The U.S. has seen a record-breaking 292 confirmed tornadoes this month — well above the April 1974 record of 267 twisters, and nearly double the April average of 163, USA Today reports. But despite all the devastation that's already occurred, the country's tornado troubles are far from over: Yet another severe thunderstorm system is brewing in the southern Plains today, according to the National Weather Service, part of a weeks-long pattern that favors funnel clouds. And this month's chaos may just be the beginning, since May typically has twice as many tornadoes as April.
"This season has been a little more active than usual for it to be this early," NWS meteorologist Andrew Kimball tells the Shelby (N.C.) Star. After tornadoes killed 24 people in North Carolina on April 16 — and took a total of 45 lives from Oklahoma to Virginia that weekend — another violent outburst rocked the Midwest on Good Friday, including an EF-4 tornado that ripped a 22-mile path through St. Louis and caused heavy damage at Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport. "It was like being in a horror movie," one survivor at the airport tells the AP. "Grown men were crying. It was horrible." More severe storms are forecast to kick off this afternoon, the NWS warns, starting in eastern Texas and Oklahoma. Cities most at risk include Tyler, Texas; McAlester, Okla.; Fort Smith, Ark.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Springfield, Mo.; while the threat will shift overnight to Monroe, La.; Greenville, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Paducah, Ky. The storms are likely to bring damaging winds, heavy hail and flooding rains, and "[t]here may even be a couple of strong, long-track tornadoes due to the amount of wind shear, or twisting of the winds, present in the atmosphere," says AccuWeather meteorologist Brian Edwards.
Overall, this spring's tornado trend is being fueled by air masses from the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, which are repeatedly colliding above the Great Plains and Midwest, USA Today's Oren Dorrell explains. This has created a persistent storm front through the country's midsection, as warm, moist air from the south crashes into cold, dry air from the north. "That front isn't going anywhere, so you get repeat storms and repeat heavy rains," says NWS meteorologist Greg Carbin. "Eventually this system will shift to the east but it's going to do it slowly," likely bringing severe weather to the Carolinas and Virginias Tuesday and Wednesday, he says. "This is about as bad as you can get in terms of repeat storm activity." And it may be about to get even worse, adds the Weather Channel's Greg Forbes: "We're not yet to the time of year when these types of tornadoes are most active."
As gas prices continue soaring throughout the U.S., calls to boost domestic oil drilling have also grown louder. "The Gulf is ready to get back to work to help create jobs and lower gasoline prices," U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. and head of the House Natural Resources Committee, said last week. But as CNNMoney reports, while more oil and gas drilling may create jobs, reduce foreign-oil reliance and decrease the trade deficit, it's unlikely to have much effect on gasoline prices.
"This 'drill drill drill' thing is tired," says oil-industry analyst Tom Klosa of the Oil Price Information Service. "It's a simplistic way of looking for a solution that doesn't exist." Any increase in U.S. production would be miniscule compared with what the world overall consumes, reports CNNMoney's Steve Hargreaves, and would also be quickly offset by a cut in OPEC's output. A 2009 study by the federal Energy Information Administration suggests opening up new oil-drilling areas off the East Coast, West Coast and western Florida could generate an extra 500,000 barrels daily by 2030, but world consumption is currently 89 million barrels per day. By 2030, it would likely be up to 100 million barrels. And after a production adjustment by OPEC to reflect the increased U.S. drilling, gas prices might fall as much as 3 cents per gallon, according to the EIA study. "More production from anywhere would tend to lower prices," says Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank. "But the amount that we're talking about domestically, it wouldn't move gas prices from $4 a gallon to $3."
In fact, U.S. offshore oil production has already been rising steadily since 2005, with the country now producing 9.7 million barrels of oil per day, the most it has mustered in 20 years, Hargreaves reports. And that's actually part of the reason gas prices have been so steep, since high-tech procedures like deepwater drilling and shale-rock extraction aren't cheap. Even if the entire country was suddenly opened to new drilling — including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and all federal lands that aren't in national parks — the effect on gas prices still wouldn't be clear, says the American Petroleum Institute's Rayola Dougher: "How would that play out in the market, what impact would that have on prices, we just don't know."
Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been cleared to attend Friday's launch of a NASA space shuttle commanded by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, Reuters reports. Giffords is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head she sustained in January, and the launch would be her first extended outing from a hospital environment since the tragic shooting, which killed 6 people and injured 13 others. "Yes, I've met with her doctors, her neurosurgeon ... [T]hey've given us permission to take her down to the launch," Kelly tells CBS Evening News.
Giffords' recovery so far has been remarkable, the Arizona Republic reported Sunday, revealing new details in her months-long struggle. She speaks mostly in one- or two-word phrases — such as "love you," "awesome," and even "get out" to doctors in her room after a long day — and she shows frustration when trying to form longer sentences, although she is capable of producing them at times. Her handwriting has changed, and she's now left-handed, but those are minor details in the big picture, according to her doctor, who places her in the top 5 percent of patients recovering from such an injury. She hasn't spoken publicly since the shooting, so Friday's launch will be a huge milestone that shows dramatic progress in a relatively short amount of time, the Republic reports.
Launching from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the space shuttle Endeavour (pictured above) will be taking its final flight before retirement, part of NASA's plan to shift routine operations to commercial space-travel companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Endeavour will be delivering equipment to the International Space Station, a journey that marks the second-to-last launch of any NASA space shuttle. The final flight, to be taken by the shuttle Atlantis, is scheduled for June.
From wilder weather and rising seas to longer droughts and more wildfires, climate change is expected to bring lots of new dangers to North America. And according to a new study in the journal PLoS ONE, one more threat can be added to the list: brown recluses. Already one of the continent's most feared spiders, brown recluses inject a potent (but not usually fatal) venom into their victims, killing tissue around the site of the bite that can leave a painful sore and sometimes even scars. Scientists still don't know the full extent of brown recluses' natural distribution, but according to the study, global warming is likely to expand their range north into previously unaffected regions.
Using a predictive-mapping technique known as "ecological niche modeling," which models various climate-change scenarios, the researchers concluded that brown recluses could stand to benefit substantially from a warmer world. The effects of rising temperatures, more extreme weather and other factors could help the species invade news parts of the U.S. such as Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the study. Being able to anticipate this potential invasion is important, the authors note, because it will allow the public and the medical community to prepare by educating themselves on brown recluse behavior.
"These results illustrate a potential negative consequence of climate change on humans," says lead author Erin Saupe, "and will aid medical professionals in proper bite identification and treatment, potentially reducing bite misdiagnoses."
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Photo (tornado in 2008): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (gas prices at a Chevron station in Los Angeles on April 18, 2011): ZUMA Press
Photo (Endeavour at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 11, 2011): ZUMA Press
Photo (brown recluse spider in Tulsa, Okla., in 2009): OakleyOriginals/Flickr