In the last video shot by famous Syrian influencer Tayouba, dubbed “the mother of the girls”, the 27-year-old housewife told her viewers about the “exceptionally good” weather on a Saturday morning just a fortnight ahead of the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey at dawn on 6 February.
Tayouba was unaware that this was the last sunlight she would ever see. Tragically, she passed away along with her six young daughters and husband under rubble when the building where she lived in Kahraman Mer’ish, a town in southeastern Turkey, collapsed in the earthquake, claiming the lives of more than 50,000 people and injuring thousands of others.
Tayouba’s videos, however, have lived on and even gone viral on social media after her tragic death. Could her mention of the exceptional warm sunlight of an otherwise typically snowy winter day in the region raise an important question? Could climate change have had a hand in causing the unexpected earthquake that hit the city just a few hours later?
The same question imposed itself when yet another earthquake measuring a magnitude of 6.8 struck eastern Tajikistan on 22 February, with its epicentre located near the Gorno-Badakhshan region that had earlier been hit by avalanches a week earlier. Could there be a link between the earthquake and the avalanches that hit the same region over two consecutive weeks?
As the tragedy in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria continues to unfold, scientists have been busy answering tough questions on how earthquakes suddenly strike and whether they can be forecast early enough to curb losses. Whereas the consensus had earlier been that earthquakes are too difficult to forecast, we have more recently been bombarded by geologists from different parts of the world warning of signs of earthquakes and tsunamis ready to hit in the near future, causing public anxiety.
Some geologists remain sceptical about whether such catastrophic events can be caused by climate change since what actually causes this most unpredictable of all natural disasters remains an issue of debate.
There has also been public anxiety over observations of exceptional ebb tides off the coast of Alexandria and other Mediterranean cities, which people think could also be the prelude to a tsunami. People have claimed to have spotted “laser-like” blue lights in the skies above Egypt in the aftermath of the second Turkish tremor, and Turkish residents of the earthquake-devastated areas have been reporting having heard strange noises coming from underground before and after the quake hit.
Such claims have all been found to be scientifically ungrounded, however, and are probably part of a global public panic as more tragedies unfold and as some geologists warn that perhaps the worst could be yet to come. Many people on social media have seen these tragedies as perhaps a sign of divine wrath and the nearing of Doom’s Day, while geologists are still trying to figure out what is going on with Mother Nature.
Since anxieties about the impacts of climate change gather together many of these concerns, the question of whether global warming is directly or indirectly linked to earthquakes has risen to the fore. The UN COP27 Climate Change Conference that took place in Egypt last November rang alarm bells for many that global warming is the culprit behind many of the Earth’s natural disasters and that if temperatures continue to rise at their current rate, our planet will suffer from yet more droughts, famines, floods, and tsunamis.
Environmentalists warn that the continuing rise in temperatures is also bound to cause the polar icecaps to melt, raising sea levels and inundating many islands and coastal cities that are only a few metres above sea level. This would change the map of the world before the end of the century, even if some geographers see it as perhaps overblown.
Now that the Earth’s crust is literally shaking beneath our feet, causing a trail of destruction in different parts of the world, as well as unprecedented casualties, some researchers are revisiting previously suggested theories that claim a link between climate change and seismic activities.
Although some scientists refute such claims on the grounds that global warming affects the atmosphere while earthquakes erupt in the Earth’s rocky crust, many studies suggest that although rising temperatures do not directly cause earthquakes, they can accelerate them and increase the frequency and risk of tremors, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.
A study published in the International Journal of Engineering Science Invention and authored by Kolkata-based geographer Sujib Kar notes that seismic activities of five or more on the Richter Scale increased in earthquake-prone areas from 2001 to 2015, the period marking the highest rise in global temperatures yet.
“The total number of earthquakes of five or more on the Richter Scale across the globe in 2001 was 157,” Kar told the website thirdpole.net. “This increased nearly 10 times in a decade and a half to 1,556 in 2015, with almost all the continents showing a rising trend.”
“The period was also the warmest, according to global data, with each year almost routinely breaking the maximum average temperature record set in the preceding year,” Kar added. After all, he said, “all the years between 2001 and 2015 fall within the 16 top warmest years, with 2015 being the warmest ever.”
The latest findings by the US Air and Space Administration (NASA), the global leader in space exploration, may perhaps provide an explanation for what has been going on in Tajikistan. The agency has shown links between large downpours of heavy rain and snow, on the one hand, and earthquakes on the other. Large downpours, according to NASA, “mess with fault lines… resulting in earthquakes so small that people can’t even feel them.”
“Still, though, they are still earthquakes,” NASA said. Whether those earthquakes could become more dramatic, as was the case in Syria and Turkey, is a bone of contention among geologists.
“We’re simply not in a position at this point to say that climate processes could trigger a large quake,” geophysicist Paul Lundgren who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told the website Greenmatters.com.
Some Egyptian geologists would go further and refute the idea of a link between an increasingly warming climate and earth tremors. “There is no link between global warming and seismic actions,” said Hatem Ouda, a professor at the National Institute for Astronomical Research in Cairo.
Ouda’s point is that an earthquake erupts in the Earth’s outermost layer, which is made of large sections of rock known as tectonic plates. These plates are stuck together like a giant puzzle forming the crust. The edges of the plates meet at faults, which are constantly moving, but remain stuck together due to friction. When there is too much stress at the edges of the plates, they slip along the fault, causing the ground to shake due to the release of waves of energy. This is what gives rise to an earthquake.
“But global warming occurs in the atmosphere. It can cause other natural disasters like floods, droughts, and rising sea levels, but not earthquakes,” Ouda insisted.
Geomorphologist Abdallah Allam, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Kafr Al-Sheikh University, would go further and suggest that the movement of the tectonic plates that causes earthquakes is what causes climate change and not the reverse.
He justifies his viewpoint through a scientific explanation of the gradual evolution of our mother planet over billions of years until it reached its current shape. The Earth, according to Allam, was originally a fiery rock before the movements of its crust’s tectonic plates and volcanism gradually split them into different solid blocks forming continents in the way we see today.
The edges of these broken blocks — the continents — are normally the weakest points in this system and are prone to earthquakes as a result of tectonic movements.
“Such tectonic movements and volcanism have led to the production of gases that have precipitated into the sky forming clouds and then falling in the form of downpours forming the Earth’s hydraulic landscape of oceans, rivers, and seas,” Allam told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Then there was an age of droughts that produced many of our current deserts, including the Western and Eastern deserts in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, when some of these rivers dried up.”
To cut a long story short, Allam insists that “if we look deep into the stages of the Earth’s evolution we will conclude that climate change is the result of the movements of the crust’s tectonic plates and not the reverse.”
Ouda and Allam are not the only ones investigating a possible link between climate change and earthquakes, as many foreign studies are looking at the question too.
Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes is one of the most revolutionary books in the field. Its author, Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at UCL in London, has been explaining his viewpoint to sceptics.
“The atmosphere is far from isolated, and it interacts with other elements of the so-called “Earth system”, such as the oceans, ice caps, and even the ground beneath our feet in complex and often unexpected ways capable of making our world more dangerous,” McGuire wrote in the UK newspaper The Guardian.
“We are pretty familiar with the idea that the oceans swell as a consequence of the plunging atmospheric pressure at the heart of powerful storms, building surges driven onshore by high winds that can be massively destructive,” McGuire said. “Similarly, it does not stretch the imagination to appreciate that a warmer atmosphere promotes greater melting of the polar ice caps, thereby raising sea levels and increasing the risk of coastal flooding.”
But what sounds more extraordinary is the fact that “the thin layer of gases that hosts the weather and fosters global warming really does interact with the solid Earth — the so-called geosphere — in such a way as to make climate change an even bigger threat.”
McGuire puts it this way, “the sleeping giant beneath our feet, the Earth, sometimes needs only a little nudge to awaken in the form of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or landslides, and the tiny extra disturbance can be produced by climatic alterations.”
“Many of these processes certainly do operate on small scales,” McGuire told the website OpenMind.com. However, he adds, “as a seismologist colleague of mine is fond of saying, if a fault is primed and ready to rupture, all that is needed is the pressure of a handshake to set it off.”
“If systems are critically poised, then the environmental changes associated with rapid and accelerating climate breakdown could easily do the job.”
UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMICS
These climatic changes primarily revolve around the melting of glaciers due to global warming, rainfall, and atmospheric pressures.
The melting of the ice caps is often blamed for putting enormous pressure on the Earth’s crust and is seen as a prime factor behind increased seismic activities, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Scientists who believe in this theory explain that if temperatures continue to rise at their current rate, more of the ice caps and the world’s glaciers are bound to melt, putting even more pressure on the crust.
“Glaciers and permanent ice sheets in the planet’s polar regions exert enormous pressure on the bedrock, causing it to warp downward,” journalist Javier Yanes wrote in a story entitled “Will Climate Change Also Trigger Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanic Eruptions?” published on OpenMind.com.
“As the ice melts and that weight is released from the Earth’s crust, the land responds with a rebound, like a slow, giant version of a trampoline. This rebound can have consequences for geologic faults and magma deposits.”
Scientists who support this view tend to build their theory on past seismic activity due to changes in ice levels, claiming to see evidence of this over past centuries in many areas of northern and central Europe from Scandinavia to Russia, as well as in North America.
Today, experts agree that mountainous regions like those in Alaska, the Himalayas, and the Alps are facing similarly increasing risks.
“In southern Alaska, some areas have lost a vertical km of ice, which is already being reflected in increased levels of seismicity,” McGuire said. He warned that seismic activities may even trigger a tsunami off Greenland and Antarctica, since these continents are surrounded by water and any seismicity underwater would result in a tsunami.
That tsunami, geologists warn, could be strong enough to reach the coasts of Australia, North America, and South America.
Allam, however, refutes such claims, saying that the volume of the ice caps that will melt due to global warming does not exceed 10 per cent since the rest is underwater.
“This 10 per cent of melting ice will cause a rise in sea levels, but that will soon evaporate due to the rise in temperature forming clouds, some of which will turn into rain and the rest will freeze in the outer atmosphere, rebuilding the ice caps that had melted earlier,” Allam told the Weekly.
Recent research has also found that heavy downpours that lead to severe flooding can also affect the geology of the Earth and that since precipitation patterns are affected by climate change, this could in turn affect the intensity and frequency of such geological phenomena, perhaps leading to more seismic activities.
Scientists at the University of Miami in the US have found this link demonstrated in Taiwan, where low pressure associated with typhoons was blamed for causing tiny movements in the Earth’s faults. They noted that large earthquakes tend to erupt in the aftermath of exceptionally wet hurricanes or typhoons, most notably the most devastating, as was the case in the pattern of earthquake activity in the Himalayas when the 2015 Nepal earthquake took close to 9,000 lives and where the threat of future devastating quakes is very high.
In this case, the previous huge volumes of rain would perhaps stand for the “handshake idea cited by McGuire or the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Yanes noted.
No one can tell for sure why earthquakes take place after torrential rains. But as Shimon Wdowinski of the Miami University team investigating the phenomenon told the Guardian, it could be that “the erosion of the land caused by torrential rains acts to reduce the weight on any fault below, allowing it to move more easily.”
Regardless of how the atmosphere affects the Earth, “there is plenty of evidence that tiny environmental changes can trigger major geological events that can be deadly and destructive,” McGuire said.
More and more earthquakes are striking in different parts of the world, and there is speculation that the shaking will not abate. Can geologists predict such earthquakes before more lives are lost?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The consensus is that geologists cannot predict an earthquake before it happens.
“Instead, geologists produce what are their best guesses in hazard maps where they calculate the probability of an earthquake within a timeframe of several years,” wrote journalist Richard Gray in an article entitled “Will we Ever be Able to Predict Earthquakes” published on the BBC website.
“While these can help with some degree of planning, such as improving building standards in the areas most at risk, it doesn’t provide the level of prediction needed to provide early warnings to the public to allow them to evacuate or take shelter.”
“Earthquakes are the Earth’s natural way of protecting itself against bursting by releasing its inner gases of lava and magma through faults, and therefore no one can tell for sure when those seismic and volcanic activities will erupt,” Allam said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly