Global warming linked to earthquakes, but they would happen anyway

More Fatal Earthquakes to Come, Geologists Warn.

Well, obviously! The earth is dynamic. But the idea that global warming – by the mechanism of unloading water from this place and putting it in another place – is triggering earthquakes is a bit of a flawed headline.

“Climate change may play a critical role in triggering certain faults in certain places where they could kill a hell of a lot of people,” says Professor McGuire. Some of his colleagues suspect the process may already have started.

It sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood apocalypse-fest – indeed the movie 2012 featured the Earth’s crust collapsing after a rapid heating of the Earth’s core. The mechanism here is rather more mundane, though potentially no less devastating.

Evidence from the end of the last Ice Age has already shown that the planet’s uneasy web of seismic faults – cracks in the crust like the one that runs along the Himalayas – are very sensitive to the small pressure changes brought by change in the climate. And a sensitive volcano or seismic faultline is a very dangerous one.

The disappearing ice, sea-level rise and floods already forecast for the 21st century are inevitable as the earth warms and weather patterns change – and they will shift the weight on the planet. Professor McGuire calls this process “waking the giant” – something that can be done with just a few gigatonnes of water in the right – or wrong – place.

This is somewhat like the fracking and wastewater disposal argument or the moon triggers quake idea. The faults are already there and activated by the additional activity. In this case of dynamic loading/unloading, the fault needs to be pretty much ready to go and the extra factor pushes it along. How much it accelerates the process is VERY unclear. So to say that climate change makes more “fatal” earthquakes is a bit of a stretch. As noted, the “Hollywood” aspect may be too good to pass up. Scientific understanding suffers.

Places like Nepal, the location of a devastating earthquake this week, will be seismically active and dangerous for all of human existence. We know this thanks to decades of documentation and we know the cause from the well-tested, very solid theory of plate tectonics.

You can, with certainty, predict that fatal catastrophes will occur in the future in distinct areas. We can also limit fatalities with upgrades to construction and better technology. So the best effort is to prepare, not scare.

See earthquakes around the world in the past 7 days here.

  8 comments for “Global warming linked to earthquakes, but they would happen anyway

  1. Tod Westlake
    April 29, 2015 at 12:12 PM

    The disappearance of polar ice is likely to cause an increase in tectonic activity. When you put a brick on a trampoline, it creates downward pressure and causes the canvass material to dimple. In the same way, the glacial ice that exists at the South Pole, Greenland, Canada, etc., would cause the ground on which this ice rests to rebound when that ice is gone. Simple physics. Probably a bit too early in the climate change process for this to be occurring. But you never know. Plate tectonics were a crazy idea just a couple of decades ago, so the science on this is very, very new. Bears watching, at the very least.

  2. April 29, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    You’re right about isostatic rebound. But rebound seismicity is typically small, not “fatal” as the news piece suggests. Also people aren’t living in currently ice covered areas.

  3. Tod Westlake
    April 29, 2015 at 12:45 PM

    A “small” earthquake centered way up in Ottawa a few years back damaged the Washington Monument substantially. Turns out that the more brittle rock strata in the Northeast transmits seismic waves very efficiently, hence the wide area of damage from what was a pretty insignificant seismic event. What we don’t know about plate tectonics dwarfs what we do. You’re probably correct, though. Probably.

  4. April 29, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    This item makes me cringe. As said, “It sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood apocalypse-fest,” something reasonable people would be willing to dismiss in passing as “warmist alarmism.” The PR battle is hard enough as it is.

  5. eleggua
    April 29, 2015 at 2:14 PM
  6. eleggua
    April 29, 2015 at 2:21 PM
    ‘While, there will be many who would readily debunk the very discussion as hearsay or bunkum, the fact remains that catastrophic events like earthquakes and tsunamis are indeed influenced by the man’s hand. Take the case of the 1967 earthquake in Koynanagar (Maharashtra) which was induced by the construction of the Koyna dam.

    Earthquakes and tremors caused by human activity that alters the stresses and strains on the Earth’s crust are termed as induced seismicity. According to researchers, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which caused approximately 68,000 deaths, was caused by the construction and filling of the Zipingpu Dam that could have triggered the earthquake.”

  7. April 29, 2015 at 7:27 PM

    No, that quake was centered in Virginia. But yes, the eastern US will transmit seismic energy.

  8. Tod Westlake
    April 29, 2015 at 8:00 PM

    Whoops! My bad. I’m mixing it up with the one that happened in Canada in June of 2010. I, and several other people in the building, felt that one way down in Ellenville, NY.

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