Yes, Climate Change May Cause More Tsunamis. No, That's Not Alarmism


Photo Credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development via Flickr/CC BY

I know headlines like that might just make most folks roll their eyes at this point -- I mean, what doesn't climate change cause these days, am I right? And I realize that people are skeptical of news-cycle tie-ins, like this very story appears to be. But just because it's sort of depressing to keep tabs on all of the myriad impacts of ol' climate change occurring the world over, doesn't mean we should be glossing over facts like this: Some geologists believe that global warming may already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. After all, screwing with the world's ornery climate system to the extent which we have is bound to have far-reaching effects -- effects like, it's been suggested, huge amounts of melting ice causing the earth's crust to "bounce" up, potentially triggering earthquakes. If you ask me, now is a perfectly reasonable time to be analyzing such possible causal relationships, like the one between climate change and earthquakes (which set off tsunamis). You are, after all, perhaps turning to a green site like TreeHugger to examine the environmental implications of various world events. But some insist this reeks of opportunism (especially those amongst the anti-climate crowd) -- and therefore should be immediately written off as sensationalism.

But there are perfectly appropriate ways to treat the story. For instance, Grist's Christopher Mims has a good piece pointing out scientists' concerns that increased carbon emissions are leading to more earthquakes (though the headline's pushing it). Here's a snippet:

In a little-heeded warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic 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.

Melting ice masses change the pressures on the underlying earth, which can lead to earthquakes and tsunamis, but that's just the beginning. Rising seas also change the balance of mass across earth's surface, putting new strain on old earthquake faults, and may have been partly to blame for the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, according to experts from the China Meteorological Administration.

It's interesting stuff, and a little frightening. But it's not sensationalism. What does, ironically, veer more towards sensationalism, are the attempts by opponents of climate action to lambast such discussions as opportunistic, to try to shut down the dialogue. For instance, the right-wing blog the Daily Caller has a very poorly reported article that attempts to poke fun of Twitter users who've tweeted links between climate and earthquakes. "Twitter blames earthquakes on global warming," the headline mocks. The author then gathers some tweets that make the whole idea sound stupid, and contacts an "expert" who confirms her suspicions:

"Global warming alarmists will exploit any natural disaster to promote their anti-fossil fuel agenda," Tom Borelli of the Free Enterprise Project told The Daily Caller, adding that the climate change reaction is a result of the "global warming spin machine. First it's global warming, then it's climate change, now it's probably tectonic instability - no doubt all caused by man," he said."

Case closed -- Lefty global warming alarmists are nincompoops! This is, of course, entirely unfair. Is there a definitive link between climate change and more earthquakes? No, but there's some compelling evidence that there could be a relationship between the two. Preemptively trying to shut down the dialogue by shouting at the curious is the truly sensationalist move here.

So here is some of the best footage of the tragedy -- a tragedy that could have been much, much worse, were it not for strict laws and building codes -- unfolding in Japan.

Our thoughts go out to the victims, and may we use this opportunity to examine the science behind the events that unfolded, and have a rational dialogue about what it may mean for the future.

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