Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Paleotempestology



Paleotempestology.

This term is the core of UNC Charlotte professor Scott P. Hippensteel’s research.

Though it seems a complex word, if broken down, the meaning is simple. “Paleo” is the Greek derivation for “ancient” or “long ago.” Tempest is defined as a storm, usually a violent one. “logy” is a Latin and Greek root meaning “a branch of science,” or the specific study of something.

Thus, paleotempestology means the study of ancient storms.

Scott Hippensteel focuses more specifically on hurricanes.



Our formal records of storms and their effects upon the environment of the world only extend approximately a century or two; in-depth records are even younger, and the use of modern technology to record and predict such patterns- the internet, SONAR, radar, satellites, among others- extend, at the earliest, from the second half of the twentieth century.

This means that our understanding of patterns of weather is severely limited. Though we see changes in our environment and can track weather patterns over the extended period of time we have had access to these records, we cannot track macro patterns as they extend across multiple centuries and millennia.
This becomes problematic when you look at definitively proving claims of climate change. This leads to problems in other areas, including but not limited to: affecting climate change policy, implementing new energy techniques, preparing adequately for future disasters, and predicting extended future weather patterns.

Through his studies of paleotempestology, Scott Hippensteel thinks that he has found an answer, in a microorganism called foraminifers. Foraminifers are an aquatic microorganism that reside in the sediment of the sea bed. When they die, they leave small shells that can be traced through time. Think of foraminfer fossil deposits as a form of time capsule.



Foraminfers usually reside off of the shores of land masses. When a significant storm- say, a Level 5 hurricane- arrives, the power of the storm whips up the sediment on the sea bed and deposits it closer to the shore, in the bays and directly off of the land mass. They remain in this new location and, as Hippensteel has found, can be used as indicators of large hurricanes in the past.

Hippensteel has been collecting sediment in Onslow Bay and other areas off of the shores of North Carolina and its Outer Banks. After filtering through the sediment to find these foraminifer microfossils, he can date the fossils and track significant storms through time- storms that our records are too young to display. One can see why this finding is significant. If one can create a map through time of significant storms, it can be compared to our weather records. This comparison can help to see if patterns have been consistent or if they are indeed changing with time and human development.

Unfortunately, there are difficulties. In some areas, foraminifer deposits have been disturbed by other foraging aquatic creatures, such as fiddler crabs. In this way, some foraminifer microfossils are displaced and display inaccurate records.

(He's cute though, right?)


Only large storms- Category 5 hurricanes, as mentioned before- have the strength required to move the quantities of foraminifer fossils necessary for analysis and subsequent mapping. Therefore, even through this method, we can only detect significant storms- leaving us blind to a record of all ancient storms, and not just the especially destructive ones.


Though Hippensteel and his team have faced doubts about the validity of many records, they do not doubt the potential that this research has to affect environmental science. They have used these initial failures as a catalyst to increasing the science of understanding hurricane deposition and preservation. Once this area is clarified, further research can be done in geochronology through paleotempestology.  

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