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Popular Science July/August 2017

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United States
Camden Media Inc.
4 Issues

in this issue

1 min
storm’s coming

FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, scholars worldwide have held up “cellar door” as the most elegant sounding phrase in the English language. It’s OK, but I prefer “storm’s coming”—not just on the merits of its implied drawl and languidly silent G, but because of the image it elicits: air so pregnant with action that you feel the swelling wind seeping into your ears. It’s awe-inspiring. On October 29, 2012, I was in San Francisco on business while my wife rode out a terrifying storm in our Brooklyn apartment. As we checked in over the phone, she asked, “Did you hear that?” She was referring to a crashing boom that, yes, I had heard. Soon after, the call cut out, and for the next six hours, the only contact I had with…

2 min
the heat is on

CHARTED Above-Average Years per Decade These days, Earth pushes the mercury half a degree or more above the 20th-century average far more often than it used to. Here we see the number of years per decade that had above-average temperatures—and how many of those years rose a half, or even a whole, degree above the norm. 2016 WAS OUR PLANET’S HOTTEST YEAR SINCE HUMANS began keeping records, with average global land and water surface temperatures spiking to 58.69 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 1.69 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average. It might not sound like a lot, but the difference between our current global average and one during an ancient ice age—when the U.S. sat under glaciers 3,000 feet deep—is only 5 degrees or so, according to the climate record preserved in ice and trees.…

1 min
weather gets weird

1 Wall Buster A mile-wide tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 flattened neighborhoods into piles of wood and rubbish— and embedded a kitchen chair deep into the exterior wall of a store. Hurled by winds over 200 mph, the legs hit the stucco like flying spears. 2 Frog Fall Waterspouts—vortexes that pull water into tornadolike columns—can also suck up objects. In 2005, a spout rudely plucked thousands of frogs from their cozy aquatic homes and dropped them from the sky over the nearby town of Odzaci, Serbia. 3 Blood Rain In 2013, crimson rain drenched the coastal Indian state of Kerala. The cause: red algal spores, likely transported from the ocean to rain clouds by strong winds. The not-uncommon occurrence stained clothing and collected in what looked like puddles of blood. 4 Bugnado In 2014, a…

1 min
anatomy of a hurricane

IN OCTOBER 2016, HURRICANE MATTHEW KILLED MORE THAN 550 people and caused $15 billion in property damages. The most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean and Southeastern United States in a decade, it whipped winds up to 160 miles per hour and pushed a 10-foot surge of seawater onto the coast. Unfortunately, Matthew might be more of a harbinger than an outlier. Based on computer models and historical records, many climatologists think that warming oceans might make storms like Matthew more common. Research suggests that a hotter planet might create the perfect weather conditions for forming these exceptionally strong, dangerous tropical cyclones. Here’s why. 1 Pressure Cooker A hurricane starts as a lowpressure area. It sucks in the adjacent air and gathers moisture from the balmy seawater below. In 100 years, warmer…

1 min
so you want to terraform mars

MARS IS KNOWN AS THE Red Planet, but we could color it green. By unleashing greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat— something humans happen to be very good at—we could build a warmer, breathable atmosphere that protects our settlers from deep-space radiation. NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay thinks we could have mild temperatures after about 100 years of terraforming. But it’ll take much longer to re-create the sweet cocktail of 21 percent oxygen, 0.04 percent carbon dioxide , and 78 percent nitrogen that fills our lungs on Earth. 2065 YEAR 1 As the first colonists arrive, robots mine rocks for the critical element fluorine to produce perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)—mostly nontoxic gases that are great at trapping heat. The sun can do the rest of the work; McKay estimates that four hours of Martian…

2 min
supersize supercell supersimulation

SUPERCELL THUNDERSTORMS ARE GIANT TEMPESTS with powerful rotating updrafts at their cores—and one out of every four or five spawn tornadoes. Most of these twisters are little, but some can grow fierce. To predict the rare killers—and thus give moretargeted warnings—meteorologists need to better understand how tornadoes form. But simulating a supercell thunderstorm and the tornado it produces involves hundreds of terabytes of data—an amount so vast that Leigh Orf, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, had to use a supercomputer to make it happen. Some of that data came from the sheer size of the storm (similar supercells can stretch more than 12 miles high). But Orf needed most of the power in order to capture all the details and see the whole system at a…