July was a historically hot month for the U.S., the National Climatic Data Center reports, with high-temperature records either broken or tied at 2,712 weather stations nationwide, including at least one in all 50 states. The country also set a new drought record for July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with 12 percent of the Lower 48 states enduring an "exceptional drought" last month. And as Reuters reports, the weather isn't getting much better in August — a persistent heat dome is still enveloping the central U.S., showing no signs of letting go anytime soon.

"It's pretty incredible to just be locked into a pattern of this kind of dry heat for this long for the Southern Plains," meteorologist Dan Pydynowski tells Reuters. "There doesn't seem to be any relief in sight." Two U.S. weather stations tied for the hottest temperatures recorded last month — both the Blythe station in Riverside County, Calif., and the Gila Bend station in Maricopa County, Ariz., reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit — but the heat wave left no corner of the country unscorched. Even the Northway weather station in Southeast Fairbanks County, Alaska, reached a record 97 degrees on July 11, while the city of Moorhead, Minn., was the hottest place on Earth for one day, Our Amazing Planet reports (that was July 19, when Moorhead's heat index spiked to 134 degrees). Several cities broke heat records that had stood for more than a century, including Childress, Texas (117 degrees, breaking a record from 1893) and Reading, Pa., (106 degrees, breaking a record from 1869).

The Southern Plains have been ground zero for heat waves all summer, and that's still the case as August unfolds. Parts of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are under excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service, while heat advisories are also in effect for a larger swath of the central U.S. Triple-digit heat-index values are forecast to persist until at least midweek for some areas, and the high-pressure dome that's behind all this heat may plague the country even longer than that. According to UPI, the heat dome could begin to diminish by the middle of the month, potentially letting temperatures fall closer to normal.

(Sources: Our Amazing Planet, Reuters, e! Science News, UPI


The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season is slowly lurching to life, with Tropical Storm Emily developing in the Caribbean to become just the fifth named storm of the summer. And after Tropical Storm Don failed to bring much rain to drought-stricken Texas last week, many in the parched Southeast are hoping Emily will have mercy on them, take a northwest turn and bring badly needed rain to the region.

Emily is currently in the eastern Caribbean, according to the National Hurricane Center, churning west at 14 mph with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph. The storm is expected to dump up to 6 inches of rain in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, potentially causing mudslides in areas that have already received heavy rainfall in recent weeks. Haiti is especially vulnerable to mudslides, thanks to a legacy of unchecked deforestation that has denuded hillsides across the impoverished country for decades. Emily is forecast to gradually strengthen as it moves west across the Caribbean Sea, and could arrive in Hispaniola Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Desirade, Les Saintes, Marie Galante, Vieques and Culbera, the AP reports.

While Emily's path remains far from certain, the NHC's projected path does show the storm turning north and heading toward Florida after passing over Cuba. If it follows that trajectory, it could bring rain to the Southeast by this weekend, an enticing prospect for the dry region. Although AccuWeather meteorologist Meghan Evans cautions that dry air to the north could impede the cyclone's path, she also points out that it's "churning over very warm water in an environment with little wind shear," adding that "[b]oth of these factors favor strengthening." 

(Sources: Associated Press, AccuWeather, National Hurricane Center)


Radiation at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has reached lethal levels in parts of the complex, the Guardian reports, raising fears about workers' safety and about their ability to decommission the plant on schedule. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, says it has detected radiation levels of 10 sieverts per hour at two locations, an amount that could cause incapacitation or death after brief exposure. The exact radiation level may be even higher, the Guardian notes, since the measuring device TEPCO used has a maximum reading of 10 sieverts per hour.

"Radiation leakage at the plant may have been contained or slowed, but it has not been sealed off completely. The utility is likely to continue finding these spots of high radiation," says Kenji Sumita, a nuclear engineering expert at Osaka University. And while TEPCO insists the discovery won't affect its plans to stabilize the reactors by January, Sumita says controlling radiation leaks should take precedence over staying on schedule. "Recovery work at the plant should not be rushed to meet schedules and goals, as that could put workers in harm's way," Sumita tells the Guardian. "We are past the immediate crisis phase and some delays should be permissible." Workers at Fukushima Daiichi are not allowed to be exposed to more than 250 millisieverts per year, but the newly discovered hot spots would expose someone to 10,000 millisieverts in just one hour.

Both of the new hot spots were found on a ventilation stack between two reactors, and as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the radiation is likely coming from materials that flowed there during early (and failed) attempts to prevent explosions by venting hydrogen gas from the reactor buildings. The radiation hot spots were detected using remote devices, and there are no plans to send workers near them, a TEPCO spokesman says. According to Kyoto University nuclear engineering professor Hironobu Unesaki, dealing with the hot spots can probably be put off, but it will have to happen eventually. "There is probably no immediate effect on on-site works to achieve cold shutdown," he tells the Chronicle, "but the utility has to deal with the material in future when decommissioning the plant."

(Sources: Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle)


Nicknamed "San Francisco's unicorn," the Franciscan manzanita (pictured) is one of the rarest plants in the U.S. — so rare, in fact, that it was declared extinct in the wild in 1947. But it was rediscovered in 2009 living on a highway median near the Golden Gate Bridge, and is now part of a secretive rehab project the Los Angeles Times describes as "a kind of botanical witness protection program." Yet some environmentalists worry the manzanita's amazing comeback is still in jeopardy, the Times reports, and they're pushing to get the plant officially listed as an endangered species.

"It's a very special plant, only seen in San Francisco," says Peter Ehrlich, a forester with the Presidio Trust. "That's what led to the emotional outbursts. Finding it. Losing it. It almost takes on mythical status." Scientists believe manzanitas have been evolving for 15 million years, but rapid development around San Francisco in the early 20th century quickly reduced the Franciscan manzanita's habitat to just a handful of patches. It was thought to be lost by the 1940s, and after a lone specimen re-emerged in 2009, officials removed it and took it to a 1,500-acre national park called the Presidio of San Francisco. There, the Times reports, the 7-square-foot patch lives in obscurity, with no signs labeling it and no maps detailing its location. Park officials won't say where it's located, part of a tight-lipped policy aimed at preserving the species' last-known holdout so it can be re-established in the wild.

An environmental group filed an emergency petition shortly after the Franciscan manzanita was moved to Presidio, hoping to have the plant protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Federal officials responded at the time that they didn't believe "an emergency situation exists for the San Francisco manzanita," and now nearly two years have passed with no progress. So the Wild Equity Institute, which filed the original petition, has now sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force its hand. As executive director Brent Plater argues, the longer the listing process takes, "the probability of successfully saving these species is reduced. The race against extinction is a race against time."

(Source: Los Angeles Times)


Virgin Islands National Park is established, a public emergency is declared at Love Canal, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (thermometer in Washington, D.C.): Mr. T in DC/Flickr

Photo (Tropical Storm Emily's projected path): NHC/NOAA

Photo (police guarding restricted area in Fukushima, Japan): ZUMA Press

Photo (Franciscan manzanita): U.S. National Park Service

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Tues. 8/2/2011
U.S. suffers record heat, lethal radiation in Japan, 'unicorn' plant at risk, and more.