, the ongoing drought in the southern Plains, massive river flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and batterings from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

Environment America's report looks broadly at county-level weather-related disaster declarations from FEMA for 2006 through 2011 to find out how many Americans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The report focused on weather and climate events, and did not include geological events such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

"I think their analysis of the FEMA data is correct," said meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, who was not part of the report.

Whether directly tied to climate change or not, The number of Americans impacted by weather calamities in recent years is sobering:

•From 2006 to 2011, federally declared weather-related disasters have occurred in 2,466 of the 3,068 counties, parishes or boroughs across the USA.

•During that time, weather-related disasters have been declared in every U.S. state except South Carolina.

•Also during this period, weather-related disasters affected every county in 18 states.

If climate change is helping to fuel some of these disasters, as Environment America claims in the report, the group argues the onslaught of catastrophes could become the norm in decades to come.

"Global warming increases the likelihood" of more extreme weather, said Nathan Willcox, Environment America's federal global warming program director.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last November also reported that disasters such as heat waves, floods and other weather events will likely worsen with global warming.

"Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now," says Willcox. The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal — and the resulting release of excess amounts of carbon dioxide — is what's most scientists say is causing global warming. Reducing the output of these "greenhouse" gases is the goal of most environmental groups.

Masters said the report does an "excellent job" highlighting the impacts of climate change on extreme weather.

But connecting specific extreme weather events with climate change is a slippery slope, counters Kristen Averyt, a scientist with the University of Colorado, who was also not part of the report. "Extreme events like the Texas drought are consistent with what we expect in a warmer world, but determining whether climate change caused or exacerbated a specific event is not easy.

"The answers are not just about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions — they're also about adaptation to events and reducing our vulnerabilities," she says.

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Hundreds of dolphins stranded on Cape Cod

In the last month, 177 dolphins have been stranded on Cape Cod beaches, but researchers are at a loss to explain what's driving the dolphins into shallow muddy waters in record numbers.

So far, 124 dolphins have died, the Associated Press reports.

One group of 11 dolphins turned up in a remote inlet down Wellfleet's Herring River, were they have become stranded in grayish-brown muck that is hard for rescuers to reach, the AP reports.

One of the dolphins has already died, but the other 10 appeared healthy as they struggled to get free this week.

Rescuers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wearing orange vests and waders, carried dolphins in slings out to deeper water and tried to herd them in the right direction, the AP says.

Along the 35-mile stretch of the Cape's interior coastline from Barnstable to Wellfleet, WHDH TV notes, the difference between the rise and fall of the tide can be as much as 13 feet. Dolphins arrive in what looks like safe water, but are quickly trapped as the tide rushes out.

"Once they're in the bay they can't always find their way out and we think that's a big part of it," Katie Moore of the IFAW tells WHDH.

Researchers are mystified as to why five times as many dolphins as usual have been stranded on Cape Cod this year. Theories range from changes in weather, water temperature or behavior of the dolphins' prey.


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Storm to drench the South, may bring snow to Mid-Atlantic

While the Southeast gets a much-needed soaking from a rainstorm Saturday, that same storm could potentially move up the East Coast and bring some wet snow to portions of the Mid-Atlantic on Sunday.

A bike rider makes his way along a snow-covered road on Wednesday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While snow is forecast in parts of the Northwest and mid-Atlantic this weekend, the Southwest should stay dry. By Clyde Mueller, AP

A bike rider makes his way along a snow-covered road on Wednesday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While snow is forecast in parts of the Northwest and mid-Atlantic this weekend, the Southwest should stay dry.

By Clyde Mueller, AP

A bike rider makes his way along a snow-covered road on Wednesday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While snow is forecast in parts of the Northwest and mid-Atlantic this weekend, the Southwest should stay dry.

Soggy South: Although outdoor plans will be ruined this weekend from Texas to the Carolinas, the rain and thunderstorms should be welcome across the drought-plagued region.

About 1 to 2 inches of rain — with some spots picking up as much as 4 inches — will fall from the central Gulf Coast to southern Alabama, southern Georgia, northern Florida and the Carolinas. Some of the thunderstorms could be severe near the coast.

Snowy Sunday: That same storm should make a left turn and move up the East Coast, but not before bringing still more rain Sunday to Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and southern Virginia.

Sloppy, wet snow could fall in the Appalachians and parts of the Mid-Atlantic states on Sunday.

The heaviest snow is likely in the West Virginia, Virginia, and eastern Kentucky mountains. In the big cities, Washington and Baltimore could see from 1-3 inches of snow, while Philadelphia only receives about an inch, if any.

Northwest mess: Coastal and valley rain and heavy mountain snow will make for a dreary weekend in the Pacific Northwest. Snow is also likely in the central Rockies on Sunday.

Dry elsewhere: Most of the central and southwestern USA will stay dry this weekend. There will be warmer-than-average temperatures in the upper Midwest.

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Snow, ice bury the Balkans

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) – Snow as deep as 15 feet isolated areas in Romania, Moldova and Albania on Tuesday and turned a power plant in Kosovo into a park of dazzling ice sculptures.

A woman shovels the snow from the entrance of her house in Glodeanu Silistea village, 60 miles east of Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday. By Daniel Mihailescu, AFP/Getty Images

A woman shovels the snow from the entrance of her house in Glodeanu Silistea village, 60 miles east of Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday.

By Daniel Mihailescu, AFP/Getty Images

A woman shovels the snow from the entrance of her house in Glodeanu Silistea village, 60 miles east of Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday.

In a winter harsher than many can remember, energy workers struggled mightily Tuesday to break the ice that has encapsulated Kosovo's main power station in Obilic. Steam from the plant's vents coated its pipes and buildings with ice and snow, turning them into unworldly, unrecognizable objects of art.

Since the end of January, Eastern Europe has been pummeled by a record-breaking cold snap and the heaviest snowfalls in recent memory. Hundreds of people, many of them homeless, have died in the frigid weather and tens of thousands have been snowed in.

Authorities have been forced to use helicopters and army trucks to deliver food and medicine and to help the sick reach hospitals.

About 4,000 Romanian coal miners volunteered Tuesday to buy tins of food from the money the company gives them for hot meals and donate that to the worst-affected snow victims in eastern Romania.

Officials said five Romanians died in the past 24 hours due to the cold, bringing the total to 79 weather-related deaths. Neighboring Moldova also has been hard hit by snow, and both countries have seen schools, borders, highways and train services shut down in some areas as temperatures plunged to -9 degrees F overnight.

The Romanian rail network CFR canceled 413 trains due to heavy snow on the lines.

Albania, meanwhile, has declared a state of emergency in the worst-affected areas. Army trucks and helicopters brought food and medicine to 250,000 Albanians who were isolated in their villages by deep snow, which has also caused power outages and feed shortages for farm animals like cows and sheep.

The roofs of about two dozen houses, including that of a 300-year-old church in southeastern Albania, collapsed under the weight of the snow, but no injuries were reported.

In Bulgaria, the soccer federation postponed the restart of the domestic league nearly a month, from Feb. 24 to March 20, because of the exceptionally cold weather and heavy snow.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to letters@usatoday.com. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.

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Winter in America: Bryce Canyon, Utah

Danny Kean, traveling pianist and photographer, took this shot while heading south through Bryce Canyon, Utah, with Piano Dog Mo.

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Winter in America: Elkhorn, Neb.

Here's how Jeannie Runty, the photographer, describes this winter scene:

This is looking out my kitchen window in Skyline Ranches, Elkhorn Neb. We've lived here 30 years. We raised our children in this kitchen and now have 5 grandchildren age 6 and under crawling around here. Most days I sit at my desk, and watch the seasons float by, with all their lovely colors!!!!!!! Very blessed to enjoy God's handywork all around us!!!!!!

Please send us a winter photo from your area. We'll select the best to appear in On Deadline.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hurricanes pose risk to offshore wind farms

When an oncoming hurricane curves offshore — as most do — we usually breathe a sigh of relief. But soon, those offshore storms might give us something more to worry about.

Windmills in the North Sea, off of the village of Blavandshuk near Esbjerg, Denmark. By Heribert Proeppe, AP file

Windmills in the North Sea, off of the village of Blavandshuk near Esbjerg, Denmark.

By Heribert Proeppe, AP file

Windmills in the North Sea, off of the village of Blavandshuk near Esbjerg, Denmark.

Offshore hurricanes could demolish half the turbines in proposed wind farms just off the USA's coastlines, according to a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We find that hurricanes pose a significant risk to wind turbines off the U.S. Gulf and East coasts, even if they are designed to the most stringent current standard," the authors from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh write.

Engineer Stephen Rose and colleagues conducted the study in response to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Energy, which said that wind energy should ideally provide one-fifth of all electricity in the USA by 2030. The engineers estimated that over a 20-year span many turbine towers would buckle in wind farms enduring hurricane-force winds off the coasts of four states — Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas — where offshore wind-farm projects are now under consideration.

Despite their record of death and destruction in the USA, 75% of all Atlantic basin hurricanes remain offshore and do not hit land, according to Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Wind turbines are vulnerable to hurricanes because the maximum wind speeds in those storms can exceed the current design limits of wind turbines, according to the study.

Failures can include loss of blades and buckling of the supporting tower.

The research incorporated the current construction standards for the turbines, reports Rose. "Our study assumed wind turbine design for the current standards, with a maximum sustained wind speed of 111 mph near the top of the turbine, about 90 meters (about 300 feet) above the surface. This is the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane," he says.

The study had to use computer models to simulate hurricanes' effect on the wind turbines, as no offshore wind turbines have yet been built in the USA (although there are 20 offshore wind projects in various stages of planning).

However, turbine tower buckling has occurred in typhoons in the Pacific. Hurricanes are the same type of storms as typhoons.

Of the four locations examined in the study, offshore of Galveston County, Texas, is the riskiest location to build a wind farm, followed by the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Atlantic City and Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

"Galveston was the riskiest because it gets hit by hurricanes the most frequently," says Rose.

The damage caused by Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes is important for offshore wind development in the USA, the study notes, because every state on the Gulf of Mexico coast and nine of the 14 states on the Atlantic Coast have been struck by a Category 3 or higher hurricane from 1856 through 2008.

"As you get to Categories 3, 4, 5 — that's where the risks are," says Rose. "The intense hurricanes pose the most risk."

However, damage could be greatly reduced by building the farms in lower-risk areas and boosting the abilities of turbines to withstand higher winds.

This would "greatly enhance the probability that offshore wind can help to meet the United States' electricity needs," according to the study.

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Military planes fly food into snowbound towns

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) – Military planes flew in tons of emergency food Monday to towns and villages in eastern Romania where thousands have been stranded by blizzards. Some people had to cut tunnels through 15 feet of snow to get out of their homes.

A man rides an ATV vehicle to clean up the snow in a park in Bucharest on February 13. 74 people were reported to have died in Romania as new snowfall has caused disruption in the south. By Daniel Mihailescu, AFP/Getty Images

A man rides an ATV vehicle to clean up the snow in a park in Bucharest on February 13. 74 people were reported to have died in Romania as new snowfall has caused disruption in the south.

By Daniel Mihailescu, AFP/Getty Images

A man rides an ATV vehicle to clean up the snow in a park in Bucharest on February 13. 74 people were reported to have died in Romania as new snowfall has caused disruption in the south.

Since the end of January, Eastern Europe has been pummeled by a record-breaking cold snap and the heaviest snowfall in recent memory. Hundreds of people, many of them homeless, have died and tens of thousands of others have been trapped by blocked roads inside homes with little heat.

Authorities declared an alert Monday in eastern Romania, where 6,000 people have been cut off for days. About a dozen major roads were closed, 300 trains canceled and more than 1,000 schools shut down.

In addition to the food flights, the defense ministry said 8,000 soldiers were clearing roads across Romania and helping people trapped by the snow.

The airport in the southern city of Craiova was closed after a plane with 48 people on board skidded during takeoff Monday into a pile of snow, breaking its propellers. A female passenger broke her leg after she jumped from the plane.

A tugboat on the Danube river, one of Europe's key waterways, was breaking up ice between the Romanian ports of Sulina and Tulcea in eastern Romania. The boat was also bringing food to remote communities in the Danube Delta, where supplies have been affected after 440 miles of the river froze over last week in Romania alone. The Danube winds 1,785 miles through nine European countries to the Black Sea.

In Serbia, tens of thousands are still stranded by the snow, while schools and most businesses remained idle for the second week due to emergency measures to save energy.

An avalanche hit western Serbia late Sunday near the artificial lake of Perucac, sweeping away a man as his wife and child waited in the car nearby. Rescuers say divers will look for the man in the lake.

Emergency officials also plan to use helicopters to pull out sailors stuck on stranded boats on the Danube near the Serbian town of Smederevo, as well as to deliver food to a Danube island near Pancevo, north of the capital of Belgrade.

In Montenegro, helicopters helped evacuate some 50 passengers stranded for three days on a train that was blocked by an avalanche.

Rescuers in southern Kosovo over the weekend pulled a 5-year-old girl alive from the rubble of a house flattened by a massive avalanche that killed both her parents and at least seven of her relatives. Her home in the remote mountain village of Restelica was buried under 33 feet of snow.

In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the roof of the Grbavica stadium partially collapsed Monday under the weight of heavy snow but no one was injured. It was the second stadium roof collapse in Sarajevo in as many days, following one at the nearby Skenderija sports stadium that hosted ice skating at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Bosnia has been paralyzed with record snowfall for over a week. Temperatures as low as minus 22 Celsius have made it difficult to clear the snow.

North of Paris, icebreakers made their way through the frozen Canal St. Denis.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to letters@usatoday.com. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.

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Scientists a step closer to predicting tornadoes

For decades, meteorologists have been able to forecast the severity of hurricane seasons several months ahead of time. Yet forecasting the likelihood of a bad tornado season has proved a far greater challenge.

Brenna Burzinski looks through the rubble in her devastated apartment in Joplin, Mo., on May 25. By Charlie Riedel, AP

Brenna Burzinski looks through the rubble in her devastated apartment in Joplin, Mo., on May 25.

By Charlie Riedel, AP

Brenna Burzinski looks through the rubble in her devastated apartment in Joplin, Mo., on May 25.

Now, research from scientists at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society could eventually lead to the first seasonal tornado outlooks.

"Understanding how climate shapes tornado activity makes forecasts and projections possible, and allows us to look into the past and understand what happened," said Michael Tippett, lead author of a study in February's journal of Geophysical Research Letters.

The need for such data is reinforced by the still-fresh memory of 550 Americans killed by tornadoes last year — coupled with an unusually violent January for twisters.

In the study, Tippett and his team looked at 30 years of past climate data. They used computer models to determine that the two weather factors most tied to active tornado months and seasons were heavy rain from thunderstorms and extreme wind shear (wind blowing from different directions at different layers of the atmosphere).

"If, in March, we can predict average thunderstorm rainfall and wind shear for April, then we can infer April tornado activity," Tippett says.

The method worked for each month except for September and October, and it worked best in June.

This is the first time a forecast of up to a month in advance has been demonstrated, he says.

"A connection between La Niña and spring tornado activity is often mentioned," Tippett says, "but such a connection really has not been demonstrated in the historical data and hasn't been shown to provide a basis for a skillful tornado activity forecast.

"Our work bridges the gap between what the current technology is capable of forecasting (large-scale monthly averages of rainfall and winds) and tornado activity, which the current technology cannot capture," he says.

The research isn't ready for prime time yet, however, so no official forecast will be made for the upcoming season using these methods.

"This is a useful first step," says Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was not involved in the study. He says it will be helpful to know, for example, that sometime in the last week of April, conditions will be favorable for lots of tornadoes in the eastern USA.

With greater lead time, a state emergency planner "could be better prepared with generators and supplies," Brooks says.

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China's pollution costs $112B in health care

China's unprecedented growth is carrying a steadily steeper price tag as its air pollution hikes the nation's health care costs, finds a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although China has made substantial progress in reducing its air pollution, MIT researchers say its economic impact has jumped from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 2005. The costs result from both lost labor and the increased need for health care because ozone and particulates in air can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

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"The results clearly indicate that ozone and particulate matter have substantially impacted the Chinese economy over the past 30 years," Noelle Selin, an assistant MIT professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry, said in announcing the findings that appear in the February edition of the journal Global Environmental Change.

The study, by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, said pollution's economic impact has grown, because population growth increased the number of people exposed to it and higher incomes raised the costs associated with lost productivity.

The study "finds that the damages are even greater than previously thought," said Kelly Sims Gallagher, an associate professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University's Fletcher School, in the MIT announcement.

The researchers calculated these long-term impacts using atmospheric and economic modeling tools, which were especially important when it came to assessing the cumulative impact of ozone. They said China has only recently begun to monitor ozone , and it's become the world's largest emitter of mercury, carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

In the 1980s, they said China's particulate-matter concentrations were at least 10 to 16 times higher than the World Health Organization's annual guidelines. Even after major improvements, by 2005, they said the concentrations were still five times higher than what is considered safe and led to 656,000 premature deaths in China each year.

China is taking steps to mitigate air pollution, in partly by boosting its support for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Its hefty subsidies to its solar industry have prompted some U.S. manufacturers to file a complaint with the International Trade Commission. In January, the nation set a target to reduce its 2010 levels of carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of gross domestic product) 17% by 2015.


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Climate change could increase storm surges

Last year's most devastating tropical system -- Hurricane Irene -- was considered by some experts to be a "100-year-event," a storm that comes around only once a century.

Irene lashed the East Coast in August, killing at least 45 people and leading to $7.6 billion in damages.

But a study out this week in Nature Climate Change says that due to global warming, these monster storms could make landfall more frequently, causing destructive storm surges every 3 to 20 years instead of once a century.

The lead author of the study was Ning Lin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who partnered with scientists at Princeton University to undertake the research.

Lin and her colleagues used computer models to simulate future hurricanes, looking at the impact of climate change on storm surges, with New York City as a case study. The team simulated tens of thousands of storms under different climate conditions.

Today, a "100-year storm" has a surge flood of about two meters, on average, in New York City. But with added greenhouse gas emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels, the computer models found that a two-meter surge flood would instead occur once every three to 20 years.

Lin says that knowing the frequency of storm surges may help urban and coastal planners design seawalls and other protective structures.

While the number of hurricanes globally may or may not increase due to global warming, some scientists say that the ones that do form could be more intense than they would be otherwise.


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