How often do hurricanes and earthquakes come in pairs?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 29 2011 5:48 PM

Hurriquake! Mudslami! Volnado!

How often do natural disasters coincide?

Satellite image of Hurricane Irene. Click image to expand.
Satellite image of Hurricane Irene

Virginia experienced its strongest earthquake in a century last Tuesday. Four days later, a major hurricane passed through. How often do those two natural disasters occur in quick succession?

All the time. Many regions that experience tropical cyclones are also seismically active. East Asia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the western Caribbean all lie in the Pacific Ring of Fire, a swath of earth that suffers from frequent and powerful quakes. * Since earthquakes are so common in those areas—in the last week, events of magnitude four or greater were registered in Indonesia, Japan, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Aruba—they often coincide with typhoons and hurricanes.

As for the connection between the two, there is no reason to believe that an earthquake can cause a hurricane. There are, however, some tantalizing clues suggesting that hurricanes might contribute to earthquakes. Massive changes in atmospheric pressure, for example, are widely thought to cause slow earthquakes—weak tremors that last for hours or days rather than unleashing their full power over a few moments. At least one earth scientist believes hurricanes and typhoons can set off more destructive earthquakes as well. At the 2010 American Geophysical Union meeting, Shimon Wdowinski of the University of Miami argued that the abnormally heavy 2008 hurricane season caused enough land erosion to shift the pressure on the earth's crust, triggering the massive 2010 quake in Haiti. He pointed out that strong storm seasons also preceded large quakes in Taiwan in 1996 and 2009. At this point, however, Wdowinski's theory hasn't yet gained widespread acceptance, and most earth scientists still see no connection between hurricanes and large earthquakes. (Nor would the theory explain last week's coincidence, in which the quake came first.)


Earthquakes may not cause hurricanes, but they can set off several other natural disasters. As the last decade has amply shown, earthquakes cause tsunamis, which are often more devastating in terms of human deaths than the inciting quake. Earthquakes also trigger mudslides and landslides, in part because they increase the pressure on water-soaked soil. (This phenomenon, known as liquefaction, can cause entire buildings to keel over sideways, even without a landslide.)


If the fault along which an earthquake occurs lies directly beneath a volcano, the shaking can cause an eruption. That's probably what set off Chile's Cordón Caulle in 1960 and Hawaii's Mount Kīlauea in 1975. Many seismologists and vulcanologists believe that earthquakes can cause more distant volcanoes to erupt as well, although the hypothesis is unproven. The leading theory is that earthquakes either compress magma reservoirs, increasing pressure on the walls, or expand the reservoirs, causing cracks and fissures that enable the hot liquid to break through.

There are other possible combinations. Hurricanes often bring tornados. (Hurricane Irene unleashed tornadoes on Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.) Tropical storms sometimes trigger landslides, because the heavy rains make the earth unstable. Volcanic eruptions can also cause landslides, as parts of the mountain collapse. If that collapse occurs near the coast, the huge piles of earth slamming into the ocean can, in turn, result in a tsunami.

Cosmic impacts may be the granddaddy—or the Kevin Bacon—of natural disasters. Some earth scientists believe that the largest extinction in the planet's history was the result of a meteor that struck the earth, causing worldwide earthquakes that in turn set of massive volcanic eruptions. Landslides and tsunamis almost certainly followed.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Shimon Wdowinski of the University of Miami. Thanks also to reader Amanda Perez for asking the question.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2011: This article originally stated that Australia is within the Pacific Ring of Fire. New Zealand is in the Ring of Fire, but Australia is not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at Follow him on Twitter.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.