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Rain instead of snow leaves snowmobilers, skiers blue

If the temperature Thursday had been 10 or so degrees colder, the Chippewa Valley would have received a dozen inches of snow, a meteorologist said. Instead, with fewer than 3 inches of snow — and rain shrinking that level throughout the day — it left skiers and snowmobile enthusiasts wondering what could have been a good base for their outdoor sports.

“Sad would be a good word,” said skiing enthusiast Sue Lindstedt in describing the rainfall. “It’s very wet right now. If it were 5 degrees colder, we’d be playing outside right now. It definitely feels like a miss.”

Lindstedt said the season started off well with the cold November, but the snow has vanished in the past week.

“I usually ski six days a week. It’s my passion,” she said. “This year, it’s been six times total.”

Lindstedt works with the Eau Claire Ski Striders, which offers ski classes to children ages 4 to 17 at Tower Ridge Ski Area. The first session is slated for Jan. 7.

“We still are hoping we get more snow before we start,” she said. “We usually are able to pull it off.”

Ted Theyerl, head coach of the Chippewa Valley Nordic Ski Team, which has about 40 members between high school and middle school athletes, agreed that the season started well, but this storm would have helped replenish the snow that has been lost in the past couple of weeks.

“We have races this weekend,” Theyerl said. “It’s strange that we have to head up to Cable to ski on man-made snow. I’m disappointed (in this snowfall). When I looked at the forecast, I didn’t see much snow happening here. Maybe we’ll catch some snow on the backside of it.”

Michelle Margraf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minn., said that by 6 a.m. Thursday, about .46 inches of precipitation had fallen in the Chippewa Valley, resulting in 2.7 inches of snow.

“This is a wetter snow, so it doesn’t accumulate as quickly if it was light, fluffy snow,” Margraf said.

With the anticipated half-inch of rain throughout the course of Thursday, Margraf said it would have meant a full foot of snow if it had been colder. She said the rainfall also could be problematic today and into the weekend.

“Those puddles on sidewalks will freeze, so be cautious (this) morning,” she said.

Teresa Olson said she has already skied at Tower Ridge seven times this year and she was disappointed at seeing all the rain Thursday.

“It’s frustrating,” Olson said. “If that 2 inches (of snow) would stay, we could ski again. The rain really didn’t help anyone at all.”

Olson said she likes to ski three or four times a week if conditions allow it.

“It makes winter more bearable,” she said.

Snowmobile enthusiasts are equally frustrated about the rain. The trails in Chippewa County still haven’t opened this year. Dawn Flater of New Auburn is secretary of the Flambeau Area Trail Tenders, which has 159 members.

“I haven’t been out at all,” Flater said. “It took a while for the lakes to freeze. It’s been a frustrating year. The trails typically don’t open until the first or second week of January.”

Flater groaned at hearing that the storm could have dumped 12 inches of snow, if it had been a bit colder.

“That would have been wonderful,” Flater said. “It would have been nice to go for a ride this weekend. But we’re going to be just fine; a snowmobiler never gives up hope.”

Chad Philipps of Bloomer is an EMT and trains youths on snowmobile safety. He said he just graduated 33 kids from his course and they were all eager to get out on the snow.

“And we wound up getting rain,” Philipps said. “It’s not enough that it will get us started on this season. It will come soon enough.”

Philipps said his kids are usually out snowmobiling during the Christmas break, but that wasn’t the case this year.

While the outdoor sports enthusiasts are disappointed, it has allowed a short break for those who are plowing snow. Jon Johnson, Eau Claire County Highway supervisor, said his crews worked until 4 p.m. Thursday, then were able to go home and rest up before moving snow again this morning.

“If we had a heavy snowstorm, we would have been out for another 12-hour shift,” Johnson said. “We’re just grateful it’s not an ice storm.”

Johnson said the rain did allow his department to get a little savings, and he is expecting his year-to-date snow removal budget to have a small surplus. But he said no one is happy with the rain.

“It’s kind of a pain, this kind of weather,” Johnson said. “We’re saving on chemical use; we don’t have to use salt. But we’re concerned about freezing. Hopefully we don’t have many problems (today) with ice.”

Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule soon after the stroke of midnight.

One billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth, Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind. That’s what makes this deep-freeze target so enticing; it’s a preserved relic dating all the way back to our solar system’s origin 4.5 billion years ago. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.

“What could be more exciting than that?” said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., expects the New Year’s encounter to be riskier and more difficult than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

New Horizons

NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone’s heart.

Ultima Thule

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby.

Are we there yet?

New Horizons will make its closest approach at the end of Monday — 11:33 p.m. CST. The spacecraft will zoom within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast. The coast should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could batter the spacecraft. New Horizons hurtles through space at 31,500 mph, and even something as minuscule as a grain of rice could demolish it. “There’s some danger and some suspense,” Stern said at a fall meeting of astronomers. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed — and survived — the encounter.

Possibly twins

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it’s likely 20 miles long at most. Envision a baked potato. “Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable,” said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles in diameter.

Mapping misson

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth. As for color, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so big that it takes almost 300 of our Earth years to circle the sun. Scientists say they know just enough about the orbit to intercept it.

Comparing flybys

New Horizons will get considerably closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto: 2,220 miles versus 7,770 miles. At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to track, making everything more challenging. It took 4½ hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule.

What’s next

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its data on Ultima Thule. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored.

Photos by Jerry Davis/  

Buddy Hynek of Lone Rock watched his pole and his depth finder.

Federal workers face grim prospect of lengthy shutdown

WASHINGTON — Three days, maybe four. That’s how long Ethan James, 21, says he can realistically miss work before he’s struggling.

So as the partial government shutdown stretched into its sixth day with no end in sight, James, a minimum-wage contractor sidelined from his job as an office worker at the Interior Department, was worried. “I live check to check right now,” he said, and risks missing his rent or phone payment. Contractors, unlike most federal employees, may never get back pay for being idled. “I’m getting nervous,” he said.

Federal workers and contractors forced to stay home or work without pay are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse affecting hundreds of thousands of them. For those without a financial cushion, even a few days of lost wages during the shutdown over President Donald Trump’s border wall could have dire consequences.

As well, the disruption is starting to pinch citizens who count on a variety of public services, beyond those who’ve been finding gates closed at national parks. For example, the government won’t issue new federal flood insurance policies or renew expiring ones.

Trump and congressional leaders appear no closer to a resolution over his demand for $5 billion for the border wall that could now push the shutdown into the new year. The House and Senate gaveled in for a perfunctory session Thursday but quickly adjourned without action. No votes are expected until next week, and even that’s not guaranteed. Lawmakers are mostly away for the holidays and will be given 24-hour notice to return, with Republican senators saying they won’t vote until all parties, including Trump, agree to a deal.

The president spent part of the day tweeting about the shutdown, insisting “this isn’t about the Wall,” but about Democrats denying him “a win.”

“Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” he asked in one tweet, citing no evidence for that claim. That earned him a reprimand from Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who tweeted: “Federal employees don’t go to work wearing red or blue jerseys. They’re public servants.”

Roughly federal 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, unable to take any sick days or vacation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay. While furloughed federal workers have been given back pay in previous shutdowns, it’s not guaranteed. The Senate passed a bill last week to make sure workers will be paid. The House will probably follow suit.

The longer the shutdown lasts, the more government activities will grind to a halt. It’s already caused a lapse in money for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice.

Many national parks have closed while some have limited facilities. The National Flood Insurance Program announced it will no longer renew or issue policies during the shutdown.

“I think it’s obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who opened the Senate for the minutes-long session. “We just have to get through this.”

House Democrats tried Thursday to offer a measure to reopen government, but they were blocked from action by Republicans, who still have majority control of the chamber until Democrats take over Jan. 3.

“Unfortunately, 800,000 federal workers are in a panic because they don’t know whether they’ll get paid,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who tried to offer the bill. “That may make the president feel good but the rest of us should be terribly bothered by that, and should work on overtime to end the shutdown now.”

Government contractors like James, placed indefinitely on unpaid leave, don’t get compensated for lost hours.

James said the contracting company he works for gave its employees a choice: take unpaid leave or dip into paid time-off entitlements. But James doesn’t have any paid time off because he started the job just four months ago. His only option is forgoing a paycheck.

“This is my full-time job, this is what I was putting my time into until I can save up to take a few classes,” said James, who plans to study education and become a teacher. “I’m going to have to look for something else to sustain me.”

Mary Morrow, a components engineer on contract for NASA, is in the same predicament. In addition to caring for a family largely on her own, she’s got a mortgage.

“I have three teenage boys, it’s near Christmas time and we just spent money, there are credit card bills and normal bills and it’s really nerve-racking,” she said. “It’s scary.”

As federal employees tell their stories on Twitter under the hashtag #Shutdownstories, Trump has claimed that federal workers are behind him, saying many have told him “stay out until you get the funding for the wall.’” He didn’t say whom he had heard from, and he did not explain the incongruity of also believing that most are Democrats.

Steve Reaves, president of Federal Emergency Management Agency union, said he hasn’t heard from any employees who say they support the shutdown.

“They’re all by far worried about their mortgages,” Reaves said.

Reaves said the shutdown could have consequences that stretch beyond a temporary suspension of salary. Many federal government jobs require a security clearance, he said, and missed mortgage payments or deepening debt could hurt their clearance.

David Dollard, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee and chief steward for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 709 union in Colorado, said at least two agency employees lost their homes after the 2013 shutdown suspended their salaries. Bureau of Prisons employees are considered essential, and must work without pay. The agency is already understaffed, Dollard said. Shutdown conditions make everything worse.

“You start out at $44,000 a year, there’s not much room for anything else as far saving money for the next government shutdown, so it puts staff in a very hard situation,” he said. “We’ve got single fathers who have child support, alimony. It’s very hard to figure out what you’re going to do.”

Candice Nesbitt, 51, has worked for 1½ years for the U.S. Coast Guard, the only branch of the military affected by the shutdown. About 44,000 Coast Guard employees are working this week without pay; 6,000, including Nesbitt, have been furloughed.

Nesbitt worked for a contractor but took a pay cut in exchange for the stability of a government job. She has a mortgage, is the guardian of her special needs, 5-year-old grandson, and makes about $45,000 a year, she said. Any lapse in payment could plunge her into debt. “It shakes me to the core,” she said.

Saudi king orders Cabinet shakeup after Khashoggi's killing

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a wide-ranging overhaul of top government posts on Thursday, including naming a new foreign minister, following international fallout from the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi nearly three months ago.

He also ordered a shakeup of the kingdom’s supreme council that oversees matters related to security. The council is headed by the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose powers including roles as deputy prime minister and defense minister, were untouched in the overhaul.

The changes appear to further consolidate the crown prince’s grip on power by appointing to key posts advisers and members of the royal family seen as close to him.

It may also signal further efforts to show that changes are being made after the U.S. Senate passed a resolution saying it believes the crown prince is to blame for Khashoggi’s grisly murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

As the crown prince struggles to convince many in Washington and other Western capitals that he had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s killing, the soft-spoken Adel al-Jubeir was replaced as foreign minister by Ibrahim al-Assaf, a longtime former finance minister. Al-Jubeir was appointed to minister of state for foreign affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

Al-Assaf is well known to international investors, having led several Saudi delegations to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He served as finance minister under King Fahd and King Abdullah.

Al-Assaf sits on the boards of oil-giant Saudi Aramco and the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. The crown prince oversees both entities. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree from the University of Denver, according to his biography on Aramco’s website.

Al-Assaf had been serving as a minister of state last year when he was reportedly detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh along with dozens of high-ranking officials and princes in an anti-corruption sweep led by the crown prince. Shortly after, al-Assaf appeared back at a Cabinet meeting to the surprise of many.

The government did not name those detained nor disclose what crimes they were suspected of committing. The Associated Press could not independently confirm reports of al-Assaf’s arrest. The opaque anti-corruption sweep helped Prince Mohammed consolidate power and net the government more than $13 billion in settlements.

The changes announced Thursday include aides to the crown prince, including Musaed al-Aiban as national security adviser — in addition to other positions he holds — and former media minister Awwad al-Awwad as adviser to the royal court. Khalid al-Harbi was named as head of general security.

Turki al-Sheikh, a confidant of the crown prince, was removed as head of the Sports Authority and replaced by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal. This means al-Sheikh no longer oversees a cybersecurity and programming body that was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the crown prince who was fired from his post and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for helping to mastermind the plot that led to Khashoggi’s killing.

Khashoggi wrote critically of the crown prince in columns for The Washington Post before he was killed. After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation masterminded by former advisers to Prince Mohammed.

The kingdom denies the crown prince had any involvement.

Al-Sheikh will now lead the General Entertainment Authority, a body created in recent years to help organize and promote concerts and other events that had long been banned in the conservative country.

Turki Shabbaneh, who has held positions in privately owned Saudi TV channels, was named minister of media. Hamad al-Sheikh, a royal court adviser and former college dean who studied in the U.S., was appointed minister of education.

The king’s eldest son, Prince Sultan bin Salman, was removed as head of the tourism authority. He will lead a new national space agency. In 1985, he became the first Arab and Muslim astronaut to fly in space.

Prince Abdullah bin Bandar was named head of the National Guard. The force is tasked primarily with the protection of the Al Saud ruling family. Prince Abdullah had been deputy governor of Mecca.