Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events: Using HGIS to Retrace the 1839 Hurricane in the British North Atlantic

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This is the second post in a five-part series showcasing the research coming out of three projects hosted at Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) and supported by Kirsten Greer, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies of the Semi-Peripheries.

I am a historical climatologist at the Department of Geography, University of South Carolina.  A common theme of my research is the collection and analyses of critical amounts of original archival weather data, such as those found in ships logs, private weather diaries, newspapers, and early instrumental records.  For this research, one needs to be trained to do a lot of “detective” type work, with good historical skills for locating, extracting, and interpreting climatic information from historical documents. 

One of my research themes focuses more on scientific aspects on reconstructing historical climates and weather extremes of the last few centuries extending back into the Little Ice Age. Weather extremes include cold waves, heat waves, drought, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes. I often collaborate with synoptic climatologists, paleoclimatologists, climate historians, and historical geographers. By gaining a longer temporal perspective on climate variability and extremes than the modern record, one can view extremes of climate and weather that may be considered “unprecedented” if just looking at the context of the modern record alone. 

I am also interested in the themes of historical climate impacts and perceptions.  I have been particularly concerned with issues of climate reality vs. climate perception (ex. Garden and Great American Desert Myths) during the settlement era of the Western United States, including the California Gold Rush year of 1849 which was a year of extreme climate across much of North America and a focus on an ongoing book. The importance in understanding climatic reality is vital to fully assess the discrepancy between the real world as compared to the environmental images as viewed by the many westward travelers and early settlers. I also conducted a research project on the temporal memory of Atlantic hurricanes, including some legendary hurricanes that were remembered over long historical timeframes extending back centuries.  

My research touches on environments ranging from arid, tropical, as well as Arctic and Alpine environments, including the Southeast USA and Atlantic coast, the Great Plains, the far western United States, Beringia (Alaska and eastern Siberia), Hawaii, Hong Kong, Japan, Bermuda, and Belize. Support on various projects has been provided through grants from the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In collaboration with Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux of the University of Vermont, I co-edited a collection on the Historical Climate Variability and Impacts in North America, from Springer.

My main contribution to the “Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events” project with CUSP focuses on reconstructing the intensity, track, meteorological characteristics, and impacts from the 1839 Reid Hurricane. This hurricane was named after William Reid, who wrote about the hurricane in the “Law of Storms” in the 1830s and with William Redfield is considered one of the earliest pioneers of hurricane research. The 1839 hurricane impacted Bermuda as a category 3 hurricane, with the eye passing over or very near the island; one of the biggest hurricanes ever in the history of Bermuda.  It remained strong when approaching the Canadian Maritimes, but the marine historical data reveal spatial expansion of winds and post-tropical transition. 

This research featured many historical geographers conducting cross collaborations and contributing data from different and diverse archives in the North Atlantic Basin and Maritime Canada. It exhibits a strong international “Atlantic World” and interdisciplinary components shared by both human and physical geographers. Although the opportunities for such research is vast and wide open, much historical climatology lacks this broad combination of information from the natural and physical sciences, social science, and the humanities.

Figure 1: Ships logs used in the Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events project

Archival data and research visits on the 1839 hurricane included dozens of repositories in the USA, including maritime newspapers of the New York Shipping List. Archival work, however, also included several localities in Canada and Bermuda, as well as US Navy ships logs from the US National Archives, and British navy ship logbooks from the UK National Archives (Fig. 1).   

Figure 2: Archival data used to track the course of the 1839 Reid Hurricane

An aspect of the project that I found particularly interesting is the availability of different types of archival data, such as the example in Figure 2 that shows good widespread North Atlantic geographical coverage (Fig. 2).  Another aspect that I appreciated is the GIS step-by-step educational component on how to reconstruct historical hurricanes from archival data, which involved the daily mapping of data geographically to determine tropical cyclone characteristics.

Figure 3: Bermuda Centre Signal Station

Another important area the interested our interdisciplinary team of geographers involved the analyses of the Reid Hurricane varied from large-scale synoptic meteorological aspects down to local impacts at Bermuda at essentially block-by-block level. Figure 3 reveals the mapping of the Bermuda Centre Signal Station, which was a key data point that revealed the hurricane’s category 3 status.  I always find mapping tracks of historical hurricanes interesting, especially comparing them with potentially similar ones in the modern record.  The Reid Hurricane bears some resemblance to Hurricane Igor of 2010 concerning meteorological characteristics, but temporal changes in the timing of the characteristics, track, and intensity are evident (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Comparison of the tracks of 1839 Reid and 2010 Igor Hurricanes

In 2018, I reflected in Past Place, the newsletter of the Historical Geographers Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), on the role of historical geographer, Jeanne Kay Guelke, and historian, Richard White, in shaping interdisciplinary practice. He writes: “Academically, historians have different paths to achieve career success as compared to most geographers, thus I have seen very few serious broad historical climatology collaborations with historians, historical geographers, and climatologists.  I wish we had more situations with students like I had with both Jeanne and Richard, which they laid down my historical foundation at the University of Utah on how I approach interdisciplinary historical research with climatology up to today. Clearly, they both knew how to work very efficiently across many disciplinary fields, while also keeping up with current developments, and they there were well ahead of most scholars.” The HGIS prototype produced for the historical Reid Hurricane of 1839 is a reflection of that type of practice across the humanities and the geophysical sciences.

This work was first presented in a special session on the archives at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in 2019: K. Greer, C. Mock, K. Hemsworth, S. Naylor, A.Csank, & M. Prescott, “Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events: Using the Archives to Retrace the 1839 Hurricane in the British North Atlantic,” AAG, Washington DC, 5 April 2019.

To cite the research on this site: C. Mock, M. Prescott, K. Greer, S. Naylor, K. Hemsworth, S. Morrison, M. Maddison-McFadyen, & A. Csank (June 2020). Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events: Using the Archives to Retrace the 1839 Hurricane in the British North Atlantic. Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP), Nipissing University, North Bay.

Feature image: H M Ship St George in the Hurricane of 1805 in the West Indies. Commanded by Honble Micl De Courcy. By Geroge Heriot, n.d. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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