Statistically, Sept. 10 marks peak hurricane season in New England. And, almost on cue, Eric Jay Dolin’s book about hurricanes, “A Furious Sky,” has been named a finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.
The Marblehead author and 1995 MIT graduate’s bread-and-butter is ultra-readable maritime history. His book “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America,” won the 2007 John Lyman Award for U.S. Maritime History.
In his newly released 14th book, “A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes,” Dolin takes an in-depth look at the meteorological monsters.
As he readies for a series of virtual book events around Massachusetts — register at https://www.ericjaydolin.com/events — we caught up to talk storms.
Q. So where do hurricanes start?
A. Most of the hurricanes in the North Atlantic originate over the southern flanks of the Sahara desert. There, a convergence of arid, scorching desert air and the moist air winging in off the Indian Ocean from the east, and coming from the Gulf of Guinea coast to the south, creates areas of low pressure. This mass of unstable air, called an African easterly wave, leaves the continent roughly every three to four days and is swept out over the Atlantic.
These systems usually fizzle out or fall apart. But every fourth or fifth wave continues past the Cape Verde Islands. Only a fraction of African easterly waves, however, ever [evolve] to a full-fledged hurricane.
Hurricanes go by different names in different parts of the world. “Cyclones” in the Indian Ocean, and in the northwestern Pacific Ocean they are called typhoons, a term derived from the Chinese tai fung, meaning “great [or big] wind.” Some Australians refer to hurricanes as “cockeyed Bobs” or “willy-willys.”
Q. What was the most devastating New England hurricane?
A. The Great Hurricane of 1938. By the time it was over, the hurricane had killed 680 people — more than half of whom were in Rhode Island — and seriously injured nearly 2,000.
Q. When did hurricanes start getting names? Why?
A. In the US, the Weather Bureau began naming hurricanes after women in 1953. This decision angered many who thought it was inappropriate, if not downright insulting..The bureau, however, would not be swayed, making it permanent in 1956. Protests died down until [feminists/civil rights activist] Roxcy Bolton spoke up in 1970.
She was tired of reading and hearing media accounts in which female-named hurricanes were variously described as “witches,” “vicious,” and “treacherous.” Hurricanes could, she said, be named after birds, or perhaps US senators. She even recommended that hurricanes be called “himicanes.” The service refused to budge.
During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, US Secretary of Commerce Dr. Juanita Kreps took up the cause, and in 1979 gender equality won. From that point forward, Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes would alternate between male and female names. Each year’s list of 21 names is established by the World Meteorological Association.
Q. What’s the most interesting thing you found in your research?
A. I wasn’t aware of the great impact hurricanes have had on American history writ large. For example, hurricanes in Florida played a major role in early colonization efforts, and one in particular in the mid-1500s kept the French from wresting control of the area from the Spanish. Imagine how different the history of North America might’ve been if the French controlled Florida instead of the Spanish through mid-1700s.
Interview has been edited and condensed.