Royal Society Stunner: “Observations suggest that the ongoing rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting a hazardous response from the geosphere.”

Top scientists call for research on climate link to volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis

Periods of exceptional climate change in Earth history are associated with a dynamic response from the solid Earth, involving enhanced levels of potentially hazardous geological and geomorphological activity. This response is expressed through the adjustment, modulation or triggering of a wide range of surface and crustal phenomena, including volcanic and seismic activity, submarine and sub-aerial landslides, tsunamis and landslide ‘splash’ waves glacial outburst and rock-dam failure floods, debris flows and gas-hydrate destabilisation. Looking ahead, modelling studies and projection of current trends point towards increased risk in relation to a spectrum of geological and geomorphological hazards in a world warmed by anthropogenic climate change, while observations suggest that the ongoing rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting a hazardous response from the geosphere.

Current Issue CoverLots of people have asked me whether there has been any connection between global warming and the recent earthquakes and other geological activity.  Today, the UK’s Royal Society published an amazingly timely special series of scientific papers on the topic.  Seven leading experts co-authored the editors’ introduction (quoted above).

Reuters reported on Friday, “A thaw of Iceland’s ice caps in coming decades caused by climate change may trigger more volcanic eruptions by removing a vast weight and freeing magma from deep below ground, scientists said.”  Last week, FoxNews reported, “A huge glacier has broken off and plunged into a lake in Peru sparking a 23-meter high tsunami wave that destroyed a nearby town.”  Local governor Cesar Alvarez said: “Because of global warming the glaciers are going to detach and fall on these overflowing lakes. This is what happened.”

We already knew that methane hydrates were at risk of destabilizing and becoming a positive or amplifying feedback to global warming (see “Science stunner: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting“).  Two articles in this issue go further:

Maslin et al. review the current state of the science as it relates to gas hydrates as a potential hazard. The authors note that gas hydrates may present a serious threat as the world warms, primarily through the release of large quantities of methane into the atmosphere, thus forcing accelerated warming, but also as a consequence of their possible role in promoting submarine slope failure and consequent tsunami generation….

In a second paper, Dunkley Jones et al. look back to the PETM [Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum], the most prominent, transient, global warming event during the Cenozoic, in order to evaluate the effects of the rapid release of thousands of gigatonnes of greenhouse gases on the planet’s climate, ocean-atmosphere chemistry and biota, for which the PETM perhaps provides the best available analogue. Dunkley Jones et al. support the view that, while gas-hydrate release was probably not responsible for an initial, rapid, CO2-driven warming, the as yet unknown event responsible for this subsequently triggered the large-scale dissociation of gas hydrates, which contributed to further warming as a positive feedback mechanism.

That’s from the Preface by the Director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, Dr. Bill McGuire, an expert on the geological consequences of climate change.  The article by Maslin et al. concludes:

Models of the global inventory of hydrates and trapped methane bubbles suggest that a global 3°C warming could release between 35 and 940″‰GtC, which could add up to an additional 0.5°C to global warming. The destabilization of gas hydrate reserves in permafrost areas is more certain as climate models predict that high-latitude regions will be disproportionately affected by global warming with temperature increases of over 12°C predicted for much of North America and Northern Asia.

Yes, in the scenario where we blow past 3°C warming, the Arctic gets uber-warm and a staggering amount of methane seems all but certain to be released (see “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F“):

The shrinking of both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in response to regional warming may also lead to destabilization of gas hydrates. As ice sheets shrink, the weight removed allows the coastal region and adjacent continental slope to rise through isostacy. This removal of hydrostatic pressure could destabilize gas hydrates, leading to massive slope failure, and may increase the risk of tsunamis.

Dunkley Jones et al find, “Palaeotemperature proxy data from across the PETM indicate a coincident increase in global surface temperatures of approximately 5-6°C.”  They find the methane hydrate were accompanied by lots of other carbon, which wouldn’t be a big surprise given how many other amplifying carbon-cycle feedbacks there are (see “Stunner: Nature review of 20 years of field studies finds soils emitting more CO2 as planet warms“).

The paper “Recent and future warm extreme events and high-mountain slope stability,” notes that “Warm extremes can trigger large landslides in temperature-sensitive high mountains by enhancing the production of water by melt of snow and ice, and by rapid thaw.”  Not surprisingly, the paper finds:

The number of large slope failures in some high-mountain regions such as the European Alps has increased during the past two to three decades. There is concern that recent climate change is driving this increase in slope failures, thus possibly further exacerbating the hazard in the future….

We describe several large slope failures in rock and ice in recent years in Alaska, New Zealand and the European Alps, and analyse weather patterns in the days and weeks before the failures. Although we did not find one general temperature pattern, all the failures were preceded by unusually warm periods; some happened immediately after temperatures suddenly dropped to freezing.

We assessed the frequency of warm extremes in the future by analysing eight regional climate models from the recently completed European Union programme ENSEMBLES for the central Swiss Alps. The models show an increase in the higher frequency of high-temperature events for the period 2001-2050 compared with a 1951-2000 reference period. Warm events lasting 5, 10 and 30 days are projected to increase by about 1.5-4 times by 2050 and in some models by up to 10 times.


Here’s more on European impacts:

The slope failure hazard in mountainous terrain is also addressed by Keiler et al. in a paper that examines the influence of contemporary climate change on a broad spectrum of geomorphological hazards in the eastern European Alps, including landslides, rock falls, debris flows, avalanches and floods. In the context of the pan-continental 2003 heat wave and the 2005 central European floods, the authors demonstrate how physical processes and human activity are linked in climatically sensitive alpine regions that are prone to the effects of anthropogenic climate change…. The authors conclude that future climate changes are likely to drive rises in the incidence of mountain hazards and, consequently, increase their impact on Alpine communities.

The paper “How will melting of ice affect volcanic hazards in the twenty-first century?” concludes

Glaciers and ice sheets on many active volcanoes are rapidly receding. There is compelling evidence that melting of ice during the last deglaciation triggered a dramatic acceleration in volcanic activity….  A greater frequency of collapse events at glaciated stratovolcanoes can be expected in the near future, and there is strong potential for positive feedbacks between melting of ice and enhanced volcanism. Nonetheless, much further research is required to remove current uncertainties about the implications of climate change for volcanic hazards in the twenty-first century.

Finally, scientists find a modest negative feedback, albeit an unpleasant one!

And, coincidentally enough, there’s a paper “Climate effects on volcanism: influence on magmatic systems of loading and unloading from ice mass variations, with examples from Iceland

Pressure influences both magma production and the failure of magma chambers. Changes in pressure interact with the local tectonic settings and can affect magmatic activity. Present-day reduction in ice load on subglacial volcanoes due to global warming is modifying pressure conditions in magmatic systems. The large pulse in volcanic production at the end of the last glaciation in Iceland suggests a link between unloading and volcanism, and models of that process can help to evaluate future scenarios. A viscoelastic model of glacio-isostatic adjustment that considers melt generation demonstrates how surface unloading may lead to a pulse in magmatic activity. Iceland’s ice caps have been thinning since 1890 and glacial rebound at rates exceeding 20″‰mm”‰yrˆ’1 is ongoing. Modelling predicts a significant amount of ‘additional’ magma generation under Iceland due to ice retreat.

Finally, we have “Response of faults to climate-driven changes in ice and water volumes on Earth’s surface,” which finds:

Numerical models including one or more faults in a rheologically stratified lithosphere show that climate-induced variations in ice and water volumes on Earth’s surface considerably affect the slip evolution of both thrust and normal faults. In general, the slip rate and hence the seismicity of a fault decreases during loading and increases during unloading. Here, we present several case studies to show that a postglacial slip rate increase occurred on faults worldwide in regions where ice caps and lakes decayed at the end of the last glaciation. Of note is that the postglacial amplification of seismicity was not restricted to the areas beneath the large Laurentide and Fennoscandian ice sheets but also occurred in regions affected by smaller ice caps or lakes, e.g. the Basin-and-Range Province. Our results do not only have important consequences for the interpretation of palaeoseismological records from faults in these regions but also for the evaluation of the future seismicity in regions currently affected by deglaciation like Greenland and Antarctica: shrinkage of the modern ice sheets owing to global warming may ultimately lead to an increase in earthquake frequency in these regions.

Just to be clear about what these papers are and aren’t saying, the Guardian reports:

Richard Betts, a climate modeller at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, said: “This is a new area of academic research with potentially interesting implications. It was previously assumed there was no link at all between climate change and these events, but it is possible to speculate that climate change might make some more likely. If we do get large amounts of climate change in the long term then we might see some impacts.”

He said there was no evidence that current levels of global warming were influencing events such as last week’s earthquake in China that killed hundreds of people and the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded flights across Europe.

Experts say global warming could affect geological hazards such as earthquakes because of the way it can move large amounts of mass around on the Earth’s surface. Melting glaciers and rising sea levels shift the distribution of huge amounts of water, which release and increase pressures through the ground.

These pressure changes could make ruptures and seismic shifts more likely. Research from Germany suggests that the Earth’s crust can sometimes be so close to failure that tiny changes in surface pressure brought on [by] heavy rain can trigger quakes.

One should be cautious in linking individual geological events directly to climate change.  We’ll have to wait for more study and more detailed statistical analysis.  Though obviously for certain events, such as a glacier collapse leading to a tsunami or large slope failures in ice, they are inevitably going to be seen as driven by warming.  And the destabilization of gas hydrate reserves in permafrost areas remains a core prediction of climate science.

Anyway, more things to worry about from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, as if there weren’t enough already:


54 Responses to Royal Society Stunner: “Observations suggest that the ongoing rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting a hazardous response from the geosphere.”

  1. Alessandro F. says:

    Calling this a “stunner” is a bit exaggerated, don’t you think? In this case, even the involved scientists are careful to say that there is no direct scientific evidence to support their theories yet. The only consensus seems to be that this research needs more funding.

    Using this as an argument for the dangers of climate change is therefore in my opinion damaging to the cause. This is going to lead to a severe backlash from the anti-science crowd, who will ridicule the alleged connections (I can already hear it: “What’s next, will they link HIV to CO2 too?”), and a subsequent drop in public support for climate science.

    Don’t get me wrong: the research is valid and should definitely go forward. But for a blog like Climateprogress, this should be treated with at least as much caution as the authors suggest.

    [JR: I view this as a stunner because 1) this subject has, as Wit’s End notes, been avoided for a long time by scientists and 2) the “coincidence” by itself is stunning. Seriously, these articles must have been in the works for many, many months and they come out just now, and even include a paper on Iceland and volcanoes! That is stunning. On top of that, the methane hydrate stuff all by itself is pretty much always stunning. Or should be.

    I’d note that your sweeping generalization “even the involved scientists are careful to say that there is no direct scientific evidence to support their theories yet” ain’t true. There is a lot of paleoclimate evidence that their theories are right, as the peer-reviewed scientific articles make clear, and emerging evidence that in a number of areas, warming is causing changes that lead to geologic impacts, again, as the peer-reviewed scientific articles make clear.

    Yes, the antiscience crowd tries to shout down any discussion of any impacts of something which in any case they don’t think is happening and/or isn’t caused by us. If you can’t quote multiple scientific studies and internationally recognized scientists for fear that people who immorally make crap up might attack you, well, you’re probably in the wrong business.

    Let me reformulate what you wrote: “X is going to lead to a severe backlash from the anti-science crowd, who will ridicule the Y” is pretty much true for all values of X and Y including — indeed especially — imaginary values.

    If they want to attack the Royal Academy, let ’em.]

  2. neoterrestrial says:

    ClimateProgress “stunners” always ruin my day.

  3. Wit's End says:

    Scientists are always cautious, that is why the caveat is there. Until very recently, the mere suggestion that climate change might impact seismic activity was radical, even heretical. Now lately there have been so many catastrophic earthquakes, landslides, and collapsing ice shelves that even the most devoted ignorers are feeling a bit anxious.

    Every impact of climate change has been underestimated and downplayed by the scientists, who are bound to be constrained by their method,s and chastened to not alarm without absolute causative proof.

    Lucky me, I am not a scientist and feel no such compunctions, which is why I feel free to conflate human activity with the utter and complete destruction of the biosphere.

    You know…the one that gives us oxygen, water and sustains our life.

  4. Fred Teal says:

    # 3. Wit’s End:
    I left a poem at the end of yesterday’s “What are your favorite climate and energy metaphors and jokes?” that I think you would appreciate.

  5. catman306 says:

    Joe’s posting has changed my view that climate change cannot cause tectonic seismic activity.

    Our present biosphere is like an incredibly intricate house of cards built on the throw rug that is our world climate system. Our civilization is tugging on that rug. It’s moving!

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    Just last night I was reading in Eli Kintisch’s book on geoengineering about how we were sure for a long time that climate changed very slowly. He also mentions that the notion of tectonic plates was first proposed in 1915 and took until the 1960’s to be accepted. I think we need to remember always that the normal (and appropriate) conservatism of scientists can have the side effect of slowing down our attempt to better understand how the entire Earth System works. Is it any surprise that shifting around trillions of tons (in the form of melting ice) in mere decades can result in rebounding and other geological effects? I don’t think it’s surprising, but scientists require real evidence to connect such dots, no matter how intuitively appealing the logic might be.

    The bottom line here, IMO, is that we already have much more proof than is needed to take serious action to reduce our emissions. This set of papers points to the strong possibility that there are whole new layers in this lasagna of awfulness we didn’t even suspect existed.

  7. mike roddy says:

    This is simple physics, and should not be taboo because individual event causation cannot be proved. Altering surface mass leads to changes in gravitational and shear forces, which affects the crust. Thanks for bringing it up.

    I don’t care what the deniers think. They have cowed so many people that when the recent NAS paper about Arctic Ocean methane releases came out, even scientists and journalists scurried for the exits out of fear of being called “alarmist”. I’m glad Climate Progress is here to communicate the evidence, and if some don’t like it, that’s too bad.

    Good post, Gail, #3.

  8. fj2 says:

    1. Alessandro F.,

    I was pretty stunned when I first saw the headline.

    In fact I am still stunned.

  9. Wonhyo says:

    In my (perhaps not so humble) opinion, this news should not be a stunner at all. Anyone with a basic understanding of the first principles of geology and mechanics should have been able to predict these links. Large volumes of melting ice reduce the pressure on the Earth’s crust below and change the flow of magma underneath. How much more obvious can it be? How can it be plausible that it DOESN’T have interrelated effects? This is an example of the state of denial we are all in.

    The state of denial (or insufficient degree of acknowledgement) starts with the scientists. Consider the following statements from the article: “the ongoing rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting”, “A thaw of Iceland’s ice caps in coming decades caused by climate change may trigger”, “gas hydrates may present a serious threat”, “removal of hydrostatic pressure could destabilize”, “Warm extremes can trigger”, “shrinkage of the modern ice sheets owing to global warming may ultimately lead”.

    Do you notice the excessive use of the words “may”, “could”, and “should” when applied to the predicted effects of climate change? This wording may be appropriate for academic communications in a scientific journal article, but we have to be more realistic in our public policy discussions of climate change. Is there any plausibility to the idea that these effects “may not” occur without dramatic reductions in CO2?

    If the semantic hedging stopped with the scientists, it might not be so bad. By the time it reaches mainstream journalism, it gets reduced to, “some people say the Earth is round while others say the Earth is flat, but we journalists aren’t going to look into the validity of each side’s claims”.

    I’ve run into to some wanna-be climate science believers who are offended by any expression of scientific confidence beyond what “may” happen. When I discuss the issues with these people further, they are generally not going to support positive climate action anyway. Anytime I address an issue they bring up, they retreat to another false criticism. In essence they are delayers who are slowing down the acknowledgement process for everyone else. We shouldn’t dilute our message to appease this crowd.

    We should leave the “mays” and “coulds” and “cans” to the academic journal articles, and be more honest and direct with our expectations in our public policy discussions. To fail to do so is to passively contribute to the delayer movement.

  10. Mike #22 says:

    (typo at the Guardian: brought on my heavy rain can trigger quakes.)

    [JR: Thanks!]

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    I believe (relying on my memory of what David Archer has said on this subject) there’s a back-handed silver lining to the release of methane hydrates due to ice sheet melt-driven rebound of the Antarctic and Greenland continental shelves, which is that sea level rise is a much faster process than the rebound. As a consequence, the major methane hydrate release will lag the melt by ~1,000 years or so. But hey, no problem, just fill the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide so that the ice sheets re-form in a hurry and we’re off the hook, right? :(

  12. Alessandro F. says:

    Well look, as I said, I’m convinced the science is correct and I think it should definitely be persued.

    But I also think we shouldn’t blow the findings out of proportion right now, given that we have enough other, hard evidence for AGW at the moment.

    It appears to be bad timing, really. Half of Europe is grounded due to the ash cloud and newspapers title: “It’s all due to global warming”. People just don’t buy that right now. And that’s what counts after all, right? That people will eventually be convinced of AGW and start acting to contain it.

    [JR: Yes, well, good thing nobody said anything like what you wrote. If fear that you’ll be attacked for something you didn’t say stops you from saying that which is true, you shouldn’t even be saying or writing anything!]

  13. There was a conference on this last September: “Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological Hazards”
    There is also research in Alaska connecting rapid glacier retreat and increase in local earth movements — stands to reason when the elephant melts off your chest you can breath easier.

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    Lauren – “I sincerely doubt climate change has caused or contributed to the kinds of events this article suggest.”

    You doubt that the glacier in Peru has not been melting and a big hunk of it broke off and caused a very large wave?

    Not a prediction, but observed.

    You doubt that there was a substantial increase in the number of glacial earthquakes at the Helheim Glacier and the northwest Greenland glaciers between 1993 and 2005 along with record rates of melting?

    Not a prediction, but observed.

  15. Richard Steckis says:

    This crap just gets funnier and funnier.

  16. My friends, this isn’t climate change any more, this is the Twilight of the Gods! According to my models, the world tree Yggdrasil has begun shaking and the Midgard serpent Jormungandr writhing, in preparation for the final battle of Ragnarok. I estimate that we have no more than ten years before that nasty wolf Fenrir arrives on the scene, at which point things will really start to go south. The only way we can stop this apocalypse is to sacrifice seven great kings into the fiery cauldron atop Eyjafjallajökull to appease the angry god Odin. If we don’t act now, the earth will be totally destroyed and drowned, and there will be only two survivors. I call upon the subjects of seven kingdoms to offer their sovereigns up for sacrifice! The fate of the entire world rests with you!

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #16: On the plus side, at least the rest of those names are more or less pronouncable.

  18. PEL says:

    I think climate change also causes bad breath and fallen arches.

  19. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #15: Lauren, ice sheets are stupendously heavy and substantially depress the crust they rest on while pushing up the adjacent crust. Earthquakes associated with this process are not infrequent even now, and increased volcanic activity (where the volcanoes already exist) is associated with glacial terminations. See here for details.

  20. I totally agree with wonhyo n°9
    Actions to take, so as to avoid stress and related non senses: set up research and succeed in extracting out of atmosphere and neutralizing ghgs, for instance so called “life trees” in Britain, or zeoliths-mimicking or carbon capturing cement by Caldera…
    This is not geoingeniering, it is mere and safe return back to initial.

  21. Anne says:

    I posted on this at Daily Kos….

    And must say that I am still in agreement with the “conventional wisdom” that there’s no direct connection between the inner Earth and the atmosphere, but, these papers raise good questions that, seems to me, we ignore at our own peril.

  22. Bill R. says:

    Gaia is facinating in her complexity, no?

  23. Russ H says:

    Linking global warming to tectonic movements seems reasonable to me. In the same way that railway tracks can buckle under increased heat from the Sun then it seems ok to me to think that increased temperatures can expand tectonic plates which can caused buckling at the edges. It is simple physics cause and effect.

  24. climateprogressive says:

    Interesting post, and yes, isostatic rebound following ice-sheet melt can have a range of effects. Here in the UK it is still an ongoing process.

    As said above, there is a degree of potential compensation regarding the methane hydrate deposits for the time being in that eustatic sea-level rise is another player. Eventually, however, there comes a point when the ice is all but gone, eustatic sea-level rise stabilises but isostatic uplift continues in areas with former ice-caps: this is a particularly dangerous phase of the transition from icehouse to hothouse.

  25. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Not new. Look up isostatic rebound. Solid earth is a very thin layer of the planet. The thickness of a postage stamp compared to the volume of a soccerball.

    Simple really. Less ice gives less pressure on the lithosphere which causes readjustment. Lithosphere readjusting is lithospheric activity and wow that is earthquakes and volcanoes.

    What we do not know; is how fast it will happen.

  26. Wit's End says:

    Amazing video – somebody on the teevee gets climate change, for once!

  27. catman306 says:

    PEL says:
    April 20, 2010 at 1:53 am
    I think climate change also causes bad breath and fallen arches.

    That’s because you won’t be getting any water with which to brush your teeth because of the draughts and because you’ll be running like hell in your flip-flops to escape the rising sea levels and earthquakes.

  28. marcus says:

    Hi Joe,

    this is my first post, tho i have been reading your blog for a year or two. Respect for posting this, its a subject i have been following since vulcanologist Bill McGuire flagged it up a few years ago. i think that his first suggestion that we have a problem, was based on the seasonal signal that was found in an Alaskan volcano, in response to a minimal (ie seasonal) change in sea level.

    I tried, at that time, to find out what the RealClimate folks thought about it, and was mainly ignored. One or two regular contributers effectively told me that there was no appetite for discussing this, because it would just be further ammunition for the deniers.

    Also, Mcguire’s competence and motivation were questioned, partly because he runs the Benfield/UCL (University College London) Hazard Research Center here in the UK, because Benfield are an insurance company (because they are interested in risk analysis, i guess).

    I think this skeptical view of Mcguire was coming from US based contributors, because he is probably the most prominent expert in this field, in the uk, at least in terms of tv appearances! Every high profile tsunami, eruption, earthquake etc sees him wheeled out and asked for comment.

    He has been criticised for being essentially, a catastrophist, but clearly the momentum provided by this accumulation of evidence suggests he is one of the few experts who are secure enough to stand up and be counted, on this potentially explosive issue.

    It gives me some satisfaction to see this new field consolidated, and my view of Mcguire vindicated.

    Maybe (normally heroic) RC will take it all seriously now, because the future is starting to look pretty Dante-esque, whether people want to hear it or not…

    stunner is a good word. Keep up the good work, the truth will out…

  29. Mike #22 says:

    Better that usual blog science over at Watts’, like this one:

    “It’s been said several times that the reduced magnetosphere strength will likely have a mechanical effect on the earth’s crust, and thus volcanism.

    Since it’s pretty likely that increased cosmic rays caused by reduced magnetic field strength and weakened solar wind contribute to cloud formation and cooling, it’s likely that more active volcanism is mildly related to climate change”

  30. I lurk. I read. Today I post. says:

    About a year ago, after obsessing privately about this very subject for several days, I inquired in the comments here about what research had been done regarding these connections. At the time, none of the active posters that day were able to offer much. So I definitely enjoyed today’s posting.

    My background is not directly in climate science or geology but rather in generalized complex systems theory. It’s no secret to that many complex systems reach states of “self organized criticality.” The clutter on one’s desk. Grains of sand in a pile. Disorder within social systems. A precipice of snow on a mountain top. Pressure along a fault. Magma beneath a volcano. In this state of criticality, the system is primed to rapidly release explosive “energy” on a hair trigger. (Note that within cultural, social, biological and cognitive systems, “energy” is more of a metaphoric term–capacity for rapid significant change would be what’s really being driven at in the more general sense.)

    Going back to my obsessive thoughts a year ago: there are loads of geologic sites that records indicate release energy at fairly regular intervals. (As an aside, the connections between orders of magnitude of events and frequency is another general dynamic that has been well mapped within complex systems theory.) Any of these local systems that are currently at a state of criticality may only require something as “insignificant” as a redistribution of H20 mass from ice sheets to oceans to trigger a major release. Intuition: the bad news is we may be in for a period of heightened rapid geologic/geomorphic activity; the good news is it wouldn’t last anywhere near as long as the other effects of GW because once local systems have shifted out of a state of criticality it will take some time for that energy to build back up.

    For what it’s worth, while recent earthquakes and volcanic activity had me thinking about again, I’m not convinced that we are seeing anything more yet than the geological equivalent of weather over climate. Hell, barring an utterly spectacular display of rapid geo releases around the world on a human time scale, it might not be till 1000 years after we are all dust that such an increase could even be registered and teased out of the geological record. Would a 1% or 2% increase in activity during a 400 year period even register as anything more than statistical anomaly while it was happening? In most cases, we’re not looking at a case of forcing, rather one of a more condensed triggering of events that would have happened anyways within a larger geological interval anyways. So intuition tells me that this will be a little bump up in activity followed by a long lull (which statistically will flatten out over a long enough time sample) rather than the almost logarithmic curves one sees on most climate graphs. (Thinking of earthquakes and volcanos in particular here. Mudslides, sinkholes, etc. will prove a bit trickier since those phenomena are so interconnected with the distribution of water which will likely prove much more connected to climate which IS experiencing forcing. And deglaciation, permafrost thaw and (hopefully not!) clathrate melt are all obviously directly connected to climate change.)

    Anyways, glad to see that professionals in these fields are asking similar (and admittedly much more clearly formed) questions and proposing means to investigate the intricacies and nuances of the connections that exist between climate and geology and geomorphology. But echoing a few the other comments posted above, I also feel a need for caution in how connections between these systems are conveyed in the mass media. These potential connections are intellectually exciting and spectacular stuff, similar to the excitement brought on by Shoemaker-Levy’s impact on Jupiter. But I feel like the political and economic right tends to mischaracterize enthusiasm over scientific discovery as political vigor and misanthropic doom cheerleading. But that’s probably best left for another comment in a different thread.

  31. isn’t there a fair amount of data linking greenland seismicity to the lifting weight of ice? i’ve spent years telling audiences that “only volcanic and tectonic forces remain acts of God” but i guess i better start inserting some caveats. thanks for an informative post

  32. cervantes says:

    Prof. McKibben — since you presumably know the editors of The Nation, can you help us do something about the crank Alexander Cockburn? It’s intensely irritating for him to have that platform.

  33. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    It’s an interesting time to be an earth scientist.

    I’ve wondered about what’s going on and if it’s related to global warming. Very interesting post.

    And to hell with tip toeing around with such news, let the truth be known and hopefully it will scare the bejeezus out of everyone and we’ll finally get some climate change action. Someday the denialists will be hung for their obstructionist activities. They can swing in the wind with the Wall Street crowd as far as I’m concerned.

  34. Dorothy says:

    On the subject of tectonic plates and pressure differentials, University of Washington Professor William H. Calvin posted a short piece March 2 on our blog titled “Sea Level Rise and Coastal Earthquakes” –

    “The 8.8 EQ on Chile’s coastline is a reminder of what we might see more frequently as the sea level rises in coastal areas already susceptible to large EQs, both in the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” and in island volcano settings such as the Canary Islands and those of the Caribbean.

    In such areas where EQs are common near coastlines, the fault lines are in an uneasy balance that occasionally slips. The overburden on such faults includes all of the rock and soils on the land side and a mix of hydrostatic pressure and sediments on the ocean side. As sea level rises with ice melt from global overheating, ocean faults experience symmetrical hydrostatic pressures increases on both sides of a fault. But near land, the increase is asymmetrical with only the ocean side experiencing an increase in overburden.

    Because of the asymmetrical change, one would expect a period of adjustment where EQs in coastal zones became more common than at present.”

    It makes sense to me. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

  35. Paul Middents says:

    I’m sure the Romm patrol (Kloor, Yulsman and Fuller) supported by the politically scientific perspective of RP Jr. will be all over this. They will reassure us that Joe is just being his alarmist self and that there is really nothing to worry about.

    [JR: Well, if they want to take on the Royal Society’s journal….]

  36. Mike #22 says:

    It is not just an increase on the ocean side–some areas have had their water tables pumped down. At 5% void space, each twenty feet of lowered water tabel equals one foot of water.

  37. prokaryote says:

    Good article again.

    Let me re-phrase this:”When do we start to put people on trial for spreading doubt about climate science?”

    There is not enough money to pay for the lose of ecosystems and the damage from positive climate feedbacks.

  38. TomG says:

    “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.”
    Dr Wallace Broecker

    Looks like the angry beast is baring a few more claws.

  39. Fire Mountain says:

    Looking at that cover, a familiar sight, one I can see on a sunny day. Mt. Rainier. (One of my inspirations for my “Fire Mountain” handle.) It has been cited as the world’s most dangerous mountain because of its proximity to developed areas. A substantial eruption could send mudflows over areas inhabited by hundreds of thousands, take out the Port of Tacoma, and bury the warehouse complex serving the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, built across old mudflows.

    The mountain also sluffs off slides even when it does not erupt, on average every 500 years. It’s been around 550, and there’s all kinds of subdivisions on those slide flows now. In the town of Orting, they have sirens and regular drills, a half-hour or less to get out when the slide goes. Even more dangerous in some ways than an eruption, because the mountain will warn when it’s ready to blow, but a slide can happen anytime.

    Meanwhile, Rainier has seen massive glacier retreats. A native name for the mountain, Tahoma, translates in some dialects as “The Mountain that is God.” I suspect we are provoking that God, and will see its fires before too long.

  40. Bob Wallace says:

    Melting of long established ice fields and glaciers results in reducing the load on the Earth’s crust.

    Three Rivers Gorge Dam is an example of increasing load on the Earth’s crust. There is speculation that the Sichuan quake, a 7.9 magnitude temblor which killed about 80,000 people was triggered by the filling behind the dam.

    “Scientists discovered 10 years after the Hoover Dam was built in 1935 that its reservoir was increasing seismic activity. Since then, it has been well established that other human endeavors can set off powerful tremors beneath the earth’s surface. These include coal mining, quarrying, oil drilling, and the injection of wastewater into the ground. Along China’s Three Gorges Dam, officials acknowledge that seismic activity has increased slightly since the 400-mile reservoir began filling eight years ago.”

    Even the severe doubters need to recognize that the laws of physics are hard to skirt. Change the load, either up or down, and the stress on underlying structures changes.

    Don’t believe that? Try jumping up and down on a tent. Try walking on thin ice….

  41. Dan B says:

    Allesandro F. at 1. and 12. expresses concern that the credibility of climate science will be undermined by the “unbelievable” link between weather/climate and earthquakes/volcanoes. I agree, with reservations. Several conditions combine to make a case for caution. And they make a much stronger case for being prepared to seize the opportunity that will be presented.

    Journalists will get key pieces wrong. They’ll say sunspots when they were told weight of ice pack. They’ll report that warming oceans / air will trigger volcanoes because it heats the magma. Here’s a simple truth: Journalism = interpretation. Every time I’ve been written up in the media it’s been inaccurate. Science is not immune and never will be. Accept it, then use it.

    How? This report is “newsy”. With Eyj….kull affecting air travel nearly worldwide we’ve got journalists (all too short) attention. They’ll be writing (inaccuracy filled) stories because of the “wanna be on top of the news” effect. Climate change has been out of the news since the CRU e-mail tempest in a teapot. The science and the looming calamity has been off the radar. We can either complain about the lousy (typical) journalism and the public’s lack of clear understanding of the science or we can use it as a teaching moment.

    Years ago my display at a convention caught fire days before the opening. We got on the phone to the PR folks. Our business got 3/4 of the coverage. Attendance at the convention was higher than any year prior or afterward. Our exhibit, with carefully edited char, won the top display award. We used it to get our message across – we can cope with any challenge.

    My family is chock full of scientists. My father, uncles, and aunts were, and are, prominent scientists and engineers in industry. One uncle designed the space suits for the Apollo missions. Another designed lunar and Mars Explorer crafts. They had to explain and sell their research to scientifically illiterate managers. When my uncle proposed Mylar and a Kevlar-like space suit, when all previous designs were articulated tin cans, he was derided. You know the outcome of that discussion.

    One thing he did not do was what Richard Betts did, “He said there was no evidence that current levels of global warming were influencing events (like the Iceland Volcano or Chinese earthquake).” My uncle took the materials he proposed and had everyone he encountered and asked them to tear or destroy them. He didn’t argue with his opponents. He demonstrated a solution to a challenge – how to make spacesuits flexible enough for the occupants to handle complex control systems. Then he explained the next, and equally satisfying, challenge – how to make gloves that would allow the astronauts to operate one switch and one button at a time.

    It will be important for every one of us to do our little, or large, part to keep on message:
    We can handle the challenges, here’s how: 1. Rapid deployment of 21st Century clean green energy and jobs. 2. Highly efficient energy use in our buildings, industries, and transportation so we rapidly get off Middle-Eastern oil and dirty coal.

    When we present a warning it must be accompanied by a solution people can undertake. Tailor your message to that audience. Spell out one or two (no more – it’s a psychology thing) steps they can take. Reassure and radiate determination and calm.

  42. Michael Tucker says:

    These geologic impacts of global warming will happen. The article simply says we cannot say that they are ALL happening at this time. Many of the hazards that result from melting glaciers seem obvious but I think the experts have been “stunned” by the rapid melting and haven’t given the hazards much attention yet; at least in the popular press. I was a bit surprised by the news from Peru last week and the very limited attention this disaster received. We can expect more of those types of events as well as flooding from catastrophic drainage of glacial lakes. These hazards are very real in the Andes and Himalayan mountain regions.

    For me the most stunning news is the connection between melting glaciers and volcanism. That adds another layer of problems to a future that seems overburdened with disasters as it is. So far, no seismologist is willing to say that we are currently experiencing an increase in earthquake frequency or intensity. However, it seems this too is a possible future consequence of global warming. As the possible disasters pile up I wonder what unintended consequences will result from pumping CO2 underground to sequester it?

    I still think rising sea level, regional droughts and floods, dust storms, and changing weather patterns will cause the immediate emergencies from a warming planet. At some point governments will have to decide to either build levees and seawalls or relocate coastal populations. This represents a vast undertaking that will focus the attention of the stricken nation inward and away from global concerns. But, I am convinced that the first emergency will be from unsustainable transportation fuel costs and repeated fuel shortages. This may cause the attention of the stricken nation outward as it attempts to acquire the necessary resource by any means possible. The course of action that a country may take in response to an emergency could cause a worse disaster.

  43. Truthammer says:

    Some people need to have their feet burning before they admit they are standing in a burning house ! You cannot ever get through to those stubborn deniers who insist on continuing an unsustainable lifestyle !

  44. This is such an excellent posting and such worthy comments follow…. it really represents a new direction to the issue. .. I want to make sure to contribute some links and notations. Foremost is the wonderful calculations done on the weight of the ice mass… it is after all straightforward math:

    Just how much does one of these ice sheets weigh?
    1 cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 lbs./ft3
    Ice (@ .9 specific gravity) = 56.16 lbs./ft3
    1 square mile (5280’ X 5280’) = 2.8 X 107 ft2
    (2.8 X 107 ft2) X 56.16 lbs./ft2 = 1.57 X 109 lbs./mi2
    Canadian Shield sheet (4000 mi2 X 4000 mi2) = 1.6 X 107 mi2
    (1.57 X 109 lbs./mi2) X (1.6 X 107 mi2) = 2.5 X 1016 lbs./vertical foot
    Assume 10,000’ thick (2.5 X 1016 lbs.) X (1 X 104) = 2.5 X 1020 lbs. or 250,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds! (Assume ice sheet was 10,000’ thick = 561,600 lbs./ft2) or 281 tons of ice per square foot (3900 lbs./in2)!
    And this is assuming that the entire sheet is composed of ice. If we assume that 30% of it is rock material, at an average specific gravity of 3.0, we can essentially double the total weight of the sheet.

    University of London conference on Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological hazards, Oct 2, 2009

    Impact of Global Warming On Seismic Activity
    Article by Preetam Kaushik published Apr 13, 2009
    Read more:

    …opinion that is endorsed by geologists around the world is that glacial melting caused by global warming is causing a rise in water levels beyond the bearing limit of the Earth’s crust. This, they believe, is causing the spate of devastating geological events that have struck nations in recent times.

    WorldWatch Institute
    Global Warming May Trigger Greater Seismic Activity
    by Michael Renner on July 31, 2006

    The melting of glaciers driven by global warming portends a seismically turbulent future. When glaciers melt, the massive weight on the Earth’s crust is reduced, and the crust “bounces” back in what scientists call an “isostatic rebound.” This process can reactivate faults, increase seismic activity, and lift pressure on magma chambers that feed volcanoes.

    More links:
    Sharon Begley, “How Melting Glaciers Alter Earth’s Surface, Spur Quakes, Volcanoes,” Wall Street Journal Online, 9 June 2006.
    Link:; and
    Bill McGuire, “Climate Change: Tearing the Earth Apart?,” New Scientist, 26 May 2006,


    American Scientist 1998

    The Guardian

    Melting Ice Sheets Can Cause Earthquakes, Study Finds

    Thinning of Ice Sheets

    Pine Island Glacier

    This is not a new notion. Called Isostatic rebound. It is just that the inevitable evidence may be starting to be seen now

  45. Phila says:

    Any of these local systems that are currently at a state of criticality may only require something as “insignificant” as a redistribution of H20 mass from ice sheets to oceans to trigger a major release.

  46. Richard Brenne says:

    Interestingly several students in a college class just asked about this and my partner (in the NASA-sponsored Global Climate Change class) Toby Dittrich and guests Bob Henson (“The Rough Guide to Climate Change” and “Rough Guide to Weather” author) and Leif Knutsen (of CP commenter fame) hadn’t seen this. That’ll teach us to ignore Climate Progress for a day!

    It’s helpful to remember that 7.0 earthquakes aren’t unusual, it’s just unimaginably tragic that the epicenter of one was so close to Port-Au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti. But of course human impacts of many kinds intensified that disaster, with Haiti’s linguistic and historic isolation, lack of trading partners and thus poorest (in the Western Hemisphere) economy topping the list.

    Also the lack of Haitian building codes and lack of trees due to deforestation and lack of steel building (wood and steel frame buildings built to code with foundations attached to firm bedrock do best in earthquakes) contributed.

    However magnitude 8.8 earthquakes are more rare and average something more like once a decade (Chile had the largest on record in 1960 at 9.5,
    Anchorage the second largest on record at 9.3 in 1964, the Indian Ocean Boxer Day quake in 2004 was a 9.0), but it’s difficult to know if the weight of 8 inches of sea level rise over the last century added enough stress to contribute to their triggering (the epicenters of each were either over open water or very close).

    Similarly it’s difficult to know if Greenland’s losing what must be many millions of tons (anyone have an estimate?) of weight due to melting of their glaciers could contribute to make Iceland’s dramatic volcanism more frequent or severe.

    As for other disasters in the last decade, 9/11 in 2001 appears related to oil (in complex ways we might never completely know) before, during and certainly after in occupying the nation with the most oil reserves (I spoke to the former Dean and Department Chair of the Geology Department at the University of Baghdad about all this the last two days) for most of the last decade.

    In 2003 the European heat wave that killed an estimated 52,000 was the most obvious result of human burning of fossil fuels leading to CO2 emissions that trap heat and raise global temperatures and the likelihood of such dramatic heat waves. Today the same heat wave in the same places would kill many less because of the lessons learned about getting elderly and other vulnerable people to cooling centers, etc, but other unexpected heat waves will cause further calamity, especially when peak energy means grids will become more vulnerable to collapse and thus much less air conditioning will often be available.

    A record four hurricanes hitting Florida in 2004 were probably not created but probably were intensified by human-caused global warming, and the dollar damage came from the irresponsible, arrogant and ignorant decision (many tax-hating rich people want all other American taxpayers and insurance premium payers to rebuild their McMansions when the inevitable happens) to build so much infrastructure of all kinds so close to such vulnerable coastlines (much of South Florida has a 7 per cent chance of being hit by a major hurricane in a given year).

    The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami from the 9.0 earthquake was more destructive than it had to be again because of coastal infrastructure together with a lack of a warning system and education throughout the Indian Ocean. If the same tsunami had hit the Pacific (where they are historically much more common than the Indian Ocean), the combination of warning system and education would have meant a fraction of the fatalities. Listening to the best and latest science can often save your life.

    In 2005 Katrina was intensified by record Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures that were made more likely by AGW. Also AGW-caused sea level rise of 8 inches over the last century contributed. Also the decision to build much of the modern city at or below sea level – the historic French Quarter wasn’t flooded because it was seven feet above sea level.

    Then the entire New Orleans area is subsiding, the weight of the city and the pumping of salt water from under the city are adding to the subsidence.

    The bayous act as a speed bump to slow and lessen storm surge, but the levees on the Mississippi have prevented silt from regenerating the bayous, as has the building of thousands of miles of canals to install and service oil and natural gas wells and pipelines, and the introduction of the Nutria from South America has also damaged the bayous because they can eat 25,000 acres of bayou-plants in a year.

    As Bob Wallace (#41) says, there’s conjecture that the Sichuan 7.9 earthquake in 2008 that killed an estimated 80,000 might have been influenced by the Three Gorges Dam and the weight of 100 miles of reservoir behind it.

    Whether the contributing factors to so much death and destruction are primarily natural or human-made, putting ourselves, buildings and all other infrastructure in harm’s way is always a human factor.

    The Icelandic volcano so far has only done dollar damage and what is today considered a major inconvenience, interrupting the plans of millions for a week or so.

    Within some small number of decades or quite possibly just years, Peak Oil, Climate Change and resulting contractions could make such scenarios the rule rather than the exception.

  47. Leif says:

    I have been out of the loop for 3 days having spent the time puppy dogging Richard Brenne in Portland, PSU, Bill McKibben’s talk and more. Thank you for the delightful vacation Richard. It was very rewarding to get exposure to the climate awareness efforts of the city.

    I would like to make a quick point and apologize if others made it as I have only done a quick reading.

    A number of years ago I read that even in the mid west of the USA tide effects can be measured by the rise and fall of the earth. If memory servers me correct, as much as a foot of elevation change during big tides!

    IMO, it is obvious that adding a few billion tons in one area must increase pressure in another. Often rivers follow fault lines. All of the earth sits, floats, on the molten, fluid, substrata. Pressure exerted on any portion of a confined fluid is transmitted equally and undiminished to all portions of the remaining container. It’s the law.

  48. Bob Wallace says:

    Couple of questions…

    How long have we had a set of global seismographs in place? (I assume since we started monitoring for nuclear tests.)

    Any links to earthquake frequency per year graphs?

    (5.9 quake off Samoa a couple of hours ago. Rate increasing or are we just paying more attention at the moment?_

  49. Robert says:

    “People just don’t buy that right now. And that’s what counts after all, right?”

    Uh, no. What matters is what is really happening in the physical world, independent of the PR. As E.M. Forester wrote: “Truth counts, truth does count.”

    “I sincerely doubt climate change has caused or contributed to the kinds of events this article suggests, and if scientists are going to start claiming that’s the case, well, I am going to hit the reset button and start re-thinking what I believe about climate change.”

    Your reaction is typical of the denialists’ misunderstanding of how science works. Science is not something you believe in until it tells you something that you doubt is true, whereupon you discard it. It doesn’t work like that. The discipline of science requires following the evidence where it leads. As Richard Feynman wrote:

    “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is– if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”

    Turning your back on a theory supported by experiment because it leads to results different from your guess about how the world works turns the scientific method on its head.

  50. Richard Brenne says:

    By writing such a long post (#47) I was asking the question about weight of Greenland glaciers while Richard Pauli (#45) was answering it!

    Then once again Leif Knutsen (#48) kicked my arse with more brevity and focus!

    Also I always try to fact-check whatever I say in a comment here and got lazy for a paragraph. I was a tenth of a magnitude off in a couple of cases listing the greatest earthquakes on record. They are:

    1. Chile, 1960, 9.5.
    2. Alaska, 1964, 9.2.
    3. Indonesia, 2004, 9.1.
    4. Kamchatka, USSR, 1953, 9.0.
    4. Chile, 1868, 9.0.
    4. Cascadia, NW US and Canada, 1700, 9.0. (And we’re due again, yikes!)
    7. Chile, 2010, 8.8.
    7. Equador-Columbia, 1906, 8.8.
    7. Indonesia, 1833, 8.8.

    So really we don’t average an 8.8 or larger every decade, but according to this list that seems quite comprehensive (they can estimate the power of most past large earthquakes) they happen more like once every three or four decades.

    This doesn’t change the essence of anything I or anyone else here wrote above, but I just always want to be as precise as possible.

    Here’s where the list appears on Wikipedia. Just below it at the same link is a list of damage, and as you would expect with so many more people on Earth and so many larger, vulnerable buildings the estimated death tolls from earthquakes includes all-time numbers 2 and 5 within the last six years (2004 Indian Ocean and 2010 in Haiti) and most of the rest within the 20th Century.

    By the way in a few hours I’m attending the Seismological Society of America’s Annual Meeting to get answers from the experts!

  51. Richard Brenne says:

    While I might not be able to be as accommodating to all Climate Progress commenters as I was with Leif (#48 – he has a tremendous store of knowledge he shared with me!), I can accommodate some and a friend of mine has set up “Oregon Eco-Tours” for me to give tours around Portland, Mt. Hood, the Columbia Gorge, Mt. St. Helens, Silver Falls State Park and the Oregon Coast to those interested in getting an all-day tour that includes an education about what climate change (and related issues) mean to each of these places.

    So if you’re at all interested in this you can e-mail me at

    During Leif’s great visit he and three other world-class climate change communicators had dinner floating on the Willamette River discussing what climate change and geology has meant to various floods on the river, the highest being 400 feet high (the Missoula Floods, one of the two great floods on Earth geologists can find in the geologic record), then he came to the taping of our NASA-sponsored Global Climate Change class featuring NCAR’s Bob Henson (author of the comprehensive “Rough Guide to Climate Change” and “Rough Guide to Weather), then contributed his knowledge to a physics class where we spoke on campus, then we attended the Bill McKibben lecture and spoke with him, then met with some world-class physicists for further hours of climate change discussion after – all that within about 30 hours.

    So let me know if you’re in the area or coming to Portland and I’ll do my best to get you hooked up with some of the best climate change knowledge available, one way or another.

  52. Richard Brenne says:

    And one last thought on this issue: I didn’t imagine the way-over-the-top disaster flick “2012” (where the Earth more or less falls apart under us) as a documentary!

  53. Richard Brenne says:

    Bill McKibben (#32) – Great talk Monday! Great seeing you!

    And regarding your comment here, I’d say the only events that are exclusively acts of God with no human influence include those coming from beyond Earth’s atmosphere and of course a goose hitting Fabio in the face when he was riding a roller coaster.