The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Priorities

Hi, everybody.

I’m feeling under the weather this week, which is why I didn’t post yesterday and why today’s post is going to be short. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of evidence of a lot of people working very hard towards a lot of goals–to get ready for the holidays, to rid this country of rapists in high places, to figure out whether the President of the United States colluded with the President of the Soviet Union. I just watched The Imitation Game, which is all about the struggle to break the Enigma cipher during World War II.

Many of these goals are entirely noble. I’m not trying to say otherwise. What I’m trying to say is that we know what working to make something happen looks like. What I see directed towards climate change is, for the most part, not that.

Why not? We know why some people aren’t really into the struggle–some folks have a vested interest in preventing meaningful climate action. The rest of us? Why are we collectively treating the major issue of our time like a sideline?

I know why I’m not as active as I want to be. What about you? And you? And you over there? And what can we do, not only to get over our own issues, but to support each other in doing the same?

Let’s figure this out.

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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Speak No Ill of the Dead

I’m re-posting this one from last year, with minor edits. I have not found any new species to add to the list, though unfortunately that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that belong on it. There is a leak in the world and life is running out of it…

Today was Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and sea ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands (the species requires bare soil to sprout, such as after a fire or logging, and there happened to be a lot of that in New England decades–hence, a lot of aging birches). Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause of this entire mass-extinction event is fossil fuel use.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. If you’re an American citizen, VOTING is a major and necessary step. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never exist again.

I did find a list of historical extinctions. You can look up the whole thing here. It is far from comprehensive, but even so it’s still too long for me to copy over all of it. I’ll just focus on those from the list that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978


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Looking at Costs

The news today is that the US Federal government spends a lot of money on disasters and, because of climate change, is set to spend a lot more.

The story has turned up both online and on the PBS NewsHour, and probably elsewhere; Republican Senator, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, of Washington, together asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into how much money is spent on disaster assistance programs, plus the economic losses through flood and crop insurance—and how these costs may increase in the future due to climate change.

The Associated Press headline is “GAO: Climate Change Already Costing Us Billions.”

Maybe.

Look, I’ll be the first one to say that the headline is plausible–disaster spending is increasing frighteningly fast, and climate change has already made several forms of natural disaster (heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires) worse in measurable ways, as I’ve explored elsewhere in this blog. But the article is a bit fuzzy on the details, as are the other articles on related subjects I’ve found, and it would be nice to get clear on these things.

First bit of fuzz?

From the AP article:

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.

The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”

Ok, $350 billion-plus over ten years, increasing over the next three decades to $35 billion per year. Except that one tenth of 350 billion is 35 billion so it seems that we’re averaging over 35 billion per year already.

Another bit of fuzz is that not all of those dollars can be laid at the feet of climate change—if climate change weren’t happening, there would still be extreme weather, just less of it. How much less? How much is climate change costing us? More than zero, obviously, but how much?

I have not found an answer, so far. I’m not sure if there is one. How do you sort out how much of a storm is due to climate change? It may be possible to use statistics to tease that out, but only for aspects of weather that can be quantified—and these aspects may or may not scale with how “bad” an event is, which in turn may or may not scale with how expensive it is. The cost of a storm (or a drought, or a fire) is not just a factor of the weather event itself, but also of which human concerns happen to be in the way, and how much money the relevant officials choose to spend. It’s worth noting that the impact of disaster would have increased in recent decades even if the climate were not changing, because every year there is more development in existence that can be damaged. Go back far enough, and there was no Federal spending on disasters, not because there were no disasters, but because the Federal government did not involve itself in paying for them.

How do you sort out all of those threads?

The GOA study was not designed to measure climate change—it was designed to estimate how Federal costs are likely to go up if current policy remains the same, given that the climate is changing. The idea is presumably to examine whether current policy needs to change and how. The use of the study’s results as a climate wake-up call is legitimate, but partial.

It’s also worth noting that the figure of $350 billion, is also partial. It doesn’t include the startlingly high costs of this year’s catastrophic hurricanes. It doesn’t include costs borne by states nor by private individuals. Nor does it include Federal expenditures related to climate change that don’t come under the heading of disaster assistance, such as wildlands firefighting or the efforts of coastal parks to adjust their infrastructures to rising sea levels—costs that are met through the ordinary annual budgets of programs that would exist even if climate change did not. But without climate change, those funds could have gone to something else. Those budgets could have been stretched farther.

Ultimately, despite all these complications and provisos, the question raised by Senator Collins and Senator Cantwell is a good one. If climate change ends up being the thing that radically alters, or even does in, the United States of America, the end won’t come in a made-for-Hollywood superstorm or a heatwave from the imagination of Dante, it will come through unravelling budgets. It will come through a reduction of prosperity, a loss of options, a constraint of national choices.

We will see the country stop being able to take care of its own, and whatever political repercussions flow from that uncomfortable truth.

 

 

 


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BOO!

This morning, I saw an article posted on Facebook in which a woman recounted having seen two oddly-behaving men while she was out shopping with her children and mother. The two men followed them and did not appear to be shopping. The women, quite understandably, grew concerned, suspecting that the men were trying to kidnap one or more of the kids. The family managed to evade the men and report them, and there the story ended. The kids are safe, but if anything more was ever learned about the men, it wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps understandably, the author of the piece assumes that her assessment of the situation was correct; her children had been targeted by child traffickers, but had managed to escape. She provides four “warning signs,” so that other parents would be better able to evade would-be kidnappers also. She pleads with parents to watch their kids closely at all times.

The two women acted correctly; while they didn’t have enough information to be certain the men were planning an abduction, the situation was clearly freaky enough to justify getting the kids out of there. And I have to admit that, were I in her shoes, I, like the author, would likely also assume the danger was certain. That there is no proof would feel like a trivial technicality.

But it’s not trivial.

When someone cries “danger!” it matters very much whether the danger they’re warning of is plausible. If you hear a hurricane warning for your area from the National Hurricane Center, you get very busy battening down the hatches. If your friendly neighborhood three-year-old tells you the dragons are coming, you play along for twenty seconds and then go back to whatever it is you were doing. So, when a woman says “there are creepy men lurking in department stores looking to snatch kids,” it really matters whether there actually are.

And this woman can’t tell us. Her understandable assumptions aside, she really doesn’t know.

Irrational fears can actually hurt people. In his book, The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner points out that, following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans chose to drive rather than fly, presumably out of fear of hijacked airplanes. But because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes, thousands of people died in car crashes who would have been fine had they flown.

Mr. Gardner’s contention is that people are very bad at estimating risk (for reasons he explains lucidly) and that we often put ourselves at greater risk as a result. He specifically addresses the issue of “stranger danger,” pointing out that while children are occasionally abducted by strangers, it is an extremely rare tragedy. Most kidnappers are family members, for one thing. And yet, the widespread conviction otherwise has a very strong bearing on how people of my generation raise their kids.

The flip side of the danger of irrational fear is the irrational lack of fear. Not fearing car accidents, even though they are a greater danger than terrorism. Not fearing depression and type 2 diabetes, even though I’m guessing a lot of kids kept “safely” indoors develop these life-threatening problems. Not fearing all the various things that really could mess up the lives of our kids and present much more certain risk than creepy guys lurking around furniture do.

Look, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I am an aunt. There is a four-year-old hand that sometimes holds my index finger. It is just about the sweetest thing, ever. I understand that the merest hint of a child-snatcher is insanely terrifying. I also understand what loving adults are prepared to do when their kids are in danger. And I can’t help but notice that’s not being done about climate change. Not on a massive scale. According to polls last year, 68% of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, and yet we have been electing consistently climate-denying governments anyway.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order intended to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. Although the undoing will be difficult and probably incomplete, and there are things that can be done to fight back, this is not good news. It is, in fact, clear and present danger for children.

I have written before of what climate change could look like over the lifetime of children born this decade. I have also explored climate change as a cause of death. There are hurricanes. There are fires and floods, wars and famines. Already, more people die from heat waves than from all other natural disasters combined.

Unaddressed climate change over the next century means more kids dying.

If climate change falls under the heading of irrational absence of fear, if it lacks the necessary emotional oomph to inspire emergency action, let me offer a more compelling visual. If climate science doesn’t do it for you, imagine that every climate-denier politician and business leader is a child-snatcher lurking around the corner of the next place your family has to be.

Meet me in Washington for the climate march and the march for science next month. And start organizing for pro-climate legislatures, both state and federal, NOW.


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A Few Things Not to Worry About

Recently, the Internet has erupted with tales of increased volcanism and more extreme earthquakes. Depending on the writer’s point of view, this geologic bent towards catastrophe appears as either a certain sign of the Biblical End of the World, or as yet another deadly permutation of climate change. We’ll leave the Biblical debate for others, but can anthropogenic climate change actually cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?

In a word, yes–but it’s not anything we need to worry about.

How frequent are disasters?

First of all, contrary to popular claim, there is not an increase in geological activity right now. At least, not a significant increase–any event that occurs randomly through time is going to have some clustering, the same way when you flip a coin many times in a row you’ll get a few consecutive heads or a few consecutive tails here and there. It doesn’t mean anything. Statisticians can calculate what these random clusters should look like and how to tell when something more than random variation (something that’s “statistically significant”) is going on. And right now, with regard to geology, it isn’t.

Or, at least it isn’t with earthquakes. We are in a bit of an earthquake cluster these days (2014 had about double the recent annual average of quakes), but a team of scientists analyzed the data and found nothing that differs from chance. They were hoping for more–they suspect that large earthquakes can trigger each other across the globe and they were looking for evidence to support their claim. They didn’t find it. Tough break. As for volcanism, I found assertions that there is no increase, but no description of any studies on the subject. That could mean that there aren’t any, or it could mean the search engines are being distracted right now by a lot of gorgeous color photographs of disaster. But there are plenty of reasons why we could be hearing about a lot of volcanic eruptions even if nothing unusual is happening:

  • There are more people than ever before, so the chance of somebody being nearby (with a video camera!) when a volcano erupts is higher than ever.
  • We have better data collection than ever before, so the chance of scientists noticing the most remote eruptions is higher.
  • A lot of people evidently expect to see evidence of the end of the world these days, and most of us see what we expect.
  • Social media exists, meaning that rumors can fly across the world very fast (OMG!)

All these principles apply to earthquakes as well, so the fact that we are in an earthquake cluster is probably irrelevant to public perception.

Ok, but could climate change influence geology?

One of the drivers of all this geologic attention is the new book, Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes, by Bill McGuire. The book itself is evidently fairly measured, though its marketing is histrionic to the point of evoking a Hollywood big-budget disaster movie. But marketing aside, there are links between climate and rock.

The most obvious of these links involves isostatic rebound, or earth movements in response to melting glaciers. Glaciers are very heavy, heavy enough to depress the land they lay upon by many hundreds of feet. There is a particularly dramatic example of this principle on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, where a short side trail brings the visitor to a shallow cave on the side of a mountain. What created the cave? It turns out the ocean did–even though the actual ocean depth was somewhat less than it is now. When New England was under a glacier, the weight of the ice pressed it down and then the ice melted faster than the land could rise. The sea, swollen from all that glacial meltwater, rushed inland, drowning the coastal plain and even filling the Champlain Valley with sea water–and that high sea, breaking against the resistant granite of Mount Desert Island (at the time, Islands, plural), hollowed out a cave–something like a larger version of today’s Thunder Hole, for those familiar with the area. In time, the land rebounded and lifted that sea cave up hundreds of feet above the water, where it is today.

All that rebounding causes earthquakes. Try leaning your weight on the hood of a car and then letting go suddenly–you’ll hear a noise just as your weight comes off the car, when the temporary dent you made fixes itself. That noise is a vibration, a car-quake, if you will. The earth does exactly the same thing, it just takes a lot longer.

And I mean a lot longer. In fact, New England is still rebounding after ten thousand years ice-free.

And the rebound must also have taken a very long time to get started, because the sea had time to carve out that cave–in granite, an almost unimaginably hard and wear-resistant rock. Under some circumstances, it can literally take and keep a smooth polish for thousands of years. I’ve actually seen it, bedrock surfaces still as smooth as a counter-top, just as the glacier left them. How long did it take the waves to chew away that sea cave before the land lifted up?

So, when Dr. McGuire claims that melting glaciers in Greenland and Alaska could cause earthquakes, he is almost certainly correct–but that doesn’t mean we should get ready for a summer blockbuster come to life. Now, the temperature is rising now much faster than it did at the end of the last ice age, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something horrible getting triggered by that insane speed, but we should really focus on the disaster that is actually happening right now instead of worrying about that.

xkcd 748

Except from XKCD 748: Worst-Case Scenario. https://xkcd.com/748/

 

There are also hints that yes, climate influences plate tectonics (which in turn involves earthquakes) and volcanism. Tsunamis follow from earthquakes and volcanism, so they, too are implicated. But again, the connections between these phenomena and anthropogenic climate change are tenuous and probably won’t make any difference any time soon.

Climate changes of the past definitely have influenced geologic processes, besides the isostatic rebound-related earthquakes I already described. Faster erosion from stronger monsoon rains has lightened the Himalayas enough to give the Indian plate a counterclockwise spin (over millions of years).  And massive ice-melt events have been followed by dramatic increases in volcanism, possibly because the loss of ice-weight from the continents, combined with increased water-weight over the ocean basins, changes stress patterns in the Earth’s crust, triggering some volcanoes to erupt. Although speed of change is definitely part of the picture, and we are looking at some incredibly fast changes right now, there is a reason why “geologic” is a synonym for “slow.” At this time, it looks like we can expect a lag of about 2,500 years before volcanoes respond to climate change.

So, where does all this leave us?

I am trained as a scientist, so accuracy is important to me. I find it irritating in the extreme that some writers are evidently making it sound as though something that may happen over the next several thousand years is an imminent catastrophe. Also, I care about general science literacy and I do what I can to further it. But in pointing out that geologic change is very slow I do not mean to say it is unimportant. If what we’re doing now means that our descendents 2,500 years from now have to cope with a lot more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, then that is enough reason to stop and do something less damaging. After all, consider that 2,500 years ago, Rome became a republic. What humans do matters across long time spans.

Finally, as the cartoon above suggests, we hardly need to invoke earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis to argue against changing the climate–we already have flood, fire, and famine to contend with, quite literally.

Isn’t that enough of a reason?