June 20, 2024 at 2:36 pm

Here’s What Happens If You Fly Over An Earthquake

by Trisha Leigh

Source: Shutterstock

Most of us will never experience an earthquake firsthand – and thank goodness for that.

But what if you happened to be in the air, on a plane, when one took place on the ground?

Well, in order to figure that out, you have to understand the relationship between the earth and the atmosphere.

Luckily, we have Attila Komjathy from JPL to explain it to us.

“When the ground shakes, it causes tiny atmospheric waves that can propagate right up to the ionosphere. This is a region that can extend up to 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) above the surface of our planet.”

Source: Shutterstock

An earthquake can cause atmospheric disturbances, but they wouldn’t be strong enough to interfere with a plane.

Earthquakes release seismic waves that come in the form of pressure waves (P waves) and shear waves (S waves). S waves can only travel through the ground, but P waves can transfer into liquids or gases. From there, they can move into the atmosphere, becoming soundwaves that usually register below 20 hertz.

This is lower than the threshold for human hearing, and falls in the range of infrasound.

The further the waves move through the air, the weaker they become due to a process called attenuation, the same process that makes sound and light weaken the further away you get.

Source: Shutterstock

So a plane flying high over an earthquake would not feel the influence of the vibrations on earth. The P waves would have traveled through rock and air, diminished so much they wouldn’t be felt or heard over the plane’s noise and motion.

That said, there could still be risks.

Air Force pilot Ron Wagner had an interesting response to the question posed in the headline. He said that the earthquake interfered with air traffic control, causing a power outage at the base. That affected the plane’s navigation and communication systems, as well as their radar signal.

Source: Shutterstock

The issues were thankfully short-lived and quickly resolved by ground control’s emergency power kicking in.

Almost all air-traffic control stations have backup generators for emergency situations like this, so you don’t have much to worry about.

As long as you’re in the air.

If you thought that was interesting, you might like to read about a second giant hole has opened up on the sun’s surface. Here’s what it means.