Hurricanes of History—From Dinosaur Times to Today

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
Updated September 23, 2004

With storm season in full fury, explore the historic mayhem wrought by hurricanes. For millennia, it seems, almost nothing has been safe from these summer tempests—not World War II warships, not treasure- filled galleons, perhaps not even dinosaurs.

More than 400 years ago explorer Tristan de Luna had some ambitious plans—he was going to establish the first permanent Spanish settlement in a land called Florida, and use this base to explore North America and spread the Christian religion.

In June 1559 de Luna and 1,500 colonists, soldiers, and friars boarded a dozen ships in Veracruz, Mexico, expecting to reach their destination in two weeks. But it was a raucous summer on the Gulf of Mexico, and for two months storms blew de Luna's fleet back and forth across the water.

In mid-August, the sea-weary settlers finally landed near what is now Pensacola. Most of their food was gone, and many of their horses had been killed in the long, tempestuous crossing.

Still, de Luna tried to remain optimistic, believing he'd landed at one of the world's best natural harbors. But only a few weeks later, a hurricane roared off the Gulf and smashed into de Luna's bedraggled settlement, killing hundreds and destroying nine ships.

Spain's King Phillip decided he'd had enough of the storm-battered Gulf Coast. He ordered de Luna to send an expedition to start a settlement on Florida's east coast.

Another hurricane sank this tiny fleet soon after it departed, however, and in 1561 Spain evacuated de Luna's surviving colonists.

De Luna's ill-fated colony was among the earliest recorded examples of how hurricanes have altered history, but the powerful summer storms have been influencing the course of events for perhaps millions of years.

Sailors from Christopher Columbus to World War II admirals have had to contend with hurricanes. The storms have intervened in naval battles, spilled immense riches into the sea, shattered the grandiose dreams of real estate developers, and caused headaches for politicians. And they may have helped exterminate the dinosaurs.

Did Hurricanes Do In the Dinosaurs?

No humans were around to make permanent records of prehistoric hurricanes. But Kerry Emanuel, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks conditions may have existed about 65 million years ago that could have spawned prehistoric hypercanes far more powerful than modern storms.

Scientists have long thought that the dinosaurs may have died after an asteroid struck the Earth and caused dramatic climate changes. Emanuel and other researchers think the asteroid could have heated the ancient oceans to as much as 50 degrees Celsius (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit).

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