Hunting Prehistoric Hurricanes

By Tarvis, John | Science News, May 20, 2000 | Go to article overview

Hunting Prehistoric Hurricanes


Tarvis, John, Science News


Storm-tossed sand offers a record of ancient cyclones

On September 9, 1900, the impossible destroyed Galveston, Texas. A fierce hurricane roared over the thriving coastal city that day, flooding its island with water and claiming more than 6,000 lives, about 1 in every 5 residents. The storm arrived with almost no warning. The U.S. Weather Bureau had ignored forecasts of Cuban meteorologists, noting that a severe hurricane had never before hit the town.

Judged simply on its strength, the hurricane that leveled Galveston a century ago was indeed a rare phenomenon. Meteorologists today classify it as a category 4 storm--one with sustained winds of 131 to 155 miles per hour. Few of those monsters ever arise in the Atlantic Ocean's hurricane breeding grounds, let alone smash into the U.S. mainland. In the past 150 years, fewer than a dozen have struck the U.S. coast along the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic.

The most catastrophic hurricanes, known as category 5, are even more uncommon. Just two have run into the United States in the past century. In 1935, on Labor Day, one flattened the Florida Keys. In 1969, Hurricane Camille roared through Mississippi.

The infrequency of severe hurricanes is welcome news, of course. Yet it also poses a problem. Reliable data on hurricane landfalls in the United States is available only for the past 150 years. And given the small number of category 4 and 5 storms during that relatively short time span, scientists don't have enough statistical power to estimate confidently how frequently catastrophic hurricanes strike the U.S. coastline.

So, to better look forward, investigators have decided to look further back in time. As part of a fledgling discipline called paleotempestology, they've begun to search for signs of hurricanes that predate recorded history.

At the forefront of this effort is Kam-biu Liu of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. By unearthing sand layers deposited by massive hurricanes in coastal lakes and marshes, his research group has identified storms that have struck the U.S. coast over the past 5,000 years. In February, Liu described his results at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

"It's the first time we've been able to peer back before the historical record to see how hurricanes vary in time," says Kerry A. Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who would like to use such data to test whether the anticipated global warming will increase the number of severe hurricanes.

Scientists aren't alone in taking an interest in paleotempestology. Most of the field's funding comes from the Risk Prediction Initiative, an effort bankrolled by that killed 20 percent of the city's inhabitants. insurance companies in need of better data with which to predict the odds of a severe hurricane landfall in a specific region. Considering that category 4 and 5 hurricanes can cause billions of dollars in damage, the future of these insurance companies may rest on the accuracy of their estimates.

Paleotempestology "is a nice scientific challenge, but it's [also] got a very practical outcome," notes Thompson Webb III of Brown University in Providence, R.I., who has conducted work similar to Liu's.

When the category 4 hurricane ripped through Galveston in 1900, wind and rain alone produced significant damage and some loss of life. But as in many such tempests, the real killer was the flooding by the storm surge. Hurricane winds blowing over shallows near a coastline can raise up a dome of salt water 50 to 100 miles across. This storm surge can send up to 25 feet of water into the region where a hurricane makes landfall.

If a lake or marsh sits not far from the coast, the storm surge may also leave an enduring imprint of the hurricane. Sand from the ocean floor or beach a can be thrown inland with the water, eventually settling to the bottom of the lakes or marshes in a discernible sediment layer that records the storm's impact. …

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