Hurricane history may lie in Louisiana marshlands

Thursday, December 1, 2005
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When Hurricane Rita hit the Texas-Louisiana border in September as the ninth hurricane of the 2005 season, it caused storm surges, or rushes on water on shores, of up to 10 feet. The surges reopened some of the levee breaches caused by Hurricane Katrina a month earlier and reflooded parts of New Orleans.

Harry Williams, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Texas, will study how the storm surges will contribute to long-term sedimentation -- buildup of deposits -- in Louisiana coastal marshlands after receiving a two-year National Science Foundation grant of nearly $20,000. Williams will also attempt to determine if deposits left by hurricanes can be distinguished from deposits left by tsunamis.

Williams plans to share the research results with scientists, policymakers and the general public to increase understanding of hurricanes' impact on land and people.

"Hurricane-derived storm surge deposits may be an important, but poorly understood, mechanism of coastal marsh growth," Williams says. "Data from this study will improve our understanding of these storm surges and our understanding of mechanisms of marsh growth."

Williams plans to apply for a larger NSF grant to investigate the possibility that old hurricane deposits can be found in the Earth's subsurface -- research that he says could provide a record of hurricane impact going back centuries or millennia.

He adds the data could be used to calculate patterns of time in which hurricanes hit different stretches of coastline.

Williams, a physical geographer, is an expert in geomorphology -- geography related to the distribution of land and water on the Earth's surface. He is also an expert in small watershed hydrology, cartography and tsunamis.

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