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Rare November 1999 Hurricane Reveals Impacts of Ancient Storms

Date: Nov. 14, 2000
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Archive: Research News
Photos by: Colleen Kelley and David Meyer

David Meyer in lab

Cincinnati -- The waves of destruction from Hurricane Lenny which swept "backward" across the Caribbean in 1999 is helping geologists understand what happened to sea creatures hundreds of millions of years ago.

University of Cincinnati geologist David Meyer will explain the connection during a talk Tuesday, Nov. 14 during the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Reno, Nevada, as part of a special session devoted to "Tropical Marine Paleoenvironments Through Time."

scuba diving

Meyer is an expert scuba diver who has made many trips to the Caribbean over the years to document coral reefs and other animals living on the sea floor. He's also a paleontologist interested in what happend in the seas during the Silurian and Ordovician more than 400 million years ago.

So, he was in a perfect position to document the effects of Hurricane Lenny which moved in a rare west-to-east track through the Caribbean Nov. 16-21, 1999 affecting islands such as Bonaire and Curacao which rarely get hit by hurricane- force winds. "This was a completely backward storm," said Meyer. "Waves at least 10 feet high hit a side of the islands that hardly ever gets hit. It's truly a 100-year storm."

image of coral

Using underwater video and photography, Meyer, his wife Kani and graduate student Peter Lask captured images of Hurricane Lenny's damage in the waters off the coast of Bonaire. One of the most striking effects was the toppling of coral pillars 2-3 meters high. Meyer estimates the largest was hundreds of years old. "Those coral heads only add about one centimeter a year in thickness, and the storm knocked the whole thing over. It tore up everything in its path."

Hurricane Lenny also sent waves laden with coral and rock crashing onto the shores of Bonaire. At one point, the rubble was 15-20 feet high. By the time Meyer and the other geologists returned to Bonaire, most had been cleared away. However, there were still many beaches covered by rocky debris.

rubble on beach

By documenting how the hurricane affected the coral reefs of Bonaire, Meyer and other geologists will be better able to interpret the effects of ancient storms. "We see similar features in fossil reefs...the impact of rare storms," explained Meyer. "This connects present-day processes and the fossil history of reefs."

Examples of similar features can be found in Silurian fossil beds in Adams County, Ohio and parts of Indiana.

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