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5 Feb 2013

Climate change: even the earth under our feet …


Today we have a guest post by Chris Bird, author of ‘Local Sustainable Homes’.  

We are depressingly familiar with the impact of climate change on weather and sea levels but how about the very earth under our feet, the hard bits that make up the crust of the planet and scientists call the lithosphere. Surely these won’t be affected by global warming? Actually they will and probably already are.  Global warming is likely to cause increased seismic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, landslides, tsunamis and other things that are not good for people. So how can this happen and where is the evidence?

The simple answer is that global warming reduces the weight of ice over land and increases the weight of water over the seabed. As the last Ice Age ended around 20,000 years ago around 52 million cubic kilometres of water were redistributed about the planet. Find yourself a calculator and spend a few minutes working that out in tonnes and you won’t be surprised to learn that this colossal weight has an effect on the movement of tectonic plates and the behaviour of magma under volcanoes. Geologists have found evidence that this caused major earthquakes in high latitudes previously covered by ice and a spectacular rise in volcanic activity.

A recent paper by Marion Jegen in the journal Geology looked at a million years of climate history as shown in the geology of Central and South America. Periods of glacial melting were followed by 5-10 fold increases in volcanic activity. On the plus side there was a lag of around 2,500 years between glacial melting and volcanic activity. However, it seems to be the speed rather than the total amount of melting that predicts how intensively eruptions increase and we are busy causing very rapid global warming!

There is lots more research published in this field and the link between climate change and potentially hazardous geological events in the past is pretty well established for everyone who doesn’t believe the world was made in seven days. But sea levels rose by 130 metres after the last ice age and we are currently already in a warm period so how much more change can we expect? What about now? Even the most dire predictions suggest only a 2m rise by the end of this century and surely this won’t precipitate geological responses?

Sorry, bad news again. It seems that the Earths crust is exquisitely sensitive to change. For example, El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific cause slight variations in sea levels that seem to trigger increased seismic activity in the East Pacific. Furthermore, the past 300 years show a seasonal correlation between volcanic activity and a range of environmental conditions. The Earth is not as thick-skinned as we are!


As we saw on Boxing Day in 2004 and in Japan in 2011, seismic events under sea can cause devastating tsunamis. I’ve just watched some YouTube footage to remind myself how shocking those images were – and the thought that future tsunamis could be man made is horrendous.

Tsunamis may also be caused by the collapse of undersea slopes as a result of the destabilisation of gas hydrate deposits in marine sediments. Gas hydrates are ice-like solids of water and gases such as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Their stability is dependent on pressure and temperature. As sea temperatures rise these solids can dissociate with the release of methane and the possible collapse of undersea slopes. We can only hope that increasing pressures as sea levels rise will counter the effect of increasing sea temperatures to avoid this potential double whammy of a tsunami and the release of methane.

Not all geological hazards associated with climate change stem from changes hidden in the earth’s crust. Climate change is already associated with more extreme weather and this can have disastrous geological consequences. In 1999 heavy rainfall lead to the collapse of a mountain slope in northern Venezuela. 30,000 people died. There are numerous other examples closer to home. In the European Alps, for example, floods leading to land movements killed 37 people. A few years later, in 2002, the collapse of part of a mountain on to the Kolka glacier in Russia caused an avalanche that travelled 24 km and reached speeds of around 300km/hour.  100 people died. The combination of melting glaciers and extreme rainfall are likely to make such events more common.


High altitude lakes held back by natural rock dams of glacial debris pose another hazard. As glaciers melt these lakes increase in size and threaten to sweep away the natural dams that contain them. There have already been instances of such collapses in the Himalayas with Nepal being particularly at risk. Tsho Rolpa Lake has grown six-fold since the 1950s and is fed by a glacier currently retreating at around 100m every year. A sudden dam collapse here would overwhelm 10,000 people.

Climate related geological events also have less direct impacts on human activity. Reduced ice thickness over volcanoes in Iceland could well lead (is leading?) to increased activity. The ash plume from Iceland’s erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 caused major disruption to air traffic in Europe and further melting of the Vatnajokull ice cap could make such events more common. We may look forward to air traffic disruption but there are other possible consequences. A six-month long Icelandic eruption in 1783 spread a toxic sulphurous haze over much of Europe with a significant death toll.


There is no clear and certain picture about how climate change will impact on the not so solid ground beneath our feet. In some areas glacial melting could reduce volcanic activity and rising sea levels could stabilise rather than destabilise has hydrates. But we mess with the world at our peril and, just as we are already seeing with the atmosphere, global warming is likely to bring more geological hazards than benefits. We have even more reasons to limit climate change and prepare for an uncertain future.

Chris Bird

This article is based on evidence presented by 33 scientists in ‘Climate Forcing of Geological Hazards’, Edited by Bill Maguire and Mark Maslin. Wiley-Blackwell 2013.

Categories: Climate Change, General

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


5 Feb 5:34pm

Thanks Chris. Depressing reading though. Stick to the positive message elements of Transition Culture for my vote.

These items do serve to remind us of the challenges we face, but somehow I feel we just depress those already working our socks off around the globe to increase wellbeing and resilience in the communities we live in.

I think we’ve reached saturation point in these stories and their effectiveness. The percentage of the population that are going to react to such bad tidings are already engaged. To get the next %age of our population, we need to concentrate on demonstrating the change we desire, leading by example, encouraging social norms to shift by demonstrating that low-carbon, low-impact is better than the status quo.

Getting our batch of T Free Press tonight. Hopefully that will be more encouraging and motivating for me to keep plugging on.

Tony R
5 Feb 6:08pm

In my family history, we had previously lived on hilltops, but of recent generations had moved toward lower locations. I guess its time to start back up the hill again..
The tide might go out again, but be sure that if it does, it will come back DOUBLE..
Cities built around harbours and rivers need a SERIOUS FLOOD PLAIN area .

5 Feb 6:24pm

Thanks for the comment Alan. In general I agree that the balance should favour positive messages – and 90% of what I write and do is positive. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the negatives completely. This consequence is climate change is less well known and how can we try and stop something or prepare for it if we don’t know about it. Positive messages? Yes. Sticking our heads in the sand? No.

5 Feb 6:29pm

agreed. I doubt many readers of TC have their heads in the sand :-) Keep posting.

Sue Olsson
6 Feb 7:40am

From a recent tweet from futerra @futerra
Seeing is believing! Great example of keeping climate change messages personal to your audience @grist

6 Feb 12:43pm

Thank you – this is really interesting and useful (I have my ‘devastated’ button turned off today) – because it explains the recent rash of ‘natural’ disasters which somehow felt like part of the same problem, but I couldn’t see how/why.

The balance between focusing on the positive and the negative is always tricky – I guess because it’s different for different people and even for each person, it’s different at different times…

This is new information (for me) and so it’s good to hear it – even if it gets thrown onto the big pile of ‘stuff I don’t want to think about, but know I need to know’!

I’d like to know how mainstream the science you’re drawing on is? Is this stuff likely to show up in the next IPCC report? As new information emerges, it often seems to spend a while in a gray zone – one which the majority of people would just think was weird – before it (often quite suddenly, it seems) becomes much more widely accepted.

6 Feb 2:14pm

Interesting comment Eva – I’ve felt the same way about earthquakes and volcanoes being part of the same picture so I was disturbed and pleased to get a review copy of a book saying precisely that.
The science is mainstream but still in early days for this field. Based on a conference in September 2009 where scientists from around Europe presented research, This was later published in Philosophical Transactions A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences and then updated for the book I mention in the blog.
The IPCC are usually way behind the science so who knows if it will get into the next report

Tony Buck
7 Feb 1:00am

I always wondered if large weather events like hurricanes could cause seismic disturbances, although the weather people I have asked about it always say no.
However, not long after hurricane Sandy, and I live in the Philadelphia, USA area, there were 3 minor earthquakes: Sandy was Oct 30, Ringwood, northern New Jersey Nov 5, Kentucky Nov 10 and Camden, southern New Jersey Nov 16.
Still wondering!

7 Feb 9:51am

I’ve not seen any evidence of hurricanes causing earthquakes but it could be that the climatic changes which result in hurricanes also lead to earthquakes. This is what the association between El Nina events and increased seismic activity in the Pacific suggests…but the links are tentative.
We should be careful not to see every earthquake or volcanic eruption as the result of anthropogenic climate change – that way lays paranoia!

8 Feb 10:17am

What? No climate deniers on this thread?
Hard to believe. They must be slipping.

Rob Hopkins
8 Feb 10:22am

No, they’re all on the more recent interview with Michael Mann!

Tony Buck
8 Feb 2:19pm

The reason deniers are on the Mann interview is because the paid cyber armies of the industries have put Mann’s name into their software and they find things like this to comment on. Once Chris B is deemed a problem, that name will also become part of the digital misinformation team of various companies. For more on this see here:

Kathy B.
9 Feb 3:26pm

I know our human race has done alot of damage to our beautiful earth and its environment. We see this in all aspects of nature from the bees to the frogs to the poor helpless creatures above land and below the sea. I cannot help but wonder though if this climate change is due to a natural occurence the earth is going through, such as shifting of our poles or indeed are we destroying our planet.

Barry Woods
13 Feb 12:01pm

Why ‘climate deniers’ offends… and is very counterproductive.. is that it is ‘used’ to label people.. I’ve been called a ‘climate denier’ and it is not comfortable to be labelled as en par with someone as ‘evil, mad, bad or as stupid’ as a holocaust denier, or as anti-science as a creationist, 911 denier, etc

It is often used as political rhetoric to shut down any debate about policy, not science, and is pure political activist rhetoric, in most uses.

the classic example is Bjorn Lomborg who does not question climate sceince, but the economic response for it, and he was one of the very first people put into a ‘denier – HAll of Shame’

this sort of rhetoric might well play well to the environmental tribe, but I think is utterly alienating to the public, as it sounds like (to the public) what it is … politics.

This theme does seem to have started on the left, and by people who should know better.

particularly Hari, Lynas and Monbiot
who would appear (note the dates) to started the whole ‘climate change denial’ as bad as ‘holocaust denial’ (or worse)

Hari 2005:
“The climate-change deniers are rapidly ending up with as much intellectual credibility as creationists and Flat Earthers. Indeed, given that 25,000 people died in Europe in the 2003 heatwave caused by anthropogenic climate change, given that the genocide unfolding in Darfur has been exacerbated by the stresses of climate change, given that Bangladesh may disappear beneath the rising seas in the next century, they are nudging close to having the moral credibility of Holocaust deniers. They are denying the reality of a force that – unless we change the way we live pretty fast – will kill millions.”

2006: monbiot “Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and as unacceptable as Holocaust denial.”

2006: Lynas “I wonder what sentences judges might hand down at future international criminal tribunals on those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths from starvation, famine and disease in decades ahead. I put this in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial – except that this time the Holocaust is yet to come, and we still have time to avoid it”.

2007: fed Ellen Goodman : “Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.”

then there are others saying ‘climate treason’, and others saying ‘Nuremburg trial’ for climate – and I’m sure very many other USA, examples could be found (in the main stream media (Hari, Independent, Monbiot – Guardian) very politicized and a huge deterrent to speak up at all.

2008 – Grist Climate Nuremburg (quoting monbiot)

2008: Hansen -Crime Against humanity:

2009: Krugman – Guilty of treason

20011- Chris Huhne – UK Minsiter Enrrgy & Climate Change– “Defying climate deal like appeasing Hitler-

These are all influential people, especially Hari, Lynas, Monbiot in the media and amongst environmentalists.

An example, by a climate scientist, who says she has now stopped using ‘deniers completely’ because it offends. as it is often used to say someone is as bad, mad or as stupid, as a holcaust denier, creationist, 911 denier, aids denier, or anyhing else, depending on the audience to label someone as beneath the pale, and not worth listening to. And when people, who know they are none of those things get treated in this manner, they respond (sadly angrily, in many cases)

Dr Tamsin Edwards (climate modeler)

“I am an example of a consensusist who has stopped using denier directly because of Barry, Bish and this forum.

Name calling is ever so counterproductive. Today I was defending you lot to (particle physics) friends, yesterday to climate/stats friends, saying that denier offends and there is a spectrum of opinions anyway.

Scientists usually end up saying denier because they only really hear about those denying CO2 is a GHG and that the earth is warming, and they don’t like skeptic (because they are themselves skeptical) and other terms haven’t stuck. Some soften it with “denialist”. They really don’t intend it to echo Holocaust denier I don’t think. They think of it more as equivalent to creationism.

But this is only because of an important reason…

Most. Scientists. Don’t. Know. You. Exist.

Really! They are not aware that a significant part of people trying to prod science for weak spots actually are fine with AGW but not sure of magnitude/timing/impacts/policy. When I explain this they say “oh, that sounds perfectably reasonable!”. After all we argue about the first two or three in conferences and the literature ourselves! They agree Mann analysis was wrong, and would agree on lots of other things like “All models are wrong” (“but some are useful” :) )

So give them a chance. Barry has won me over to you with respect, goodwill, and true listening. Please follow his example if you want to engage with climate scientists. Bish’s too.” – Dr Tamsim Edwards

14 Feb 4:44pm


Talking about offending, to me it seems impolite to cut ‘n’ paste a huge essay into a conversation instead of composing a succinct response.

As for the word “denier” being offensive, surely anyone who doesn’t agree with the consensus scientific view, even with “BUT…” or “EXCEPT…” or “AND…”, is de facto denying the validity of that consensus.

As for “very counterproductive” — for whom, and what are they trying to produce?