Ancient Shipwrecks Hold The Key To Predicting Hurricanes

Posted: Mar 8 2016, 10:06pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News


Ancient Shipwrecks Holds the Key to Predicting Hurricanes
Image of Hurricane Katrina taken Aug. 28, 2005. Credit: NOAA

Researchers used records of Caribbean shipwrecks and ring trees for forecasting hurricanes in the region.

A new surprising method has been developed to forecast hurricanes. Researchers from the University of Arizona have examined the records of Spanish shipwrecks in the Caribbean Sea from 1646 to 1715; a period which is marked with fewer hurricanes and correlated it with tree-ring records since tree growth slows down in the years of hurricanes. Researchers found a staggering decline in hurricanes during that period.

The period also corresponds with the time when sunspot activity was very little and temperatures were relatively cooler in the Northern Hemisphere, also showing a link between huge storms and climate change.

“We’re the first to use shipwrecks to study hurricanes in the past,” said lead researcher Valerie Trouet, a professor in the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. “By combining shipwreck data and tree-ring data, we are extending the Caribbean hurricane record back in time and that improves our understanding of hurricane variability.”

Many global models also indicate that hurricanes will increase in numbers as the temperature gets warmer. However, they are unable to make sound predictions about incoming hurricanes. Now, researchers are attempting to create a more precise and reliable tool to forecast hurricanes. 

The biggest challenge was how to collect the record ancient shipwrecks since the U.S. National Hurricane Center did not started to keep record of Caribbean hurricanes until 1850. To solve this problem, researchers tracked the records of ship traffic between Spain and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ships containing gold and other valuable goods traveled from Spain to the Caribbean at that time and often wrecked in the Caribbean due to storms. So when a ship didn’t reach its destination, records show it.

Researchers found that a book titled “Shipwrecks in the Americas: a complete guide to every major shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere” had a detailed record of Caribbean shipwrecks. They prepared the database of shipwrecks dating back to year 1500.

Interestingly, when they compared the shipwreck records with Florida Keys tree-ring records, they observed a systematic pattern. Researchers found that there was a dramatic 75% decline in the number of Caribbean hurricanes during that period. The period is also called “Maunder Minimum,” which is a time when Earth received less solar energy and conditions were cooler in Northern Hemisphere during that time.

 “We didn’t go looking for Maunder Minimum. It just popped out of data.” Trouet said.

The study reflects a strong relationship between sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone activity. 

“The number of hurricanes is to a large extent dependent on the temperature of the oceans. So with cooler oceans, you get fewer hurricanes. Basically, you need ocean temperatures above 26.8/26.9 degrees Celsius to produce hurricanes. That’s why you get hurricanes in the Caribbean and Asia but not off the coast of England or up in Maine, because temperatures there simply aren’t high enough.” 

If that is the case, hurricanes become more frequent as the planet warms. Researchers anticipate that new findings will help improve the future hurricane predictions and could possibly help save millions of dollars and precious lives.



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The Author

Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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