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Hurricane Activity and Paleotempestology

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hurricane ivan
Satellite image of Hurricane Ivan (2004). Credit: NASA. Enlarge »
A long day coring in Great Pond, St. Croix. Enlarge »
Stratigraphic evidence of historical storm events in New England marsh environments. Enlarge »
Laguna Playa Grande, Puerto Rico. Sediments from this lagoon provide a 5,000-yr archive of hurricane activity. Enlarge »
cayman island
Impressive deposits left by Hurricane Ivan (2004) on Grand Cayman. Enlarge »
Overlooking a study site on Koshikijima, Japan. Enlarge »


Extreme storms pose a significant threat to lives and resources in heavily populated coastal regions. However, because of the relative rarity of intense hurricanes (>Category 3) making landfall and the shortness of the instrumental record, little is known about past patterns of intense hurricane activity. In appropriate depositional settings, such as backbarrier marshes and tropical lagoons, a geologic record of hurricane strikes can be well preserved. In studying sediments from these environments, we aim to construct records of past intense storms and their impacts on coastal landforms, and understand how hurricane activity may be related to changes in regional and global climate over millennial timescales. Current and future work includes developing records of intense hurricane landfalls in the Northeastern U.S., the Caribbean Sea and Japan.

Hurricane reconstructions in the Northeastern United States
In the northeastern U.S., we adopt a multi-site/multi-environment approach to reconstruct past intense hurricane landfalls by targeting sites with different flooding thresholds (backbarrier marshes, coastal kettle ponds, and drowned kettle ponds). This strategy allows us to estimate the elevation and distribution of individual prehistoric storm surge events, overcoming potential difficulties associated with localized changes in sensitivity to storm surge.

Paleotempestology in the Caribbean Basin
Paleoclimate and tempestology research is ongoing at several sites across the Caribbean, including the Yucatan Peninsula, Cayman Islands, Saint Croix, Grenada, and Puerto Rico. A series of sediment cores collected from eastern Puerto Rico provides a continuous record of hurricane landfalls dating back over 5,000 years. Temporal variability in the frequency of hurricane events in the Puerto Rican record may reflect changes in the prevailing tracks of hurricanes or changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones associated with variations in the Earth’s climate. Specifically, we are exploring potential links between hurricane frequency and known climate oscillations (such as the Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period) as well as indices of climate variability (such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation). These high-resolution records of tropical cyclone activity may also be used to test climate model simulations of hurricane intensity and frequency. Additional records of similar resolution and duration are required in order to determine the causes of variability in tropical cyclone activity and to understand how climate-modulated storminess contributed to the evolution of modern shorelines.

Typhoon Reconstructions from Southern Japan
On average, a third of all tropical cyclones in the world occur within the Northwest Pacific basin, yet very little is known about how typhoon activity in this region varies on timescales greater then a few decades. Locally nicknamed “Typhoon Ginza” after Tokyo’s most popular shopping district, Koshikijima comprises a group of small, remote islands in southeastern Japan that are frequently struck by typhoons.  The coastline of these islands is relatively unique, flanked with deep lagoon systems that are episodically overwashed during intense tropical cyclone events.  This makes Koshikijima an ideal setting for obtaining long-term typhoon records, which will help to improve our understanding of what has driven tropical cyclone variability for the North Pacific in recent geologic history.

For more information please contact:

Jeff Donnelly (

Jon Woodruff (


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