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Climate change will shake the Earth

February 27, 2012

guardian

As the Earth's crust buckles, volcanic activity will increase.

As the Earth’s crust buckles, volcanic activity will increase. Photograph: Corbis

The idea that a changing climate can persuade the ground to shake, volcanoes to rumble and tsunamis to crash on to unsuspecting coastlines seems, at first, to be bordering on the insane. How can what happens in the thin envelope of gas that shrouds and protects our world possibly influence the potentially Earth-shattering processes that operate deep beneath the surface? The fact that it does reflects a failure of our imagination and a limited understanding of the manner in which the different physical components of our planet – the atmosphere, the oceans, and the solid Earth, or geosphere – intertwine and interact.

If we think about climate change at all, most of us do so in a very simplistic way: so, the weather might get a bit warmer; floods and droughts may become more of a problem and sea levels will slowly creep upwards. Evidence reveals, however, that our planet is an almost unimaginably complicated beast, which reacts to a dramatically changing climate in all manner of different ways; a few – like the aforementioned – straightforward and predictable; some surprising and others downright implausible. Into the latter category fall the manifold responses of the geosphere.

The world we inhabit has an outer rind that is extraordinarily sensitive to change. While the Earth’s crust may seem safe and secure, the geological calamities that happen with alarming regularity confirm that this is not the case. Here in the UK, we only have to go back a couple years to April 2010, when the word on everyone’s lips was Eyjafjallajökull – the ice-covered Icelandic volcano that brought UK and European air traffic to a grinding halt. Less than a year ago, our planet’s ability to shock and awe headed the news once again as the east coast of Japan was bludgeoned by a cataclysmic combination of megaquake and tsunami, resulting – at a quarter of a trillion dollars or so – in the biggest natural-catastrophe bill ever.

In the light of such events, it somehow seems appropriate to imagine the Earth beneath our feet as a slumbering giant that tosses and turns periodically in response to various pokes and prods. Mostly, these are supplied by the stresses and strains associated with the eternal dance of a dozen or so rocky tectonic plates across the face of our world; a sedate waltz that proceeds at about the speed that fingernails grow. Changes in the environment too, however, have a key role to play in waking the giant, as growing numbers of geological studies targeting our post-ice age world have disclosed. Full article here

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