. . . but according to this report, it certainly can be. (A tip o' the hat to reader Snoggeramus for providing the link.)
ING Bank’s main data center in Bucharest, Romania, was severely damaged over the weekend during a fire extinguishing test. In what is a very rare but known phenomenon, it was the loud sound of inert gas being released that destroyed dozens of hard drives. The site is currently offline and the bank relies solely on its backup data center, located within a couple of miles’ proximity.
. . .
The purpose of the drill was to see how the data center's fire suppression system worked. Data centers typically rely on inert gas to protect the equipment in the event of a fire, as the substance does not chemically damage electronics, and the gas only slightly decreases the temperature within the data center.
The gas is stored in cylinders, and is released at high velocity out of nozzles uniformly spread across the data center. According to people familiar with the system, the pressure at ING Bank's data center was higher than expected, and produced a loud sound when rapidly expelled through tiny holes (think about the noise a steam engine releases).
The bank monitored the sound and it was very loud, a source familiar with the system told us. “It was as high as their equipment could monitor, over 130dB”.
Sound means vibration, and this is what damaged the hard drives. The HDD cases started to vibrate, and the vibration was transmitted to the read/write heads, causing them to go off the data tracks.
. . .
Researchers at IBM are also investigating data center sound-related inert gas issues. “[T]he HDD can tolerate less than 1/1,000,000 of an inch offset from the center of the data track—any more than that will halt reads and writes”, experts Brian P. Rawson and Kent C. Green wrote in a paper. “Early disk storage had much greater spacing between data tracks because they held less data, which is a likely reason why this issue was not apparent until recently.”
Siemens also published a white paper a year ago saying that its tests show that “excessive noise can have a negative impact on HDD performance”. Researchers said this negative impact may even begin at levels below 110dB.
There's more at the link, including an interesting video of a test of the effect of sound on hard disk drives conducted in 2008. Worthwhile viewing, particularly for tech buffs.
I worked in data centers as a computer operator back in the 1970's, when technology was a lot less advanced than it is today. One contained an IBM System/370 Model 145, identical to the one described in this archived IBM release. (It was much less powerful in terms of processor speed, etc. than any personal computer today, and probably less powerful than most smartphones!) It looked very like this:
Those odd-looking plastic dome things on the machines in the foreground are removable hard disks. Each held only a few megabytes of data. The technology of the day was much slower and much more primitive than it is now, so the data tracks on the disks were much farther apart and much less vulnerable to vibration caused by sound. A single laptop computer hard disk drive today will hold many, many times more data than all of those early hard disk drives put together, and fit into a relatively small pocket!
I recall banks of gas cylinders outside the computer room, designed to release fire-suppressing fumes into the data center whenever necessary. However, none of us ever considered the noise of the gas being released as a potential hazard to disk drives. The system was more likely to kill us! One of my not-so-fond memories of that computer room was when we had a fire security inspection. The inspector turned to the Operations Manager and asked whether he had replacement operators lined up and ready to go after a fire. Puzzled, the Ops Manager replied that he hadn't - why did he ask? The inspector then pointed out that the 'gas masks' provided for the operators were to prevent smoke inhalation only. They had no oxygen cylinder to provide fresh air - but the halon gas that the fire suppression system would inject would absorb all the oxygen in the air. The operators would be asphyxiated before they could get out.
We got new oxygen masks the very next day.