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Arizona Reseacher: Shipwrecks, Tree Rings Offer Insight Into Hurricane History

 tree rings
(Photo by graphicstock.com)
Scientists study tree rings to learn more about climate change.

What do tree rings and Spanish shipwrecks have to do with one another? Plenty, from a climate science viewpoint.

University of Arizona researcher Valerie Troue combined two sets of data to pinpoint a period of low hurricane activity in the Caribbean in a study published Monday.

Research of tree ring and shipwreck data going back 500 years could lead to improved hurricane forecasting in the 21st century.

That’s one outcome of a study by Trouet, an associate professor at UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and scientists from other institutions. That’s after they created a 500-year snapshot of Caribbean hurricane seasons going back to 1495.

“When we want to look at predicting hurricanes into the future, there is a lot of uncertainty, particularly when you look at regional scales," said Trouet.

Trouet said tree-ring research from Florida shows hurricane activity, and combining that data with reports of shipwrecks created some clues about climate change and hurricanes.

“You find the same signal in the tree rings in years when hurricanes happened over the 20th century and in years when a lot of ships wrecked in the earlier period," she said.

Trouet said selecting data about ships that wrecked in storms during hurricane season provided information for more than 300 years. Researchers combined that with data from instruments starting in 1850 to create the long-term picture.

What jumped out was a 75 percent reduction in shipwrecks between 1645 and 1715 when there was a known decline in sunspot activity, called the Maunder Minimum.

“What we found in our study is that exactly during that same period that Maunder Minimum is when there was not just a lull in solar activity but a lull in hurricane activity as well," she said.

Trouet said the study is the first to examine hurricane activity over the last 500 years in 10-year periods.

Sara Hammond has an extensive background in journalism as well as corporate communication. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s (UA) School of Journalism, Hammond interned at the Tucson Citizen and, after graduation, spent 10 years reporting for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.