Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Paleotempestology: The History of Hurricanes

One of the best things about writing blog posts for The Northeast Quadrant is that I'm constantly learning new things about something I'm so passionate about. So naturally today when I was reading an article about long-term hurricane forecasting and came across the term paleotempestology, I was all kinds of like What?! Really??!

This crazy word I've never heard,
which by the way spell check does NOT recognize, is the study of past tropical cyclone activity by means of geological proxies as well as historical documentary records. Hmmm... interesting. Well, it turns out this science is slowly proving that hurricane activity can be predicted decades in advance.

So, how does it work? In order to gain a perspective on prior hurricanes and predict future trends, researchers study proxy data such as sand layers deposited by storms behind barrier islands, changes in coral chemistry, variations in tree-ring patterns growing in coastal areas, and historical documents that include ships' logs and newspaper accounts. These sources of hurricane information build a picture of hurricane activity for the past hundreds and thousands of years.

Last month, hurricane pioneer Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University issued his forecast for the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season. Gray uses 60+ years of data on sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure and winds to make his annual predictions. He says, “We assume the future is going to behave similarly to how the past has behaved.”

However, according to a recent article, predicting the number and intensity of hurricanes before they spawn in the Atlantic has been a hit-or-miss proposition, even just a few months before hurricane season begins.

Experts in the field of paleotempestology say such predictions, should they continue to validate, could provide insurers, homeowners and policymakers an opportunity to adapt by changing land-use policies, strengthening building codes and preserving or restoring natural mitigation by wetlands, floodplains, and beach and dune systems.

Hey, maybe there really is something to this paleotempestology thing... but until I can successfully pronounce it, I'm just going with paleohurricanescience!