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USF researchers look for ancient hurricane marks

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TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

Hurricanes have been around for millions of years, but accurate records of the storms date back less than 200 years.
 
"Our hurricane record goes back about 160 years," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Charlie Paxton.  "Here in the Tampa Bay area, we have a recorded hurricane back in 1848, and that's about it."
 
Now, the National Weather Service, University of South Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University are attempting to look back in time, thousands of years back, to track those ancient hurricanes. 

They will not use satellites in the sky the way we track current storms, they are going deep underground.

"We're looking for buried treasure," said Paxton.

The team looks for ponds or lagoons that are adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico and its sand dunes. When hurricanes make landfall, the storm surge pushes the sand into the pond and leaves a layer of sand at the bottom.

Typically, the sediment at the bottom of these ponds is dark-colored due to the organic material that settles there, so the idea is to pull up a core sample from bottom of these ponds and find the sandy layer.

"When you cut these cores open, if you have a hurricane record there, you should see the dark brown to black organic-rich sediment with these perturbations of sand," said Dr. Joanne Muller with Florida Gulf Coast University.

Dr. Muller and her students go out in boats to take these core samples.

"We push the aluminum pipe into the lagoon sediment, and we cap it at the top to create pressure," said Muller. "Then, we just pull it out."

Dr. Muller is a paleo-oceanographer, so her expertise is in getting a geologic record of time. Some of the preliminary data shows that the last 500 years have been an inactive period, but the 500 years prior was more active.

By working with USF's meteorology department, they can look at the climate during those active and inactive periods.

"Then we can make some observations like these are the climate patterns when we had an active period," said Dr. Jennifer Collins with USF.

Based on those correlations, the team hopes to be able to start making predictions about what may happen in the future due to what has happened thousands of years before.

The nearly $200,000 grant for this project is from the National Science Foundation, and the project is expected to last two years.

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