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Finding Clues to Future Hurricanes in Distant Past

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2005
 
Chris Landsea was only six months old in September 1965 when Hurricane Betsy blew through South Florida. Landsea and his parents had only recently moved from Illinois to Miami, and he wonders if the hurricane had a powerful influence on his future.

"Perhaps that portended my interest in hurricanes," he said.

As he reaches his 40th birthday, Landsea is now a meteorologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division in Miami. He's become an authority on the complexities of the powerful storms that rage across the oceans every summer and sometimes inflict catastrophic devastation when they come ashore.

Landsea also has seen sights that few people will ever see—the interiors of some of the most powerful hurricanes that have ever formed. As a graduate student at Colorado State University, Landsea was aboard a "hurricane hunter" aircraft that flew into the eye of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The flight into Gilbert—the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin—was Landsea's first look at the heart of a monster hurricane, and it left a powerful impression on him.

Landsea saw the so-called "stadium effect" of a hurricane's eye, caused by storm clouds cascading backward from the center so they look like seats in a stadium. He saw a blue sky above, and below were "great white pancakes" caused by giant waves crashing into each other.

"It's so unlike anything else on Earth. You could almost consider yourself to be on another planet," he said.

The powerful hurricane inflicted massive damage when it made landfall on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Hurricane Andrew

Landsea's experiences with hurricanes became less theoretical and much more personal in 1992, however, when Hurricane Andrew tore through southern Dade County, Florida.

"I think my interest in hurricanes was academic until Andrew," Landsea said. "Andrew destroyed the neighborhood I grew up in. My parents' house lost one-third of its roof."

He went to Florida to help his parents with the cleanup.

"I was just shocked at the damage," he said. "I couldn't even recognize my own neighborhood. Trees were gone, denuded. Buildings were gone. It was amazing to see the power of what a hurricane could do."

Landsea earned his doctoral degree in atmospheric science at CSU in 1994 and went home to Miami to go to work at NOAA's Hurricane Research Division. With the scars from Hurricane Andrew still plainly visible, Landsea and others started reexamining the storm.

When Andrew came ashore, it had been classified as a Category Four hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates hurricanes from one to five according to the wind speeds and destructive potential. A Category Four hurricane has wind speeds from 131 to 155 miles (210 to 250 kilometers) an hour. A Category Five storm has winds exceeding 155 miles an hour.

Meteorologist Frank Marks, who is Landsea's supervisor at the Hurricane Research Division, said Landsea helped dig up and reinterpret data about Hurricane Andrew that led to the storm being upgraded to a Category Five—one of only three such hurricanes that have made landfall in the U.S.

Reanalyzing History

Landsea's work on Andrew was only the beginning of his effort to reanalyze hurricane history, however.

"He brought a whole different idea to the Hurricane Research Division," Marks said. "We had always focused on the shorter term. He developed a whole new focus for us, more toward looking at hurricane seasons as part of the whole picture."

Landsea has done more than focus on future hurricanes, however. He's also dug through a century's worth of weather records to broaden researchers' understanding of long-ago hurricane seasons, before the days when the storms could be closely monitored by radars and weather satellites.

"He's pushed our database on hurricanes back to 1851," Marks said. "Now, he's working up through the early 1900s, trying to catch all the errors or storms that were missed. He's spent a lot of time in dusty places trying to find information."

Among the important historical weather tidbits Landsea uncovered was a new understanding of hurricanes that have struck the coast of Georgia. Before Landsea started plowing through old records, meteorologists thought very few hurricanes had struck there. But Landsea discovered from old military records that three major hurricanes hit Georgia between 1880 and 1890.

That kind of data may seem obscure and unimportant, but it's a useful tool for researchers and insurance companies wanting to know long-term hurricane trends.

William Gray, who was Landsea's mentor at Colorado State, thinks his former student is a rising star in the world of hurricane research.

Gray, who came to CSU in the 1960s from the University of Chicago, is a pioneer in long-range hurricane forecasting. His seasonal forecasts, in which he predicts the number of hurricanes likely to form between June 1 and November 30, have become highly respected for their accuracy.

"He was an outstanding student, a most organized and disciplined fellow," Gray said of Landsea. "I'm very proud of Chris. I feel lucky to have had him as a student. I think when I'm pushing up daisies, he'll be doing great things."

Despite his influence on Landsea, however, Gray said his former student thinks for himself. "He holds his own with me," Gray said. "We disagree sometimes, which is fine. I don't want anyone to parrot me if they don't believe what I do. I want them to think for themselves and go their own ways."

Landsea lives with his wife, Donna, and their son, Mitch, in suburban Miami. The Landseas named their son after Hurricane Mitch, a powerful hurricane that tore across the Caribbean in 1998. Landsea said he and his wife briefly thought about naming their son Aaron, but decided against it.

"We thought Aaron Landsea—as in, 'air and land, sea'—would be kind of cute, but then we thought the kid might suffer emotional trauma because of that name, and we thought we'd better not do that."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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