While most news outlets are still reporting on the aftermath
of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it’s important to remember that these
hurricanes were neither the first nor the last devastating storms in human
history. In fact, this week marks the anniversaries of some of the most
destructive storms ever recorded. (And we’re not just talking about the seventh
birthday of the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act
either, which the U.S. Congress passed in 1998.)

On Oct. 12, 1962, a record-breaking windstorm struck the
Pacific Northwest of the United States. Now referred to as the Columbus Day Storm, this meteorological
monstrosity produced winds equal to a Category 3 hurricane—only
without the hurricane. (In technical terms, this was an extratropical wave
cyclone produced by the remains of Typhoon Freda.)

Exact wind speeds were hard to calculate, as the weather
stations in Washington, Oregon, and northern California weren’t equipped to
measure such an extraordinary phenomenon. That said, the Columbus Day Storm
featured wind gusts in excess of 145 miles per hour, with some estimated peak
gusts in the 170 mph range.

A total of 46 fatalities were attributed to the Columbus Day
Storm, with more than 11 billion board feet of timber felled and estimated
damages (adjusted for inflation) between $3 billion and $5 billion. It was
perhaps the most dangerous and damaging non-hurricane storm of the 20th

And, lest we assume that severe weather visits only the
Americas, this week also marks the anniversary of Britain’s Great Storm of 1987.
On October 15 of that year, an almost impossibly low-pressure cold front swept
into the British Isles from the Bay of Biscay, bringing Category 2
hurricane-speed winds with it.

Worse, BBC meteorologists didn’t expect the storm front to
hit the British mainland, so authorities failed to adequately forewarn the
public. After the storm did hit Britain, racking up an estimated £1.2 billion
of damage and 23 fatalities in its wake, the U.K.’s national weather service
enacted several reforms, including the purchase of additional supercomputing
power to enhance forecasting.

Despite the ferocity of both the Columbus Day Storm and the
Great Storm of 1987, there’s a reason both events are comparable to Atlantic
hurricanes: Atlantic hurricanes are still the horrifying standard by which
science measures great destructive storms.

Moreover, while authorities are still calculating the losses
of life and property due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the numbers will have
a hard time (hopefully) measuring up to the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in
recorded history—one that actually had a significant impact on the progress of
a major war.


What’s the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history,
a massive storm that actually had an impact on the progress of a major war?

For the answer, we have to reach back two and a quarter
centuries, before
the tradition of named storms
, to remember the Great Hurricane of 1780. The
hurricane struck during the height of the American Revolution—with no small
impact on hostilities—and claimed a staggering 22,000 lives. So why have so few
American schoolchildren heard of the 1780 storm?

That’s simple: The Great Hurricane of 1780 didn’t strike the
continental United States—or, rather, any of the American colonies vying for
independence. The storm swept across the Caribbean islands of Martinique, St.
Eustatius, and Barbados between October 10 and October 16, largely without

As to the effect on the American Revolution, while virtually
no colonial forces were in the area, both French and British fleets were in the
region—vying for control of Caribbean supply routes. (The extraordinarily
powerful British navy hoped to blockade the rebellious colonies, and it was
rival French forces that worked to counter the tactic on behalf of the
Americans.) Both fleets suffered heavy damage from the storm, resulting in a
notable impact on the progress of the war.

For perspective, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane to strike
the United States was the infamous Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which caused
only about one-third the number of casualties as the 1780 storm. Perhaps fittingly,
the Galveston storm is currently only the third deadliest Atlantic hurricane on
record. Hurricane Mitch, which tore through Central America from October 22
through November 5 in 1998 and claimed more than 18,000 lives, is the second
deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.

While these numbers do foster a certain morbid fascination,
let’s hope that future storms never displace these hurricanes from their
macabre perches in the historical record—nor the darker annals of Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the September 21 edition of
Geek Trivia, “More
super than super.”
Once again, a TechRepublic member has taken me out
behind the physics woodshed. The honor this time fell to member Chris Didion.

“In your assertion that ‘gamma
rays are the highest energy form of radiation—effectively, the
“brightest” kind of light in the sky,’ I would argue that the
‘brightness’ of the radiation has more to do with the amount of the photons of
the radiation. It would be more accurate to say that gamma rays are the
‘bluest’ form of electromagnetic radiation, having the shortest wavelength. If
you had a very weak source of gamma rays, you could actually have a ‘brighter’
light bulb.

“Also, you need to be careful
when saying that gamma rays are the ‘highest energy form of radiation.’ True,
they are the highest form of electromagnetic
radiation, but there are other kinds of radiation. Alpha, beta, and neutron
radiation are not electromagnetic radiation but can have more energy—depending
on the speed of the various particles.”

Once again, I am humbly in your editorial debt, dear
readers. I’ll endeavor to obtain a greater mastery of particle physics (at
least by an English major’s standards), so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.