Is There a Link Between Climate Change and Earthquakes?

Several years ago, if you had included earthquakes in the litany of disasters caused by anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change – events like drought, flood, heat waves and the freezing cold that has settled over Britain several winters in a row – most scientists would have called you a “climate change scaremonger.”

But according to Giampiero Iaffaldano, professor of Earth Physics at Australian National University, Canberra there may be a link. In fact, it is Dr. Iaffaldano’s contention that climate change not only occurs as a result of tectonic shifts, but that climate change is part of a feedback loop that in turn causes tectonic movement – the slippage of earth’s plate’s that causes earthquakes, builds mountains, and sinks islands.

Publishing their findings in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, a weekly, peer-reviewed scientific journal, Iaffaldano and his team of researchers have determined that the increasing severity of the Indian monsoon, which increased rainfall in the northeast part of the country by four meters, or about 13 feet, per year, was responsible for an additional one centimeter (0.39 inches) slippage during the same 12-month period.

For a better explanation, consider this scenario: the heavy rains typical of monsoons actually wash soil off the surface and into the ocean. This exposes rock, which fractures in the presence of standing water. Eventually, the loss of soil and rock leads to a lesser weight that causes crustal plates to “lift” and turn, sometimes very rapidly – a motion that we call an earthquake.

Of course, Iaffaldano and team are talking about climate change over a vast period of time. “Millions of years” is the phrase they use repeatedly, so those of us obsessing about 2 degrees, thinning of the ozone layer, and even the recent Japanese disaster (an earthquake that caused a tsunami that created nuclear plant failures) may need to look beyond some recent Mongabay and Grist headlines to link earthquakes and climate change.

But to continue the debate let me direct your attention to a recent and as yet unpublished article by Professor Bill McGuire of University College London. McGuire, a volcanologist with a Ph.D. in Geology, works in the College’s Hazard Research Centre and is less hesitant about suggesting that human-induced climate change – the kind that is currently thinning ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic plates – could result in Earth’s crust “rebounding”.

McGuire cites Iceland as a prime example, and suggests that melting of the Eyjafjallajökull ice sheet (don’t trying saying this at home, folks) could lead to unusual volcanic activity, as well as a “whole host of other problems”, namely the increased pressure on fault-ridden coastlines from rising oceans.

To drive his point home, McGuire notes the increased seismic activity at the end of the last Ice Age which resulted in landslides and tsunamis in such unlikely places as Scandinavia.

McGuire is supported in his viewpoint by UC Berkeley geologist Roland Burgmann, who is nonetheless somewhat more cautious, suggesting that only considerable research can determine how dangerous rebound is and where it might have the greatest effects.

So the debate does continue and some certainly believe that there is a qualified yes. But for us, given we can find well qualified scientists on either side of this, the jury is still out.

Article by Jeanne Roberts, appearing courtesy Celsias.

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