Weatherwatch: The ups and downs of North Atlantic storms

Kate Ravilious on research that tracks the historical intensity of storms

“Gerda … encountered a hurricane … and was compelled to cut away both masts, also lost bowsprit. She put into this port early this morning under jury masts, strained and making water.” This account from the shipping journal Lloyd’s List, published in December 1879, hints at the frantic and terrifying night suffered by the crew of this sailing ship, who had to resort to slicing through the masts to keep the ship upright in the heavy seas. Now scientists are using accounts of these dramatic disasters to build up a record of North Atlantic storms.

After scouring thousands of 19th‑century shipping records, the researchers identified 66 tropical cyclone tracks in the eastern North Atlantic between 1851 and 1898. Modern satellite records show 63 storms in the same region over a similar time period, suggesting hurricane frequency hasn’t changed much over time. But strangely shipping records for the first half of the 20th century record only 22 storms. Most likely there were many more hurricanes during this period, but a decline in shipping meant many went unrecorded. The findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

A study published in the journal Earth’s Future goes back further, revealing that the weather used to be much wilder along the east coast of the US. Sediments washed up by monster storms show 23 severe hurricanes hit New England between the years 250 and 1150 – about one every 40 years. Such intense storms have never been experienced along this coast in modern times, but scientists warn that warming waters could fuel their return.


Kate Ravilious

The GuardianTramp

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