Friday, 7 October 2016


Next Monday is the observed Columbus Day, a Federal holiday, when the nation honors Christopher Columbus, the 15th century Italian mariner who is often identified as the "discoverer of the New World". In reality, Europeans had reached the North American shores several centuries earlier. The Norse Vikings, led by such legendary explorers as Leif Ericksson, had explored and established settlements in North America in what is now Labrador during the early 11th century. Unfortunately, these settlements and those in Greenland were abandoned by the end of the 14th Century when favorable weather conditions deteriorated with the onset of a several centuries long "Little Ice Age" that plunged much of the northern hemisphere into an exceptionally cold interval that saw expansion of sea ice.

In late September 1492, Christopher Columbus with his fleet of three sailing vessels was propelled westward by the prevailing trade winds that are found in the subtropics. His voyage to San Salvador in the Caribbean from the Canary Islands was on the order of 36 days. Nearly calm wind conditions on several occasions slowed his trip. However, he did not encounter any hurricanes that would have been disastrous. By commencing his journey in mid September at the beginning of the later half of the North Atlantic hurricane season, the region where a majority of hurricanes form shifts westward to the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico from near the Cape Verde Islands, a frequent site of early season hurricane formation.

To take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds that mark the midlatitudes, Columbus took a more northern route on his return voyage to Spain. However, on this return voyage in February 1493, Columbus was overtaken by a storm system with a cold front west of the Azores. He was able to ride out the storm that included thunderstorms with lightning.

On his fourth and final expedition to the Caribbean in 1502, Columbus used his seafaring skills when confronted by a hurricane near Hispaniola. While Santo Domingo was damaged and at least 20 Spanish ships with over 500 sailors were lost in the hurricane, Columbus remained safely anchored in an island cove.


Hughes, P., 1976: American weather stories. Environmental Data Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Washington DC. 114 pp.

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Prepared by Edward J. Hopkins, Ph.D., email
© Copyright, 2016, The American Meteorological Society.