This week I’ve been asked a number of questions about earthquakes and weather. Is there “earthquake weather”? Is there any connection between earthquakes and weather? Will the impact of the giant event in Japan affect or alter weather?
Tales of “earthquake weather” – still, dry, almost breathless conditions that precede quakes – have existed since the ancient Greeks. They are myths. Earthquakes occur in any weather.
There are other stories of “earthquake clouds”, long straight clouds that form for days over a fault before it finally shakes. The theory is that the extreme stress prior to a quake may vaporize underground water. The phenomenon is being scientifically examined, but remain largely unproven.
It appears that most of these stories are based on the eternal hope that something can warn us ahead of time about these giant seismic events. Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes or volcano eruptions, we still cannot predict an earthquake early enough to save people’s lives.
Equally unproven is the idea that giant earthquakes affect weather. According to Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Japan’s earthquake shifted the Earth's axis by 9.8 inches and speeded the Earth’s rotation by 1.8 microseconds. If it created tidal waves around the entire Pacific, could it have altered a few atmospheric currents in the process?
NOAA’s model of the potential impact of the tsunami caused by the Japanese earthquake
Scientists have studied the aftermaths of recent giant earthquakes in Indonesia (2004), Chile (2010), Haiti (2010) and New Zealand (2011). So far the only weather results that they have noted is slight local cooling when urban centers generate less warming energy due to the general devastation.
The research that appears most promising is focused on the impact of these giant quakes on volcano eruptions. If an explosion is large enough, its ashes can enter the stratosphere and block incoming sunlight, cooling the climate for a few years. Can a giant earthquake trigger one of these volcano eruptions?
Since 2000, scientists have satellite data that allows them to explore how earthquakes and volcanic activity may be linked. The ongoing research shows a lot of promise. However, the two volcano eruptions that may be linked to the Japanese event (Japan’s Shinmoedake and Indonesia’s Mt. Manado) are far too small to affect the climate.
In short, as tragic and immense as the recent earthquake has been, the forces of climate appear to be even greater and remain unshaken.
Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.