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Hurricane History

Geography professor uses early ship logs to recreate hurricane history


While meteorologists are busy forecasting and tracking this year's crop of hurricanes using the latest satellite technology, Dr. Cary Mock is combing through 300-year-old British ship logs for weather data to detail hurricanes of the past.

Mock, an associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the only academic researcher conducting historical maritime climate research.

Cary Mock
Cary Mock

He has amassed approximately $700,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to research and reconstruct the hurricane and severe weather history of the Atlantic Coast.

"Maritime climate work is a new movement in the field," Mock said. "There's a great deal of detail to early ship's logs. They provide a lot of data on extreme weather events. We know every South Carolina hurricane back to 1722 because of the British ship logs."

"Maritime climate work is a new movement in the field."

Working from plantation records, diaries, newspapers and other early 18th- and 19th-century written accounts, Mock has spent the last decade building a comprehensive historical database of hurricane activity that extends back hundreds of years before modern weather instrumentation.

In 2007, he turned his attention to ship logs, both U.S. and British, knowing that the maritime records would provide greater detail. This summer, he spent several weeks in England, his sixth trip to research log books from the British Royal Navy, East India Company and whaling logs. He'll return to England in late fall.

"Ship log books provide more detail than land records," he said. "The log records are kept hour by hour for wind scale, wind direction and barometric pressure. They're very descriptive."

Mock has reviewed nearly 3,000 ship logs from England and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and various New England maritime archives, dating from the early 1700s to the 1870s. Of those, he said, 300 to 400 have provided useful information. Few whaling logs -- about 28 -- provided any hurricane information.

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