Nothing gets Southerners' attention quite like a big storm on the horizon with cotton almost ready for harvest.
Strong winds can blow cotton right out of opened bolls, covering Deep South fields like a soggy early autumn snowfall. From 1995-1999, Southeastern farmers endured the five most active Atlantic Basin hurricane years in recorded history. Twenty major Category 3 or stronger hurricanes rose from the warm Caribbean waters and threatened the U.S.
Luckily, few made landfall. One of the most damaging hurricanes, Floyd, destroyed eastern North Carolina crops and livestock operations last fall, but was only a Category 2 storm. Most of its destruction came from heavy rains caused by an upper level trough to the west, a rare event in hurricane history.
This is likely just the beginning of a period of heightened storm activity, say hurricane experts. Hurricane activity tends to come in cycles. Following 25 years of relative calm, the number of big storms increased from 1926 to 1970. Things quieted down again until 1994. Now climatologists think we're in another period of 25-40 years when more Category 3 or stronger hurricanes will threaten the East Coast.
"There is a feeling among atmospheric scientists that we're returning to a period of increased tropical storm activity, like we had earlier in the 20th century," says David Stooksbury, Georgia state climatologist and a University of Georgia engineer.
"The last several decades were a quiet period, more benign than the historical record. We might be returning to a more normal pattern. This is still a situation where most areas will probably not get hit every year. When we say increased numbers, we're talking on the order of four or five per year."
Scientists say this prognostication isn't guesswork. William Gray, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Colorado State University and probably the nation's leading hurricane expert, says slightly warmer water- surface temperatures in the Atlantic, combined with higher salinity, increase the likelihood of big, strong hurricanes.
"I think we have entered a new era for major hurricanes," says Gray. "I'm talking about storms doing damage mainly along the coast. There will probably not be a greater number of weaker storms, but more Category 3 and higher storms. If farmers are more than 100 miles inland, it may not affect them very much."
It could be a good time to take precautions in the Coastal Plain. "Even though the past five years have seen record activity in the Atlantic, it's been about average in the U.S. as far as having a huge impact. That's probably been more luck than anything," says Chris Landsea, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research meteorologist.
"I'm sure there are lots of folks in Georgia and western Florida who think they can't get a major hurricane," says Landsea. "Maybe they need to rethink that. It does look like we go in cycles of 25-40 years when it's busy and 25-40 years when it's quiet. It was very quiet from 1970 to 1994, and then the last five years we've had a record number of hurricanes. The activity probably won't continue at that high rate the next couple of decades, but I think we're going to be busy."