Climate Change and Plate Tectonics

My awesome mom found the following article on Alternet and sent it to me, with the question “Plausible or wingnutty?” : Scientists Find Link Between Global Warming and Earthquakes

At this point, I know better than to accept at face value what an article claims that a scientific paper says, so I set out to find the paper – particularly since for once I have a chance of understanding at least some of the paper since it’s about geology! I had to comb through the RawStory article that the Alternet article links to in order to actually find the paper in question. Which is:

Giampiero Iaffaldano, Laurent Husson, Hans-Peter Bunge, Monsoon speeds up Indian plate motion, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 304, Issues 3-4, 15 April 2011, Pages 503-510, ISSN 0012-821X, DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2011.02.026.

The article is available on ScienceDirect, though you may not be able to read the whole thing for yourself if you don’t have a subscription to the service. You should be able to at least read the abstract, which should give you the gist of it.

So what does Alternet take out of this paper? “Climate change can affect plate tectonics, oh shit, that’s why we’ve got all the huge earthquakes OH MY GOD.”

I will point out that there’s one VERY salient quote from Giampiero Iaffaldano (the lead scientist) that’s in the RawStory article that Alternet leaves completely out:

Iaffaldano stressed that his study did not mean that global warming would translate to stronger earthquakes happening more often, with the relevant patterns developing over “the order of millions of years.”

“Of course earthquakes do occur at the boundaries between plates because of plate motions, but our work doesn’t imply at all that we will see an increase in these types of events,” he told AFP.

Emphasis added by me. This little omission really leaves me wondering about the motivations of the Alternet author.

As for the paper itself, what does it actually say, and is it interesting? The paper does make a reasonable case for linking climate change with an effect on plate motion and speed. However, the important part that also gets left out of the Alternet article is that this link is explored on a million year scale. It’s an examination of how the change in climate over the last 10 million years or so – the climate change in question being a strengthened Indian monsoon – has affected the erosion of the Himalayas, which ultimately lead to decreased resistance in the convergence between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Now, personally, I find this fascinating, since it links relatively “fast” surface processes (eg weathering and erosion) to much slower tectonic processes. I think that opens up a lot of very interesting research questions – Iaffaldano points out that he’s curious to see if there’s a climate signature to be found in other fairly recently uplifted areas.

But I think for general interest, it’s VERY important to note that when we’re talking a scale of millions of years – which is what plate tectonics operates on – the current climate change we are inflicting on the planet is NOTHING in terms of duration. It’s not even a blip. Now, if we keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere and manage to really fuck things up in the long, long, long, long term, maybe in ten million years future humans or aliens will be using simulations to wind the tectonic clock back and say, “DAMN, look at those plates move!” But this will have no measurable effect on our short little human lives.

It really bothers me that an interesting study is being misrepresented in this way. While I appreciate wanting to add some urgency to the issue of climate change – trust me, I do, BIG TIME – this is not the way to do it. It smells like a scare tactic, and it plays into the hands of the climate change deniers.

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