The Hot Zone

Climate does cause earthquakes, but at speed of geologic time

Posted by Alison Hawkes on April 18, 2011
Category : The Oceans

What does the earthquake in Japan have to do with climate change? Nothing, is the easiest response. Yet I’ve been hearing such leaps of association, tossed off like some conspiracy of nature against the human race.

But just when you get comfortable with your own answers to life’s questions, out of nowhere hurls some sticky complication. An article published recently in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters backs up the idea that earthquakes and climate change are interrelated.

I’ve come across some research before about pressure changes in glacial melt triggering earthquakes in the Arctic. But this new research out of The Australian National University takes place in India of all un-glaciated places.

India is a place of frequent monsoons that dump copious rainfall along the eastern Himalayas. The monsoons  erode away the land and reduce its elevation, thereby changing the gravitational force that underpins plate tectonics in the region.

Stormy, monsoon clouds appear over Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. Photo: Sunnyoraish on Wikipedia.

Changes in monsoon frequency and intensity can thereby impact the movement of the plates, the study says. The researchers found that a strengthening of monsoon activity over the past 10 million years has accelerated the movement of the Indian plate by about 20 percent.

They’re showing for the first time that plate movement doesn’t just influence climate by creating new mountains or sea trenches. Rather, climate change the motion and speed of plate patterns.

The research is of little consequence to individual earthquakes or monsoons, since the change in climate would take place at the speed of geologic time. That adds little evidence behind the notion that climate change is causing earthquakes, but does provide an interesting twist to the story of how physical processes like climate and earthquakes are interrelated.

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