Intense New England Hurricanes Much More Numerous 340 to 1800 Years Ago

By: Jeff Masters , 6:43 PM GMT on February 17, 2015

Numerous Category 3 and 4 hurricanes frequently pounded New England during the first millennium, from the peak of the Roman Empire into the height of the Middle Ages, said a study accepted for publication this month in the open-access journal Earth’s Future, Climate Forcing of Unprecedented Intense-Hurricane Activity in the Last 2,000 Years. These prehistoric hurricanes were stronger than any hurricane documented to hit the region since the mid-1800s, and would be catastrophic if they hit the region today, according to Jeff Donnelly, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts and lead author of the new paper. In a press release, Donnelly said, “We hope this study broadens our sense of what is possible and what we should expect in a warmer climate. We may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years.”


Figure 1. The storm surge from Category 2 Hurricane Carol in 1954 batters New England's Edgewood Yacht Club near Providence, Rhode Island. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

The paper is the latest contribution to the field of paleotempestology--the study of past tropical cyclone activity by means sediment deposits, cave speleothems, tree rings, coral deposits, as well as historical documentary records. In this case, the researchers took sediment cores from Salt Pond near Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The pond is separated from the ocean by a 1.3- to 1.8-meter (4.3- to 5.9-foot) high sand barrier. Over hundreds of years, storm surges from Category 2 and stronger hurricanes have deposited sediment over the barrier and into the pond. The scientists were able to calibrate the timing of the intense hurricane strikes by dating the layers from Category 2 Hurricane Bob of 1991, the 1675 (September 7) New England hurricane, and the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, which passed across southeastern New England and caused widespread damage consistent with a category 3 hurricane.


Figure 2. Scientists collect a sediment core from Salt Pond in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to study hurricane overwash deposits placed there by storm surges from intense hurricanes. The aluminum tube was vibrated into the muddy sediment at the bottom of the pond and then extracted with a hoist. Image Credit: WHOI

The prehistoric sediments showed that there were two periods of elevated intense hurricane activity on Cape Cod--from 150 to 1150, and from 1400 to 1675. Previous paleotempestology studies also found evidence of high hurricane activity during 150 - 1150 A.D. from the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast. Both time periods had unusually warm sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Main Development Region for hurricanes, from the Caribbean to the coast of Africa. Warm ocean temperatures in this region have been linked to increased intense hurricane activity by a number of recent research papers. In recent decades, ocean temperatures in the Main Development Region have surpassed the warmth of prehistoric levels, and these waters are expected to warm further over the next century as the climate heats up, suggesting that intense hurricane activity in New England may return to the levels of 340 to 1800 years ago. However, other factors besides warming SSTs will also shape what happens in the North Atlantic. For example, the pattern of ocean warming could bring more El Niño-style wind shear to the Atlantic, reducing hurricane activity. Still, New England would be wise to take heed of Donnelly's advice that we may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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as for hits 1 in 10 yrs it does not happen that way. speaking of that miami really has not had anything too bad since andrew.
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Just picked up 0.24" from that squall line. More on the way tonight.
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Quoting 23. Neapolitan:

I'm not sure why you'd expect to see that, as that isn't at all what the study claims. In fgact, it repeatedly refers to "Western North America". That is, the east-facing stretch of the continent from South Florida to Newfoundland. From the article's conclusion:

"Future anthropogenic warming will likely be focused in the northern hemisphere, and as a
result the ITCZ will occupy a more northerly position [Broecker and Putnam, 2013],
potentially leading to increased hurricane genesis in the MDR [Kossin and Vimont, 2007;
Merlis et al., 2013]. More cyclogenesis in the MDR will likely also significantly impact the
intensity of storms impacting the highly populated western North Atlantic margin, as these
long-lived storms tend to become more intense."


The western North Atlantic corresponds to eastern North America.
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Got about 3 inches of snow sunday and monday. The heaviest snow totals were to my north and the highest sleet was in far southern illinois (the sleet that brushed 62901IL).
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Quoting LAbonbon:

sar, see Figure 1a in the study. The figure shows mapped locations of this study, as well as other, similar studies. I can't post from the PDF (maybe one of the techno wizards here can do it), but this is the caption:

"Figure 1. Location maps. (a) Correlation map of boreal summer SST and AMM. SSTs are
warmer during positive AMM. Triangles show locations of paleo-hurricane reconstructions
presented here (1- Salt Pond [this study] and Mattapoisett Marsh [Boldt et al., 2010]; 2 -
Outer Banks inlets [Mallinson et al., 2011]; 3 -Thatchpoint Blue Hole [van Hengstum et al.,
2013], 4 - Mullet Pond [Lane et al., 2011] and Spring Creek Pond [Brandon et al., 2013]; 5 -
Lighthouse Blue Hole [Denommee et al., 2014]; 6 - Laguna Playa Grande [Donnelly and
Woodruff, 2007])."

As indicated, there has been a similar study done in the Outer Banks inlets.

I do not think this report states that only the Northeast was hit.
Did you look up any of the studies cited? If so, are you convinced that the other studies were looking at the same things in this study, with the same level of temporal resolution, over the same time periods? I'm not. The studies I was able to access seem to show they were mainly concerned with trying to figure out SST, and most went back for about 1,000 years or so. It looked to me like the authors were using the studies cited to support claims of higher SST's during the same period they claim they were able to detect these increases in cat 2 plus hurricanes in the prehistoric past. That's fine, but the other studies don't seem to directly relate to hurricane return ratios.
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Kam-biu Liu has done a lot of research in this area. Here is a presentation on the subject:

Link
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Quoting 5. MahFL:

No one really cares about a bad hurricane every 10 years, they just rebuild.


Probably get an argument about that in Tacloban ..........



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Quoting LAbonbon:

I read the full paper this past weekend. How they differentiated the beds in the pond was interesting. Also they looked at lots of storms of note this past century and discussed how/why they were ruled out as 'indicator' beds in the pond. They looked for similar markers/beds as were found to correspond with known, strong storms. So they solely looked at stronger pre-historic storms. What they found were a higher quantity of stronger storms in the periods indicated in the blog post.
I read it also. It falls over from the first indicator storm. From the study "...the historical interval are consistent with severe hurricanes in 1991 (Bob)...". I don't know how they defined "severe" but Bob was not a cat 3 at landfall in Rhode Island and certainly was not a cat 3 when it moved over Salt Pond. How do you start with Bob and use that to extrapolate to the other storms as being cat 3's? In addition, the core samples came from one pond in Massachusetts. Again, from the study: "A shift in activity to the North American east coast occurred ca. 1400 CE, with more frequent severe hurricane strikes recorded from The Bahamas to New England between 1400 and 1675 CE." Now it includes the Bahamas? The whole East Coast? What? Based on what evidence?

Their own calculations for return rate ratio was based on the number of cat 2 plus hurricanes hitting New England based on the best track database over the past 162 years, not cat 3 plus. (Section 6.2, first paragraph). The occurrence of cat 3 plus events was, and is, so rare that there wouldn't have been enough of them to use for a reasonable base of calculation. Why then does Donnelly make the statement in the press release quoted above that the return rate of cat 3 plus hurricanes is going to increase when the study doesn't use that criteria?

I have lots of other questions about methodology and conclusions that don't make sense to me either. I saw nothing in the way they were able to resolve temporal distribution that would have excluded sedimentation deposition from a powerful Nor'easter rather than a tropical cyclone. I won't plow thorough them all here and have the blog want to kill me. At the very least, Donnelly, the lead researcher, is making statements for attribution that are clearly not supported by the study.
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Quoting 23. Neapolitan:

I'm not sure why you'd expect to see that, as that isn't at all what the study claims. In fgact, it repeatedly refers to "Western North America". That is, the east-facing stretch of the continent from South Florida to Newfoundland. ...

Well, now I'm a bit confused, I have to confess :-)
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Quoting 16. sar2401:

I'd like to see some more studies done in the tidal areas from Virginia and down through the Carolinas. I saw nothing in that study that would propose an answer to why larger hurricanes would have only hit the NE coast. Given the pattern we've seen in the past 200 years, there still should have been a much larger number of Cat 3+ hitting further south. As I've said before, this was a single study, and needs some verification studies before it should be accepted as fact.

sar, see Figure 1a in the study. The figure shows mapped locations of this study, as well as other, similar studies. I can't post from the PDF (maybe one of the techno wizards here can do it), but this is the caption:

"Figure 1. Location maps. (a) Correlation map of boreal summer SST and AMM. SSTs are
warmer during positive AMM. Triangles show locations of paleo-hurricane reconstructions
presented here (1- Salt Pond [this study] and Mattapoisett Marsh [Boldt et al., 2010]; 2 -
Outer Banks inlets [Mallinson et al., 2011]; 3 -Thatchpoint Blue Hole [van Hengstum et al.,
2013], 4 - Mullet Pond [Lane et al., 2011] and Spring Creek Pond [Brandon et al., 2013]; 5 -
Lighthouse Blue Hole [Denommee et al., 2014]; 6 - Laguna Playa Grande [Donnelly and
Woodruff, 2007])."

As indicated, there has been a similar study done in the Outer Banks inlets.

I do not think this report states that only the Northeast was hit.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
I read the full paper this past weekend. How they differentiated the beds in the pond was interesting. Also they looked at lots of storms of note this past century and discussed how/why they were ruled out as 'indicator' beds in the pond. They looked for similar markers/beds as were found to correspond with known, strong storms. So they solely looked at stronger pre-historic storms. What they found were a higher quantity of stronger storms in the periods indicated in the blog post.


thanx...so not more storms...but stronger storms....again to me...that makes sense
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I'd like to see some more studies done in the tidal areas from Virginia and down through the Carolinas. I saw nothing in that study that would propose an answer to why larger hurricanes would have only hit the NE coast


i didn't see anywhere that they said it only hit there....i was under the impression....that they were just focused on the n/e area
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Quoting sar2401:
I saw nothing in that study that would propose an answer to why larger hurricanes would have only hit the NE coast.
I'm not sure why you'd expect to see that, as that isn't at all what the study claims. In fgact, it repeatedly refers to "Western North America Atlantic". That is, the east-facing stretch of the continent from South Florida to Newfoundland. From the article's conclusion:

"Future anthropogenic warming will likely be focused in the northern hemisphere, and as a
result the ITCZ will occupy a more northerly position [Broecker and Putnam, 2013],
potentially leading to increased hurricane genesis in the MDR [Kossin and Vimont, 2007;
Merlis et al., 2013]. More cyclogenesis in the MDR will likely also significantly impact the
intensity of storms impacting the highly populated western North Atlantic margin, as these
long-lived storms tend to become more intense."
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important to know the truth about history...
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Quoting 13. Neapolitan:

Of course, such storms will occur atop several extra inches--or feet, or possibly even meters--of sea level, so that should be fun.

The Grand Experiment continues...
Sea level rise will be a one of the biggest challenges the human race will deal with. The consequences will be increasing as time progresses.
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Quoting 15. ricderr:

The effects of AGW on tropical cyclone activity are unclear at best right now. Even if the number of intense cyclones increases, that does not guarantee that the cyclones will steered toward the Northeast United States. For that reason, I'm a little weary of the phrase "what we should expect..."


i'm not sure they are stating "more" hurricanes....but a quick check shows that in the 20th century the new england area was hit with about 30 tropical systems.....so basically one every three years...with warmer waters due to agw....to me anyways...it seems logical they could be stronger

I read the full paper this past weekend. How they differentiated the beds in the pond was interesting. Also they looked at lots of storms of note this past century and discussed how/why they were ruled out as 'indicator' beds in the pond. They looked for similar markers/beds as were found to correspond with known, strong storms. So they solely looked at stronger pre-historic storms. What they found were a higher quantity of stronger storms in the periods indicated in the blog post.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting MahFL:
No one really cares about a bad hurricane every 10 years, they just rebuild.
That's true. No one really cares--except maybe the families of those who die, or those who are injured, or those whose lives are completely upturned and disrupted, or people who buy property insurance, or those who rely on goods and services from companies that are put out of business, or government officials charged with rebuilding and/or maintaining decimated infrastructure, or people who live in nations with a lowered GDP because of such storms, or...

Oy, vey... ;-)
Quoting MahFL:


Or half an inch, no one knows for sure.
Well, scientists have a pretty good idea--and it'll be a whole lot more than "half an inch":

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Quoting 15. ricderr:

The effects of AGW on tropical cyclone activity are unclear at best right now. Even if the number of intense cyclones increases, that does not guarantee that the cyclones will steered toward the Northeast United States. For that reason, I'm a little weary of the phrase "what we should expect..."


i'm not sure they are stating "more" hurricanes....but a quick check shows that in the 20th century the new england area was hit with about 30 tropical systems.....so basically one every three years...with warmer waters due to agw....to me anyways...it seems logical they could be stronger

I agree with the original post, the current hurricane archive isn't consistent enough to get a good sense of climatology and the atmosphere is never as simple as x -> y; like how a warming climate creates more snowstorms despite how counter intuitive it sounds.
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One flaw in this study is that the study assumes the 2-meter high sand barrier was present during the entire time. Major hurricanes have destroyed entire islands (especially barrier islands) - what is to say that over a long period of time, that 2-meter high sand barrier was turned into more of a 0.5 meter high barrier? Or completely eroded?

NOTE: I'm not disputing the findings, because with climate change and how the gulf stream has been consistently warmer off the NE coast the past decade, stronger and more frequent majors would not surprise me in the slightest.
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
Thanks, Dr. Masters.

I don't like this quote from Mr. Donnelly:

"'We hope this study broadens our sense of what is possible and what we should expect in a warmer climate. We may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years.'"

The effects of AGW on tropical cyclone activity are unclear at best right now. Even if the number of intense cyclones increases, that does not guarantee that the cyclones will steered toward the Northeast United States. For that reason, I'm a little weary of the phrase "what we should expect..."
I'd like to see some more studies done in the tidal areas from Virginia and down through the Carolinas. I saw nothing in that study that would propose an answer to why larger hurricanes would have only hit the NE coast. Given the pattern we've seen in the past 200 years, there still should have been a much larger number of Cat 3+ hitting further south. As I've said before, this was a single study, and needs some verification studies before it should be accepted as fact.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
The effects of AGW on tropical cyclone activity are unclear at best right now. Even if the number of intense cyclones increases, that does not guarantee that the cyclones will steered toward the Northeast United States. For that reason, I'm a little weary of the phrase "what we should expect..."


i'm not sure they are stating "more" hurricanes....but a quick check shows that in the 20th century the new england area was hit with about 30 tropical systems.....so basically one every three years...with warmer waters due to agw....to me anyways...it seems logical they could be stronger
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Quoting 13. Neapolitan:

Of course, such storms will occur atop several extra inches--or feet, or possibly even meters--of sea level, so that should be fun.

The Grand Experiment continues...


Or half an inch, no one knows for sure.
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Quoting Dr. Jeff Masters:
We may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years.
Of course, such storms will occur atop several extra inches--or feet, or possibly even meters--of sea level, so that should be fun.

The Grand Experiment continues...
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thanx doc for the explanation of how they performed the study.....rather than just the conclusion of the study......
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Quoting 10. sar2401:

Looks almost identical to what went through here about 0400. A thin line of showers with some pretty gusty winds. I had a 0.50" per hour rain rate for a half hour and then it was gone. No thunderstorms then and the lightning detector is showing nothing down there now. It looks more exciting on radar than it really is. I don't know what the mechanism is for this skinny little line but it's held together for about nine hours now. I assume it must be some frontal thing.


How much rain did you get?
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Quoting tampabaymatt:


Lots of moisture for today's showers and thunderstorms to work with.
Looks almost identical to what went through here about 0400. A thin line of showers with some pretty gusty winds. I had a 0.50" per hour rain rate for a half hour and then it was gone. No thunderstorms then and the lightning detector is showing nothing down there now. It looks more exciting on radar than it really is. I don't know what the mechanism is for this skinny little line but it's held together for about nine hours now. I assume it must be some frontal thing.
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Thanks Dr. Masters....
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Wow, doc: "paleotempestology", "speleothem" - new stuff for me: I will try to keep those words in mind in order to smugly throw them around at next opportunity, lol. - Very interesting findings, and thank you for telling us.

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Quoting 3. hydrus:




Ya, Ya, I see it. It's gonna get cold again. Thats why i is leaving for Arizona for a couple + weeks next week.
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Thanks, Dr. Masters.

I don't like this quote from Mr. Donnelly:

"'We hope this study broadens our sense of what is possible and what we should expect in a warmer climate. We may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years.'"

The effects of AGW on tropical cyclone activity are unclear at best right now. Even if the number of intense cyclones increases, that does not guarantee that the cyclones will steered toward the Northeast United States. For that reason, I'm a little weary of the phrase "what we should expect..."
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
No one really cares about a bad hurricane every 10 years, they just rebuild.
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Lots of moisture for today's showers and thunderstorms to work with.
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Still raining in NE FL.
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Thanks Doc..Hard to imagine a year worse than 2005.
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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather