Superstorm Sandy shook the U.S. like an earthquake


In 1984, the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" hit the airwaves, and now, 28 years later, data from a network of portable seismographs called the USArray shows that the song about sex and rock & roll may actually have had some unique insights on hurricanes and their capabilities.

Hurricane Sandy may only have peaked as a Category 1 storm, but its size ranked it second only to Hurricane Isabel in the amount of kinetic energy it had. As it made its way up the east coast, its driving winds and crashing surf set off seismic waves that shook the southeastern and mid-west United States.

Similar to how astronomers set up an array of telescopes in an observatory to scan larger areas of the night sky, the various parts of the USArray form an expansive, 'continental-scale seismic observatory' designed to read larger areas of the continent for seismic activity. The USArray 'transportable array' — which consists of small hand-held devices — has been steadily moving across the United States since 2004.

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"These seismic instruments are the most sensitive instruments ever built, and they detect motion on the order of nanometers," said Alex Hutko, a seismologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Seattle, according to OurAmazingPlanet.

For 2012 the transportable array has been covering an area that includes most of southern Ontario, the U.S. states of Michigan and Ohio, the eastern halves of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, the states of Georgia and Florida, and the western parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina (a map of its yearly coverage can be found here).

As the animation shows, there was some minor activity on the array before the storm, and the array picks up a constant background noise called 'microseism', but as Sandy approached the Florida coast, it set off waves of seismic activity that the array picked up. The seismic activity died down some and became more sporadic as the storm moved slightly further out to sea around the Carolina and Virginia coasts, and then intensified again as it approached landfall in New Jersey.

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According to Hutko, this is the first time IRIS has been able to capture seismic data from a hurricane hitting the United States. "As this was happening, [I] thought it would be pretty neat to plot. I ended up staying up through the night two nights in a row," he said.