Thursday, February 2, 2012

ANOTHER EARTH, THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL NARRATIVE: The Holy Grail of Exoplanet Research - Scientist Finds Alien Planet GJ 667Cc, a Super-Earth, That is the Best Candidate Yet to Support Life!

A potentially habitable alien planet — one that scientists say is the best candidate yet to harbor water, and possibly even life, on its surface — has been found around a nearby star.

The planet is located in the habitable zone of its host star, which is a narrow circumstellar region where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist on the planet's surface. "It's the Holy Grail of exoplanet research to find a planet around a star orbiting at the right distance so it's not too close where it would lose all its water and boil away, and not too far where it would all freeze," Steven Vogt, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told "It's right smack in the habitable zone — there's no question or discussion about it. It's not on the edge, it's right in there." Vogt is one of the authors of the new study, which was led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution for Science, a private, nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. "This planet is the new best candidate to support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it," Anglada-Escudé said in a statement.
An artist's conception of the alien planet GJ 667Cc, which is located in the habitable zone of its parent star.

An alien super-Earth.

The researchers estimate that the planet, called GJ 667Cc, is at least 4.5 times as massive as Earth, which makes it a so-called super-Earth. It takes roughly 28 days to make one orbital lap around its parent star, which is located a mere 22 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Scorpius (the Scorpion). "This is basically our next-door neighbor," Vogt said. "It's very nearby. There are only about 100 stars closer to us than this one."

Interestingly enough, the host star, GJ 667C, is a member of a triple-star system. GJ 667C is an M-class dwarf star that is about a third of the mass of the sun, and while it is faint, it can be seen by ground-based telescopes, Vogt said. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]
"The planet is around one star in a triple-star system," Vogt explained. "The other stars are pretty far away, but they would look pretty nice in the sky." The discovery of a planet around GJ 667C came as a surprise to the astronomers, because the entire star system has a different chemical makeup than our sun. The system has much lower abundances of heavy elements (elements heavier than hydrogen and helium), such as iron, carbon and silicon.

"It's pretty deficient in metals," Vogt said. "These are the materials out of which planets form — the grains of stuff that coalesce to eventually make up planets — so we shouldn't have really expected this star to be a likely case for harboring planets."
The fortuitous discovery could mean that potentially habitable alien worlds  could exist in a greater variety of environments than was previously thought possible, the researchers said. "Statistics tell us we shouldn't have found something this quickly this soon unless there's a lot of them out there," Vogt said. "This tells us there must be an awful lot of these planets out there. It was almost too easy to find, and it happened too quickly."

The detailed findings of the study will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

An intriguing star system

Another super-Earth that orbits much closer to GJ 667C was previously detected in 2010, but the finding was never published, Vogt added. This planet, called GJ 667Cb, takes 7.2 days to circle the star but its location makes it far too hot to sustain liquid water on its surface. "It's basically glowing cinders, or a well-lit charcoal," Vogt said. "We know about a lot of these, but they're thousands of degrees and not places where you could live." But, the newly detected GJ 667Cc planet is a much more intriguing candidate, he said.

"When a planet gets bigger than about 10 times the size of the Earth, there's a runaway process that happens, where it begins to eat up all the gas and ice in the disk that it's forming out of and swells quickly into something like Uranus, Jupiter or Saturn," Vogt explained. "When you have a surface and the right temperature, if there's water around, there's a good chance that it could be in liquid form. This planet is right in that sweet spot in the habitable zone, so we've got the right temperature and the right mass range."

Preliminary observations also suggest that more planets could exist in this system, including a gas giant planet and another super-Earth that takes about 75 days to circle the star. More research will be needed to confirm these planetary candidates, as well as to glean additional details about the potentially habitable super-Earth, the scientists said.

This graphic shows the orbits of the alien planet GJ 667Cc, which takes about 28 days to orbit
its parent star. The orbits of other potential planets in the system are also shown.

Finding nearby alien planets.

To make their discovery, the researchers used public data from the European Southern Observatory combined with observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the new Carnegie Planet Finder Spectrograph at the Magellan II Telescope in Chile. Follow-up analyses were also made using a planet-hunting technique that measures the small dips, or wobbles, in a star's motion caused by the gravitational tug of a planet.

"With the advent of a new generation of instruments, researchers will be able to survey many M dwarf stars for similar planets and eventually look for spectroscopic signatures of life in one of these worlds," Anglada-Escudé said in a statement. Anglada-Escudé was with the Carnegie Institution for Science when he conducted the research, but has since moved on to the University of Gottingen in Germany.
With the GJ 667C system being relatively nearby, it also opens exciting possibilities for probing potentially habitable alien worlds in the future, Vogt said, which can't easily be done with the planets that are being found by NASA's prolific Kepler spacecraft.

"The planets coming out of Kepler are typically thousands of light-years away and we could never send a space probe out there," Vogt said. "We've been explicitly focusing on very nearby stars, because with today's technology, we could send a robotic probe out there, and within a few hundred years, it could be sending back picture postcards."

WEATHER ANOMALIES: The Extremely Weird Earth Changes Across North America - Western Canada Struggling With Record Snow-fall as the Rest of the Country Goes Dry; Severe Storms Set to Ignite Across Oklahoma and Texas; Blizzard Takes Aim at Colorado, Nebraska; Forecasters Believe Longest Stretch of Cold is Yet to Come to U.S.?!

Snowfall and snow levels are reaching record levels in Alberta and British Columbia in Western Canada.
While many other parts of North America are still struggling to fully open all their lifts and runs for winter2011-12 during an unusually dry winter, the West of Canada has been deluged fairly consistently since last autumn.
“This month goes down as one of the snowiest January’s on record. There is unbelievable snow conditions at both Fernie and Kicking Horse with total snowfall at both over 19 feet now. Today alone, Fernie has seen over a foot overnight!!” said an excited Matt Mosteller of Resorts of the Canadian Rockies which runs the two centres. Meanwhile a little to the east and north, over the border in Alberta, with over three months left to go in the ski season, Marmot Basin near Jasper has already received over 12 feet (372 cm) of snowfall which is 93% of its annual average. If the next three months produce even typical amounts of snowfall, Marmot Basin will exceed its all time snowfall record of 529 cm set way back in 1965. Regardless of the numbers, skiers and snowboarders have been absolutely thrilled with snow conditions at Marmot Basin and, to some, it has come as a bit of a surprise, says the resort’s Brian Rode. “There is very little snow on the ground in Edmonton and when some people get to the mountain they are really surprised at how much snow we have. Marmot’s base elevation is very high so the rain that has fallen at lower elevations this winter has been all snow at Marmot,” added Rode.Fast Track Ski.

Severe thunderstorms will erupt across parts of Oklahoma and Texas starting late today. The risk of damaging storms will progress eastward Friday and into the weekend.

A storm system will slowly push onto the southern Plains from the Rockies, setting up powerful and potentially destructive thunderstorms toward evening. The main threats with these storms will be large hail, high winds and flash flooding. However, there is the potential for a few tornadoes, especially after dark. On the cold side of the storm, heavy snow and strong winds will produce a blizzard in portions of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. On the warm side, damaging severe thunderstorms will roll across west-central Texas and west-central Oklahoma. According to Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski, "Cities that may be in the path of the storms late this afternoon through tonight include Abilene, Amarillo, Childress, Wichita Falls and Lubbock in Texas as well as Clinton and Lawton in Oklahoma."

"In a matter of a couple of hours toward the end of today, the weather may turn from tranquil to dangerous," Sosnowski adds. As the storm system continues to press eastward, the threat for severe thunderstorms will shift into eastern Oklahoma, central and northeastern Texas, western Arkansas and northwestern Louisiana Friday. The main threats will be similar to today's powerful storms, with damaging winds, large hail and flash flooding the most likely impacts. However, as is with the case of any severe thunderstorm, a tornado is possible. In addition to severe thunderstorms, a heavy, drenching rain will fall along the Gulf Coast. Too much rain in a short amount of time can lead to flooding problems, especially in urban and poor drainage areas. A few gusty, drenching thunderstorms can swing northward into southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri. Despite flash flooding concerns, many places in Texas and along the Gulf Coast are still in the grips of severe drought. Any rain that falls in these areas will certainly be beneficial and help ease the strain of drought-induced hardships. - Accu Weather.

A modest snowfall over the northern Rockies will turn into a raging snowstorm and even a blizzard for part of the central High Plains to the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies to end the week.

Heavy snow will soon fall with strong winds causing low visibility, large snowdrifts and poor travel from eastern Colorado to southwestern and central Nebraska to northwestern Kansas. Colorado Springs, Denver and Pueblo in Colorado, Grand Island, McCook and North Platte in Nebraska and Goodland in Kansas will be in the heart of the storm with a foot of snow possible. Travel along long stretches of I-25, I-70, I-76 and I-80 in the region will become slow to difficult spanning Thursday night into Friday night. At the height of the storm, it is possible roads and highways will close for a time, while timeliness of departing flights at Denver International Airport will be challenged due to drifting snow and whiteout conditions. As the storm moves along the Rockies from north to south, a few inches of fresh powder will go along with it from the Bitterroots to the Tetons, Wasatch and Colorado Rockies through Thursday.

The storm will reorganize and strengthen over the South Central states Thursday night into Friday night raising strong winds, pushing temperatures downward and causing rain to change to snow in the east over a portion of the central Plains. As the storm begins to roll slowly eastward during the first part of this weekend, snow or rain changing to snow will expand over much of eastern Nebraska and into northern Iowa and southeastern South Dakota. Cities in this area that have a shot at several inches of snow include Omaha, Neb., Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D. It is possible the heavy band of snow will continue to expand eastward with the storm, rather than fizzle out. Folks living in and travel interests from central and southern Iowa to northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin will want to monitor the storm's progress this weekend, even though the storm is likely to mature before reaching that far east. A storm of this size, with energy and moisture available, has the potential to deliver the heaviest snow of the winter, especially in light of how the season has evolved. The storm system will bring not only drenching rain to portions of the South Central states, but also severe thunderstorms, especially in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The upcoming general snowstorm and local blizzard just goes to show how quickly the weather can change over the Plains. During Monday and Tuesday, temperatures soared into the 60s over much of the region. - Accu Weather.

The AccuWeather Long Range Forecasting Team thinks longest stretch of cold is yet to come for the Great Lakes and Northeast, but spring will arrive early for many. Phil saw his shadow for Groundhog Day 2012 in Punxsutawney, Pa., forecasting another six weeks of winter for the U.S.

"There is some winter left on the table, but not a full six weeks for most of the U.S.," responds Paul Pastelok, expert long-range meteorologist and leader of the Long-Range Forecasting Team, after Phil's prognostication. The longest period of chilly weather so far this winter is still in store for the Great Lakes and Northeast. The cold snap is expected to grip these regions during week two into week three of February. "Each day will be like deja vu, similar to the Groundhog Day movie... every day will be the same.... chilly," said Elliot Abrams, chief forecaster.

Temperatures will drop to 3-6 degrees below normal at the height of the cold stretch. It will be even colder compared to normal across northern New England, where the harshest cold will grip. Along with the cold comes the potential for snow. Pastelok feels that there will be the potential for one or two big storms in the East during February. The best potential for significant snow will be across the Great Lakes and the interior Northeast and northern New England, while mostly rain is expected in the big East Coast cities. The cold will ease with temperatures returning back to normal late in February across the Great Lakes and Northeast. Jack Boston, an Long Range Forecaster, added that it will feel more mild from the last week of February through much of March, with more frequent warm days in the East.

Wet at Times for Tennessee Valley into the Appalachians

On the southern edge of storms heading into the East, mostly rain will fall through February and through the middle of March. More than one round of rain during February could lead to potential flooding across portions of the Tennessee Valley into the Appalachians.

Another Bad Severe Weather Season

With abnormally warm air across the Gulf of Mexico, February and March are expected to be active with severe weather. "Deep cold air has not reached the Deep South yet, so the severe weather season is early," said Expert Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski. Gulf water temperatures are warm as a result. Any time the wind turns out of the south, warm, humid air is easily drawn across the Deep South. High humidity sets the stage for thunderstorms violent enough to produce tornadoes. An above-normal number of tornadoes are anticipated with areas from Louisiana to western Georgia and Tennessee expected to be in the line of fire.

Snow Drought Continues for the Northern Plains

Snow will continue to be scarce across the north-central Plains through the middle of March. The lack of snowcover in the northern Plains has implications on river flooding during the spring. "There will be lower chances of flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers," added Pastelok. This is good news following major flooding during spring 2011. Farther south, spring will arrive even sooner for the western and central Plains with above-normal temperatures and mainly dry weather by the middle of February.

Flip-Flopping in the West

In the Northwest, the next couple of weeks will remain drier-than-normal in the Northwest. It will turn wetter with more mountain snow by late in February and March. During the first part of February, it will stay dry in Southern California with some warm-ups. There may be a few storms that bring rain all the way to Southern California during the second half of February, but precipitation should still fall below normal for the month. March will be dry across the Southland. - Accu Weather.

PLANETARY TREMORS: Tracking the San Andreas Fault - Scientists Find That the Strike-Slip Boundary Between the North American and Pacific Plates May Look Like a Propeller?!

Last October more than 8.6 million Californians practiced the "Drop, Cover and Hold On" drill in the Great California ShakeOut. The exercise was designed to help residents prepare for the next "big one," a potential magnitude-7.8 earthquake along the southern San Andreas Fault.

The suggested propeller-like shape of the San Andreas Fault below the Earth’s surface.
All of the Great ShakeOut scenarios are based on everything scientists think they know about the San Andreas Fault — a so-called strike-slip boundary between the North American and Pacific plates that, geologists assumed, is very near vertical. But what if it's not vertical? A team recently took a new look at the San Andreas Fault and found that its geometry isn't that simple.
"It looks like the San Andreas continues down into the mantle with a propeller shape," said Gary Fuis, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. "If it's not vertical, it makes a big difference in who feels the shaking."

A propeller down below

Fuis and his team used seismic imaging and geophysical modeling to tease out the shape of the fault. They found that, rather than the near-vertical strike-slip fault geologists thought they understood, the San Andreas has at least two segments that dip dramatically in opposite directions. "Our models indicate that the fault actually goes into exaggerated dips," Fuis told OurAmazingPlanet. "It dips to the southwest south of Bakersfield, goes up to vertical through the northern San Gabriel Mountains, then flips over to dip northeast from San Bernardino all the way down to the Salton Sea."

Together, the two dipping segments give the fault a shape that resembles a propeller. Why the earth contorted itself into this geometry is still unclear. Fuis and his team think the propeller shape may make it easier for the Pacific and North American plates to slide past each other, especially through some of the southern California mountain ranges, where the plate boundary is a bit crooked. But determining whether that's actually the case will require additional geophysical modeling, Fuis said. The team's findings appear in the February issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

The San Andreas Fault super-imposed over the California landscape seen in a shuttle photo.
A whole lotta shakin' — in some places

Geologists do know that quakes on dipping faults cause the earth to shake very differently in different locations. When an earthquake occurs on a fault that dips to the east, for example, cities to the east of the fault will generally feel much stronger shaking than cities to the west. The reason is simply that the eastern cities are much closer to the fault plane because it's dipping under them.

This differential shaking was apparent during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fuis said. The quake shook Watsonville, a city south of the San Andreas Fault, nearly twice as hard as it shook San Jose, located north of the fault, even though the cities were equal distances from the epicenter.

Fuis believes that, as geologists uncover more dipping along the San Andreas and other faults around the globe, they'll be able to better predict the consequences of major earthquakes and improve drills like the Great California ShakeOut.

"There's a very strong prejudice out there that says when two pieces of earth move sideways past each other, the fault has to be vertical. Well, we've shown in Southern California that, no, it doesn't have to be vertical," Fuis said. "As we do more and more seismic imaging over strike-slip faults like the San Andreas, we're going to find all kinds of dips, and they'll very rarely be vertical. But this is just a start."
- Our Amazing Planet.

EXTREME WEATHER: Winter Cold Snap Kills 36 in the Central and Eastern Parts of Europe - Several Areas Registered Temperature of Minus 20 Celsius Below Zero! UPDATE: Death Toll Rises to 60 as Big Freeze Sweeps Through Europe! UPDATE: 160 Die as Eastern Europe Sinks Further into Deep Freeze - 11,000 People Are Trapped in Remote Villages in Serbia by Snow; and the Met Office Issues Wide Weather Alert in England!

A severe and snowy cold snap across central and eastern Europe has left at least 36 people dead, cut off power to towns, and snarled traffic. Officials are responding with measures ranging from opening shelters to dispensing hot tea, with particular concern for the homeless and elderly.

This part of Europe is not unused to cold, but the current freeze, which spread to most of the region last week, came after a period of relatively mild weather. Many were shocked when temperatures in some parts plunged Monday to minus 20 Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit). "Just as we thought we could get away with a spring-like winter ..." lamented Jelena Savic, 43, from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, her head wrapped in a shawl with only eyes uncovered. "I'm freezing. It's hard to get used to it so suddenly."

Officials have appealed to people to stay indoors and be careful. Police searched for the homeless to make sure they didn't freeze to death. In some places, heaters will be set up at bus stations. Still, 18 people, most of them homeless, died in Ukraine from hypothermia and nearly 500 people sought medical help for frostbite and hypothermia in just three days last week, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Temperatures in parts of Ukraine fell to minus 16 C (3 F) during the day and minus 23 C (minus 10 F) in the night. Authorities opened 1,500 shelters to provide food and heat and closed schools and nurseries. More than 17,000 people have sought help in such shelters in the past three days, authorities said.

In Poland, at least 10 people froze to death as the cold reached minus 26 C (minus 15 F) on Monday. Malgorzata Wozniak, a spokeswoman for Poland's Interior Ministry, told The Associated Press that elderly people and the homeless were among the dead. Police were checking unheated empty buildings for homeless people they could take to shelters. Warsaw city authorities decided to place more than 40 heaters in the busiest city transport stops to help waiting passengers keep warm. City authorities in the Czech capital of Prague set up tents for an estimated 3,000 homeless people. Freezing temperatures also damaged train tracks, slowing railway traffic.

In central Serbia, three people died and two more were missing, while 14 municipalities were operating under emergency decrees. Efforts to clear roads blocked by snow were hampered by strong winds and dozens of towns faced power outages. Police said one woman froze to death in a snowstorm in a central Serbian village, while two elderly men were found dead, one in the snow outside his home. Further south, emergency crews are searching for two men in their 70s who are feared dead. In Bulgaria, a 57-year-old man froze to death in a northwestern village and emergency decrees were declared in 25 of the country's 28 districts. In the capital of Sofia, authorities handed out hot tea and placed homeless people in emergency shelters.

Strong winds also closed down Bulgaria's main Black Sea port of Varna, while part of a major highway leading to Bulgaria and Greece from Turkey was closed after a heavy snowfall. Nearly 200 Turkish Airlines flights to and from Istanbul's Ataturk Airport were canceled, and a city sports hall was turned to a temporary shelter for some 350 homeless people. The temperature in Turkey's province of Kars, which borders Armenia, dropped to minus 25 C on Sunday night. The situation was similar in Romania, where reports said four people have died because of freezing weather. There, authorities sent prison inmates to shovel snow and unblock paths leading to a shelter with some 300 stray dogs and puppies. Weather forecasts say the cold snap will continue. "We are getting some 'real' winter this week," Croatian meteorologist Zoran Vakula said. - AJC.

WATCH: Deadly Winter Weather in Serbia.

UPDATE: Death Toll Rises to 60 as Big Freeze Sweeps Through Europe!
At least 60 people have died due to freezing conditions caused by a cold snap in eastern and central Europe. The drop in temperatures, forcing some countries to deploy the army and set up emergency shelters, is set to continue to Friday, forecasters say. At least 30 people - mostly homeless - have died in Ukraine. Deaths have also been reported in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, among others.

Temperatures plunged to -20C (-4F) on Monday.

Health officials in Ukraine say nearly 24,000 people have sought refuge in some 1,590 shelters over the past three days. More than 600 people have sought treatment for frostbite and hypothermia during this time. The authorities say they are planning to set up 150 more centres, as heavy snow was forecast in the region on Wednesday.

'Elderly and homeless'

The death toll in Poland over recent days rose to 21 on Tuesday. The Interior Affairs Ministry said some had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty heaters, according to the Associated Press news agency. Poland had been having a relatively mild winter, until temperatures dropped last Friday from just below freezing to -26C (-15F).

Malgorzata Wozniak of Poland's interior ministry said elderly people and the homeless were among the dead, AP reports. Polish forecasters have warned that temperatures could fall further during the week, to below -20C during the day and -30C at night. At least eight people have died in Romania and five in Bulgaria.

Troops in Romania were deployed last week to rescue those stranded in cars by blizzards. In Serbia, police reported that the snowy conditions had led to the deaths of a woman and two elderly men. Two other men, in their 70s, are believed to be missing in the south of the country. Reports say there were also deaths in Lithuania, Bosnia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. - BBC.

UPDATE: 160 Die as Eastern Europe Sinks Further into Deep Freeze - 11,000 People Are Trapped in Remote Villages in Serbia by Snow;  and the Met Office Issues Wide Weather Alert in England!

At least 11,000 villagers have been trapped by heavy snow and blizzards in Serbia's mountains, authorities said Thursday, as the death toll from Eastern Europe's weeklong deep freeze rose to 122, many of them homeless people. The harshest winter in decades has seen temperatures in some regions dropping to minus 30 C (minus 22 F) and below, and has caused power outages, traffic chaos and the widespread closure of schools, nurseries and airports.

View of a snow-covered vineyard, in Rousset, near Aix-en-Provence, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012.
The stranded in Serbia are stuck in some 6,500 homes in remote areas that cannot be reached due to icy, snow-clogged roads with banks reaching up to 5 meters (16 feet). Emergency crews were pressing hard to try to clear the snow to deliver badly needed supplies, and helicopters were dispatched to some particularly remote areas in Serbia and neighboring Bosnia.

On Bosnia's Mt. Romanija, near Sarajevo, a chopper thumped down in the small hamlet of Ozerkovici, where a single nun lives in a Serb Christian Orthodox monastery surrounded by just a few village residents. Wrapped tight in a black jacket and a scarf, Sister Justina greeted aid workers at her monastery: "I live alone here," she said, but noted "God will help me." In Serbia, relief efforts are concentrated on evacuating the sick, on food delivery and gasoline distribution.

"We are trying everything to unblock the roads since more snow and blizzards are expected in the coming days," Serbian emergency police official Predrag Maric told The Associated Press. He said "the most dramatic" situation is near Serbia's southwestern town of Sijenica, where it has been freezing cold or snowing for 26 days, and diesel fuel supplies used by snowplows are running low. Most people in the villages will have enough food supplies stored up for the winter, Maric said, but he warned those who are stranded not to try to go anywhere on their own and to call emergency services if they need help.

Newly reported deaths on Thursday because of the cold included 20 in Ukraine, nine in Poland, eight in Romania, and one more each in Serbia and the Czech Republic. In Western Europe, one person was reported dead in Germany. Polish government spokeswoman Malgorzata Wozniak said her country's victims were mostly homeless people under the influence of alcohol who had sought shelter in unheated buildings. Officials appealed to the public to quickly help anyone they saw in need and homeless shelters were full.

In Warsaw, where the temperature Wednesday night was minus 22 C (minus 8 F), the narrow corridors of the Monar homeless shelter were filled with drying washing, and the residents crammed into a small dining room with bowls of soup. Martyna, pregnant and unemployed, said she was grateful to find a place there after her family rejected her and her partner. "This is the only safe place for me, where I can live and hide - from this sudden cold, too," the 22-year-old said. "I have nowhere else to go." She refused to give her last name, saying she didn't want anyone to know she was staying there.

Brothers Robert, 32, and Wieslaw, 27, arrived last week from Inowroclaw, in central Poland, saying they were promised full-time jobs that never materialized. They would have been left in the cold, but someone told them to go to the center, which currently houses 278 people. "We don't have to worry anymore where we will spend the night," said Wieslaw. "It is so cold outside that you don't want to leave here," his brother agreed.

Firefighters in Poland say that eleven people have died since Friday from asphyxiation with carbon monoxide, when they were using charcoal heaters to warm their homes. In Ukraine, 63 people have died from the cold in the last week. Nearly 950 others were hospitalized with hypothermia and frostbite, and more than 2,000 heated tents have been set up with hot food for the homeless.

About 180 schools were closed in Romania because of the freezing cold. Three ships were blocked on the Danube River - one German, one Dutch and one Romanian - and efforts were made to unblock them from ice. In Bulgaria, where 16 towns recorded their lowest temperatures since records started 100 years ago, 1,070 schools across the country remained closed Thursday and large sections of the Danube were frozen, hampering navigation. Some villages in Bosnia have had no electricity for days and crews were working around-the-clock trying to fix power lines.

Temperatures in parts of Germany were as low as minus 11 Celsius (12 Fahrenheit) Thursday afternoon. In the eastern city of Magdeburg, police said a 55-year-old homeless man who apparently had frozen to death was found Thursday morning. While the weather has yet to cause any significant disruption in the country, ferry services across the mouth of the Elbe river in northern Germany were suspended due to ice on Thursday.

However, the cold wave wasn't causing hardship everywhere. Dutch authorities banned boats from some of Amsterdam's canals and waterways in the hope the big freeze gripping the city would turn the still water to ice and allow residents to go skating. They also turned off mills and pumps that regulate water levels in the low-lying, flood-prone nation to improve the chances of canals freezing over.

Speed skating is a winter obsession in the Netherlands and hopes are high about the possibility of holding the Elfstedentocht - or "11 Town Tour" - skating race being staged for the first time since 1997. The 200-kilometer (125-mile) tour route takes skaters over frozen canals and lakes linking 11 towns in the northern Netherlands. The tour, which is also a race for elite skaters, has only been staged 15 times since the first official event in 1909. - Associated Press.

A cold snap kept Europe in its icy grip on Thursday, pushing the death toll to 160 as countries from Italy to Ukraine struggled to cope with temperatures that plunged to record lows in some places. Nine more people died in Poland overnight as temperatures hit minus 32 Celsius (minus 25.6 Fahrenheit) in the southwest, bringing the overall toll to 29 since the deep freeze began last week, national police said. In Ukraine, tens of thousands of people have headed to shelters trying to escape the freeze that the emergencies ministry said has now killed 63 people.

Most of them literally froze to death on the street, with only a handful making it to hospital before succumbing to hypothermia, the ministry said. Shivering and hungry, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have sought help in the more than 2,000 temporary shelters set up by the authorities to help the poor survive the fearsome spell of cold weather. The shelters offer warmth and hot food in a country where temperatures fell to minus 33 degrees Celsius in the Carpathians in the west of the country and minus 27 in the capital Kiev. "I am unemployed. I have somewhere to live but nothing to eat. I ate here and it was good -- bread with a slice of fat and an onion as well as porridge," said Olexander Shemnikov, an out-of-work engineer after visiting a shelter in Kiev.

In Romania, eight people died overnight because of the cold, bringing the overall toll to 22, the health ministry said. Schools remained closed in some parts of the country as temperatures reached minus 31 degrees Celsius. In Bulgaria, where the mercury dipped to lows not seen in a century, at least 10 people have died, according to media. Authorities have not released official figures. With parts of the Danube freezing, authorities moved some vessels to ports further away to protect them from the advancing ice. And in the capital Sofia, some residents found their money frozen as automated teller machines stopped functioning, according to local media.

In Latvia, 10 people have died around the capital Riga alone, with no figures available for the rest of the country. In neighbouring Lithuania a 55-year-old homeless man found in the ruins of an abandoned house in the port city of Klaipeda became the ninth victim of the chill. In Italy, hundreds of people were trapped overnight on trains as freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls in the centre and north caused widespread chaos on roads, railways and at airports. The cold has so far killed an infant in Sicily and a 76-year-old pensioner in Parma during what forecasters say is the coldest weather in Italy in 27 years.

In Austria, an 83-year-old woman was found frozen to death in the woods after apparently slipping on her daily walk and not managing to get up again, becoming the country's second victim of the cold snap, officials said. In Serbia, the cold has killed seven people and trapped some 11,500 others, mostly in remote mountain villages inaccessible by road. In Belgrade, homeless people unable to secure one of the 140 spots in the capital's sole shelter took refuge in trolley buses and trams. "Most of the drivers let them stay in the vehicle if they stay in the back part and do not disturb the trip," a company official told the Blic daily. "There are significantly more homeless people in public transport when it is so cold outside."

In neighbouring Bosnia, several remote hamlets in the east of the country were cut off, and authorities were monitoring if further airdrops were required after two helicopters were mobilised on Tuesday and Wednesday to bring food and other supplies. The freeze has also killed two people each in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece. In France, where 28 of 101 regions were placed under "deep cold" watch, authorities banned trucks on several major highways where the risk of snowfall and ice remained high. - Agence France-Presse.

Those stranded live in some 6,500 homes in remote areas that cannot be reached due to icy, snow-clogged roads, emergency police official Predrag Maric said. Emergency crews were pressing hard to try to clear the snow and deliver badly needed supplies. "We are trying everything to unblock the roads, since more snow and blizzards are expected in the coming days," Maric said. Twenty more deaths from the cold were reported in Ukraine on Thursday, with nine more in Poland and one more each in Serbia and the Czech Republic. Officials said most of the victims were homeless.
"They say the whole February will be cold, and the first half of March, so we have to get ready for this somehow," said Viktor, who is living on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine. Temperatures across the region sank to minus 26.5 F in some areas. Parts of the Black Sea froze near the Romanian coastline, and rare snow fell on Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. In Bulgaria, 16 towns recorded their lowest temperatures since records started 100 years ago. Polish government spokeswoman Malgorzata Wozniak said her country's victims were mostly homeless people under the influence of alcohol who had sought shelter in unheated buildings. Officials appealed to the public Thursday to quickly help anyone they saw in need.

In Ukraine, 63 people have perished from the cold in the past week. Nearly 950 others were hospitalized with hypothermia and frostbite, and more than 2,000 heated tents have been set up with hot food for the homeless. Helicopters used to evacuate, send food in Europe freeze. A source at the Russian gas export monopoly, Gazprom, which supplies a quarter of Europe's gas imports, said it was getting more requests from export markets than it could physically accommodate as demand from Russia spiked. "Despite increasing gas consumption in Russia due to heavy frosts, Gazprom continues implementing its contractual obligations to European clients," it said.

To the south, helicopters evacuated dozens of people from snow-blocked villages in Serbia and Bosnia this week and airlifted in food and medicine. In central Serbia, choppers pulled out 12 people, including nine who went to a funeral but then could not get back over icy, snow-choked roads. Two more people froze to death in the snow, and two others are missing, bringing that nation's death toll to five. "The situation is dramatic. The snow is up to five meters (16 1/2 feet) high in some areas — you can only see rooftops," said Dr. Milorad Dramacanin, who participated in the helicopter evacuations. Two helicopters on Wednesday rescued people and resupplied remote villages in northern Bosnia.

"We are trying to get through to several small villages, with each just a few elderly residents," said Bosnian rescue official Milimir Doder. "Altogether some 200-300 people are cut off. We are supplying them for the second day with food and medication." In the small Bosnian hamlet of Han Kran on Mount Romanija, villagers waited for a helicopter at a flat spot that they had cleared of snow. "We are barely coping. I live on my own — it is a real struggle," said Radenka Jeftovic, an elderly woman wrapped in woolen scarves and hugging a food package she received. Goran Milat, a younger resident, complained that "the minuses are killing us." "We are thankful for this help," he said. "But the snow did what it did, and we are blocked here until spring." Some Bosnian villages have had no electricity for days, and crews were working round-the-clock trying to fix power lines. Schools, nurseries and colleges across the region shut down, including one school in eastern Hungary that said it could not afford the high heating bills. The airport in Montenegro's capital of Podgorica was shut down for a second day Thursday because of heavy snowfall. - MSNBC.
The Met Office has issued a serious England wide weather alert with snow forecast for some parts of Britain over the weekend.

WATCH: Danny Savage of the BBC reports.

WATCH: UK's weekend weather battleground

WEATHER ANOMALIES: Extreme Weather Hits Mexico - The Most Severe Drought Ever, Coupled With a Devastating Cold Snap Are Creating a Monumental Food Crisis!

A drought that a government official called the most severe Mexico had ever faced has left two million people without access to water and, coupled with a cold snap, has devastated cropland in nearly half of the country.

Indigenous Tarahumara drove to another community to receive humanitarian aid in the midst of a drought.
The government in the past week has authorized $2.63 billion in aid, including potable water, food and temporary jobs for the most affected areas, rural communities in 19 of Mexico's 31 states. But officials warned that no serious relief was expected for at least another five months, when the rainy season typically begins in earnest.

While the authorities say they expect the situation to worsen, one of the five worst-affected states, Zacatecas, got a reprieve on Sunday. Heriberto Félix Guerra, head of the Ministry of Social Development, saw the rain, the first in 17 months, as a guardedly reassuring sign.

Among the more seriously affected communities are tribal areas of the Tarahumara indigenous community in the Sierra Madre, in the north. Known for endurance running and self-reliance, the Tarahumara are among Mexico's poorest citizens. When false reports of a mass suicide brought on by hunger surfaced recently, journalists and aid organizations poured in to shed light on the situation.

"I think it has really become extreme poverty," says Isaac Oxenhaut, national aid coordinator for the Mexican Red Cross. Mr. Oxenhaut recently visited the Indian communities where, he said, the land was too dry to grow any crops the Tarahumara usually depend on for their livelihood. "They don't have anywhere to harvest absolutely anything," he added.

Nearly 7 percent of the country's agricultural land, mostly in the north and center, has suffered total loss, according to Victor Celaya del Toro, director of development studies at the Agriculture Ministry.

The drought, which has been compounded by freezing temperatures, has already pushed up the cost of some produce, including corn and beans. The governor of the Central Bank, Agustín Carstens, speaking last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, cautioned that it might cause inflation to rise later this year.

But government officials have said they do not expect the price of exports to be affected. Some of the most devastated areas are hard to reach, slowing the flow of aid to a trickle. The Red Cross is sending 70-pound sacks of rice, beans and sugar, as well as winter clothing. "A cargo bus will not fit," Mr. Oxenhaut said. "You have to do it with four-wheel drives or donkeys, or the people who take it on their backs." Even illicit crops have suffered in the drought. Pedro Gurrola, army commander in the state of Sinaloa, told reporters on Monday that many marijuana crops had dried up but that the harvest of what remains has continued. - NY Times.

EARTH, THE CEMETERY PLANET: Researchers Discover Gulf Dead Zone Much Larger Than Previously Thought - Lack of Oxygen Can Kill Marine Life Within Hours; "The Hypoxia Level Was Crazy!"

For years now, scientists have been monitoring the development of a massive dead zone off the coast of south Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, new research is showing the presence of another underwater area lacking oxygen and life -- this time in the Chandeleur Sound, east of St. Bernard Parish. Gulf waters include some of the richest areas for seafood in the country, and part of that critical habitat includes the Chandeleur Sound. "This general area is a major path for migration of fish," said Dr. John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

Deep below the surface, life may be struggling. The Foundation, along with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCOM), recently decided to share their findings with each other concerning the dead zone in the Chandeleur Sound. What they discovered was that the dead zone is four times larger than they initially thought. It covers more than a 1,000 square miles, stretching from the Chandeleur Islands, east to the Florida Panhandle and possibly beyond.

"It's relatively new that it's been discovered," Lopez said. "Basically, in 2008, we saw the first indications of it. We think it may have been developing for a number of years. It had just been overlooked." That's no longer the case, though. Helping to track the dead zone is the non-profit Marine Research and Assistance Council. "We have different stratifications where we drop the instrument to different water levels, and we measure temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen," said Chuck Cropp, president of the Marine Research and Assistance Council.

Cropp said it didn't take long before their instruments picked up on the dead zone, also known as hypoxia. "The hypoxia level was crazy," he said. "So, we went from having water with oxygen in it, to having water with no oxygen in it." A lack of oxygen can kill marine life within hours. Shellfish that can't easily swim away are most at risk. What effect the dead zone could have on the fisheries, and what may be causing it in the first place, is still not clear. However, scientists suspect it may have something to do with its location and the sea current there.

"Essentially, you have the boot of Louisiana that comes further south out into the Gulf of Mexico and creates a corner with the Mississippi coastline," Lopez said. "We think this may just be an area of low energy." Researchers don't think the dead zone has anything to do with the oil spill, since they first spotted it two years beforehand. They plan to head out again in a couple weeks to gather more samples from the dead zone. They also plan to reach out to their counterparts in Alabama and Florida because they suspect the dead zone may stretch even further east than they have been able to document so far. - WWLTV.

EXTREME WEATHER: Dozens Killed as Icy Weather Grips Japan - 55 Dead in One of the Coldest Winters in Recent Years!

Heavy snow that has blanketed northern Japan for weeks, triggering avalanches and affecting transport networks, has left at least 55 people dead.

In one of the country's coldest winters in recent years, the toll includes more than 40 people who died as they removed snow from roofs or roads, seven crushed by snow falling from buildings and four killed in avalanches.

The latest snow slide, at a popular mountain resort known for therapeutic hot-springs, killed three holidaymakers yesterday.

The 40-metre-wide avalanche crushed three tents near a naturally heated rock site in northern Akita prefecture. Police and rescuers continued their search today "to confirm there are no others buried in the snow", a police spokesman said.

The conditions have led to the cancellation of flights and numerous train delays, including parts of the shinkansen bullet train system.

In Aomori prefecture, a heavy snowstorm on Wednesday night stranded more than 100 cars on one road, forcing 250 people to seek shelter for the night in local schools, reports said. - Perth Now.

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: Methane Gas Hydrates - Vast Energy Resource or Ecological Disaster Awaiting?!

A vast and untapped resource of fuel? A contributor to global climate change? A submarine hazard and potential trigger of tsunamis? A cause of catastrophic species extinction? An ELE - Extinction of Life Event? All of these are postulated scenarios for methane gas hydrates. Methane hydrate is formed when methane gas and water are brought together under suitable conditions of low temperature and elevated pressure, such that an "ice" type structure is formed containing methane molecules in considerable quantity. It is thought that vast quantities of methane hydrate exist on the ocean beds and in the sediments of the sea floors and in permafrost, and some speculate that it might be possible to harvest the material to provide a massive reserve of methane as a fuel. Gas hydrates are among the class of materials known as "clathrates", in which guest molecules occupy cavities (pores) within a host structure. The whole field is part of what is known as "guest-host" chemistry. In a fully saturated methane-hydrate, the material holds 164 times its own volume of methane gas, but packed tightly within its confines. The hydrate provides, therefore, an effective storage unit for methane.

The temperature at which methane-hydrate is stable depends on the prevailing pressure. For example, at zero degrees C, it is stable under a pressure of about 30 atmospheres, whereas at 25 deg. C, nearer 500 atmospheres is needed to maintain its integrity. The occlusion of additional gases within the ice structure tends to add stability, whereas the presence of salts (e.g. NaCl, as from sea water) requires higher stabilising pressures. Appropriate conditions of temperature/ pressure exist on Earth in the upper 2000 metres of sediments in two regions: (i) in permafrost at high latitudes in polar regions where the surface temperatures are very low (below freezing), and (ii) submarine continental slopes and rises, where not only is the water cold (around freezing), but the pressures are high (greater than 30 atmospheres). Thus, in polar regions, methane-hydrate is found where temperatures are cold enough for onshore and offshore permafrost to be present. In offshore sediments, methane-hydrate is found at water depths of 300 - 500m, according to the prevailing bottom-water temperature. There are reported cases where "chunks" of methane-hydrate break-loose from the sea bottom and rise to the surface, depressurizing and warming, where they "fizz" from the release of methane as they decompose to the gas/water state.

There are manifold and widely disputed estimates of exactly how much methane-hydrate there is. However, a figure of 10^16 cubic metres (m^3) of methane gas occluded within the entire global deposits of this material is probably a reasonable estimate. One estimate (Dobrynin et al., in "Long-Term Energy Resources," Pitman, Boston, 1981, pp. 727-729) puts the total at nearly 10^19 m^3, but this is the only one of such magnitude. Notwithstanding, the quantities of methane-hydrate are vast, and in view of this, it is thought that it might provide a potentially significant energy source, probably at least four times the entire reserve of fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal) known (estimated). As "Peak Oil" bares its teeth, the possibility appears increasingly attractive. However, the actual extraction of methane from this source is beset by a number of difficulties: e.g. low permeability of sediments, which restrict the actual flow of methane; lack of sustained interest from the oil/gas industry (though this may well change, vide supra, according to rising pressures of demand upon the existing limited resource); current limited gas-industry infrastructure at methane-hydrate locations; and the fact that no good field example has yet been demonstrated of the successful production of methane from its gas-hydrate. All these considerations score on the negative side as far as methane-hydrate becoming a serious fuel source is concerned.

Methane is a greenhouse gas and is often cited as having a global warming potential around 20 times that of an equivalent quantity of CO2, released into the atmosphere. I am slightly at odds with this argument which seems to downplay the effect of methane, since the model assumes the release of equal volumes of methane and CO2 simultaneously, and then integrates the influence over twenty years (by which time about four-fifths of the methane will have been removed by oxidation in the Troposphere). In my view, a more realistic model is one of "steady release" of both methane and CO2, in which case the global warming potential is equal to the "instantaneous radiative forcing constant", which is nearer 110, not 20; i.e. the global warming potential of methane is a lot worse than it is given credit for!

It seems clear that in a warming world (for whatever reason), methane will be released in increasing quantities, e.g. from warming permafrost, thus augmenting global warming. Disturbances on the sea bed may also cause the decomposition of methane-hydrate. It is known that drilling into methane hydrate poses a hazard to oil prospecting operations, and it is also thought that decomposition of methane hydrate with an eruption of methane could trigger a tsunami. More catastrophically, it is believed by some that world-scale eruptions of methane from these "ice" deposits can have triggered climate-change (global warming) on a cataclysmic level, most notably the Permian-Triassic (P-T or PT) extinction event, sometimes informally called the Great Dying, which was an extinction event that occurred approximately 252 million years ago, forming the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geologic periods. It was the Earth's most severe extinction event, which extinguished the life of up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrae species. Because so much biodiversity was lost, the recovery of life on Earth took significantly longer than after any other extinction event, and hence it has been dubbed as the "mother of all mass extinctions."

For some time after the event, fungal species were the dominant form of terrestrial life, and perhaps this is where the planet is ultimately heading once more... - Oilprice.

FIRE IN THE SKY: People Report Fireball Streaking Across The Sky In Texas - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Confirms it as a Meteor!

Thousands of people across Texas and Oklahoma reported seeing a flash of light streaking across the night sky Wednesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the light people saw at about 8 p.m. central time was in-fact a meteor. However, the thousands who reported the flash as an unidentified flying object do not have to feel inadequate when it comes to spotting meteors.  This meteor was unusually large, and it created a sonic boom as it passed by residents.

“We know it wasn’t an airplane, so the most likely candidate is a meteor,” FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said in a statement.Even aircraft pilots and ground crews reported seeing the bright white ball, which was spotted as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as San Antonio.

“We’ve had reports of people seeing this ‘fireball’ from as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as Houston,” Lunsford said. “It was visible in a kind of northeast to southwest path,” he said. He said meteors of this size are reported to the FAA several times a year.  This particular meteor was visible for several seconds and streaked across at an estimated path of 500 miles. “To be seen over such a wide area, it had to be really, really high up,” he said. - Red Orbit.

WATCH: Texas Meteor Shower Caught on Camera.

THE HOLY GRAIL: THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON - NASA Spacecraft Records Unique View of the Far Side of the Moon!

A camera aboard one of NASA's twin Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) lunar spacecraft has returned its first unique view of the far side of the moon.

A gravity-mapping spacecraft orbiting the moon has beamed home its first video of the lunar far side — a view people on Earth never see. The new video was captured by one of NASA's twin Grail probes using a novel camera called MoonKAM, which will eventually be used by students on Earth to snap photos of the lunar surface as part of an educational project. The two spacecraft have been circling the moon since they arrived in orbit over the New Year.

"The quality of the video is excellent and should energize our MoonKAM students as they prepare to explore the moon," said Maria Zuber, Grail principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, in a statement accompanying the video's release today (Feb. 1). Because the moon is tidally locked with Earth, it only presents one face to the planet's surface (the near side). The side of the moon that faces away from Earth is the far side. Only robotic spacecraft and Apollo astronauts who orbited the moon in the 1960s and 1970s have seen the far side of the moon directly. [New photo and video of the moon's far side]
WATCH: The far side of the moon as a stark, scarred landscape. Dozens of craters are visible in the field of view.

As the video begins, the vast impact basin of Mare Orientale — which is 560 miles (900 kilometers) wide and straddles the near and far sides, is clearly visible in the lower third of the frame, according to a NASA description. To the left of the middle is the Drygalski crater, a 93-mile-wide (149 kilometer) basin that stands out because of the star-shaped formation in its center.

While NASA released the lunar far side video today, it was actually recorded Jan. 19 by one of the Grail probes, which are now called Ebb and Flow. The Grail mission's name stands for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory. Both spacecraft are equipped with their own MoonKAM (or Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) cameras.

The MoonKAM project is an effort led by former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, to encourage student interest in science. It is the first set of cameras ever to fly on a NASA planetary probe that is completely dedicated to education and public outreach.

Under the program, thousands of students between fourth and eighth grade will be able to request targets on the moon to be photographed by the Grail probes via an operations center based in San Diego, Calif. Once the photos are taken, they will be sent to the students for further study, NASA officials said.

"We have had great response from schools around the country; more than 2,500 signed up to participate so far," Ride said, adding that the first moon photos taken by students will be recorded in mid-March. "I expect this will excite many students about possible careers in science and engineering."

NASA launched the $496 million Grail mission in September 2011 on a tag-team mission to map the moon's gravity field like never before. The two washing machine-size spacecraft are currently lowering their orbits around the moon and will eventually begin the science phase of their mission once they reach a target altitude of just 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the lunar surface.

Grail mission scientists will use minute changes in the positions of the lunar orbiters as they fly in tandem to map variations in the moon's gravitational field.

EXTREME WEATHER: Australian Weather Anomalies - Sydney Records Soggiest Summer in a Decade While Perth Swelters Through its Hottest January in 34 Years! UPDATE: "The Big Kahuna" - The New South Wales Town of Moree to be Split in Two by Floods! UPDATE: New South Wales to Face the Worst Floods in 35 Years!

Sydney has recorded its soggiest January in 11 years and the coldest one in 12 years.

Sydney recorded 139mm of rain last month, exceeding the long term average of 101mm, said Tom Saunders, Senior Meteorologist at The Weather Channel. January also had 13 rainy days compared to the average of 12. The average minimum temperature for the month was 19.6C and the average maximum was 26.1C, also making it the coldest January in 12 years, he said. "The wet, mild start to the year follows our coldest December in 51 years, which puts Sydney on track to record one of its coldest summers in recent decades," Mr Saunders said. The weather was typical of La Nina cycles, he said. - Herald Sun.

Perth has sweltered through its hottest January in 34 years, after experiencing its first heat wave this summer.

Last week saw the WA capital record five consecutive days above 37 degrees, marking the hottest January since 1978, according to The Weather Channel, which sources its information from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Weather Channel senior meteorologist Tom Saunders said it was "unusual" for Perth to record such consistently high temperatures.

"Minimum temperatures were two degrees above average at 20.1C, while maximum temperatures were three degrees above average at 33.5C," he said. "The hottest temperature for the month was Saturday, January 28, when the mercury rose to 42.1C." Mr Saunders said the hot weather spell was due to a combination of offshore winds and very warm sea surface temperatures off the WA coast. "The heat remains as we start February, but thankfully some respite is on the way," he said. A cool change is set to arrive in the next 48 hours, dropping temperatures across the Perth metropolitan area. - Herald Sun.

UPDATE: "The Big Kahuna" - The New South Wales Town of Moree to be Split in Two by Floods!

Emergency services are preparing to evacuate hundreds of homes in Moree, with the north-western NSW town predicted to be split in half by floodwaters later in the day. "We think this is going to be bigger than the floods that occurred in the 1970s," NSW SES Deputy Commissioner of Operations Steven Pearce told AAP today. "The town will be cut in two." Severe downpours of 125 millimetres hit the town overnight, causing the Mehi and Gwydir rivers to break their banks. About 450 properties are being affected by the swollen Mehi River, which is set to reach 7.5 metres this morning and rise to 9.5m by 3pm (AEDT), the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) predicts. The river is then expected to peak near 10.3m tomorrow morning.

Evacuation warnings in place for much of the town are likely to be upgraded to compulsory orders later today. "We have got to do some more planning before we can evacuate, it's going to get really tough with the town cut in two," Mr Pearce said. Moree Plains Shire Mayor Katrina Humphries said the rain had been relentless and it was about to get "a whole lot tougher". "We are only six weeks out from the last floods so the ground is sodden," Ms Humphries told ABC Radio today. "All the billabongs, all the creeks, all the gullies are already full and there's nowhere for this water to go except up. "This is going to be the Big Kahuna."

In the mid-north coast and northwest areas of the state, about 2500 people are now isolated by floodwaters. The SES is concerned the situation will get worse as heavy downpours overnight put pressure on swelling river systems. Helicopters are hard at work making food and medical drops as well as moving livestock. Emergency services rescued a truck driver from his semi after it was caught in rising waters near Gunnedah. Evacuation orders have also been issued overnight for parts of the Wingham Peninsula, Barraba and Taree. More than 60 properties are at risk on the Wingham Peninsula, where residents have been warned to expect flooding in low-lying areas today.

The BoM said the river at Wingham had reached 8.9m in the early hours this morning. In Taree, where 40 properties are affected and the SES is setting up evacuation centres at Taree PCYC and Taree High School. The BoM has predicted flood levels for the Taree Bridge Gauge to hit 2.4m at 8am (AEDT) today. Meanwhile in Barraba, the Manilla River reached 5.7m this morning. Nineteen properties have been issued with an evacuation warning, with the SES reminding people not to walk, ride or drive through floodwaters. Thirteen flood warnings remain in place for river systems across the state. The SES is urging all locals in flood evacuation warning areas to monitor the situation and be prepared to evacuate. - Perth Now.

UPDATE: New South Wales to Face the Worst Floods in 35 Years!

Thousands of residents in northern NSW are bunkered down in evacuation centres, as the worst floods in over 35 years hit the region. Across NSW, more than 12,000 people were isolated by rising floodwaters on Thursday as heavy rainfall lashed the state, sparking 13 flood warnings. Evacuation operations continued in and around Moree late on Thursday afternoon, with about 2300 residents rushing to sandbag their homes and leave before darkness fell. Helicopters descended on nearby Pallamallawa to airlift some of its 600 flood-stricken residents to safety, with the Gwydir river expected to peak there at 6pm (AEDT).

NSW SES deputy commissioner of operations Steven Pearce said the Pallamallawa operation was challenging. 'But we are very confident we will get everyone to safety,' he told AAP. At Moree, both the Mehi and Gwydir rivers were predicted to peak on Friday morning, matching or exceeding the 10.6m levels reached in the February 1976 flood. 'We're looking at water up to the knees (in some areas),' Moree Mayor Katrina Humphries said in a statement urging affected residents to leave their homes. About 1600 Moree residents and 80 people from Biniguy were expected to evacuate to south Moree evacuation centres before dark, when the main bridge at Moree would be closed and the town split in two. 'Everyone is really pulling together to help sandbag properties and there's a really strong community spirit,' SES spokeswoman on the ground, Heidi Groom, told AAP.

NSW Police and Emergency Services minister Mike Gallacher extended natural disaster declarations on Thursday to the Moree, Narrabri, Gwydir, Tenterfield and Greater Taree local government areas. 'The emergency service personnel deployed to these areas have done an outstanding job helping communities who are in the thick of this weather system,' Mr Gallacher said in a statement. Premier Barry O'Farrell, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner and Mr Gallacher will tour the flood-affected regions on Friday. The SES estimates about 12,150 people will be isolated across the state by Thursday night.

These include the 2300 at Moree, 2300 on the mid-north coast, 2500 around Bellingen and 4650 around Harrington at the Manning River, the SES said. Essential supplies, including blood from Mungindi Hospital just across the border in Queensland, were brought into Moree, while food and supply drops were expected to take place in isolated regions. Thirteen flood warnings remained in place for river systems across NSW, with rain expected to spread to the Hunter region, the Illawarra and metropolitan Sydney later on Thursday. 'This is a campaign of flood events that are likely to stay around for some time,' deputy SES commissioner Pearce said. - SKY News.

WATCH: NSW to face worst floods in 35 years.

TERMINATOR NOW: The Age of Obama and the Rise of the Machines - Humans Lose as Robots Win in New Defense Budget!

The big loser in the Pentagon’s new budget? Ordinary human beings. About 80,000 Army soldiers and 20,000 Marines are getting downsized. Half of the Army’s conventional combat presence in Europe is packing up and ending its post-Cold War staycation. Replacing them, according to the $613 billion budget previewed by the Pentagon on Thursday: unconventional special-operations forces; new bombers; new spy tools; new missiles for subs; and a veritable Cylon army of drones.

This is the first of the Pentagon’s new, smaller “austerity” budgets: it’s asking Congress for $525 billion (plus $88.4 billion for the Afghanistan war), compared to a $553 billion request (plus $117 billion in war cash) last year. Only the Pentagon is emphasizing (.pdf) what the military is keeping, not what it’s cutting. That’s because congressional Republicans don’t like swallowing these cuts — and really don’t want to acquiesce to a currently-scheduled law that could tack on another $600 billion-plus to the already-scheduled, decade-long $487 billion in cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is preempting the objections, promising a force that’s “smaller and leaner, but agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced.” That means no changes to the U.S. fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and 10 air wings, all reflecting the Obama administration’s emphasis on the western Pacific. It means leaving the nuclear triad — the bombers, subs and missiles that can end all life on earth — alone. (With one exception: the military will delay replacing the Ohio-class submarine by two years.) It means electronic weapons to jam enemy defenses and attack online networks. It means elite commando forces like the ones who just rescued two aid workers kidnapped in Somalia. And it means drones for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

As previewed by President Obama earlier this month, the new budget is going to fund 65 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols — squadrons of up to four drones — “with a surge capacity of 85,” up from 61 today. The Army may be losing 100,000 soldiers, but if it’s any consolation, the Army’s forthcoming Gray Eagle drone gets the thumbs-up. So does “sea-based unmanned” systems like the Navy’s Fire Scout robo-copter, and unspecified “new unmanned systems with increased capabilities,” probably a reference to next-gen drones like the Navy’s X-47B, which should be able to fly from an aircraft carrier at the click of a mouse by 2018 — the better to patrol the Pacific. Some other programs get expanded, too. For 20 years, Navy’s studied creating non-aircraft-carrier bases at sea, to put in places where the U.S. can’t have land bases, to launch small jump jets like the F/A-18 Hornet, helicopters or drones. Now the Pentagon will fund “development of a new afloat forward staging base,” according to budget documents, although it’s not specifying what how large those ships will be or how much they’ll cost.

It’s also a great time to be a snake-eater. Pentagon budget documents describe Special Operations Forces as “critical to U.S. and partner counter terrorism operations and a variety of other contemporary contingencies.” In other words, whereas the military invaded and occupied trouble spots during the 2000s, it’ll send commandos for discrete missions in the 2010s. More money is also going into the Air Force’s new long-range bomber, which won’t always have a human in the cockpit; “improved air-to-air missiles,” probably to prepare for the day when China’s stealth aircraft are a challenge; new jammers and communications gear; and even designing “a conventional prompt strike option from submarines.” It’s going to be good time to manufacture powerful, non-nuclear missiles. Even the most expensive defense program in history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet family, is getting a mere haircut. After Panetta embraced the planes on Friday, the Pentagon says it’ll merely “slow Joint Strike Fighter procurement” — even though weapons testing recently found it to have 13 expensive new flaws. All that will let the military “retain a decisive technological edge,” Panetta said, “leverage the lessons of recent conflicts and stay ahead of the most lethal and disruptive threats of the future.”

Non-human beings actually do get the budget axe, though — mainly in the Air Force. As Danger Room first reported, the Air Force is losing older aircraft — specifically 27 “aging C-5A” cargo planes, as well as 65 of the newer C-130s (the Air Force will still have 318 of ‘em). It’s also losing 38 of what the Pentagon calls the “niche capability” C-27s, a curious propeller-driven cargo plane. And a variant of the Air Force’s much-used Global Hawk spy drone is getting cut, although an upgrade version will survive. That won’t go over well with the flyboys. Their lobbying organization, the Air Force Association, sent a letter to Congress yesterday that represents something of a warning shot to the Pentagon. “While attributes like stealth, speed, and range were not necessary above [Iraq and Afghanistan], they are essential preconditions for securing US interests elsewhere,” 14 former top generals and Air Force official write. “Over the long-term, we must not assume de facto preeminence when it comes to innovating and producing the next generation of systems.”
But it’s not just the Air Force that gets cut. The Army’s fleet of missile-spotting blimps, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is getting “curtailed” — slowed down, but not cancelled — a move sure to raise eyebrows as the defense industry moves to make spy blimps the aerial surveillance tool of choice. The Army’s Humvees won’t get upgraded either, as the Army emphasizes its next line of armored trucks. The Navy gets off mostly unscathed, owing to its primacy for Pacific defense. It’ll lose 7 cruisers ahead of schedule, most of which can’t contribute to seaborne missile defense, along with two small amphibious ships. One of its big-deck amphibious ships will be delayed a year. It’ll buy two fewer Littoral Combat Ships than it expected during the next five years, eight fewer Joint High Speed Vessels, and one fewer Virginia-class sub. But that should make the Navy happier than the Air Force and the Army.

Next week, lawmakers will lecture Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about how the cuts are irresponsibly endanger America. The GOP presidential candidates have already started. But the Pentagon may actually be overstating how large its budget cuts truly are. Over the next five years, “total U.S. defense spending, including both base funding and war costs,” its budget documents contend, “will drop by about 22 percent from its peak in 2010, after accounting for inflation.” Except that’s not exactly true. “When you set aside the fictional budget projections for Iraq and Afghanistan, which are ending anyway, this is about an eight percent cut from the most recent Pentagon budget projection,” says Gordon Adams, a former Clinton-era defense budget official. “What’s more, the defense budget would continue to grow over the next ten years, just less than they previously projected.” No one said a military staffed with robots would come cheap. - WIRED.