Near the end of the 13th century, the emperor Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire were gearing up to invade Japan. They had more boats, more men, and had already conquered a large part of China; but according to Japanese legend, massive typhoons powered by the divine Kamikaze winds smashed the Mongolian fleet in 1274 and again in 1281 (pictured above). Researchers report online this month in Geology that they’ve discovered evidence in a lakebed on Japan’s Amakusa Island that suggests the fabled storms may have been real. Sediment accumulates at the bottom of lakes in layers; similar to how geologists can see “back in time” by looking at deeper layers of rocks, lakebed sediment can reveal details of the planet’s history. By analyzing cores of sediment collected from the bottom of Lake Daija, scientists were able to predict how frequently the sea had risen over the beach and washed into the nearby lake. Although the resolution of the technique wasn’t high enough to confirm typhoon events in 1274 and 1281 precisely, the team did discover evidence for two overwash events in the late 1200s, lending some real credibility to the Japanese legend. Unlike the legend, though, the scientists credit the turbulent seas of the past to stronger El Niño activity instead of a divine savior.
*Correction, 10 December, 10:22 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Mongols were preparing to invade China; they were preparing to invade Japan.