Atlantic hurricanes: A violent past and a worrisome future
It's hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean again in 2020 is breaking records.
Though the season won't officially end until November 30.
We've already had 20 name storms by the middle of September.
These powerful storms can bring death and widespread destruction when they make landfall.
And in the coming years, climate change could make them even worse.
So now what With me now is Eric J Jolin, author of the book a furious sky, the 500 year history of America's hurricanes published earlier this year.
What were when you when you looked at some of the hurricanes that you included in the bucket of course you had Galveston hurricane you had the great Miami hurricane, the 1938 one and two.
I think that was a long island Express right?
What were some of the, How did you choose the Hurricanes you included in the book?
I mean, some of them actually, history as I read.>> Yes.
Well, it's always difficult when I'm writing a book to make selections, about which Topics and which individual storms or events I'm going to cover.
I wrote a book for example called brilliant beacons about lighthouses.
There are about 1500 lighthouses in our history, but we only have about, I only had room in the book for about 160 of them.
And actually just this morning I got an email from a reader complaining that they didn't cover their lighthouse.
I'm sure the same thing is happening with a furious sky.
There have been many hundreds if not more than 1000 hurricanes since 1500.
And I only needed to use those hurricanes that could help me tell the narrative story because I wanted to keep the story going ahead.
So of course, I had to pick the big ticket items.
I mean Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, the great Miami hurricane, the great colonial hurricane of 1635.
But some of the hurricanes in there and also, of course, the Galveston hurricane of 1900.
But some of the other hurricanes in there.
Are not as well known like the four that struck in 1893 and had a cumulative death toll of nearly 4000 along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast.
But the hurricanes that I chose to focus on were a combination of those that helped me With a narrative arc of the book to keep the story going, and also the ones that there was the most interesting information for me to pull from, to tell the stories.
If I had written the book, if I'd written if I went back and I rewrote the book, I could have conceivably conceivably.
Chosen different hurricanes.
And certainly, if another author had written the same type of book, they might have chose different hurricanes.
But I think everybody will find hurricanes in there that are of interest to them.
But I'm sure that many people will be disappointed that their hurricane, their favorite hurricane that struck their part of the world is not in the book, but hopefully they'll still enjoy the book because it'll give them a context for understanding what they live through.
Hey, Christie, you talk about the Galveston hurricane mentioned that a couple times and one thing that I didn't know is that that was there that still is the deadliest natural disaster in US history.
I mean, it killed at least 6000 people probably more.
And how do you feel that its impact is still being felt today they are, the experience of it that hurricane and then what?
What the meteorological community learned what the country learned how to react differently after that.
Yeah, well The hurricane certainly put an exclamation point on the end or the beginning of the century, depending on how you register the movement of time.
And in Galveston, it had a great impact, cuz it caused them to essentially jack up the entire island about 14.
C/net build an enormous seawall around them to protect them from the next hurricane, which did come in 1915 and cause pretty dramatic devastation.
But as far as the larger country as a whole, it didn't really change the way that the weather bureau dealt with hurricanes at the time.
But it's very important to us today because every year when hurricane season rolls around there.
They're inevitably a slew of articles about the worst hurricanes that have hit the United States and Galveston always ranks near the top because of course it killed at least 6000 people, maybe as many as eight or 10,000 people and also the story of the Galveston hurricane shows that Humankind can be a little too arrogant sometimes in trying to predict or understand natural events and part of the mistake that the mistakes that were made during that hurricane the lead up to the hurricane is the meteorologists there on site and the ones in DC thought that they had a real bead on the hurricane didn't even call it a hurricane actually, they thought they really understood the science of hurricanes and that net None would ever strike Galveston, but that was arrogance and also a lack of information.
There are certain things they didn't know at the time.
So it behooves us to keep in mind today even with all of our fancy technology and our ability to track hurricanes, from their inception to dissolution, there are still Secrets about hurricanes that we don't know and things that might happen that aren't what is predicted.
And I at the same time I want to go back over a question that you asked before because you asked me have hurricanes affected History, and that's actually one of the things, in writing this book, that was most fascinating for me.
Of course, hurricanes have a dramatic impact on the history of local communities where they strike and the region, the larger region, and those ripple effects go throughout the entire economy.
But I was totally floored to learn how a few specific hurricanes actually affected the course of American history.
There was a hurricane in the 1550s that struck Pensacola.
And this is right at a time when.
The Spanish from Central America and Spain was trying to colonize, but later became Florida.
But a hurricane struck, and destroyed most of the ships, and that initial colonization effort foundered.
Then just a few years later in the 1560s.
France and Spain were fighting over the east coast of Florida to see who would colonise it.
And France and Spain both had large fleets on the coast and France was ready to pounce on Spain, attack them and drive them from Florida.
When just at that moment a hurricane came roaring in And sent the bulk of the French fleet foundering killing over 200 soldiers and Marines.
And the net result was that the Spaniards were able to maintain control of Florida because of that single event.
Just imagine if Florida was French.
From the 1500 hundreds on instead of Spanish and then of course the most dramatic story involve the American Revolution in 1780.
There were a number of huge hurricanes that hit the Caribbean.
Many French and British ships killed numerous British and French soldiers.
The ultimate death toll was close to 22,000 people killed.
So the French fleet took a lesson from that they decided that they didn't want to be caught in The Caribbean during the next hurricane season.
So the French decided in 1781 to go north not only to escape hurricane season, but also to help their allies the American colonists in their battle against the British.
So we know what happened.
The French went north.
They helped George Washington in Yorktown.
And they kept the British fleet from coming in to help Lord Cornwallis who was battling George Washington.
And that ended up.
In the Battle of Yorktown, which concluded on October 19, 1781, with the British surrendering to George Washington and it was the presence of the French fleet that basically was the turning point for that historic event.
And just imagine how history might have changed, had not the French come to the aid of George Washington at that very moment.
And if the British had won that battle, we might not be talking today at least we might not be talking today from the United States.
Yeah, I think a lot of people I mean, I think a lot of people know the story of, you know, the Mongol invasion Japan and whether we're heading toward that or not.
And so this is interesting to hear that, that it actually happens in US history as well.
Yes, One thing, or one thing that I found interesting about the book is, right now we're so used to knowing when hurricanes are coming and we have satellites, we can see them forming across the Atlantic.
Of course, I live in California.
So we don't know when earthquakes are coming, but we're very used to knowing hurricanes.
But it's fascinating that over 100 years ago, people just didn't have advanced warning like that and like you said there was this arrogance about it's not going to hit here and then suddenly one shows up.
What do you think?
Anyway, you've talked to you talking a book about your Hurricane Hunters playing satellites of course, could you walk through some of the biggest technological advancements that have allowed us to better understand hurricanes and better track and predict their behavior.
Sure, I mean, if you go back to the 1700s, and even early 1800s, most people viewed hurricanes as acts of God.
And they really didn't have a good understanding of how they developed, where they were coming from.
And when they were going to strike it was just something that came upon you.
But then with the invention of the telegraph in the mid 1800s, all the sudden we could transmit information hundreds and thousands of miles.
So, when When a coastal area down south was struck with the hurricane, they could send a message up north that hey, there may be a hurricane coming.
And if we had a telegraph line, undersea cable going to a Caribbean island, for example, or Cuba, Puerto Rico, if a hurricane struck there, well, maybe the people in the Gulf Coast Or Florida might be forewarned of it.
But really what started to change?
The way that we were able to track hurricanes was the development of wireless telegraphy, or what we know is radio in late 1800s and early 1900s.
So all of the sudden ships at sea that were encountered, a hurricane could signal Back to land that there was a hurricane and people could know a little bit better about, you know, the advanced warning of the hurricane coming.
But that had limitations because when ships at sea started to hear the radio reports that there was a hurricane in the vicinity, what would they do?
They would leave the vicinity and all of a sudden the reports coming from there with dry up So the next big improvement in our ability to track and monitor hurricanes was the development of Hurricane hunter planes, which essentially started in the 1940s.
So all of a sudden, you could go as far as a tank of gas out into the ocean to do reconnaissance on a hurricane and have meteorological instruments on board that could track Different characteristics are those hurricanes and send them back to land in real time.
So it gave us a much greater ability to track these hurricanes.
But then there was an even bigger jump when we had started to have satellites in the 1960s.
Those have improved consistently since then.
So just to the point where we never lose track of a hurricane, because we have geostationary satellites and polar satellites, one.
Geostationary that are stationary, very high up and the polar orbiting satellites are go around the Earth a couple of times a day.
So we know where the hurricanes are and we can track them from inception to dissolution.
So it's just amazing.
And then when you take all that data that we have the data that we have from radar From Hurricane hunter planes, from satellites, from weather stations along the coast, and you plug that into these incredibly powerful computer models, weather computer models that we have.
You get incredibly accurate forecasts, but there are limitations to their accuracy.
There are limitations to the predictive ability of any hurricane model no matter how good the data is.
So even right now where we're dealing with Hurricane Sally on the Gulf Coast Trying to track that as it came in and made landfall.
Well, there are a lot of jigs and Jags that took place that weren't necessarily predicted.
And that's because there are limitations on how well we can predict what this massive meteorological event the course it's going to take, but we're so much better than we were Even 10 or 20 years ago, much less 50 years ago and a 100 years ago.
But what that fails to deal with is the fact that no matter how well we know where hurricanes are and where they're headed, we Cannot avoid their strike.
There's nothing that we can do to alter their course.
But we can prepare better and handle the aftermath of hurricanes much better than we have traditionally,
on an aspect and you mentioned this earlier on this aspect of there's still things we don't understand about these storms.
And so Right now on the day we're talking in this you know, this news changes so quickly by the hour news you mentioned hurricane Sally's gonna strike the Gulf Coast, which was narrowly was just hit by Hurricane Laura last month, right five storms out in the Atlantic, which I think is a record since maybe 2005.
If I read correctly.
And as you look at the outlook for hurricanes in the next few years, I mean, a lot of times we hear a lot that climate change can play a role.
And you hear it from your research, what do you what do you think the outlook is?
And it's like art is and can technology help us?
Is there anything missing sort of in technology that can help us understand these storms, even better?
Well, there's no doubt that in my mind and the mind of the vast majority almost a complete consensus of scientists the world over that global climate change, global warming is real.
And there's no doubt in my mind that global warming is already made the impact of hurricanes or Worse because due to the thermal expansion of the ocean, and the melting of the glaciers, the ocean is higher.
So storm surges are worse.
For example, in New York, 100 years ago, the ocean level was a foot lower than it is now.
So the same.
Hurricane hitting 100 years ago versus now now would have a greater impact because you're starting a foot higher than you would have been.
But there's a massive amount of research that's been done in recent years about the potential impact of a warmer world on hurricanes.
And the growing consensus of information indicates that a warmer world were likely to have stronger and wetter hurricanes.
Now, any good scientists would tell you that there's not 100% cause and effect relationship yet.
There's still limitations in our models and modeling and it's very difficult to get your hands around all the meteorological characteristics of a hurricane.
However, the growing consensus is very concerning.
And if I was a betting man, and if I was in a policy position, I would think that this added to all the other things that we know about global warming and how our world is likely to change would be an added incentive.
To battle against global warming and takes actions that reduce the increased temperatures in the world.
So hurricanes are just one part of that overall equation.
Other studies have shown and this is sort of relevant now that we're talking about hurricane sally.
There have been a number of studies that have shown That hurricanes in the future, in a warmer world, might linger longer, they might move more slowly.
And that becomes a real problem because if you think back to Hurricane Harvey that hit Texas and Houston, it basically hung around for almost two days.
It dumped 50 inches of water on Houston which was such a waste of water that it depressed the entire crust of the earth in the Houston area by an inch.
And in Nederland, Texas, it rained down 60.8 inches.
And the reason we had those massive totals was because The Hurricane just hung around.
And it's not just rain that's a problem,if you have hurricane force winds in an area, and they're there for a couple of hours versus an entire day, you're entering a whole new level of potential destruction.
So I as a consumer, as a citizen, and as an historian and somebody who pays attention to this kind of stuff.
I am concerned about the future and what kind of hurricanes we're going to be dealing with.
Some scientists would say that this increased hurricane season we're living through now is additional proof that a warmer world is going to have numerous problems in store.
But there's a problem looking at one season or even a few seasons, but the evidence is mounting.
That a warmer world is going to mean stronger and wetter hurricanes in the future.
You talked about, you know, Hurricane Harvey and sort of lingering off the coast is, is the direction a hurricane can take sort of, you know, it's going one way and I mean, understand how pressure plays if there's pressure systems in either side they can play a part but Is that still something we still just is really hard to do is to understand what direction a hurricane is gonna take and how it can turn.
Well, things are changing all the time that has to do with the steering currents in the atmosphere.
But to answer that, more specifically, you need to get a meteorologist.
I'm not a meteorologist and I don't play one on TV.
[LAUGH] Just an historian of This this aspect, and I can't answer that question more specifically.
I do, however, know that it is a complex question to answer from a meteorological standpoint, and that's why with Hurricane Laura, just a short while ago, they were predicting for quite a long time that it was going to hit one area, and at the last minute, it's sort of jagged and hit another area.
And because of that, certain places were not struck as badly, as was predicted, and a lot of people complained at the time that the predictions maybe weren't that good or the forecasts weren't that good.
Well, they were very good forecasts, but there are elements involved in these forecasts that they can't pin down with 100% accuracy.
Because of the complexity of the system they're trying to model.
Yeah, one of the things I want to ask you is the story of Roxy, Bolton.
[LAUGH] > Have you see something on it.
Yeah, that was one of the stories that I enjoyed writing about the most it has to do with the naming of hurricanes.
And essentially in 1953, the Weather Bureau, the precursor of the National Weather Service, decided that they wanted to start naming hurricanes after women A lot of people protested and said that they didn't think that that was fair or good idea.
One woman even said that she would much rather that her house be hit by a hurricane that was had no name.
then it'd be Be hit by a hurricane that was named after one of her husband's former girlfriends.
While the protest died down into the 1960s until Roxy Bolton spoke up.
She was the vice president of the National Organization Of women in Florida, and she felt that it was downright insulting to have women's names associated with such a horrific meteorological event and she was sick and tired of reading the news coverage that.
People would refer to hurricanes as vicious witch like even they even call them ****.
Sometimes Believe it or not, and, you know tyrannical and it just all these adjectives really bothered her that they were being ascribed to female named hurricanes.
So she tried to put pressure on the National Weather Service.
To change the names she recommended, perhaps we should name hurricanes after birds or maybe after politicians since they love to have things named after them.
She even tried to get them to consider changing The name of hurricanes to Hinda Keynes.
Well, none of this went very far until we had Jimmy Carter come into the presidency and he appointed Secretary of Commerce they named one Nita Cripps, the first female Secretary of Commerce.
She was a self described feminist.
And she took up the cause of Roxy Bolton and through her pressuring the World Meteorological Organization that comes up with the list of the 21 names that are used each year, decided to go the way that Australia had already gone, and the way that Juanita crafts in the United States wanted to go.
They started naming hurricanes alternately after men and women and that's those are the lists that we have today.
But as people know, who've been reading about this very active hurricane season we're going through right now is if you go through all 21 names on the list.
Then we're gonna start naming hurricanes after the Greek alphabet, so that should be very interesting.
It's happened before, but it's indicative of an incredibly active hurricane season.
Because once a storm Cyclone becomes a tropical storm, it gets a name.
So whether it's a tropical storm or a hurricane We have names and we're very far into the alphabet right now.