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Hurricanes: LSU Researchers Answer Questions about Storm Lore and History

It's hurricane season again, a time when residents of coastal states, particularly those lining the Gulf of Mexico, batten down the hatches, lay in supplies of batteries and canned goods, and anxiously scan weather reports for the slightest tropical disturbance that could, with time, become the next storm to impact their lives.

Hurricanes                          Hurricanes Hurricanes

As LSU scientists study the many mechanisms driving hurricanes – such as storm surge, pattern development, levee systems and more – here are some more general questions they have answered for the LSU community through the university’s Facebook presence.

  • Where does the word “hurricane” come from?
    Lisi Oliver, director, LSU Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics -

The term was originally a Caribbean word, then picked up and given Spanish form by the Spanish and Portuguese who were exploring and exploiting the region in the 16th century. It subsequently spread to be used in other languages in its Spanish form.

My guess – although it is only a guess – is that the initial H was original (or represented a glottal stop - like the first sound in English uh-oh!). The initial F (see Oxford English Dictionary etymology below) could easily have come from a misidentification with the word that comes to us as “furious.”

In 1634, T. Herbert calls it a “Hero-Cane,” and in 1651 N. Biggs calls it a “Harry-Cain.” These are examples of what is called “folk etymology,” in which the component elements of an unfamiliar word are broken down into familiar form.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:
Etymology:  < Spanish huracan, Old Spanish *furacan, Portuguese furacão, from the Carib word given by Oviedo as huracan, by Peter Martyr (as transl. by R. Eden) as furacan. Thence also Italian uracano(Diez), French ouragan, Dutch orkaan, German, Danish, Swedish orkan. The earlier English forms reflect all the varieties of the Spanish and Portuguese, with numerous popular perversions, hurricane being itself one, which became frequent after 1650, and was established from 1688. Earlier use favored forms in final -ana, -ano, perhaps deduced from the Spanish plural huracanes (but words from Spanish were frequently assumed to end in -o).

  • How are hurricanes named? What are the criteria for a name to be retired?
    Barry Keim, professor in the Department of Geography & Anthropology and state climatologist -

First, storm names are generated by the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO.  This process first began in 1950, before that, storms were simply numbered for each season. For the first three years (1950-1952), they used the same names every year from the NATO Phonetic Alphabet - ABLE, BAKER, CHARLIE, DOG, EASY, FOX, GEORGE, HOW, ITEM, etc. Beginning in 1953, they changed to the use of women's names to identify the storms. 


In 1979, to bring in some gender equality, they began alternating between male and female names, with storm names running through a rotation every six years.  But, when a storm is particularly memorable, the name will be retired.  As such, there will never be another Betsy, Camille, Andrew or Katrina, among others. 

To date, there has only been one tropical storm with a retired name – Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which produced more than 40 inches of rain in parts of Houston and more than 20 inches in South Louisiana.

  • Will we ever have a hurricane season as active as the 2005 one?
    Kam-Biu Liu, paleotempestology expert and George W. Barineau III Professor of Coastal and Environmental Sciences in the School of the Coast & Environment -

The short answer to your question is “yes,” but the real question is “how soon?”  We have to put this question in the historical perspective.  There is no doubt that the 2005 season broke many records for hurricane activity, but we have to keep in mind that our instrumental record for hurricanes only goes back to 1851 at the most, and the records before 1944 may be incomplete.  From a historical perspective, that is a relatively short period of reference for 2005 to compare with.  It is possible that if we go back further in time, we may find hurricane seasons more active than 2005. 

Using a variety of historical evidences, climatologists have reconstructed the hurricane activity in Louisiana, South Carolina and the Less Antilles in the Eastern Caribbean during the past few hundred years.  They found that, generally, hurricanes are more active in the 19th century than in the 20th century.  So, there is a hint that active season like 2005 may be more common if we go back to more than 100 or 150 years ago.  Geological evidence from the Gulf of Mexico coast also suggests that the millennium we are living in (that is, the past 1,000 years) is in fact a relatively quiet period for hurricane activity, compared with an earlier period of 1,000 to 3,500 years ago when the Gulf Coast was hit much more frequently by very intense hurricanes.  If we use the past as a guide to what can possibly happen in the future, then it is fair to say that the 2005 hurricane season is really not that extraordinary, and the records it broke will be broken again someday. 

  • What would a hurricane do to the oil left in the Gulf? On the bottom?
    Larry Rouse, associate professor in the Department of Coastal Studies, and Ed Overton, professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Sciences in the School of the Coast & Environment -

It’s possible that a hurricane could re-suspend oil submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, but it all depends because the storm has to be in the right place to actually pass over the oil. It would also have to be a big and strong enough of a storm to have waves that reach all the way down to the bottom. So there are a lot of variables that impact the answer to this question, and perhaps the first one is to discuss where the submerged oil – assuming there still is any – is located.

If there is any oil on the floor of the continental shelf, the region from the coastline to a waterdepth of 300 to 500 feet, it coul be lifted from the bottom and carried toward or onto the shore by hurricane storm waves. However, the same waves that stirred up the oil would almost definitely pick up a lot of sediment, too, and disperse it all. It just all depends … it could and could not.

Now, the one place where there stands a good chance to have any significant amount of oil on the bottom is near the site of the original incident. However, the chances of it being re-suspended from a hurricane are slim to none considering the depths involved. It is virtually impossible for storm wave energy to reach a mile below the ocean’s surface and disturb anything, including oil, on the bottom.

There are reports of what are called tar mats in the near-shore areas. These are mats of the heavier molecules in the oil (tar) that have mixed with sand. If storm waves pass over these mats, they could be picked up and rolled onto shore – in fact, there have already been some reports of rolled-up mats on some beaches.

One thing to remember is that whatever oil remains out there has been there for more than a year. There’s been a lot of opportunity for the degradation of oil. There’s not been enough research done in this particular area to specifically state how degraded it might be, but there are also lots of options that could impact. There are plenty of microorganisms that eat oil … and a year is a long time to have a buffet. How much is really left out there versus how much is digested? I don’t know. There are lots of theories, but I’m not sure if anyone knows for certain.

No matter what, though, I don’t think we’d be looking at the same type of mess that we saw last year because of all the variables involved. But honestly, the truth is that we just won’t know until we have a storm.

**Aqua-1 MODIS image of Hurricane Gustav captured September 1, 2008, and processed at the LSU Earth Scan Laboratory, Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences.