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Atmospheric sciences

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Monsoon season in southern Asia has begun, and in India the rains arrived ahead of schedule, easing drought concerns. Monsoon rains can be disruptive and even deadly, but crucial for the farmers whose crops feed millions of people. Though concerns for flooding are prevalent, the arrival of the rains brings colorful celebrations and relief from the heat every year. -Leanne Burden Seidel (32 photos total)
An Indian buffalo herder holding a traditional handmade umbrella stands in a field to keep watch of his buffaloes as monsoon clouds hover above in Bhubaneswar, India, on June 13, 2013. (Biswaranjan Rout/Associated Press)     

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Tornadoes can form anytime of year, but occur most frequently in April, May, and June, due to favorable weather conditions. Earlier this week a massive 200-mile-per-hour EF5 tornado hit Moore, Okla., killing some two dozen people, damaging thousands of structures, and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. This year, twisters have already touched down in Kansas, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and Alabama. ( 46 photos total)
A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., on May 20. A tornado as much as half a mile wide with winds up to 200 mph roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)     

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We've all seen rain maps for a sliver of time. Screw that. I want to see the total amount of rainfall over a ten-year period. Bill Wheaton did just that in the video above, showing cumulative rainfall between 1960 and 1970. The cool part is that you see mountains appear, but they're not actually mapped.

The hillshaded terrain (the growing hills and mountains) is based on the rainfall data, not on actual physical topography. In other words, hills and mountains are formed by the rainfall distribution itself and grow as the accumulated precipitation grows. High mountains and sharp edges occur where the distribution of precipitation varies substantially across short distances. Wide, broad plains and low hills are formed when the distribution of rainfall is relatively even across the landscape.

See also Wheaton's video that shows four years of rain straight up.

Is there more recent data? It could be an interesting complement to the drought maps we saw a few months ago. [Thanks, Bill]

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At the suggestion of her 8-year-old daughter, who was watching a weather show on TV, Camille Seaman took to the Great Plains, photographing supercell storms - the type that begets tornadoes.

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Before the Lights Go Out
is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order now. (E-book pre-orders coming soon!) Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

Steve_Saus submitterated this video that combines 14 years of weather radar images with a soothing piano concerto. It's a neat thing to watch a couple minutes of (though I'm not sure I needed to sit around for all 33 minutes of the video). It also reminded me of something really interesting that I learned about U.S. weather patterns and alternative energy.

Weather data, like the kind visualized here, can be collected, analyzed, and turned into algorithms that show us, in increasingly granular detail, what we can expect the weather to do in a specific part of the United States. Today, you can even break this information down to show what happens in one small part of a state compared to another small part. And that's important. As we increase our reliance on sources of energy that are based on weather patterns, this kind of information will become crucial to not only predicting how much power we can expect to get from a given wind farm, but also in deciding where to build that wind farm in the first place.

Take Texas as an example, which has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. That's great. Unfortunately, most of those wind farms are built in places where we can't use the full benefit of that wind power, because the wind peaks at night—just as electricity demand hits its low point. A simple change in location would make each wind turbine more useful, and make it a better investment.

It works like this ...

Wind patterns vary a lot from place to place and season to season, says Greg Polous, Ph.D., a meteorologist and director of V-Bar, LLC, a company that consults with energy companies about trends in wind patterns. In general, though, wind farms from Texas to North Dakota are subject to something called the Great Plains Low Level Jet.

This phenomenon happens because said Plains are flat. There's very few geographic features out there to impede the strong winds that blow through the region. During the day, heat rising off the ground causes turbulence and friction in the atmosphere above the Plains, slowing the wind down somewhat. But at night, that turbulence disappears, and the wind accelerates.

There are exceptions to this rule, however, and they are really interesting. If you build a wind farm out in far West Texas, you have to deal with the Great Plains Low Level Jet—hitting the peak in wind power and potential electric production at the same time the grid hits its nadir in electric demand. That's no good, because there's no storage on the electric grid. All that potential electric power the turbines could be producing at night simply goes to waste if nobody wants it.

But, if you build your wind farm on Texas' Gulf Coast, you don't have that problem. Instead, a coastal turbine would be subject to the Sea Breeze Effect, caused by differences in temperature between the air above the water and the air above the land. In those places, wind power—and electric generation—actually peaks on summer afternoons, right when demand for electricity is peaking, too.

Today, oil and gas companies spend a lot of time and money prospecting for new reserves of fuel. In the future, we'll prospect for wind and solar, too, using weather pattern data to spot the best sites where we get the most energy bang for our infrastructure buck.

Image: Mystery Photo, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from randa's photostream

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Europe has been battling a deep freeze that started in late January and has killed hundreds, snow that has trapped thousands in Balkan mountain villages and prompted worries of flooding as heavy snow melts. In Greece and Bulgaria, flooding on Monday and Tuesday left dozens of homes under water and at least eight dead. Serbian [...]

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