Hurricane Season 2013 has just begun and scientists are predicting an above-average season with as many as 17 named storms, 5-10 of which may be hurricanes. A number of climate factors are taken into consideration and studied closely in order to come up with these predictions, including the fact that we continue to be in a high-activity era since 1995. Scientists track storm data from the past in order to predict the future weather and you may be surprised how far back they go for their data. Some scientists believe that ancient storms provide important clues about our present and future weather.
Paleotempestology is the study of past tropical cyclone activity by means of geological proxies (any geological phenomena that provides information about the contemporary climate) as well as historical documentary records. It saw a huge growth in popularity 1995 when the earth entered the current period of high hurricane activity and scientists began searching for a way to explain what was happening. In 2004, one researcher in Australia found that looking into the ancient past could help predict storms that might otherwise be missed. Dr. Jonathan Nott from the Centre for Disaster Studies at James Cook University reviewed the geological evidence of storms that occurred up to 5,500 years ago in Western Australia, Queensland and the United States and predicted that “major cyclones bigger than any ever recorded in Australia will hit in the future.”  Just as we use weather patterns such as El Nino to make predictions, there are weather patterns from the ancient past that can tell us even more about how the weather behaves over hundreds and even thousands of years. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to see how human beings are potentially affecting our weather patterns and helping to produce a climate in which bigger storms are more common.
Studying ancient storms not only improves our ability to predict future storms, it also gives us a window into the kind of weather past generations had to endure. For example, in 2009 Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, authored a study showing that conditions along the Atlantic coast during the Middle Ages were perfect for hurricanes, and there is evidence that several hit the coast. This means Native Americans living in these areas at the time probably experienced several very strong storms. His team studied medieval sediments taken from lagoons between Massachusetts and Puerto Rico and concluded “it was probably a lot like the 2005 season, which was the busiest hurricane season in the Atlantic in recorded history.”  It is possible they even witnessed a storm similar to Katrina.
While we do not have first-hand accounts of these Atlantic storms, it is clear from ancient texts that our ancestors around the world were no strangers to violent weather. Myths are full of tempests, with each author eager to outdo the other with descriptions of more and better storms. For example, the Greek ships returning from Troy were famously destroyed by a sudden storm that shipwrecked nearly the entire fleet. And then there are the terrible floods written about in various texts. “Many ancient cultures, the Babylonians, the Mesopotamians, the Sumerians, had stories that involve a great flood sent by a deity, indicating to historians that there was perhaps a (or several) great flood(s) and these myths rose around to explain it (them).” The ancient Greeks tried to explain weather by assigning each element to a specific god. As long as that particular god was happy, the weather would remain fair. If the skies opened up with lightening, thunder, rain or wind, it was due to an angry deity. All of this is evidence that ancient civilizations had first-hand experience with extreme weather including storms, floods and wind.
Today, we know that this hurricane season won’t be caused by a displeased god, and that no amount of sacrificing to Zeus, Notos or Poseidon will keep the winds, waves and rain away. However, we can rely on the lessons we’ve learned from the ancient past in order to predict and prepare for the storms of the future.
So make sure you have plenty of fresh water, know your evacuation route and check out the National Hurricane Center’s “Hurricane Preparedness” website for all the info you need to stay safe!
2.Catchpole, Heather, “Ancient Storms Show “Big One” to Come”, March 8, 2004, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/03/08/1057251.htm#.Uaz-okCcGk9
3. Hamilton, Jon, “Recent Hurricanes Not Matched Since the Middle Ages”, NPR, August 12, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111809658
4. Wertheimer, Linda, “Storms and Floods in the Ancient World”, NPR, October 1, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4932120
5. Tuthill, Samantha-Rae. “Weather and Ancient Religion: Greek Mythology”, August 20, 2012, http://www.accuweather.com/en/features/trend/weather-and-ancient-religion-g/70378