TIME weather

Entire State of California Facing Worst Drought Since Tracking Began

California Drought
Cracks in the dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, Calif., on March 13, 2014. Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP

The entire state of California is suffering the most intense drought since the federal government began monitoring drought levels in 2000. Wildfires in the south have burned down at least 30 homes, in an “unprecedented” intensity, climatologist Mark Svoboda said

The entire state of California is facing a “severe” drought or worse for the first time since tracking began in 2000, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

The level of drought in the state, where wildfires in the south have burned down at least 30 homes, is “unprecedented” over the past decade and a half, climatologist Mark Svoboda, from the National Drought Mitigation Center, which runs the monitor based out of Nebraska, told USA Today.

Nearly a quarter of the state is facing an “exceptional” drought, the worst possible categorization, including the entire Bay Area. Another half of the state, including Los Angeles and San Diego, is in the midst of an “extreme” drought, while the remainder of the state is in the midst of a “severe” drought, the third most dire category.

[USA Today]

TIME weather

The Scariest Picture You’ll See All Day: A ‘Firenado’

FIRENADO TEARS THROUGH MISSOURI FIELD
A 'firenado' tears through a field in Chillicothe, Missouri on May 3, 2014. Part fire, part tornado this blazing twister was spotted by Missouri native Janae Copelin while out driving. Janae Copelin—Barcroft Media/Landov

Bill Paxton never could have predicted this

You thought the highly underrated 1996 action movie Twister taught you everything there was to know about tornadoes, but you were wrong. Meet the firenado, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tornado that sucks up surrounding fire, creating a swirling, burning cone of disaster. The above firenado was captured on Instagram by Janae Copelin in Chillicothe, Missouri. No injuries were reported.

TIME Environment

Obama to Arkansas Tornado Survivors: Your Country Is Here For You

Barack Obama Vilonia, Arkansas Tornado
President Barack Obama tours tornado-damaged areas and talks with Daniel Smith and his sons Garrison Dority and Gabriel Dority in Vilonia, Ark. on May 7, 2014. Susan Walsh—AP

President Barack Obama toured areas in Arkansas on Wednesday that were destroyed by forceful tornadoes in late April, promising support to residents: "Your country is going to be here for you"

President Obama told residents of an Arkansas town blasted by tornadoes in late April that the federal government will have their backs throughout the rebuilding process.

“Your country is going to be here for you,” Obama said during a press conference Wednesday. The President spent Wednesday touring areas destroyed by severe weather including Vilonia, Ark. just outside of Little Rock. The April 27 storms killed 15 and left hundreds of homes ruined.

On Wednesday, Obama praised the people of Arkansas for their strength in his promises to provide support. “Folks here are tough,” Obama said. “They look out for one another … that’s been especially true this past week.”

TIME Japan

Strong Quake Rattles Tokyo but Few Injuries Reported

Japan's highest peak of Mt. Fuji and Shinjuku skyscrapers in central Tokyo, on Dec. 16, 2013.
Japan's highest peak of Mt. Fuji and Shinjuku skyscrapers in central Tokyo, on Dec. 16, 2013. Kimimasa Mayama—EPA

A 6.2-magnitude earthquake centered 100 miles south of Tokyo shook the Japanese capital early on Monday; however, no deaths or major damage have been reported in the tremor’s wake

A powerful earthquake rattled the nerves of Tokyo residents in the early hours of Monday morning, but failed to cause any substantial damage.

Local authorities reported that at least 17 people were injured as a result of the 6.2-magnitude earthquake, according to the Associated Press.

Japan’s national broadcaster NHK reported that Monday’s quake was the strongest seismic convulsion to shake the capital since powerful aftershocks hit Tokyo in the wake of the massive 2011 earthquake that struck off the country’s northeast coast.

[AP]

TIME Afghanistan

2,000 Missing in Afghanistan Landslide

Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province, May 2, 2014.
Afghan villagers gather at the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province, May 2, 2014. Reuters

About 300 homes were destroyed after intense rains caused a hill to collapse on the village Hobo Barik

Updated: Friday, 12:35 p.m. ET

A landslide in a remote village of northeastern Afghanistan buried about 300 homes and left about 2,000 people missing Friday, an official said.

A spokesman for the United Nations said at least 350 people were confirmed dead so far, the Associated Press reports. Search efforts were underway but rescuers were strapped for supplies and officials in nearby villages were worried about the possibility of additional landslides.

“It’s physically impossible right now,” Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb, of Badakshan province, told the AP. “We don’t have enough shovels; we need more machinery.”

Initial reports had tallied the number of missing people at 250, with seven rescued. The landslide reportedly occurred after intense rains caused a hill to collapse on the village Hobo Barik.

[AP]

TIME

Southern California Blaze Kicks Off What Could Be Especially Dangerous Wildfire Season

A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014.
A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014. David Bro—Zuma Press

Rising temperatures and a prolonged drought have prepped the Golden State for what could become one of the most severe and dangerous wildfire seasons on record, beginning with the Etiwanda Fire that firefighters have about 53 percent contained

As he looks ahead to summer, firefighter Steve Abbott is worried about the down and dead. The term refers to the dry, lifeless leaves and branches that are explosive fuel for wildfires and which are more abundant in California this year thanks to an unprecedented drought that has gripped the state. “The combination of temperatures and fuel adds to our concern,” says Abbott, one of more than 500 firefighters now battling what’s known as the Etiwanda Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles.

The fire, which started on April 30, has burned about 1,600 acres and was 53 percent contained by Thursday evening. In addition to the drought conditions and temperatures that climbed above 90 in Southern California this week, fierce Santa Ana winds helped propel the blaze and prevented fire crews from fighting it from the air. Although the fire has not yet destroyed any structures, Etiwanda is effectively opening night for a wildfire season that fire officials say could be one of the most severe and dangerous on record—and a preview of what life in a hotter and drier world could be for Californians.

That’s because the Golden State is primed to burn. California is suffering through its most severe dry spell in decades, with the entire state now in some category of drought. At the beginning of May the snowpack level in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a key source of stored water—was just 18% of normal. This winter, meanwhile, was the warmest on record for the state. The drought and the heat mean that plants and trees haven’t grown as many green leaves as usual. Those leaves help trees maintain moisture—and without them, the plants are that much more likely to ignite in a blaze. And it might not even take a fire to kill some of these parched trees. “If you don’t have the vegetation receiving water, not only do you have lower humidity levels in the plants, but some of the trees will actually die,” says Carlos Guerrero, a Glendale, Calif. fire captain and a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command battling the Etiwanda Fire. Dead trees means even more fuel on the ground as the height of the summer wildfire season approaches.

Guerrero and his fellow firefighters are getting the Etiwanda blaze under control—the mandatory evacuation orders announced after the fire began on Apr. 30 were lifted by the next day. But the changing climate means that the threat from wildfires is likely to only increase in the months and the years to come, in California and in much of the rest of the West. A study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the number of large wildfires in the West had increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, while the total area had increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year. Since 2000 more than 8 million acres have burned during six separate years. Before 2000, no year had seen 8 million acres burned. The authors connected the increase to climate change, as did the researchers behind a 2012 study in Ecosphere that predicted that global warming would likely cause more frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. within the next 30 years. Even the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard for climate science, concluded that there was high confidence that global warming was already intensifying wildfires in the West.

Climate change isn’t the only factor behind the increasing wildfires in California and the West. Successful firefighting in the past has allowed some forests to grow beyond their natural limits, ironically providing more fuel for megafires. And the number of people who have moved to areas that border wild land has increased as well. Given that most wildfires are begun by human beings—either purposefully or by accident—more people near a forest means more chances for forest fires.

For people like Mia Hidayat, who lives in a housing development near the border of the Etiwanda Fire, that means the simple sight of dry brush and bushes in her neighborhood has taken on a new danger. “I’m afraid,” says Hidayat. As California’s wildfire season grows, many others are sure to feel the same.

TIME weather

Monster Storm Brings Record Rainfall to Southeastern U.S.

A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla.
A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

The system that wrought devastating tornados in the Midwest and South over the last few days, leaving at least 35 people dead since Sunday, is unleashing record rainfall further east as forecasts project severe weather up to Virginia

The massive weather system that has wrought devastating tornados in the South unleashed record rainfall across the region overnight Tuesday, with forecasts projecting more severe weather in states from Florida and Alabama to Virginia.

Pensacola, Fla. reportedly suffered more than two feet of rain in a 26-hour period, according to a rain gauge owned by a local resident, as bridges were washed away and miles of highways shut across the region, stranding hundreds of drivers. About 6,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the region in just 15 minutes, NBC reports. Local officials called it the worst flooding the region had seen in 30 years.

Much of downtown Mobile, Ala. was flooded and water levels near Fish River, near Silverhill were at their highest levels in 60 years. Tuesday was Mobile’s fifth-wettest day in 143 years.

Tornado warnings were issues early Wednesday in several states, as the gargantuan weather system brought high winds and thunderstorms across the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama and Florida faced tornado alerts, with forecasters predicting the gravest tornado risks from South Carolina to Virginia.

At least 35 people have been killed in six states since Sunday.

[NBC]

TIME Environment

From ‘Gale’ to ‘Inconceivable,’ Ranking Tornado Strength

Ranking tornado strength
Deadly tornadoes devastated the town of Vilonia, Arkansas on Apr. 27 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As tornadoes blast across the southeastern U.S., a look at how officials gauge just how powerful a killer twister is

Tornado season began with a crash in the southeastern U.S. this week, where dozens of twisters ripped across Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. At least 29 people have died in the storms — and with more tornadoes forecast as the weather system moves further east, that number will almost certainly rise.

It’s the suddenness of tornadoes, as much as their power, that accounts for the lives they take. Meteorologists can forecast when and where storms that can produce tornadoes will appear, but they can rarely give residents more than 15 minutes of warning before a twister touches down. Unlike hurricanes, which meteorologists can now track days in advance with increasing precision, tornadoes remain stubbornly unpredictable, although forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working on ways to extend that warning time.

That unpredictability also makes it harder to assess the destructive power of a tornado in real time. Hurricane categories are based on sustained wind speeds in a storm—a Category 1 storm would have sustained winds 74-95 mph (119-153 kph), while a Category 5 storm would have sustained winds of over 157 mph (252 kmh) (“Sustained wind speeds” means the average wind speed in a storm over 10 minutes). The damage a hurricane can cause doesn’t always conform completely to categories. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, wasn’t even a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, but still caused more than $60 billion in damage, largely due to the size of its storm surge. But more wind generally means more danger—just ask the people of New Orleans, hit by Category 5 Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tornado strength is assessed on a different and slower scale, after the twisters have struck. When tornadoes occur, National Weather Service (NWS) officials are dispatched to survey the damage. They also reconstruct tornadoes’ life cycles, where they touched down—and how strong they were. Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, developed by a Japanese-American meteorologist who, not coincidentally, got his start studying the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The original Fujita scale was based primarily on the damage a tornado did, with wind speed estimated after the fact. The scale ranked tornadoes from a F0 (Gale) to an F5 (Incredible), with an unofficial F6 category that would require winds in excess of 318 mph and which goes by the name Inconceivable—accurate, since no F6 tornadoes have ever been recorded.

The Enhanced Fujita scale was adopted in 2007. It was designed to more accurately reflect the actual damage a tornado had done on the ground. The EF scale uses 28 different damage indicators, ranging from small barns to hardwood trees to shopping malls—and each of those indicators is assessed based on several different points of possible damage. A shopping mall could range from damage that is just barely visible to complete destruction of some or all of the building. There’s a large database of how strong a tornado needs to be to cause certain kinds of structural damage, so meteorologists are able to use the final damage report to go back and estimate the tornado’s wind speed at the time of touchdown. The categories range from EF0—with three-second wind gusts of 65-85 mph (104-137 kph)—to EF5, with three second gusts over 200 mph (321 kph).

We won’t know the full strength of this week’s multiple tornadoes until NWS surveyors have had a chance to measure the damage on-site. But there has already been a pair of EF3 twisters this year, striking Arkansas and North Carolina on Apr. 27, and those tornadoes may be upgraded as full damage assessments are carried out. 2014 had been shaping up to be a quiet year for tornadoes—Apr. 27 marked the end of a string of 159 days without an EF3 or above tornado, and there had been only 93 tornado reports this year through Apr. 24. That changed this week—there were 87 tornado reports on Apr. 28 alone. And while no tornado that’s hit yet looks to be as strong as the EF5 twister that devastated Moore, Oklahoma last year, the season is far from done.

TIME weather

WATCH: Weatherman Interrupts Live Broadcast to Evacuate Newsroom During Tornado

When a tornado touched down in his studio’s hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, WTVA Chief Meteorologist Matt Laubhan stayed on his toes and led a newsroom evacuation in the middle of a live broadcast.

“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak, and this could be deadly,” Laubhan says in the clip. Then he points to an area off-camera and shouts, “Basement. Now.”

Shortly after the frantic newscast, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”

Devastating storms have been ravaging the southern U.S. for the past three days. The violent weather has killed more than 30 people, destroyed homes and businesses and left thousands without power. Officials say 11 were killed in Mississippi on Monday alone.

TIME weather

Photos: Tornadoes Tear Through the South

Several tornados have ripped through the south, including Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, adding additional lives to the death toll

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