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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spring in America: Meadville, Pa.

A crab apple tree in Meadville, Pa., turned into a new home for a family of robins. "I was blessed to this get this picture from a swing on my front porch," Linda Watt says.

We will be posting the last of our spring photos over the next couple of weeks and are gearing up for summer photos.

So break out the cameras and send us a shot of summer in your area as the season gets underway. We'll select the best to appear in On Deadline.

A few guidelines:

1. Please submit only one photo.

2. It must be from this summer, and it must be your original work on which you control all the rights.

3. As much as we like cute kids and dogs, please keep the focus on landscape and scenery (to avoid the need for model release forms and other clutter!)

4. Include a sentence or two of description about where the photo was taken.

5. Don't forget to send us your name, so we can give you a photo credit. Include your e-mail address and/or phone number (which we will NOT publish) in case we have any questions.

6. Send the photo with a brief caption in your own words to OnDeadline@usatoday.com


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Nevada wildfire crews race against winds

Firefighters battle a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday. The fast-moving blaze near the Nevada-California line destroyed homes and forced evacuationsFirefighters battle a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday. The fast-moving blaze near the Nevada-California line destroyed homes and forced evacuations

By Cathleen Allison, AP

WELLINGTON, Nev. (AP) – Fire crews in northern Nevada raced against Mother Nature, trying to secure a fire line Thursday above a second rural community before expected high winds moved in later in the day.

A home is engulfed by flames from a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday. By Cathleen Allison, AP

A home is engulfed by flames from a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday.

By Cathleen Allison, AP

A home is engulfed by flames from a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday.

The Topaz Ranch Estates fire that broke out earlier in the week near the Nevada-California line had burned 7,500 acres and was 15 percent contained as of midday.

A red flag warning for extreme fire danger was in effect through 11 p.m. because of high winds and low humidity.

Two homes and 17 outbuildings were destroyed in the Topaz Ranch Estates community in southern Douglas County on Tuesday when a suspected illegal residential burn from two days earlier was re-ignited by stiff winds, and flames roared through cheat grass, pinion, juniper and sagebrush.

The fire has since moved into the higher elevations of the Pine Nut Mountains near Wellington. A main concern for firefighters was keeping the blaze in the remote mountains and away from the Upper Colony residential area in neighboring Lyon County. Fire officials feared strong winds could push the flames down Rickey Canyon to the homes tucked along the east side of the mountain range.

"So far, so good," said Lyon County Manager Jeff Page around 2 p.m.

If crews could hold the fire in check through the afternoon winds, they were hoping the weather would turn in their favor Friday and Saturday, when the forecast called for much cooler temperatures and a chance of rain and possible snow in the higher elevations.

Officials believe an illegal residential burn over the weekend was re-ignited by gusty winds Tuesday, sparking the blaze.

No deaths or injuries have been reported.

Six helicopters worked to douse the fire from the air as 575 firefighters battled it on the ground. Four bulldozers were helping to build fire breaks and 14 engines were stationed around the area for structure protection.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, firefighters were being forced to sit on the sidelines Thursday as a massive wildfire that destroyed a dozen homes and several other structures in a small summer community in southwestern New Mexico grew larger and put more structures at risk.

Tripling in size over the last day, the lightning-sparked Whitewater and Baldy fires merged to burn across more than 110 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Thursday.

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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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Beryl to bring rain, winds to southeast U.S. coast

A cluster of thunderstorms that stalled off the southeastern U.S. coast on Saturday is expected to make for a sloppy, rainy Memorial Day on beaches and in tourist towns from Florida to South Carolina.

Carolina Beach, N.C., Ocean Rescue leader Evan Anderson places a sign closing the beach to swimming Saturday because of strong rip currents. By Matt Born, The (Wilmington, N.C.) Star-News, via AP

Carolina Beach, N.C., Ocean Rescue leader Evan Anderson places a sign closing the beach to swimming Saturday because of strong rip currents.

By Matt Born, The (Wilmington, N.C.) Star-News, via AP

Carolina Beach, N.C., Ocean Rescue leader Evan Anderson places a sign closing the beach to swimming Saturday because of strong rip currents.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the entire Georgia coastline, as well as parts of Florida and South Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

As thousands of people headed toward the beach for the holiday weekend, the center issued tropical storm warnings for the southeastern U.S. from the Volusia/Brevard county line in Florida to Edisto Beach, S.C., and a tropical storm watch stretching north to the South Santee River in South Carolina. A tropical storm warning means that storm conditions could developing within the next day and a half.

The large storm, with tropical-storm force winds stretching out for 115 miles, was expected to get stronger before it approaches land. The storm could also dump 3 to 6 inches of rain on the southeast coast.

Beryl was technically still considered a "subtropical storm," but the system is expected to bring winds and rain to the area regardless of its official classification.

The southeastern coast is popular with tourists who visit to enjoy the beaches and wilderness areas.

"A three-day thunderstorm is what it's probably going to be," said Jay Wiggins, emergency management director for Georgia's Glynn County, which is about 60 miles south of Savannah and includes Brunswick and St. Simons Island. "Unfortunately, it's going to ruin a lot of Memorial Day plans."

Wiggins said he expects some flooded roadways and scattered power outages, perhaps some minor flooding in waterfront homes, but otherwise little damage. However, he urged beachgoers to beware of dangerous rip currents.

On Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness area beloved by hikers and campers, superintendent Fred Boyles said he planned to wait until Sunday to decide if campers need to evacuate before the storm arrives. Boyles said he had about 100 campers planning to stay overnight Sunday, and the only way to leave Cumberland Island is by ferry.

In South Carolina, Beaufort County Emergency Management deputy director David Zeoli said that at midday Saturday word went out to first-responders along the coast near the Georgia line to pay attention to the storm's progress. Officials haven't been ordered to work on an otherwise lovely day for the beach, but have been told to stay near a phone, Zeoli said.

This is the second tropical storm to develop before the June 1 start of hurricane season.

Contributing: Associated Press

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is China poor? Key question at climate talks

FILE- Smoke billows from a chimney of a heating plant as the sun sets in Beijing in this file photo dated Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. U.N. climate talks being held in Bonn, Germany, are in gridlock Thursday May 24, 2012, as a rift between rich and poor countries risked undoing some of the advances made last year in the two-decade-long effort to control carbon emissions from fast-growing economies like China and India as well as developed industrialized nations that scientists say are overheating the planet.(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File) Alexander F. Yuan, AP

FILE- Smoke billows from a chimney of a heating plant as the sun sets in Beijing in this file photo dated Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. U.N. climate talks being held in Bonn, Germany, are in gridlock Thursday May 24, 2012, as a rift between rich and poor countries risked undoing some of the advances made last year in the two-decade-long effort to control carbon emissions from fast-growing economies like China and India as well as developed industrialized nations that scientists say are overheating the planet.(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File)

Alexander F. Yuan, AP

FILE- Smoke billows from a chimney of a heating plant as the sun sets in Beijing in this file photo dated Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. U.N. climate talks being held in Bonn, Germany, are in gridlock Thursday May 24, 2012, as a rift between rich and poor countries risked undoing some of the advances made last year in the two-decade-long effort to control carbon emissions from fast-growing economies like China and India as well as developed industrialized nations that scientists say are overheating the planet.(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File)

BONN, Germany (AP) — Another round of U.N. climate talks closed Friday without resolving how to share the burden of curbing man-made global warming, mainly because countries don't agree on who is rich and who is poor.

China wants to maintain a decades-old division between developed and developing countries, bearing in mind that, historically, the West has released most of the heat-trapping gases that scientists say could cause catastrophic changes in climate.

But the U.S. and Europe insisted during the two-week talks in Bonn that the system doesn't reflect current economic realities and must change as work begins on a new global climate pact set to be completed in 2015.

"The notion that a simple binary system is going to be applicable going forward is no longer one that has much relevance to the way the world currently works," U.S. chief negotiator Jonathan Pershing said.

Countries like Qatar and Singapore are wealthier than the U.S. per capita but are still defined as developing countries under the classification used in the U.N. talks. So is China, the world's second largest economy.

Finding a new system that better reflects the world today, while also acknowledging the historical blame for greenhouse gas emissions, is the biggest challenge facing the U.N. process as it seeks a global response to climate change.

"That is a fundamental issue," said Henrik Harboe, Norway's chief climate negotiator. "Some want to keep the old division while we want to look at it in a more dynamic way."

The U.N. climate talks are based on the premise that industrialized countries must take the lead on climate change by committing to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They are also expected to provide money to help poor countries grow in a sustainable way and to protect the most vulnerable nations from rising sea levels, droughts and other consequences of a warming world

Disputes on how to categorize countries going forward was behind much of the procedural wrangling that slowed down the talks in Bonn. Delegates failed to agree on an agenda until the last day, leaving most of the work for a bigger summit in Qatar in November.

A separate dispute between developing countries delayed the appointment of officials to steer the talks. That stalemate was also unlocked on the last day.

The slow pace frustrated climate activists who fear that there won't be enough political will to rein in emissions to avoid dangerous levels of warming in coming decades.

"The talk here doesn't match the action that science says is required," said Mohamed Adow, senior climate change adviser at Christian Aid.

China's lead negotiator Su Wei told The Associated Press that the proposed new deal, which would have binding commitments for all countries after 2020, must be based on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" enshrined in previous climate agreements.

"That means we still would continue the current division between developed and developing countries," Su said.

He said China is still a developing country because if you look at wealth per capita, it barely makes the world's top 100. More than 100 million Chinese live below the poverty line, which Beijing has defined as about $1 a day.

Still, Western officials say China's fast-growing energy needs and rising emissions mean it can no longer be off the hook in climate negotiations.

"We need to move into a system which is reflecting modern economic realities," EU negotiator Christian Pilgaard Zinglersen said.

In the early 1950s, China accounted for just 2 percent of global emissions while the U.S. accounted for more than 40 percent, according to Climate Analytics, a climate research group based in Potsdam, Germany.

Today China's share of global emissions exceeds 25 percent, while the U.S. share has fallen toward 20 percent.

China and its supporters reject blame for stalling the climate talks, saying it is the U.S. and other developed nations that are unwilling to live up to their obligations to cut carbon emissions.

The U.S. refused to join the only binding accord to limit emissions — the 1997 Kyoto Protocol— partly because it didn't include China.

Seyni Nafo, spokesman for a group of African countries in the climate talks, noted that the U.S. also said that joining Kyoto would harm the U.S. economy. Years later, the U.N. climate effort still has little support in the U.S. Congress, which includes outspoken climate skeptics.

"We are hoping that they will get on board this time, which is not a given," Nafo said.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Tropical Storm Beryl makes landfall in Florida

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Supermoon brightens the night sky

NEW YORK (AP) – The biggest and brightest full moon of the year arrived Saturday night as our celestial neighbor passed closer to Earth than usual.

The moon rises Saturday above an egret nesting area on the west side of Wichita, Kan. By Bo Rader, AP

The moon rises Saturday above an egret nesting area on the west side of Wichita, Kan.

By Bo Rader, AP

The moon rises Saturday above an egret nesting area on the west side of Wichita, Kan.

Saturday's event was a "supermoon," the closest and therefore the biggest and brightest full moon of the year. At 11:34 p.m., the moon was about 221,802 miles from Earth. That's about 15,300 miles closer than average.

That proximity makes the moon appear about 14% bigger than it would if the moon were at its farthest distance, said Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory. The difference in appearance is so small that "you'd be very hard-pressed to detect that with the unaided eye," he said.

The moon's distance from Earth varies because it follows an elliptical orbit rather than a circular one.

Like any full moon, the supermoon would appear bigger when it's on or near the horizon rather than higher in the sky, thanks to an optical illusion, Chester noted. The full moon appears on the horizon at sunset. On the East coast, for example, that will be a bit before 8 p.m. Saturday.

The supermoon and unusually high tides are linked because of the moon's closeness and its alignment with the sun and Earth, Chester said.

The last supermoon, on March 19, 2011, was about 240 miles closer than this year's will be. Next year's will be a bit farther away than this year's.

But no matter how far away a full moon is, it's not going to make people kill themselves or others, commit other crimes, get admitted to a psychiatric hospital or do anything else that popular belief suggests, a psychologist says.

Studies that have tried to document such connections have found "pretty much a big mound of nothing, as far as I can tell," said Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University.

Lilienfeld, an author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, said the notion of full moons causing bizarre behavior ranks among the top 10 myths because "it's so widely held and it's held with such conviction."

Why do people cling to the idea?

Lilienfeld said a key reason could be the way people pay attention to things. If something unusual happens to occur during a full moon, people who believe the myth take note and remember, even telling other people because it confirms their ideas. But when another full moon appears and nothing out of the ordinary occurs, "they're not very likely to remember" or point it out to others.

So in the end, he said, all they remember are the coincidences.

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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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Surfer sets Guinness record riding 78-foot wave

HONOLULU (AP) – Dude, that was the gnarliest wave ever. Guinness World Records says so.

Garrett McNamara surfs a 78-foot wave at Praia do Norte beach in Nazare, Portugal, Nov. 1, 2011. By Jorge Leal, AP

Garrett McNamara surfs a 78-foot wave at Praia do Norte beach in Nazare, Portugal, Nov. 1, 2011.

By Jorge Leal, AP

Garrett McNamara surfs a 78-foot wave at Praia do Norte beach in Nazare, Portugal, Nov. 1, 2011.

The record-keeping agency is acknowledging a 44-year-old Hawaii pro surfer for catching a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, saying the November run beats a 2008 record by more than 1 foot.

Big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara of Haleiwa, on Oahu's North Shore, told The Associated Press that the ride of his life was a fluke.

He said he originally didn't want to attempt the waves that day after wiping out numerous times on even bigger swells in the same spot, above an undersea canyon known as one of the biggest wave-generators on the planet.

"I was really beat-up that morning," he said. "This day, I did not want to get out of bed."

He changed his mind at the urging of friends, once they got into the ocean and he helped others catch a few waves.

"Everything came together," McNamara said Thursday. "Everything felt right."

Video of the run shows a minuscule 5-foot-10-inch McNamara against a wall of water as he lets go of a tow rope and begins riding down the wave at Praia do Norte. He briefly disappears into the break about 10 seconds into the run, then speeds up and remerges from the wave's tube as the swell quickly dissipates.

"I knew it was big, but I didn't know how big," he said.

McNamara said he didn't care at first about whether the wave was a record, but was urged by the townspeople in Nazare, Portugal, to get some kind of confirmation. He said he sent the footage and pictures to surfing legend and Billabong judge Sean Collins, who guessed the wave was 85 to 90 feet tall. Collins died in December.

The official record comes after McNamara was awarded $15,000 for the ride at the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards in California last week.

Judges for the awards, considered the official arbiters of big-wave surfing, pored over footage and high-resolution still images from several angles to calculate a more accurate estimate, event director Bill Sharp told the AP.

They used McNamara's height in a crouch and the length of his shin bone to help compare it to the wave's top and bottom, Sharp said.

"You can't deny how big it was for that moment," Sharp said.

Sharp said surfers don't often get a chance to catch waves so big. He put the achievement on par with other infrequent athletic feats like four home runs in a game — which Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton achieved this week — or a perfect game.

"But add to that the fact that the stadium could collapse on you at any second," he said.

McNamara, who began surfing at age 11 and went pro at 17, said the achievement became more important to him when he realized it could help him urge more people to follow their passions.

"The world would be a much better place if everyone was doing what they wanted to do," he said.

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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Spring in America: Scottsdale, Ariz.

"This large old Saguaro is located across the street," says the photographer, Cameron Davis. "Usually the flowers are inaccessible at the tops of the giant plants, fortunately this flower and buds are located on a rare low growing branch."

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

A few guidelines:

1. Please submit only one photo.

2. It must be from this spring, and it must be your original work on which you control all the rights.

3. Include a sentence or two of description about where the photo was taken.

4. Don't forget to send us your name, so we can give you a photo credit. Include your e-mail address and/or phone number (which we will NOT publish) in case we have any questions.

5. Send the photo with a brief caption in your own words to OnDeadline@usatoday.com


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Public support slips for steps to curb climate change

From gas-mileage standards to tax breaks for windmills, public support for "green" energy measures to tackle global warming has dropped significantly in the past two years, particularly among Republicans, a new poll suggests.

Wind generators are seen in Australia. Americans' support for various steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions has dropped significantly in the past two years, a new poll suggests. By Mark Dadswell, Getty Images

Wind generators are seen in Australia. Americans' support for various steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions has dropped significantly in the past two years, a new poll suggests.

By Mark Dadswell, Getty Images

Wind generators are seen in Australia. Americans' support for various steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions has dropped significantly in the past two years, a new poll suggests.

Majorities still favor most such tax breaks or restrictions on industry, finds the Stanford University poll to be released today. It shows 65% support gas-mileage standards and 73% support tax breaks for wind and solar power. But just 43% support tax breaks for nuclear power, 26% support increasing gasoline taxes and 18% support hiking taxes on home electricity.

Overall, support for various steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions has dropped an average of 10 percentage points since 2010, from 72% to 62%, lead researcher Jon Krosnick says. "Most Americans (62%) still support industry taking steps aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions," Krosnick says, "but they hate the idea of consumer taxes to do it." His group's nationwide polls compared responses from 1,001 people in 2010 to 1,428 people this year.

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences called for "strong federal policies" to curb greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, such as oil, gasoline, coal and natural gas. It warned that "climate change is occurring" and said these fuels are partly to blame. The warning came after the failure in 2009 of a Senate bill that would have created a U.S. market for rights to buy and sell greenhouse gas emissions credits.

In a March Gallup poll, 53% of Americans agreed that "global warming is caused by pollution resulting from human activities," similar to percentages in past years.

Public opinion experts including Drexel University's Robert Brulle point to declining news coverage of global warming for the falling support of steps to fight greenhouse gases; others cite the economy's doldrums.

Krosnick suggests that distrust of environmental scientists among Republican voters, expressed by about 41% of them in the poll, may explain much of the drop. Such distrust was not seen as strongly among independent and Democratic voters, he says. The average drop in support for these policies was about 7 percentage points among those who identified themselves as Democrats or independents vs. 14 points for Republicans.

Since Republican Sen. John McCain expressed support for steps to slow global warming during the 2008 presidential race, "we have seen a significant shift in political rhetoric in the primary races in Republican debates," Krosnick says. (McCain says he no longer supports such steps.) This year, Republican debates regularly featured the views of likely nominee Mitt Romney, who has said, "We don't know what's causing climate change."

Brulle says the effect of the economy on views about climate change needs to be more carefully studied.

Even if the public supports steps to address global warming, Brulle says, "opinion on climate change and environmental issues overall has consistently ranked at the bottom of the overall public concerns" in polling. Just 1% of people ranked the environment as a "top concern" in the Gallup Poll in March.

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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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Snow drought now targeting farmers

The dearth of snow that set back Colorado's ski areas this winter is now taking its toll on farmers, KUSA-TV reports.

It could cost farmers millions of dollars and translate to higher prices for consumers.

Snow runoff traditionally fills up the ditches and ponds that farmers tap to irrigate crops. Not this year. The "terrible year" for ski resorts is translating to a lack of surface water for farmers who say their options for water are limited.

"It's a huge issue. I consider water more valuable than gold," Weld County farmer Glen Fritzler tells KUSA. "We can't survive without it."

Fritzler says his only option is well water, which has not been plentiful since the 2002 drought. "We cannot operate our wells like we have in the past or like we need to to grow out produce," Fritzler says.

State Rep. Randy Fischer has sponsored a bill for a study to determine whether the use of well water by Weld County farmers would adversely affect others who depend on the supply. Fischer tells KUSA that if nothing is done with the bill during today's legislative session, it will likely die.

That means there won't be much hope for farmers. Fitzler says the cost of Colorado produce will likely go up and the cost to farmers could be in the millions.


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Saturday, May 19, 2012

2012 is USA's warmest year on record, so far

The nation's unusual warmth keeps on rolling: Through April, the USA is experiencing its warmest year on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Tuesday, with a national average temperature of 45 degrees.

This is 5 degrees above the long-term average.

So far this year, more than 15,000 record high temperatures have been set across the nation, compared with about 1,100 record lows, reports Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton.

The first four months of 2012 were drier than average for the United States as a whole, with some regional variability, NOAA reported. The eastern third of the nation has been drier than average, with Maryland and Delaware both having their driest year on record, to date.

April itself was the third-warmest on record in the USA, with only April 2006 and April 1981 warmer than this April.

U.S. weather records go back to 1895.


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Friday, May 18, 2012

4 smart thermostats that save money and energy

Whether you power your home with electricity, heating oil, gas, solar power, geothermal energy, or some other source, the energy you use to heat and cool your home is undoubtedly a huge part of your household budget.

The Nest thermostat. GANNETT

The Nest thermostat.

One of the best ways to do that is by using a programmable or smart thermostat, which raises and lowers the temperature in the house according to your activities. Going out for the day? The thermostat raises (or lowers) the temperature, using less energy while you're gone. Some models even adjust to account for variable rates from energy companies that charge more during peak usage times.

Is it time to trade in your old-fashioned thermostat for a newer model? Check out these options to see if one of them is right for you.

1. The Nest

The Nest is one of the darlings of the thermostat world (if there is such a thing). It was a big hit at CES 2012, where our own Ashley Esqueda was able to see what all the fuss is about. The big deal about this particular thermostat, which sells for $249, is that after about a week of use, the device actually learns your habits. It then creates a program to meet your energy needs in the most efficient way possible. You can also control it from your smartphone or Web browser, even when you're not at home.

But the Nest isn't simply a thermostat that monitors and adjusts the temperature. It also measures things such as ambient light, humidity, and motion, ultimately using any information it gleans to fine-tune its program. If it detects that you're not home on, say, a Sunday afternoon, it adjusts accordingly, even if the standard program dictates otherwise. If you have multiple Nest units in your home, they will communicate via Wi-Fi to coordinate schedules for the different parts of your house.

While some reviewers have complained that the Nest isn't actually very good at learning schedules, especially complex ones, most agree that it generally does what it sets out to do. The design is sleek, inside and out, and the ability to control your thermostat from anywhere is a definite plus. If you find that you'd prefer to set the Nest's schedule yourself, you can simply pause the learning mode and do so.

2. Smart Thermostat from Ecobee

Canadian company Ecobee's Smart Thermostat is similar in functionality to the Nest. Since it's Wi-Fi-enabled, you can control it from any Web browser or your smartphone. The LCD touchscreen interface includes programming functions, an energy conservation mode, and even five-day weather forecasts.

The major downside of the Ecobee Smart Thermostat is cost and an intimidating installation procedure. Unlike the Nest, which can be installed by just about anyone, the Smart Thermostat generally requires installation by a professional. This is because it actually has two parts: the equipment interface, which connects directly to your furnace, humidifier, dehumidifier, ventilator, and any other environmental control units you have, and the thermostat itself, which replaces your current thermostat unit.

You can install this device on your own if you want, as long as you're not afraid of messing about with wiring. Ecobee recommends having a pro do the installation. The Smart Thermostat itself retails for about $469, and installation generally requires at least a couple of hours of labor. Most reviewers agree, however, that the Smart Thermostat is well worth the cost.

3. Homewerks Radio Wireless Thermostat with Wi-Fi

If you're looking for a smart thermostat without a lot of expensive bells and whistles, the Homewerks Radio Wireless Thermostat with Wi-Fi Module offers an affordable alternative, retailing for around $100. As with the more expensive Ecobee Smart Thermostat, you can control the Homewerks thermostat from your smartphone. Adjust the temperature from anywhere — set it from the road so that you arrive home to a nice warm (or cool) house, or turn your heating or cooling devices off to save money while you're not there.

The device has a seven-day programmable mode and a fan-only mode. It also offers two different stages of both warming and cooling, all of which you can adjust as necessary from the thermostat itself or from the app. The Radio Thermostat can be installed by just about anyone, without the need to hire a professional.

4. Honeywell Prestige 2.0 Comfort System

Honeywell is currently in the midst of a patent infringement lawsuit against the Nest for the concept of the learning thermostat (among other things). While only time will tell how that shakes out, Honeywell does certainly have some good options available. Like the Ecobee Smart Thermostat, the Prestige 2.0 Comfort System should be installed by a professional. It offers "interview-based programming" that asks you questions about your usage habits and programs the device to best take advantage of those habits.

The Honeywell Prestige lets you monitor and control your system remotely using your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Depending on your system, you can adjust indoor temperature and humidity, as well as view outdoor temperature and humidity. Check out Honeywell's locator to find the nearest professional who can install the thermostat in your home.

Stay cool and go green

According to the government's Energy Star program, households that use a programmable thermostat can save about $180 a year on their energy bill. These smart thermostats make it even easier to keep your house comfortable, allowing you to adjust your settings even when you're not at home. No matter what your budget may be, a smart thermostat is a smart way to do your part to reduce energy consumption!

This story originally appeared on Tecca.

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Prince Charles does TV weathercast in Scotland

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Calif. wildfire fully contained, burned 125 acres

ACTON, Calif. (AP) – An aggressive air assault helped halt the spread of a wildfire in northern Los Angeles County that destroyed several structures and prompted the evacuation of some 30 homes.

Los Angeles County Fire crews work to contain a 125-acre brush fire in Acton, Calif. on Tuesday afternoon. By Maya Sugarman, AP

Los Angeles County Fire crews work to contain a 125-acre brush fire in Acton, Calif. on Tuesday afternoon.

By Maya Sugarman, AP

Los Angeles County Fire crews work to contain a 125-acre brush fire in Acton, Calif. on Tuesday afternoon.

The blaze erupted shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday near West Crown Valley Road in Acton and quickly spread due to gusty winds and low humidity. The 125-acre blaze was fully contained late Tuesday and all evacuated residents were allowed to return home, supervising county fire dispatcher Robert Diaz said.

Firefighters would remain on the scene overnight mopping up hot spots, Diaz said.

One mobile home, one outbuilding, two storage sheds and two vehicles were destroyed in the blaze. No injuries were reported.

Nearly 400 firefighters from LA County, the city of Los Angeles and the U.S. Forest Service battled the blaze, aided by five helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, authorities said.

Footage from television news helicopters showed towering flames and residents hosing down homes in the mountainous desert community about 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The fire initially was pushed by northeast to east winds of 12 to 15 mph, with occasional gusts to 35 mph, the National Weather Service said. Winds decreased by early evening, but relative humidity remained in the single digits.

The blaze disrupted Metrolink service in the area and forced the closure of Soledad Canyon Road, authorities said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The sparsely populated area is located between Palmdale and Santa Clarita, near the Angeles National Forest.

Another wildfire destroyed about 52 acres near Acton in June. No injuries were reported in that fire.

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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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Spring in America: Bloomfield, Mich.

Kim Austin, of Bloomfield, Mich., says this is the second year that the same two swans have chosen this small pond for their home.

"As one sits on the nest, the other swims around feeding and keeping the geese out of their territory," Austin says.

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'Monster' sunspot could hurl flares at Earth

A "monster sunspot" more than 60,000 miles wide could send some powerful solar flares toward Earth on Wednesday, NASA says.

The sunspot -- actually a group of four spots, each larger than Earth, and smaller spots -- emerged over the weekend and was spotted by the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory and amateur astronomers, Spaceweather.com reported (via Space.com). It tossed off a moderately strong M-class flare today, and is expected to follow up with even stronger flares, possibly even X class.

Sunspot AR 1476 is so big that a photographer in the Philippines captured it at sunset, without a solar telescope.

But Spaceweather offers potential sungazers this crucial warning:

Even when the sun is dimmed by clouds and haze, looking into the glare can damage your eyes. Looking through unfiltered optics is even worse. If you chose to photograph the low sun, use the camera's LCD screen for viewfinding.

Sunspots don't excite you? How about a pair of coronal mass ejections, or a dark, coronal hole that has opened in the sun's atmosphere and is hurling solar winds toward us? Good chance of strong geomagnetic activity, including auroras.

Want to know the space weather now? NOAA has it.

The latest sun show comes three weeks after the spectacular eruption captured by the solar orbiter.

BLOG:  Satellite captures giant eruption from sun today

NASA has a primer on the solar cycle.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Spring in America: Fieldbrook, Calif.

Joan Binnie took this shot of tulips in her front yard in Fieldbrook, Calif.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Spring in America: Austin

David Evans took this picture of agave in an April walk through the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day weekend will be a beauty in East, West

Moms will be treated to a wonderfully warm and dry Mother's Day weekend throughout most of the eastern and western USA. However, the South and the Ohio Valley will both see a dismal, damp weekend, thanks to heavy rain and thunderstorms, which could also bring some flooding. A few showers are possible in the north-central U.S. as well.

Heavy rain led to flooding in San Angelo, Texas, on Monday. More rain and floods are possible in the Southeast this weekend. By Cynthia Esparza, AP

Heavy rain led to flooding in San Angelo, Texas, on Monday. More rain and floods are possible in the Southeast this weekend.

By Cynthia Esparza, AP

Heavy rain led to flooding in San Angelo, Texas, on Monday. More rain and floods are possible in the Southeast this weekend.

Soggy South: Drenching rain is likely in the South this weekend. The heaviest rain, which will include some thunderstorms, should fall along the Gulf Coast in southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where more than two inches are forecast. Rain is also expected in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys.

Flooding will be possible in low-lying and poor drainage areas across the region.

Although heavy rain is forecast from the thunderstorms, none of the storms is expected to reach severe levels.

Warm in the West: Unusually warm weather is expected throughout the West both Saturday and Sunday, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures will soar into the 80s and 90s in parts of western Oregon and Washington, which is about 20 degrees above average.

The West will also be dry this weekend. No precipitation is forecast anywhere west of the Rockies.

Spotty rain elsewhere: A few showers and thunderstorms will also dampen the southern Rockies, upper Midwest and Great Lakes states this weekend. Temperatures will remain in the cool 60s under the rain and clouds.

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