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Louisiana flooding: What is a 500-year flood and why is it happening so much?

As  of Wednesday morning, 11 people have died and more than 40,000 homes have been damaged in ongoing flooding  in southeastern Louisiana.

Up to two-and-a-half feet of rain that swelled rivers and swamped the area in and around Baton Rouge, La., has led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to classify the flooding as a once-in-every-500-years event.

Obviously, by definition, the events are rare – except this is the eighth time one of the 500-year events has happened in the United States in a little more than 12 months.

>>READ MORE: Got a question about the news? Read more Explainers here

Six states – Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland and Oklahoma --  have all had unprecedented rainfall events that, according to NOAA research, they should have only had a less than one percent chance of experiencing in any given year. 

So what is a 500-year flood and why are they happening more frequently? Here’s a quick look at what the historic rainfall means.

What is a 500-year flood?

The U.S. government, when creating the National Flood Insurance Program, used a measure called the 1-percent annual exceedance probability flood (AEP) to estimate the chance of repeat flooding of a certain level  in a certain area. The AEP defines a flood that, statistically, has a 1-in-100 chance of  being equaled or surpassed in any one year, thus the term “100-year flood” was born. The 500-year flood” is equal to an AEP of 0.2 percent, or a 1-in-500 chance an area will see a repeat of flooding at a certain level. 

In some areas of Louisiana, the flooding is being classified as a 1000-year-event – or an 0.1 percent chance of seeing flooding like that in any given year.

How are flood risks determined?

Scientists and engineers take annual measurements of the strength of the flow of a body of water and the peak height of the water as recorded by devices called streamgages. These devices are placed in spots along a river. They use those numbers, collected over time, to determine the probability (or chance) that a river will exceed those measurements during any given year.

Does a 500-year flood really mean that a flood of that type happens only once every 500 years?

No, not exactly. We are talking math. The term means  that, statistically, there is a 1-in-500 chance that an area will have a large flood in any given year. You could have a large flood two years in a row, but, chances are, you won’t. 

Why are we seeing eight such floods in the U.S. in a little over a year then? Does climate change have anything to do with it?

Climate scientists sure think it does. Many say they believe that global warming has everything to do with it and say we can look forward to more of these events. They have warned that warming temperatures on both land and sea, and the build-up of moisture in the atmosphere, will inevitably cause more large flooding events.

“We have been on an upward trend in terms of heavy rainfall events over the past two decades, which is likely related to the amount of water vapor going up in the atmosphere,” said Dr Kenneth Kunkel, of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, told The Guardian.

“There’s a very tight loop – as surface temperatures of the oceans warm up, the immediate response is more water vapor in the atmosphere. We’re in a system inherently capable of producing more floods.”

David Easterling told The New York Times that the flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models. Not just in the U.S. but in many other parts of the world as well.” Easterling is a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is operated by the NOAA.

Sources: NOAA; The New York Times; The Guardian; The Associated Press; The National Weather Service

NASA chooses 6 companies to make livable space habitats

NASA has partnered with six U.S. companies to make livable habitats on Mars.

>> Read more trending stories

The agency announced Tuesday the second part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program to advance deep-space exploration and development.

The six partners will have approximately 24 months to develop prototypes of "deep space habitats" where humans can live and work for months or years at a time on the red planet.

The companies selected are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Space Systems and NanoRacks.

NASA says the prototypes will be the testing ground for long-term human, robotic and spacecraft missions to the planet.

The prototypes won't come cheap, though. NASA's bill is estimated to be around $65 million from 2016 to 2017, with additional funding continuing to 2018 if necessary.

Of course, NASA isn't sure if these prototypes will be ready by the end of the 24 months — or ever. But for all the space nerds out there, this could get us one step closer to colonizing Mars.

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Greenland shark named longest-living vertebrate

Think tortoises live a long time? The oldest known tortoises have gotten close to 200 years. That's pretty old.

But it's got nothing on the Greenland shark, which is huge, rare and, it turns out, extremely long-lived.

>> Read more trending stories

Greenland sharks are the new record holders for longest-living vertebrates after a new study put their maximum lifespan at an incredible 400 years.

The study also found they don't even reach sexual maturity until around 150 years old. So at an age when tortoises are becoming elderly, Greenland sharks are just leaving childhood.

In fact, lots of ocean dwellers live longer than tortoises. Bowhead whales can live more than 200 years. Even a humble koi fish is thought to have survived to age 226. 

The sharks have one thing in common with tortoises, though: They both move very slowly. Greenland sharks tend to swim at about 1 or 2 miles per hour.

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Study finds reading books could help lengthen your life

Reading a chapter a day may keep the doctor away. That's according to a new study of the benefits of reading books. 

>> Read more trending stories

Researchers say they found book readers live an average of two years longer than people who don't read at all.

The study's authors analyzed data from more than 3,500 people who were participating in a larger health study. They were all over the age of 50 and answered several questions about reading.

Researchers then divided the participants into three groups: those who didn't read any books, those who read books for up to three and a half hours a week and those who read books longer than that.

After controlling for certain factors such as gender, education level, income and race, the authors found those who read for up to three and a half hours per week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up. 

And those participants who reported reading more than that were 23 percent less likely to die.

The study's senior author told The New York Times, "People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read."

The reason why book lovers appear to live longer is still unclear, but several recent studies have shown books can have a positive impact on a person's life.

Researchers found children who had access to books were able to expect a higher adult income than those who didn't in a report published in The Economic Journal back in the spring.

You can read more about this most recent study in the journal Social Science & Medicine. After all, it's good for your health.

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Company given go-ahead for first commercial mission to the moon

For the first time, a private company has gotten the go-ahead to fly beyond Earth's orbit and land on the moon.

>> Read more trending stories

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday approved an application for Florida-based Moon Express Inc. to land on the planet in 2017, according to the company.

“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth's eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth's economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in a statement.

The company plans to “land a washing machine-sized vehicle on the moon that would take hops across the lunar surface using engine firings instead of roving on wheels,” The Associated Press reported.

Moon Express already has five customers lined up for its maiden voyage, according to the wire service – including a company that plans to take people's ashes to the moon.

Richards told the AP that Moon Express plans to launch a spacecraft late next year, most likely out of New Zealand. However, the company has yet to finish building its lander.

"In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth,” Moon Express Chairman Naveen Jain said. “In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth's economy and potentially our second home. Imagine that."

Moon Express applied for permission to launch its lunar mission in April. It was approved after the company consulted with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies.

If the company is successful, it would win the Google Lunar X Prize for being the first private group to make it to the moon, The New York Times reported. The prize carries a $20 million reward.

Previously, only governments have flown into outer space. Only three countries have ever landed spacecraft on the moon: the United States, China and the former Soviet Union.

Why do sunflowers follow the sun?

Why do sunflowers follow the sun? More sunlight equals better growth, and the plants know it.

New research shows this sun-tracking is a circadian rhythm. The plants turn overnight to face east because their internal clocks anticipate sunrise.

>> Read more trending stories

Biologists at the University of California, Davis demonstrated this regulation and its reliance on the sun when they moved the plants into a room with constant overhead light. Their east-west rhythm deteriorated in a few days.

And when researchers staked plants in place or turned their pots away from the sun in the mornings, they didn't grow as big as the rest.

This sun-following behavior eventually stops naturally when the sunflower matures and its priority shifts from growth to pollination.

Mature sunflowers face east constantly to catch the first rays of the sun. According to the researchers, "bees like warm flowers" — as much as five times more than cold ones.

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Evidence found for 4,000-year-old Chinese myth

Scientists might have confirmed a 4,000-year-old legend: the story of the beginning of Chinese civilization.

>> Read more trending stories

As the legend goes, a huge flood from the Yellow River lasted a generation until a hero known as Yu the Great dredged and built canals.

For that, the rulers of the area were so grateful they made him emperor. His descendants became China's first great dynasty, taking the country into the bronze age.

Yu's story supposedly happened around 2,000 B.C., but the earliest written records about him come more than a thousand years later. So the tale of China's founding is seen as a myth.

But scientists recently discovered an area of the Yellow River with evidence of an earthquake, landslide, natural dam and a dam burst that consequently would have led to a massive flood –– all happening around 1,900 B.C.

Plus, the clues suggest the river would have taken a long time to adjust to that flooding, meaning that whole "lasting a generation" part could actually be true.

The researchers say the "flood shares the main characteristics of the Great Flood described in ancient texts."

Even if the flood happened, there are still parts of the legend that seem a little fanciful — like that part about Yu fighting a dragon.

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Lightning safety: How close do you have to be to get struck?

A 5-year-old boy vacationing with his family in North Carolina was struck and killed by lightning earlier this month as he and his family were headed for their car. Two people were killed by lightning this week as they were visiting a cemetery in New York.

The death toll from lightning strikes in the United States so far this year now stands at 25.

>> Got a question about the news? See our explainers here

While these latest examples involve people who were caught in a storm that came up suddenly, what many people don’t realize is that you don’t have to be in or even that near a storm to be struck by lightning.

Here are some facts about lightning and how close you have to be from its source in order to be struck.

First, what is lightning, exactly?

Lightning results from the action of rising and descending air within a thunderstorm as it separates positive and negative charges that are present in the atmosphere. The buildup and discharge of electrical energy between those positively charged and the negatively charged areas create lightning. Lightning goes three ways – between clouds, from cloud to ground, or from ground to cloud. 

What are my chances of being hit?

If you live to be 80, your chances are about 1 in 3,000.

Is it true I can be hit by a lightning bolt even if there is no storm near?

Yes it is. What happens is this: A so-called bolt out of the blue (lightning on a clear, blue sky day) is actually a cloud-to-ground flash that occurs out of the backside of a thunderstorm cloud, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That lightning bolt can travel a great distance – up to 25 miles – from the storm cloud. The bolt then angles down to the ground. What makes them especially dangerous is that they do seem to come out of the blue sky, and people are not looking out for lightning if there is no storm visible.

How often does lightning strike and how powerful is it?

We mentioned before your chances of being struck are 1 in 3,000 if you live for 80 years. As a one-time shot at being hit, your chances are about 1 in 240,000. There are 25 million lightning strikes in the United States each year. A typical lightning bolt contains around 15 million volts of electricity.

How do I know when it is time to go inside if a storm is near?

If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. Thunder is not possible without lightning since it is caused by lightning. Thunder results from the heated air a lightning bolt creates. The heating of the air (around 50,000 degrees in the “channel,” or path, lightning  creates) causes high pressure, which, in turn, compresses the air nearby causing a disturbance and pushing it out in all directions. The  disturbance creates a shock wave that becomes a sound wave. That’s what you hear as thunder. It seems to rumble because the process is repeated the length of the “channel.”

I’m inside the house, so, not a problem, right?

Lightning really doesn’t care if you are inside or not. If it hits your house you can be injured. Best practices when lightning is around:

  • Avoid using the telephone or electrical appliances
  • Stay out of the shower or bath – the pipes can conduct lightning
  • Don’t look out the windows or doors – they have metal in the frames  that can attract lightning

What’s wrong with seeking shelter under a tree?

Lightning, generally, will strike the highest structure around. However, you don’t want  to be under something lightning strikes. (Remember, that’s a general rule of thumb, not an absolute. Lightning can hit anything.)

But if I have rubber sole shoes on and I’m sitting in my car, I’m good, right?

Ok, forget about the rubber sole shoes, you may as well be wearing aluminum foil as far as the protection you’ll get. And while we have been told that the wheels on a car divert lightning, that’s not exactly true. What will protect you, to some degree, is the steel frame of your car (sorry convertible owners). While it won’t prevent injury, it can provide some protection as long as you are not touching metal in the car.

When am I most likely to be stuck by lightning?

Most lightning strikes happen in the summer, when atmospheric conditions make for thunderstorms. Of the 21 lightning deaths in the United States so far this year, 12 happened in July.

The place that receives the most cloud-to-ground lightning is Florida, specifically between Tampa and Orlando. That is the place where lightning  is most active, but lightning is also found everywhere else in the United States.

So what should I do if lightning threatens?

Remember this slogan from the National Weather Service:

“When thunder roars, go indoors!” There are about 300 documented injuries from lightning each year.

How can I stay safe from lightning?

Check out NOAA's National Weather Service for  more information on indoor and outdoor lightning safety and lightning risks.

 Oh, and, lightning can strike twice in the same place. Save your money on that bet.

Sources: The National Severe Storms Library; NOAA; The National  Weather Service

How long can you stare into someone's eyes before it gets awkward? Science has the answer

How long can you stare into someone's eyes without making them feel uncomfortable? Not very long, apparently.

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, 498 participants watched a video of an actor staring and indicated when the eye contact began to feel awkward. That took just 3.3 seconds on average. 

>> Read more trending stories

Want to see how your staring power compares? Test it out using this video by Science magazine:

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Read more here.

Could genetic test detect Alzheimer's at early age?

Scientists may have discovered a new way to detect which people are likely to develop cognitive impairment later on in life.

A study conducted for the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative and published this month in Neurology looked at the known gene variants associated with an increased Alzheimer’s disease risk. A genetic test developed by Massachusetts General Hospital found that for those already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, the higher they scored on the test, the more likely they were to develop the disease.

>> Read more trending stories

A higher score on the genetic test was also associated with a smaller hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory. In healthy subjects 35 and younger, a smaller hippocampus was also associated with a higher score on the test.

Further research and testing is needed, but scientists believe that polygenic risk scores may help identify younger people who are at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease as they age.

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