Atlantic hurricanes don’t just come and go. They leave clues to their passage through the landscape that last centuries or more. Rice University scientists are using these natural archives to find signs of storms hundreds of years before satellites allowed us to watch them in real time.

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Postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Wallace, a paleotempestologist who joined the lab of Rice climate scientist Sylvia Dee this year, is building upon techniques that reveal the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin over millennia.

Paleoclimate hurricane data (or ‘proxy’ data) is found in archives like tree rings that retain signs of short-term flooding, sediments in blue holes (marine caverns) and coastal ponds that preserve evidence of sand washed inland by storm surges. These natural archives give researchers a rough idea of when and where hurricanes have come ashore.

In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Wallace, Dee and co-author Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, take hundreds of thousands of “synthetic” storms spun up from global climate model simulations of the past 1,000 years and examine whether or not they are captured by the vast network of Atlantic paleohurricane proxies.

Reconstructing the past will help scientists understand the ebb and flow of Atlantic hurricanes over time. Previous studies by Wallace and others have demonstrated that a single site capturing past storms cannot be used to reconstruct hurricane climate changes; however, a network of proxies might help refine models of how these storms are likely to be affected by climate change going forward.

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