Thinking outside the box – the link between earthquakes and climate change

March 13th, 2011 by Richard Lord

When the international media gives you an instant view of the latest natural disaster to strike humanity it can be overwhelming.  The human tragedy this year in, to name a few countries: Brazil, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and now Japan is unimaginable for those who have not suffered it. Even the images shock.

When Sir Christopher Meyer spoke passionately at ecobuild 2011 about the international community trying to create a binding agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and the difficulty of overcoming political realism, he mentioned the terrible cost of the Queensland floods and then the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake.

As one natural disaster follows another and overwhelms the senses it is easy to lump all the natural disasters together.

I thought it was a mistake to mention the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake in the context of climate change.

But then I read an article today that opened my mind.  I remembered reading that Environmental Studies Professor David Orr of Oberlin College, Ohio asks his students to determine the link between eating a hamburger and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sometimes the link between cause and effect seem tenuous at best and so it may be with climate change and earthquakes but it is worth considering.

I was reminded that although the sea level is rising around European coasts by 1 to 2 mm per year on average, the landmass of Scotland is actually rising above the sea.  The reason for this is that during the last ice age Scotland was under a massive weight of ice.  As this ice melted and the weight on Scotland’s land reduced, Scotland bounced up and 8000 years after the ice age ended parts of Scotland are still rising above the average sea level by a few millimetres per year, whereas Kent which was not covered by permanent ice during the last ice age is sinking slowly.

We think of land as permanent, hard and immovable but if you have ever seen an earthquake approach you will know that land can behave like water. The land undulates before you as the ripples and waves of an earthquake approach at high speed.  It is an experience that defies normal reality and stays with you for the rest of life.

So I read an article by Brian Merchant on Treehugger stating that the link between climate change and earthquakes has been made before.  He writes “that some geologists believe that global warming may already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.”

We know that the pull of the sun and the moon has a great influence.  Can the loss of ice on continents cause them to rise up and produce stresses on the earth’s crust?

Brian Merchant quotes a Grist column that states that at a 2009 conference experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already cause more tectonic plate activity.

“When the ice is lost, the earth’s crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis,” Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, told Reuters.”

Besides the loss of ice on continents there is also the consequence of a rising sea level putting new strain on fault lines in the earth’s crust.

This may all seem far fetched but it is worth keeping an open mind and realising that all our actions have some consequence in the natural world.

The British Red Cross has launched a Japan Tsunami Appeal and a New Zealand Earthquake Appeal

To donate to the Sri Lanka flood appeal visit the Save the Children website.  Visit Caritas.org to donate to the Brazilian flood appeal.

To donate to the North Queensland Floods appeal visit the Australian Red Cross website.

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