How Strong Is Hurricane Irma? It's Registering On Earthquake-Detecting Devices


By now, you've probably heard that Hurricane Irma, which is currently making its way through the Caribbean Sea on its way to potentially hitting South Florida, has been upgraded to a Category 5 storm. While this means that Irma is now one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the Atlantic, it can be difficult to comprehend exactly how strong this storm really is. This new report might help put things in perspective: Hurricane Irma is so strong, it's registering as an earthquake on seismometers.

Seismometers are instruments that were specifically designed to detect earthquakes by measuring the motion of the ground. Typically, the seismic energy recorded by these instruments indicate distress caused by earthquakes.  But on Tuesday, the 180 mph winds generated by Hurricane Irma caused seismometers to pick up background noise caused by the storm.

“Seismometer recordings from the past 48 hours on Guadeloupe show Cat. 5 #Hurricane #Irma driving closer toward the Lesser Antilles,” Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton tweeted.

Apparently, seismometers picked up noise created by Irma — like heavy winds, crashing waves, and swaying trees — allowing seismologists to record the storm and track its path. These noises caused tiny motions in the ground, Hicks explained to USA Today, which reverberated around the island and generated seismic energy.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that Irma is creating earthquakes in the Carribean, nor do the seismometer recordings indicate that an earthquake is imminent. Instead, Irma is generating so much noisy activity because of its heavy winds that even earthquake-detecting instruments can hear it.

This isn't an entirely uncommon phenomenon. According to Hicks, other large storms, including Hurricane Harvey, have registered on seismometers in recent years. In fact, noise caused by winter storms in the United Kingdom can sometimes make it hard for seismologists to recognize small earthquakes.

Still, the power that Hurricane Irma currently holds as a Category 5 storm can't be understated. It is one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, in terms of wind speed, and both Florida and Puerto Rico have declared a state of emergency in preparation for the storm's landfall. Additionally, many counties in South Florida will soon begin the process of mandatory evacuations for residents.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Irma has the potential to bring "life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards" to many Caribbean islands, and potentially the mainland of the United States. The storm is expected to make landfall on Wednesday.