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Climate change and earthquakes: is there a link?

15 May, 2015 - 16:31 -- John Burton

The recent earthquakes in Nepal have focused attention on natural disasters, but there has been little mention of a possible link between such disastrous events and climate change.

One of the most obvious and well documented impacts of climate change, is the retreat of alpine glaciers, and the melting of the polar icecaps. The retreat of glaciers in the European Alps, and the Himalayas is well known and clearly visible. I first visited the alps around Chamonix in the mid 1970s; since then some of the glaciers have melted away and are kilometre or more from where I saw them.

When a glacier melts, the weight of the ice being removed from the ground is huge. The land mass of Eastern England, for example, has been slowly rising ever since the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted. Removing the weight of ice in the Himalayas will have a similar effect. The Himalayas are still being uplifted by tectonic plate movements – they are where the Indian plate collides with the Eurasian plate – and are rising at a rate of about a centimetre a year.

This doesn’t sound much, but it’s still a metre a century, and in geological terms, in the past 10,000 years (a mere blip in geological terms) that is 100 metres. But reducing the weight of ice through climate change, will almost certainly be increasing the frequency of earthquakes along the zone of friction between the plates, as they collide and continue to uplift.

Consequently, the Nepalese earthquake should be seen in the context of both geological time, and climate change. This means that there are bound to be more earthquakes and these could be much more serious and more frequent. And these events have a global impact, so we can expect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to become more frequent worldwide as a result of movements and counter-movements in the earth’s crust. All of which leads me to conclude that an event on the scale of the volcanic eruption of Tambora (about which I have previously written) would have a devastating impact on the planet’s infrastructure.

Looking at earthquakes from an historical perspective, we are now  one and a half decades into the 21st century and the Nepalese quake is the first to approach eight on the Richter scale. This is nothing like as strong as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Cascadia quake of 1700, the Sumatran quakes of 1833 or 1860 or the numerous quakes in Chile. Many of these also caused major tsunamis: the 1833 Sumatra tsunami inundated much of southern part of the island. The likelihood of major devastation in western America is well known, but the impacts of tsunamis generated by Mediterranean or western Iberian quakes are less known. Even a smallish one, like the 1755 Boston earthquake, (less than 6.3 on the Richter scale), could result in as much as US$5 billion worth of damage and thousands of deaths.

Linking earthquakes to climate change is controversial, to say the least. But there is little doubt in my mind that changes in the earth’s crust, whether caused by volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, or from melting ice or rising sea levels, must all be interlinked in some way. There may be very direct connections, or there may be only tenuous, long term connections.

And what is absolutely certain in my own mind is that the anthropogenic changes in the world are the direct result of the fact that there are now too many humans for the planet to sustain without them causing irreversible changes. Ultimately these irreversible changes will cause – probably within a very short space of historical time (let alone geological time) – the demise of huge numbers of humans, and probably the end of the current ‘civilization’.

It would not be the first time that a natural disaster has crushed a civilisation. There is plenty of evidence that tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and disease have all led to collapse in the past. Our confidence of permanence and ‘immortality’ was probably shared by the ancient Egyptians, Minoans, Maya and many others not even recorded. 


Submitted by Rowena Baxter on

Thank you John, I enjoyed reading your blog. In general I agree, but it is so difficult to predict future climate change and its effects. I'm rather glad I won't be around to find out whether we are right. Those of us in the UK, in our 60s now, have been lucky to have avoided major conflict on our doorstep and catastrophic planetary events during our lifetimes, however, who knows what will happen in the next 20 years....

Submitted by John on

Thanks for the comment Rowena; I wouldn't be too sure about not being around; catastrophic events are a bit like Monty Python's Spanish inquisition -- you never expect them!

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