Historical Records Shed Light on 19th-Century Gulf Coast Hurricane Activity

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Researchers, supported by the South Central Climate Science Center, used historical documents to identify 28 landfalling tropical cyclones between 1820 and 1915, including eight not captured by the NOAA hurricane database.

View of high surf at the Galveston, Texas seawall during the August 1909 hurricane, with Surf Bath House in distance

View of high surf at the Galveston, Texas seawall during the August 1909 hurricane, with Surf Bath House in distance

(Public domain.)

On July 8, 1822, the Gulf Coast of the United States was battered by rain and “heavy winds which increased to great violence,” according to a record from Fort St. Philip, Louisiana. The storm was so bad that it drove the ship Lady Washington aground on a barrier island off the coast of Mississippi.

This hurricane, like others before it, was described in logbooks and newspapers by observers. However, it has been relatively forgotten by modern scientists for the simple reason that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did not begin documenting hurricanes in their database, HURDAT2, until 1851.

With the help of historical records, researchers from Louisiana State University are shedding new light on hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico during the 19th century. They combed through countless U.S. Army fort records and other archived documents to identify 28 tropical cyclones in the Gulf of Mexico that potentially made landfall between 1820 and 1915. Of these, eight were not captured by the NOAA hurricane database – seven occurred prior to its existence. 

Researchers used tree rings from the area to verify the past storm events, looking for indications of reduced growth during probable hurricane years. By piecing together information from trees and historical documents, the researchers were able to reconstruct a possible storm track for the hurricane of 1831 and the landfall areas of the 1822 hurricane.

Besides presenting a fascinating glimpse into the past, this research provides a useful baseline of historical storm activity in the Gulf of Mexico. In particular, it fleshes out the picture of tropical cyclones prior to 1950, a period of time during which observations were limited. Knowing this information is important for accurately gauging how hurricane frequency and intensity are changing with climate change.

A recent publication describing this effort, Using proxy records to document Gulf of Mexico tropical cyclones from 1820-1915, can be found in PLOS ONE. Authors include Jordan V. Pino, Robert V. Rohli, Kristine L. DeLong, and Jill. C. Trepanier, Louisiana State University; and Grant L. Harley, University of Southern Mississippi.

This project was supported by the South Central Climate Science Center, which is managed by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. The center is one of eight that provides scientific information to help natural resource managers and communities respond effectively to climate change.