140th Anniversary of first hurricane forecast

Portrait of Father Benito Vines, SJ

Portrait of Father Benito Viñes y Martorell, SJ

On September 11, 1875, Father Benito Viñes, director of the Meteorological Observatory of the Royal College of Belén in Havana, Cuba, issued his first hurricane forecast.  It is very likely the first such hurricane forecast ever publicly issued.

The Jesuit priest had been assigned to the Observatory in 1870 and arrived in Cuba by March of that year.  Within eight months, a severe hurricane struck Havana and tore the roof covering off the Observatory’s third story room.  Padre Viñes not only re-instrumented the facility, he improved on its apparatus and expanded its operations.  He spent the next five years organizing a network of volunteer observers across the island tied to his office through telegraph lines.  He also began exchanging observations with other weather observing entities across the Caribbean via undersea cable.  In addition, he refined his understanding of tropical cyclones through study of all the information he could acquire from books and newspaper accounts of previous storms.  By 1875, he knew to look at cloud motions at different levels of the atmosphere and at ocean swell and waves to offer clues about the existence of an approaching hurricane.  And, having studied prior storm tracks, he could guess at the likely course of any threatening cyclones.

Track of the 1875 track Sept. 8-15

Track of the 1875 hurricane Sept. 8-18 (Unisys)

Luckily, over the four years following the hurricanes of 1870, Cuba had only been affected by a tropical depression in 1873.  So when he received telegraph alerts from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that a hurricane had affected the Windward Islands on September 8th, 1875, he deduced the storm would likely affect Cuba by the 12th and issued a forecast to the newspapers of the storm’s imminent arrival.  Alerts were also sent to the Havana harbormaster, to prevent the departure of any shipping into the teeth of the winds.  While the priest thought the storm would pass to the north and east of Cuba, instead it passed south of the island’s eastern tip the evening of Sept. 12th and struck the western end, with the center passing very close to the capital city the evening of Sept. 13th.  Despite the track error, the forecast did alert Cubans to the possible impact of the hurricane on them and probably prevented ships from sailing into the storm.

Jesuit Father Pedro Cartaya explains the use of the cyclonoscope. (Photographer: ROCIO GRANADOS | LVC)

Jesuit Father Pedro Cartaya explains the use of the cyclonoscope. (Photographer: Rocio Granados | LVC)

Father Viñes would go on to forecast many hurricanes that affected Cuba, earning the sobriquet “Padre Huracán“.  He would write several scholarly articles about tropical cyclones which would become the foundation of our understanding of storm structure and motion.  And he would invent the cyclonoscope, a device that allowed meteorologists to use observation to locate a hurricane’s center.

References:

Vines, Fr. Benito SJ, “Investigation of the cyclonic circulation and the translatory movement of West Indian hurricanes.”,  Annals of the Royal Academy of Natural Science, Medicine, and Physics, Havana, 1894, p.158.

Vines, Fr. Benito SJ, “The Storms of Cuba”, Annals of the Royal Academy of Natural Science, Medicine, and Physics, Havana, 1886, pp.339-340.

Vines, Fr. Benito SJ, “Practical hints in regard to West Indian hurricanes.”, 1885,  15 p.

Vines, Fr. Benito SJ, “Points relative to the hurricanes of the Antilles on September and October of 1875 and 1876”, Annals of the Royal Academy of Natural Science, Medicine, and Physics, Havana,, 1877-1878, pp. 230-557

Vines, Fr. Benito SJ, “The Hurricanes of October 7th and 19th, 1870”, “El Iris”, Havana, 1878