Climate Change’s ‘Waking Giant’ to Set off Rash of Volcanic Eruptions, Tsunamis, Earthquakes?

Calbuco Volcano 2

(Last week’s Calbuco eruption in Chile spews massive cloud of ash and sets off a fireworks display of volcanic lightning. Image source: IFLScience.)

If you look at the geological record of the end of the last ice age, there’s something that crops up that’s more than a little bit disturbing. The approximate 10,000 year period in which 4 degrees Celsius of warming took place was also punctuated by a rash of intense volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis.

It was a time of extraordinary geophysical changes that not only saw the, sometimes catastrophic, melting of massive ice sheets and extreme rises in sea level — it also saw severe geological upheaval. In one region alone — Iceland — instances of volcanic eruption increased 30-50 fold during a period starting about 12,000 years ago. Overall, global spikes in volcanism began near the start of major melt events at around 18,000 years ago and continued on through the Iceland spike at the 12,000 year time-frame, finally tapering off around 7,000 years ago. In the 12,000 to 7,000 year before present period, global volcanic activity was between 2 and 6 times today’s frequency.

Eruption Spikes at Two Volcanoes in Iceland

(A 2010 study found large spikes in volcanic activity at a number of Iceland volcanoes at the end of the last ice age. Image source: How Will Melting of Ice Affect Volcanic Hazards in the 21st Century?)

Geologically active regions around the world and especially in close proximity to melting ice and rising seas saw much greater volcanic eruption, earthquake and tsunami frequency. In particular, California, Europe, and Iceland saw intense volcanic activity spikes. A set of past events pointing toward 21rst Century risks explored in the book: Waking the Giant — How Climate Change Triggers Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tsunamis.

A leading theory, presented by Dr. Bill McGuire, Hugh Tuffin, J. Maclennan, Peter Huybers and many others is that changes in stress to the Earth’s crust caused by the loss of billions of tons of mass by ice sheets and the displacement of those billions of tons into the world’s ocean system spurred previously stable magma systems into a chaotic displacement. In addition, direct melting of glaciers on slope systems, rising seas and even changes in flood frequency at individual volcanoes, faults and zones of steep topography can result in heightened rates of eruption, earthquakes and instances of slope collapse.

This evidence is causing scientists to investigate feedbacks between warming and potential increases in volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis. A set of events that may also risk the destabilization of undersea methane hydrate stores through the slope collapse and enhanced magma heating mechanisms as well.

Current Events, Raging Pace of Human Warming Bring old Concerns to Light

Though this line of research isn’t new — with modern studies stretching back to the 1950s and with end ice age upheaval research extending for nearly two centuries — recent events have served to underline old concerns. In 2013, the massive eruptions of Iceland’s volcanoes and related disruption of European air travel brought voices like those of Dr. Bill McGuire again to the fore. And, more recently, the massive Tibetan earthquake of this past weekend, resulting in the loss of 4,000 lives, has called into question current human climate change’s role in geological upheaval events.

Nepal Earthquake Dust Flies

(Dust flies through the air during the initial moments of last weekend’s catastrophic Tibet Earthquake. Image source: RT News.)

A report today out in Newsweek notes:

Evidence from the end of the last Ice Age has already shown that the planet’s uneasy web of seismic faults – cracks in the crust like the one that runs along the Himalayas – are very sensitive to the small pressure changes brought by change in the climate. And a sensitive volcano or seismic faultline is a very dangerous one.

Though the Tibetan earthquake was going to happen at some time, it is possible that changes in ice loading on Himalayan glaciers, changes in water volume outflows in the annual Asian monsoon, and sea level rise adding pressure to the geological plates below coastlines — especially in low-lying Bangladesh — had an impact. Such stresses can increase magma chamber production or trigger fault lines to release.

McGuire notes in Newsweek:

Climate change may play a critical role in triggering certain faults in certain places where they could kill a hell of a lot of people. These stress or strain variations – just the pressure of a handshake in geological terms – are perfectly capable of triggering a quake if that fault is ready to go (emphasis added).

One example of where relatively small changes to geological stress can have a big impact on volcanic activity is the Pavlov volcano in Alaska. As McGuire describes, this volcano only erupts during Autumn and Winter. At that time storms ride up into a nearby ocean zone, pushing an average 10cm or 15cm rise in sea level. The added weight of the water is enough to torque the crust and push magma out. Now imagine the kind of extra volcanic activity that could result from 1, 6, or 250 feet of global sea level rise under the raging rate of human-caused warming and you begin to understand the concern.

So the question that many geologists are asking is this: will the greatly exaggerated spike of human warming and related extreme pace of glacial melt, sea level rise, and rainfall changes also result in a greatly exaggerated spike in volcanism, earthquakes, and tsunami events?

Fault lines around the world will be under increased and ever-changing stress. Volcanoes around the world will see the same. The great Ring of Fire is in an ocean-spanning zone. Many, many volcanic, fault and slope systems encompassed in its arc will feel the added weight of sea level rise caused by human warming. In addition, as much or more than the 4 degrees Celsius worth of warming achieved at the end of the last ice age could be seen by the end of this Century.

It’s that kind of very rapid pace of change that has geologists worried with more than a handful thinking that the catastrophic geophysical changes may have already started.

Links:

More Fatal Earthquakes to Come Warn Climate Change Scientists

Could Changing Climates Set off Volcanoes and Quakes?

Waking the Giant: How Climate Change Triggers Earthquakes Tsunamis and Volcanoes

How Will Melting Ice Affect Volcanic Hazards in the 21st Century?

Feedback Between Deglaciation, Volcanism and Atmospheric CO2

The Link Between Volcanism and Deglaciation in Iceland

Avalanche of Dust

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found

Yamal Hole

(One of three massive holes found in Siberia. The prominent theory for the holes’ formation is a catastrophic destabilization of sub-surface methane under thawing tundra. Image source: The Moscow Times.)

Add salt, sand, and thawing methane pockets buried beneath scores of feet of warming permafrost together and what do you get? Massive explosions that rip 200-300 foot deep and 13-98 foot wide holes in the Siberian earth.

The name for the place where this strange event first happened, in Russian, is Yamal, which roughly translates to mean ‘the end of the Earth.’ Now, three holes of similar structure have appeared over a 700 mile wide expanse of Siberian tundra. The most likely culprit? Catastrophic destabilization of Arctic methane stores due to human-caused warming.

A Tale of Dragon’s Breath: How the Yamal Event Likely Unfolded

About 10,000 years ago, as the great glaciers of the last ice age gave up their waters in immense surges and outbursts into the world ocean, a broad section of Siberian tundra was temporarily submerged by rising seas. But with the loss of the great glaciers, pressures upon the crust in these zones subsided and, slowly, the newly flooded tundra rose, again liberating itself, over thousands of years of uplift, from the waters.

The land remained frozen throughout this time, covered in a layer of ice — solid permafrost hundreds of feet deep. But the oceanic flood left its mark. Salt water and sand found its way into cracks in the icy soil, depositing in pockets throughout the frozen region’s earth.

And there this chemical brew remained, waiting to be deep-frozen and sequestered as the glaciers of a new age of ice advanced over the Earth.

Arctic Warming Trend 1960 to 1990

(Arctic warming trend from 1960 to 1990. Image source: NOAA.)

But this event, foretold and anticipated in the bones of Earth, did not come to pass. Instead, human beings began dumping billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. They dug up mountains of ancient carbon and burned it. And now those mountains of carbon lived in the air, thickening it, trapping heat.

For Siberia, this meant rising temperatures. At first, the increase was slow. Perhaps a tenth of a degree per decade. But by the time the 20th Century was closing and the 21st Century emerged, the pace of warming was greater than at any time even the Earth could remember — an increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius or more every ten years.

Now, the glaciers will probably not return for hundreds of thousands of years, if ever. And now, the brew that was waiting to be buried is instead thawing and mixing. A deep, heat-based cracking of the frozen soil that flash-bakes an alchemical mixture deposited over the ages. The result: dragon’s breath erupting from the very soil.

Explosive Eruptions From Smoking Earth

One Taz District local described the day the crater formed–

The earth was first observed to smoke. This continued for some time and then a bright flash followed by a loud bang exploded above the tundra. After the mists and smoke cleared, a large hole surrounded by mounds of ejected soil was visible. The hole tunneled like a cone more than 200 feet down. Its walls were frozen permafrost.

Siberian Craters Map

(Broad expanse of Siberia containing three massive holes, indications of explosive eruptions in the permafrost set off by thawing methane mixed with salt, water and sand. The holes are all in the range of 200-300 feet deep. Deep enough to contact subsoil methane pockets or, in some cases, frozen clathrate. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

A single event of this kind might be easy to overlook as an aberration. A freak case that might well be attributed to unique conditions. But over the past two weeks not one, not two, but three large holes, all retaining the same features, have appeared within the same region of Yamal, Russia.

A single event may well be easily marked off as a strange occurrence, but three look more like the start of a trend.

Weather Underground notes:

The holes may foreshadow bigger problems for our planet in the near future, scientists worry. Permafrost around the Arctic contains methane and carbon dioxide, and both could be dangerous to our environment if released, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As long as the permafrost remains frozen, the report adds, this isn’t a concern, but climate models have painted a grim future for rising temperatures in the Arctic.

And with temperatures in the Arctic, and especially over Siberia, rising so fast, the permafrost is not remaining frozen. It is instead thawing. And together with this thaw comes a growing release of carbon stored there over the 2-3 million year period since the ice ages began their long reign. It is a release we can expect to continue together with human-caused warming. One that is critical to abate as much as possible, if we are to have much hope for a climate favorable for human beings and the continuing diversity of life on this world. How rapidly and violently the Arctic responds to our insults depends on how hard we push it. And right now, through an amazing human carbon emission, we are now pushing the Arctic very hard.

Jason Box, a prominent Arctic researcher and head of the Dark Snow Project, noted Sunday in his blog, Meltfactor:

What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.

If the warming trends continue and fossil fuel burning does not abate, these holes may be only minor explosive outbursts compared to what may follow. In any case, given current trends, it appears entirely possible that more and more of these strange holes will be appearing throughout the Arctic. An ugly sign of the danger inherent to our time.

Links:

Another Siberian Hole Discovered

Not So Mysterious Hole Found in Siberia

Two New Holes Appear in Siberia

Is the Climate Dragon Awakening?

Siberian Tundra Holes are a Mystery to Me

Is this the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun?

It’s All About Frozen Ground

Arctic Climate: A Perspective For Modeling

 

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