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Microfossils show promise in prospecting climate history

In 2004 and now in 2005, the hurricane seasons have been horrifyingly intense so how bad is the long-range forecast? Based on a century of data, meteorologists currently believe that a 30-year lull in hurricane activity is over and we are at the beginning of a new multi-decade period of larger and more frequent storms. However, there is other data that suggests we may also be coming to the end of a thousand year period of greatly diminished hurricane activity, making the outlook even worse.

Or not -- Finding the answer may depend on the research of University of North Carolina at Charlotte environmental micropaleontologist Scott Hippensteel -- and on microscopic shells, barrier marshes and fiddler crabs.

The answer may be critical not just in weather forecasting, but in adjusting insurance rates, in preparing for future disasters and in guiding future environmental policy. Since climate science cannot yet accurately predict the future, the best way we can find these answers is to look at history (or "prehistory"). But how much history is there for us to look at?

"Is the frequency of big storms going on now natural and should we expect this in the future?" Hippensteel said. "How much of this is anthropogenic? In trying to answer questions like these, what data do we have to compare our recent records to?

"We have 400 years of historical records, and about a century of real weather records. If you look at the coastal area that I'm doing research on, we've had one major hurricane a category 4 or 5 in the last 100 years. How do you adjust insurance rates based on one storm in 100 years? What we need is a much more extensive record -- maybe about 5,000 years worth of data."

There is, Hippensteel points out, a geological feature that records the past occurrence of major storms along the coasts the sediments left behind by massive tidal surges that wash, tsunami-like over the land. The trick, of course, is to find places where
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Contact: James Hathaway
jbhathaw@uncc.edu
704-687-6675
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
31-Oct-2005


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