It’s fair to say that 2017 has been a pretty incredible year when it comes to the weather. Records have been broken all across the globe, and the damage that various storms and hurricanes have left behind has been catastrophic. But Hurricane Irma could well have been the most impressive storm front of them all.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 every year. Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that form in the Atlantic or northeastern Pacific Ocean. They have a number of characteristics, all of which are dangerous. From powerful winds to violent thunderstorms, a hurricane will throw the lot at you.
To get some perspective on how devastating hurricane season can be, you only have to look at the costs involved. According to the Congressional Budget Office, on average hurricanes cause nearly $30 billion of damage every year. And the CBO believes that figure is set to skyrocket in the coming years.
According to estimates, the annual cost of hurricane season is likely to reach $39 billion by 2075. There are two reasons for the increase. Climate change, which is likely to create huge problems in the future, is one. Then there’s the fact that the US coastline is becoming ever more developed.
Right now, the CBO claims that 1.2 million Americans live in coastal regions under threat from “substantial” hurricane damage. Moreover, a good chunk of these people live in places just ten feet or less above sea level.
And that’s just in the United States. In a list of the most costly Atlantic hurricanes, the first five places are all occupied by storms that happened in the past 12 years. Those five hurricanes alone are responsible for nearly $450 billion of damage. 2017’s Harvey sits at the top, having wreaked close to $200 billion of destruction. But the list is by no means complete yet.
That’s because the total cost of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria has yet to be calculated. But it’s likely to be substantial. Why? Well, Irma was rated a Category 5 hurricane for the second longest time in recorded history. And Category 5 is the highest that a hurricane can be graded. Irma was one for three days and three hours – just three hours shy of the record.
While Irma did drop to a lower category and then strengthen again, it still goes to show just how powerful the storm was. And it wasn’t just its strength that was incredible. When Irma made landfall in the Caribbean, the size of it was simply staggering. It was reported as being bigger than France.
On the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, which form part of the Leeward Islands, winds were recorded to be gusting at 155 mph. It’s possible that even stronger winds occurred, but the instrument that was measuring the wind speed was blown away. Incredibly, though, it wasn’t just meteorological equipment that was picking up Hurricane Irma.
Guadeloupe is another of the Leeward Islands. And as Irma drew closer to its shores, scientists realized that the hurricane was affecting local seismometers. These are instruments that are used to measure the strength of earthquakes. Hurricane Irma was so strong it was literally making the ground shake.
Dr Stephen Hicks is a seismology expert from the University of Southampton in the U.K. He explained to USA Today about what the readings meant. “What we’re seeing in the seismogram are low-pitched hums that gradually become stronger as the hurricane gets closer to the seismometer on the island of Guadeloupe,” he said.
Hicks then went into more detail to explain just what was happening to the seismometers. The hurricane’s fierce winds essentially created noise on the seismometer, which is what the scientists were seeing. But there’s more to it than that. Part of the readings are down to the positioning of the device.
Because the seismometer in Guadeloupe is positioned close to the shoreline, it can pick up the vibrations created by large, breaking waves. Similarly, swaying trees – or, more accurately, the energy that they generate – can also affect the instrument’s data. Hence the readings on the seismometer increased, the closer Irma got.
While it’s rare for hurricanes and large storms to interfere with devices designed to pick up earthquakes, it’s not uncommon. Hurricane Harvey hit Texas earlier in the year, and according to Hicks, that registered as well. “We saw this for Hurricane Harvey on seismometers located close to Houston,” he explained.
Storms can even affect climate-benign countries like the U.K. Sometimes the noise generated by severe winter winds can make it tricky for scientists to record any small earthquakes that occur. Thankfully for the U.K., though, storms of the size and magnitude of Hurricane Irma aren’t something it has to deal with on a regular basis.
However, if you’re worried about hurricanes causing earthquakes, there’s no need. According to Hicks, the processes involved in the two natural phenomena are very different. “Earthquakes occur tens of [miles] deep inside Earth’s crust, a long way from the influence of weather events, and there is no evidence to suggest that hurricanes and storms directly cause earthquakes,” he told USA Today.
Even without creating earthquakes, Hurricane Irma still wrought a heavy toll on all of the places it made landfall. On the island of Barbuda, the devastation was catastrophic. Around 95 percent of the buildings there were damaged or destroyed. Furthermore, its hospital, schools, and both hotels were wrecked.
Meanwhile, some of the island’s housing was flattened, while the sea swell that accompanied the storm winds caused widespread devastation. All told, the economic cost to Antigua and Barbuda, according to the Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology, will be around the $120 million mark.
When Irma had finally subsided, residents of the affected areas took stock. The cost of damage across all the countries that the hurricane hit has been put at nearly $66 billion. It’s expected to exceed $50 billion in the United States alone. That’s almost 150% of the average cost of hurricanes on the U.S. economy in one storm.
And the disaster wasn’t without its human cost either. One hundred and thirty-four people from 12 different countries lost their lives. Thankfully, modern early warning systems meant that Irma didn’t make the list of recent hurricanes with the highest death toll, but it’s still a sobering statistic. By whatever means you look at it, Hurricane Irma truly was a monster.