Hurricanes like Ivan, pictured here in September 2004 over the Gulf Coast, were here long before we were.

Photo courtesy NOAA

Hurricane History

Our modern understanding of hurricanes depends largely on a mere century's worth of scientific study and record keeping, but the storms have been dictating the course of human history for millennia. After all, they're a part of an atmospheric system that predates the human race by billions of years.

While scientists are largely left to speculate about the strength of Mesozoic Era storms, geologists have discovered evidence of Iron Age hurricanes in layers of ground sediment. When storm surges wash over land and into lakes, they leave fans of sand behind. Scientists can carbon date organic materials above and below the sand to determine an approximate storm date.

A team from Louisiana State University studied thousands of years worth of lake bed evidence and discovered that, over the past 3,400 years, a dozen Category 4 or higher hurricanes hit the area -- yet most of them occurred 1,000 years or more ago [source: Young]. Findings such as these allow scientists to better study long-term weather patterns and possibly make better sense of current climate trends.

As far as human records go, the ancient Mayans of South America made some of the earliest mentions of hurricanes in their hieroglyphics. The centuries that follow are littered with accounts of hurricanes affecting the outcomes of wars, colonization efforts and an untold number of personal lives.

Just to name a few, hurricane activity thwarted the following sea ventures through the destruction and scattering of ocean fleets:

  • The 1274 Mongol invasion of Japan
  • A 1559 attempt by the Spanish to recapture Florida
  • The French defense of a Floridian fort, subsequently lost to the Spanish in 1565
  • The Spanish Armada's attack on England in 1588
  • A 1640 Dutch attack on Cuba
  • British dominance over the French in the Caribbean Islands in 1780

Today, modern meteorology prevents most hurricanes from arriving unannounced, greatly decreasing the massive hurricane fatality rates of previous centuries. But even with advance warning, governments and the residents of coastal areas still have to properly prepare for the coming storms.

Meanwhile, some experts look to the future with concern. Some point to periods of intense hurricane activity in Earth's past and worry that such trends may return. Others argue that global warming brought on by the increased production of greenhouse gasses will lead to larger hurricane zones and more powerful storms. After all, hurricanes thrive on warm, moist waters, and a warmer Earth could provide more sustenance for tropical storms.

Explore the links on the next page to learn more about hurricanes and the Earth's weather, including a story about those crazy pilots who fly their planes into hurricanes.