Global Warming Rocks Our World

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/baggis/452091714/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Travis S.</a>/Flickr


Can climate change cause or intensify earthquakes? Christopher Mims wrote about some of the science on this subject back in March, after the Japanese quake. This set the collective panties of climate skeptics a-bunching, chafed at the very notion that global warming might have some impact on plate tectonics.

This month, New Scientist takes a closer look at the subject. Their content is behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but the article concludes that there is strong evidence that melting ice and sea level rise will impact the earth’s crust, potentially causing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. There’s clear evidence that what happens at the surface of the earth can have a significant impact on even massive tectonic plates—the melting of ice after past ice ages; major erosion from monsoons over the course of millions of years; and (more recently) the construction of dams have all impacted plate movement.

The piece makes several things very clear: there has not been a significant increase in erupting volcanoes or earthquakes in the past century, and there are no scientists out there claiming that there’s a connection between global warming and things like the Japanese quake. But that doesn’t mean it won’t have an impact in the future, as Bill McGuire, a volcanologist with the Benfield Hazard Centre of the University College London argues in the piece:

There is, however, evidence that warming has triggered major landslides. And there has been very little warming so far compared with what is to come: McGuire thinks we will we see a clear effect on volcanoes and earthquakes when climate change really gets going. “Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over a hundred years would cluster. You need a certain amount of strain to accumulate and climate change may bring forward the time that takes,” he suggests. This will mean more earthquakes and eruptions in a given period, rather than more in total, he says.

The main reason is melting ice. There is far less ice now, of course, than at the end of the last ice age. But the planet is warming much faster, so sea level may rise as fast as it ever did before. While sea level rose just 0.17 metres over the 20th century, most glaciologists expect sea level to rise around a metre by the end of the 21st century. This would add an extra tonne per cubic metre to undersea and coastal faults.

The good news is that it will probably weigh down and stabilise faults beneath the sea floor. The bad news is that it will create extra stress at the coast. Here there will be a kind of see-saw effect as the seabed is pushed down. That could add enough stress to trigger a quake on faults that straddle the coast, or run parallel to them, such as the San Andreas fault in California, the North Anatolian fault in northern Turkey, and the Alpine fault in New Zealand.

Anyway, it’s a great article from reporter Caroline Williams.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.