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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Hurricane season forecast 'active' based on history

Dr. William Gray has offered his prediction for the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, and the news isn't good.

Colorado State University meteorologist has forecast an "active" season this year. "We estimate that 2004 will have about eight hurricanes (average is 5.9), 14 named storms (average is 9.6), 60 named storm days (average is 49), 35 hurricane days (average is 24.5), three intense (category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.3), eight intense hurricane days (average is 5) and a hurricane destruction potential of 100 (average is 71)," he said in his April 2 report.

"The probability of a U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be 40 percent above the long-period average," Gray continued.

He and his team base the forecast on a whole slew of global weather patterns, including everything from Pacific Ocean water temperature to North Atlantic water salinity to drought conditions in North Africa.

Gray is also using a relatively new tactic in his predictions: history. "This early April forecast is based on a newly devised extended-range statistical forecast procedure which utilizes 52 years of past global re-analysis data," he said.

"Our Colorado State University research project has shown that a sizable portion of the year-to-year variability of Atlantic tropical cyclone activity can be 'hindcast' [the opposite of forecast] with skill significantly exceeding climatology. These forecasts are based on a statistical methodology derived from 52 years of past global re-analysis data and a separate study of prior analog years, which have had similar global atmosphere and ocean precursor circulation features to this year."

Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through the end of November. The Islander will have a special hurricane section in late May.

Native American climate know-how
Gray has been predicting, correctly, that we're in a cycle of more frequent and more powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic. The cycle runs about 30 years or so, and started in the mid-1990s.

Now, it seems that Gray's "hindcast" could be adjusted back a few thousand years, based on information gleaned from some Native American archeological sites in Southwest Florida.

University of Florida anthropologist Karen Walker has discovered that "nearly 1,700 years ago, devastating tempests associated with sea-level rise destroyed villages of the Calusa Indians on the southwest Florida coast near present-day Fort Myers, forcing the native fishermen to move inland to relative safety," according to writer Cathy Keen.

"Walker's clues to storms, sea-level rise and migration include village remains buried by storm-surge sediment, and other village deposits found at higher elevations than where they should be," Keen continued.

"As we enter into a modern warming period, which seems to be the case, Florida is likely to experience flooded shorelines and an increase of intense storms," Walker said.

Walker did her research on Pine Island, Sanibel Island and other smaller islands in Southwest Florida.

The Calusa Indians built massive shell mounds, suggesting they tried to get above the flood threat. "There may be other cultural reasons why they started living on top of these huge shell mounds, but I think it's too much of a coincidence that it happens at this same time," she said.

Where's the water?
Even though it's forecast that we'll have rising sea water and lots of rain from hurricanes, it's dry, dry, dry out there right now. Jane Morse, University of Florida Manatee County Extension Agent, said that "April, May and October are usually the months when our plants are under water stress. What is a person to do? The best way to cope with these normally occurring dry seasons is to practice water conservation before the dry season begins. To do this correctly, you need to know when to water and how much water to apply."

Morse said that many plants tell you when they're thirsty when they wilt. If they wilt during the evening, it's time to water them, and she suggests "a good soaking by applying 1/2 to 3/4 inch of water. Watering in this way will promote strong, deep root systems that are capable of withstanding drought. If you frequently apply light sprinklings of water, the root system will be shallow, weak and unable to withstand drought.

"Over-watering can also cause wilt symptoms," Morse continued. "If the root system is smothered by too much water, it is likely to get rot. Once the root system is rotted, it cannot take in water and the plant will wilt."

She said that during drought conditions, fertilizer should be used sparingly or not at all. "Fertilizer stimulates growth and increases water needs. It also produces new tender growth that cannot withstand drought. It is best to wait until the drought is over before fertilizing.

"Every year we have a drought season, but some years are worse than others," Morse concluded. "What is the best way to prepare for these droughts? Plant a yard that will survive on normal rainfall - native plants are great - and group plants by their watering needs, water plants only when they need it, and water deeply (1/2 to 3/4 inch)."

No watering needed here
Sargassum is a free-floating algae that can usually be spotted on the beaches after heavy west winds, like we've had in the past week or so. According to John Stevely, the marine extension agent with the Sea Grant Program out of the University of Florida, sargassum is so important to the marine food chain that it has been designated by the federal government as an "essential fish habitat."

The brown seaweed has round air pods that keep the stuff afloat. Sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico originates in the Sargasso Sea - where else?- in the western Atlantic Ocean. It floats into the Gulf compliments of the Yucatan Current and then the Loop Current.

For us, it usually is out about 30 miles or so from shore, lined up in long windrows that can be miles long. Up to 90 different fish species call sargassum home for at least part of their lives, as well as sea turtles.

Scientists with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss., have been studying sargassum since 2000, and have found that dolphin, tripletail and billfish use the seaweed as home for most of their adult lives; bluefin tuna and amberjack juveniles hide out in the brown stuff before they head out into the world on their own.

I guess you could think of sargassum as sort of a floating coral reef; although not as colorful as what you could find in the Florida Keys, it's just as ecologically important to marine life.

Sandscript factoid
My buddy Bob Ardren turned me onto a neat Web site the other day - www.sarasota.wateratlas.org.

It is, quite frankly, everything you ever wanted to know about water bodies in Sarasota County, including Sarasota Bay.

The site is still under development, so some of the more esoteric information one could want is missing. Nonetheless, the site has an awful lot of information about not only bays and passes but also rivers, streams, bayous and lakes.

If you navigate deep into the bowels of the site, you'll discover that there are also water-atlas sites for other parts of Florida available, like Hillsborough and Polk counties. Some of the locations indicate water quality, history, air temperature, and all kinds of interesting "factoids."

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