For just the 16th time since 1887, Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow on Groundhog Day today, signaling that spring is on the way. Several other marmot meteorologists made the same forecast — New York's Staten Island Chuck didn't see his shadow either, for example, nor did Atlanta's Gen. Beauregard Lee. That's good news to millions of winter-weary Americans, especially given the reason all these groundhogs are shadowless: A monster storm spent the past 24 hours enveloping the country in a wintry haze.

This most recent Snowmageddon has dumped at least a foot of snow across much of the U.S. Midwest, crippling several major cities. Milwaukee was among the hardest-hit, receiving 12 to 16 inches, with snow still falling this morning. Chicago woke up to a record 13.6 inches, while Oklahoma City's 11.8 inches shattered its previous daily record of 5.5. (And even though it's just the second day of the month, this February is already Oklahoma City's third-snowiest on record.) All this snow has wreaked plenty of havoc, with motorists abandoning cars along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, and the National Guard rescuing drivers from snowbound interstates in Wisconsin. Airlines had canceled at least 6,700 flights by late Tuesday, with another 3,800 or so likely grounded today. "It's having a gigantic geographical impact," National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Oravec tells the New York Times.

So is Punxsutawney Phil right? The U.S. has already had seven major snowstorms this winter, and snowfall records have been crushed across the country. While an early spring would be a welcome relief, AccuWeather warns against getting your hopes up. As meteorologist Alex Sosnowski writes, the Groundhog Day blizzard "will fail to clean out the atmosphere of troublesome winter storms." Another one is already brewing that could affect parts of the Eastern Seaboard later this week, but fellow AccuWeather forecaster Joe Bastardi adds that Phil may not be entirely wrong. Within a few weeks, he says, a "big flip" will occur in recent U.S. weather patterns. "Before the end of February, Washington, D.C., will hit 70 and Dallas will hit 80 degrees," he says.

(Sources: Associated Press, CNN, New York Times, AccuWeather)


Flood-ravaged parts of Australia are enduring a monster storm of their own today, as a category 5 cyclone batters Queensland — the same state that's already been plagued by historic floods for the past three months. Cyclone Yasi smashed into the northeast Australian state overnight, bringing 180 mph winds and violent seas to a region that can hardly handle any more disasters. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, it may be the biggest cyclone in Australian history.

"If you pray, pray for us," a staffer at a disaster coordinator center in Cairns, Queensland, tells the SMH. Earlier Tuesday, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh had urged residents to flee ahead of Yasi — and quickly. "Do not bother to pack bags," she said. "Just grab each other and get to a place of safety." Small islands and costal towns were abandoned as tens of thousands of evacuees flocked to emergency shelters or higher ground, while Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged that 4,000 troops were standing by to help as soon as the dust settles. "In the hours of destruction that are coming, all of Australia is going to be thinking of [you]," she said Tuesday.

Yasi is expected to remain a powerful cyclone as it plows inland, and the London Independent reports that nearly a quarter million people could be in its path. But nowhere has received as much of the storm's fury as Queensland, especially the cities of Cairns and Townsville, where widespread flooding from storm surges was expected. As the Bureau of Meteorology warned, the "impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations."

(Sources: Sydney Morning Herald, London Independent, Reuters)


The Year of the Electric Car may be just one month old, but already a clear front-runner has emerged in the U.S.: General Motors sold 3.6 times more of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids in January than Nissan sold of its all-electric Leafs, CNNMoney reports. In raw numbers, that's 321 Volts vs. just 87 Leafs. "Right now we're selling every one we can make," says GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson, "so as shipments rise we expect sales to rise as well."

Both cars went into production at the end of November, and while GM planned to sell the Volt only in select parts of the country until 2012, it announced last week that it will expand sales to all 50 states by year's end. "It's a good public relations move," an industry analyst with J.D. Power and Associates tells CNNMoney, "because Nissan seems to be having some trouble delivering the Leaf." Some 20,000 people have put down $99 deposits to buy a Nissan Leaf, according to the Japanese automaker, and while U.S. general manager Al Castignetti says they'll all get their cars, it's not yet clear when. "Our main goal right now is quality, not quantity," he says. All Leafs are currently built in Japan, but Nissan plans to open a new plant in the U.S. next year.

The Volt has helped fuel GM's improbable comeback from bankruptcy, earning several Car of the Year honors and recently starring at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows. It's only being sold in the U.S., however, while the Leaf is also on the market in Europe and Japan. Nissan's global sales figures for the Leaf are not yet available, and as one auto-sales analyst points out, it's still too early to start picking winners. "From a numbers perspective, we've got to wait until at least six months into full production," Jesse Toprak of Truecars.com tells CNNMoney. "There's enough demand for both these cars to sell 50,000 units to just 'early adopters.'"

(Sources: CNNMoney, Wall Street Journal)


House Republicans have been vowing for months that they'll fight the EPA over its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and as the AP reports, that battle is now at hand. House GOP leaders plan to unveil a bill today that would nix all the EPA's efforts thus far to rein in the climate-altering gases from power plants and other industrial sources. That includes the agency's conclusion that greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will appear on Capitol Hill today for the first time since last November's midterm elections, in which the GOP took over the House and strengthened its minority in the Senate. She'll likely face intense scrutiny over the EPA's actions to limit both air and water pollution in the past two years, as a large portion of the newly elected Republicans are skeptical that global warming exists or doubt its severity. Aside from grilling Jackson, the House plans to move quickly on its new bill, which would not only nullify previous EPA moves but would also strip the agency of its power to use the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to do just that, meaning the new House bill would undo the high court's decision. It will first face a vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and if successful there, will move on to the House floor, where House Republicans say they're confident they can thwart opposition by Democrats. Their Senate counterparts plan to push similar legislation in their chamber of Congress, the AP reports — Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming has drafted a bill even more restrictive than the House version, while even some Senate Democrats support hamstringing the EPA's efforts, especially those from coal-dependent states. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, for example, has suggested a two-year moratorium on the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

(Sources: AP, Wall Street Journal)


Elk released into the Smoky Mountains, tornadoes strike on Groundhog Day, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2, 2010): ZUMA Press

Photo (Cyclone Yasi, from satellite): EUMETSAT/ZUMA Press

Photo (General Motors' Chevrolet Volt): ZUMA Press

Photo (emissions from coal-fired power plant): ZUMA Press

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