September 18, 2005

Some Thoughts About Hurricanes

The Washington Post reports that Hurricane Ophelia has almost stalled out over the North Carolina coast and that it has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Although this might be considered reassuring to those in its path, history shows that one of the worst hurricanes to come out of the Atlantic, Hurricane Mitch, was also a slow moving storm also downgraded to a tropical depression, and yet it wrecked havoc on the Central American coast. Mitch caused so much damage and death because it stalled out over Central America for days and because the deforestation of the area created an opportunity massive mudslides.

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Whilst Mitch was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record, the winds abated considerably as the storm moved inland. It was actually the huge amount of rainfall deposited by such a slow moving storm which caused most of the damage. Most rainfall recording instruments would have been destroyed during the storm. However, some records which survived indicated rainfall totals in Southern Honduras of 25" in 36 hours and 10" in 6 hours between 29 and 31 October*.

* source: Jon Hellin (Natural Resources Institute) and Corporacion Hondurena de Desarrollo Forestal.

The Cost

The human cost of Hurricane Mitch was enormous. It will probably never be known exactly how many died. As of 19 November 1998* estimates were as follows:-

Honduras: 7000 dead, 8300 missing
Nicaragua: 3000 dead, 2200 missing
Guatemala: 258 dead, 121 missing
El Salvador: 272 dead, 100 missing

* source: ReliefWeb

As a birder in Portland, Oregon, I'd heard that the massive rainfall and damage was most likely responsible for the dramatic drop in numbers for the Vaux Swifts. The Vaux Swifts are a welcome and important part of the insect-control in the Pacific Northwest, and because they split their lives across the Pacific Northwest and the Central American coast, they were right in the path of this enormous storm. And their loss affects us directly as they can no longer keep the mosquito population down.

One of the world's experts in hurricanes was interviewed recently on Living on Earth and just this past week was heard on Morning Edition. Kerry Emanuel, the author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, recently wrote an article published in Nature Magazine that

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Posted by Mary at September 18, 2005 10:58 PM | Environment | Technorati links |