Sustainability Environment

Satellite images show earthquakes have changed Puerto Rico forever

This map shows ground changes, or displacement, on the eastern two-thirds of Puerto Rico following a 6.4-magnitude earthquake. The ground shifted up to 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) in a downward and slightly west direction. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech, ESA,

Story at a glance

  • More than 1,000 earthquakes have shaken Puerto Rico since the beginning of the year.
  • Satellite images show an area west of the city of Ponce shifted downwards and to the west by about 5.5 inches.
  • NASA is using satellite images to identify damaged areas.

The series of earthquakes and violent tremors that have slammed Puerto Rico in the past few weeks have made land changes to the island that satellites can view from outer space. 

More than 1,000 earthquakes have rocked the island in the past two weeks, with a powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake that hit last Tuesday just off the southwest coast. It was the biggest to hit Puerto Rico in a century, leaving at least one person dead and causing $110 million in damages. 

But the quakes have left a more permanent impression on the lay of the land. Images from NASA and the European Space Agency reveal Puerto Rico’s landmass has been forever changed. 

Researchers studying imagery captured by the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite found the ground has shifted downwards and to the west by about 5.5 inches. The satellite was able to see the eastern two-thirds of the island during a flyover. 

“The scientists found the greatest displacement from the [satellite’s] flyover area occurred west of the city of Ponce, not far from the quake’s offshore epicenter,” NASA officials said in a statement.

NASA scientists are using satellite data to help federal and local agencies identify damaged areas. Their analysis shows that Guanica, west of the city of Ponce, was particularly hit hard. 

The earthquakes caused severe damage to buildings, landslides and power outages and destroyed popular tourist rock formation Punta Ventana.

Puerto Rico lies between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes.