It Turns Out, Hurricanes Could Actually Trigger Earthquakes

On August 23, 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook the Piedmont region in Virginia. Four days later, Hurricane Irene struck the U.S.’s East Coast. As it passed by, the rate of aftershocks in Virginia increased “sharply,” notes.

Just a coincidence?

Zhigang Peng, a scientist from Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology, reports that there was indeed an “unusual pattern” to the aftershocks after the Virginia earthquake.

As Peng explained at a recent meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Salt Lake City, Utah, what usually happens after an earthquake is that the rate of aftershocks decreases with time, but a study of seismic records for the Virginia earthquake reveals that the aftershocks increased as Hurricane Irene passed by, with some 700 aftershocks occurring. The change was not initially noted because the aftershocks were small, with a magnitude of less than 2.0 and other, less sensitive devices did not detect them.

Peng and his research team hypothesized that, as the hurricane made its way up the East Coast and atmospheric pressure dropped, it affected the forces on the fault that had caused the Virginia earthquake. On more examination of the aftershocks, Peng ended up finding that these had increased the most when the storm was moving away, rather than when the barometric pressure was at its lowest.

While a drop in the atmospheric pressure does not seem to be what triggered the aftershocks, Peng remains “confident that there was a change in the aftershock rate during the storm’s passage.”

Other Research On Hurricanes and Extreme Weather As Triggers to Earthquakes

Peng’s and his team’s findings are correlations and not actual proof of a hurricane-earthquake link. Another seismologist, Martin Chapman, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, points out that other factors including tidal forces at the moon could be at play. cites other research that links hurricanes and earthquakes: American and Taiwanese researchers have found a correlation between slow earthquakes, which can take over hours or days, and tropical cyclones in Taiwan.

In addition, Shimon Wdowinski, a seismologist at the University of Miami in Florida, thinks that hurricanes — specifically “extremely wet tropical cyclones striking Taiwan” — are associated with “big earthquakes that occur up to three years later.” The cyclones, Wdowinski contends in yet-to-be-published research, lead to the erosion of landslide debris, which “triggers a change in fault loading, eventually producing an earthquake.”

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in the months after both the Virginia earthquake and Hurricane Irene, researchers described the weight of heavy rain from monsoons in the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal actually “bends the whole underground system of tectonic plates.” While this added pressure is at first in opposition to that on the tectonic plates, after the water washes away in the winter, the plates “rebound” and the “release of pressure adds a tiny amount of stress that may be enough to trigger impending earthquakes.”

Scientists plan to study the pattern of aftershocks that Peng has noted. If a connection between extreme weather events and hurricanes can be found, it could be a helpful predictor of when impending earthquakes might happen. Such could aid us in building structures that would help us to build safe, or safer, structures in a climate changed world, even while we continue efforts to try to combat global warming and its causes.


Related Care2 Coverage

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Photo from Thinkstock


Elisa F.
Elisa F4 years ago

Glad they figured this out. Thanks for sharing.

Kay M.
.4 years ago

Thank you for the article, and all the great information contained in it. Being from Louisiana, we sure know Hurricanes, It is frightning to think it could trigger an earthquake. I enjoyed reading all of the good comments from the members. Keep the information coming, we need to be able to make good decisions based on all the infomation available.

Elizabeth Sowers
Liz Sowers4 years ago

Interesting and it makes sense. thanks

Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago

Face it everything is interconnected- direct cause and effect are largely a human illusion.

annie s.
christine s4 years ago

Very interesting ---food for thought.

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo4 years ago

Thank you for the informative post. I wonder if larger hurricanes cause larger earthquakes.

Autumn S.
Autumn S4 years ago

interesting, thanks

Darren Woolsey
Darren W4 years ago

In a way, pretty obvious when you consider the Earth is a living organism (albeit on a different scale than we little folk), with shifting inner core, moving tectonic plates and weather systems that are effected by oceanic movement.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Kristina, for Sharing this!

Marcel Elschot
Marcel E4 years ago