An earthquake registering 8.1 on the Richter Scale rocked southern Mexico late Thursday evening, killing at least 32 people. While it hit just ahead of Hurricane Irma’s expected landfall, the two natural disasters are not related.
It’s tempting to see any and all natural disasters as growing evidence that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe, but when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, that line of reasoning is simply not accurate. Earthquakes are geological phenomena caused by tectonic plate shifts, while hurricanes are storms that build up in warm, tropical waters.
This earthquake, with its epicenter located off the Pacific Coast of Mexico, occurred as the result of what geologists call a subduction zone. In this process, one tectonic plate pushes its way under its neighboring plate, which can cause some of the most severe earthquakes. Tectonic action, which has occurred since the earliest days of Earth’s history, is not influenced by weather patterns or climate change.
Tectonic action can, however, cause phenomena that can look a lot like weather events.
Mexican authorities have warned residents that Friday’s earthquake could trigger a tsunami, a seismic tidal wave that can cause severe and abrupt coastal flooding. And even though the potential tsunami could worsen the situation for residents if it coincides with Irma’s landfall, the two events are neither feeding each other nor are caused by the same forces.
This phenomenon occurs because of the seismic energy generated by the massive waves associated with an intense Category Five hurricane like Irma.
And just to be totally clear, even though the earthquake and hurricanes aren’t connected, climate researchers are reasonably certain that the frequent, strong storms we’re seeing have been made worse by warming oceans.