From settler to scientist

Student returns to finish his degree after 26-year sojourn

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- For the 20 years he spent as a farmer in Belize, Terry McCloskey had his eye on the weather, wondering how tropical storms would affect his corn, his cows and his family of four.

Now as a Princeton undergraduate, finishing a degree he walked away from in 1974, McCloskey is again transfixed by the weather of Belize. This time he is discovering and charting hurricanes that ravaged the country hundreds or thousands of years ago.

 
Terry McCloskey has analyzed long cylinders of mud from coastal swamps in Belize, searching for physical evidence of storms over the course of history. At 49, he is back at Princeton finishing his bachelor's degree, which he began in 1972.
 
McCloskey, 49, recently completed a senior thesis that involved extracting long cylinders of mud from coastal swamps in Belize and analyzing them for buried evidence of age-old tempests. He has uncovered intriguing fluctuations in ancient storm patterns and discovered signs of what his adviser, Professor of Geosciences Gerta Keller, said could be "a bigger storm event than anything ever recorded in history."

His research has moved him from the life of a jungle pioneer, one of the earliest settlers in his remote, but growing, village to that of a scientific pioneer, one of a handful of people engaged in a nascent field called paleotempestology -- the search for physical evidence of ancient storms. He is planning to attend graduate school next year and hopes eventually to return to Belize to help the government predict and prepare for hurricanes.

"He has done a very original study and done it essentially himself," said Keller. "The approach with this study is extremely promising."

Just wandering

McCloskey grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and came to Princeton as a member of the class of 1976. By the end of his sophomore year, he had lost most of his interest in academic work and had little desire to pick a major. He spent the summer working in Germany and did not come back. He began traveling around Europe and then to more remote parts of the world, supporting himself doing agricultural labor. He returned to the United States several times, once to work with his brother on a farm owned by his father, who is a retired doctor. In 1980, he began hitchhiking to South America "to see the Amazon" but never made it farther than the Central American country of Belize.

"I was just wandering around," he said. "It was a nice place, very diverse, very beautiful."

He found his way to a fledgling village hacked out of the jungle about 30 miles from the coast and called it home. He cut down 25 acres of jungle by himself, bought some animals and started farming. A fellow villager introduced him to a relative named Gabina from Honduras and in 1991 they were married. The farm thrived. They grew corn, beans, pineapples, bananas and cassava. They raised cows, sheep, chickens and occasionally ducks. They had two boys, Oaky, who is now 10, and Jeffrey, now 7.

 
 

Princeton undergraduate Terry McCloskey (rear) worked with local officials in Belize to collect evidence that may lead to a better understanding of hurricane patterns.


His community, St. Margaret's Village, also grew, expanding from less than a dozen people when he came to about 1,000 residents today. McCloskey chaired the village water board and helped establish and manage a 4,000-acre national park near the town.

By 2000, however, the McCloskeys decided they had to leave. Oaky was in a classroom with 52 children, no electricity and minimal resources. Jeffrey had a serious hearing impairment that needed medical attention. McCloskey asked to re-enter Princeton and, before having formal approval from the admission office, sold all his animals and packed a small box with papers, photographs and one change of clothes.

Really obscure, and cool

In Princeton, McCloskey found himself with a survival challenge greater than many he had faced while traveling the globe. "I didn't have a family then. It was easy," he said. "I had my backpack and I'd go find a piece of bush and camp by the side of the river and it was no problem."

Here, he had to pay rent for the first time and arrange for telephone, gas and electricity. "It was all hard for me," he said. "I had to buy car insurance. I never had a car in Belize. I had to get a driver's license and a Social Security card for my wife and health insurance for the kids. I don't have any of that kind of stuff back home."

Enrolling as a 21st-century sophomore -- he had to repeat his second year -- also proved daunting. He had never used a computer or a calculator. "I couldn't check my e-mail at first. I couldn't do my course assignments," he said.

At the same time, the pieces started coming together. As soon as he arrived, he received confirmation that he would be re-admitted and awarded a full scholarship. Then his wife found a job in the Rockefeller College dining hall. Unable to find an affordable place to live, McCloskey appealed to the housing office, which arranged a rental in the University's Stanworth Apartments. He worked with the grounds crew in the summer and also in the Graduate College dining hall.

"The University has been tremendous," said McCloskey. "Any time I have had any problem, I've gone to someone and they've helped me out one way or another." In addition, the boys are happily enrolled in Princeton schools; Jeffrey has had a rare operation that has helped correct his hearing loss.

Before long, McCloskey, who has a thick mustache and shoulder-length mostly gray hair that usually sticks out from a baseball cap, found himself immersed in courses such as calculus and chemistry ("a killer") and settled on geosciences as a major. But it wasn't until his junior year that courses really sparked his imagination.

In the course "Climate and Weather" with George Philander, McCloskey researched a paper on whether hurricanes would increase with global warming and found a reference to paleotempestology. The author of the article was "very dismissive" of the idea that anyone could find reliable evidence of ancient storms in the sediments of swamps, said McCloskey. "And I said, 'That sounds really interesting for me. Here's something that's really obscure.'"

At the same time, he took a course with Keller examining the meteorite impact that is thought to have precipitated the extinction of the dinosaurs. "That was so interesting. We went to Mexico and I said, 'Wow, here you are looking at physical evidence of something that happened 65 million years ago and making conclusions about it. This is really cool.'"

Mega undertaking

McCloskey wrote his fall term junior paper on paleotempestology, and his enthusiasm mounted. He started e-mailing the few experts in the field and "read basically every paper that's ever been written on it," he said. By December 2001, he was determined to try looking for records of storms in the swamps of Belize.

Three months before his chance for a spring break trip to Belize, he scrambled to get the necessary equip-ment together, but with post-9/11 shipping restrictions, most of the equipment never made it for the first trip. He wound up pounding pipes into the swamp with a sledgehammer.

"It turned out to be a really mega undertaking," said Keller, who also has conducted field research in Belize.

The results were just good enough to spur on McCloskey. He and Keller rounded up more than $20,000 in funding from the geosciences department, the Princeton Environmental Institute and the dean of the college office. "I am incredibly fortunate," he said.

In August 2002, he returned with more equipment and extracted 18 cores from two adjacent locations along the coast of Belize. The moment of truth came when he returned to campus and had a friend in the facilities department cut the pipes in half with a band saw to reveal many layers of densely packed mud and sand. Each layer was a clear sign that a storm had blown over the beach dunes and dumped sand into the inland swamp.

His first thought was to look for signs of Hurricane Hattie, a devastating storm that hit Belize in 1961. "You can't live in Belize without hearing stories about Hurricane Hattie," said McCloskey. "It killed a lot of people." Sure enough, he saw a very broad layer of sand with several smaller layers above it. But when he sent the adjacent mud to a lab for radiocarbon dating, that section of the core turned out to be 500 years old. "It was not Hurricane Hattie. One of the little ones up above was Hattie. This one was huge," said McCloskey.

The storm was so large that it wiped out nearly 1,000 years worth of sediments beneath it and raises the intriguing possibility that it may have been involved in the demise of the Mayan civilization, said Keller, noting that the connection remains speculative. Another interesting finding is that in the period of the first millennium B.C., powerful hurricanes appeared to be much more frequent than they are now, providing evidence of how the climate was different from today's.

In addition to its implications for basic science, paleotempestology has become increasingly important to the insurance industry, said Keller. Companies have funded research in an attempt to discern patterns and to explain why the number of large hurricanes increased in the last 10 years compared to the preceding 20.

For McCloskey, there is yet another implication that is closer to his heart. When he adds up all the hurricanes recorded in his samples, he finds that Belize might be much more susceptible on average to large hurricanes than is apparent from the sparse written record. "Belize makes a lot of money from tourism," he said "And the big tourism areas on the coast are very susceptible to hurricanes. So if you accept the idea that the risk is a lot higher, you have to start making better plans."

Applying knowledge

McCloskey's efforts to serve his adopted country also may benefit from his experience earning certificates from the Woodrow Wilson School and the Princeton Environmental Institute in addition to his geosciences degree. As he prepares to join the class of 2003 at graduation in June, McCloskey speaks eagerly of applying his knowledge and continuing his research as a Ph.D. student.

Yet, some of the ambivalence that sent him walking 29 years ago remains.

"You know, in a way, I feel like I am here under a false banner," McCloskey said. "I don't have much desire to get a college education, or a Ph.D. I came for my kids. Physically, I'd rather be out doing farm work. I really miss getting up and milking my cows in the morning. I would much rather be out swinging a machete than sitting in a room. I'm not really clear, to my own self, why I am doing all this."

At least part of the reason becomes apparent when McCloskey describes the 2,000-year-old piece of grass he pulled from the middle of a couple of his core samples. His eyes brighten, and he pauses for moment in his rapid-fire explanation of his research. "It's pretty amazing," he said.

 
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May 5, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 26
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Contents

Page one
From settler to scientist: Student returns to finish his degree after 26-year sojourn
In tight economy, Princeton remains committed to aid

Inside
Bush selects Rosen for economic post
Juniors win Truman Scholarships to prepare for public service careers
Library acquires papers of eminent mathematician

People
Keaney was a longtime member of the classics department
Geller to retire in June after 35 years at Princeton
Spotlight, appointment, retirements and obituaries

Sections
Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
By the numbers:


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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Patricia Allen, Karin Dienst, Jerry Price, Eric Quinones
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett