devastating earthquake in southern Morocco left thousands of dead and many more displaced on 8 September, with some villages in the area completely destroyed. Just days later, a seasonal storm wiped out one Libyan city and damaged others, leaving many thousands of people dead.
Earlier this year, an earthquake in northern Syria and southwestern Turkey killed thousands and caused huge amounts of destruction. Natural disasters seem to be increasing in both frequency and strength throughout the world, causing more and more loss of life and damage to property.
This year’s Monsoon season in the Asia-Pacific region has been heavier than usual, with rain adversely affecting crops. India had to ban the export of white rice in July, which led to global rice prices shooting up and adding to food price inflation.
Elsewhere, huge fires in North America and Europe this summer claimed the lives of many people and destroyed huge areas of agricultural crops.
If such storms and fires can be directly linked to climate change, could there be a link between the levels of pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere and events that are happening within the Earth itself? Could global warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions also somehow be triggering more violent earthquakes?
In simplified terms, the Earth is made up of a crust and a mantle. The latter is the solid bulk covered by the crust. Between the surface of the Earth and the mantle below it, the tectonic plates of the crust are the main triggers of earthquakes. Geologists have identified 14 major plates and many minor ones. The places where the plates meet are called faults.
The plates are always moving due to convection currents in the mantle that move them between two and 20 cm a year. Earthquakes occur along the edges of the plates when they run into, separate from, or slide past each other. Sliding plates bend as pressure builds up between them, and a sudden release of that pressure causes an earthquake.
Some scientists refute the suggestion that global warming is affecting the severity of earthquakes. Stephen MacAvoy, chair of the Department of Environmental Science at the American University in Washington, recently wrote that “earthquakes are not influenced by climate change, although plate tectonics, of which earthquakes are a manifestation, can impact climate over vast periods of geological time.”
However, an article on the World Economic Forum Website last month suggested that there are indeed signs that global warming impacts natural phenomena like earthquakes and volcanoes. Matthew Blackett of Coventry University in the UK wrote that “research suggests that our changing climate may not solely influence hazards at the Earth’s surface. Climate change – and specifically rising rainfall rates and glacial melting – could also exacerbate dangers beneath the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.”
Glaciers and heavy rain exert pressure on the Earth’s surface, lowering the frequency and strength of earthquakes. That pressure also helps to stabilise the Earth’s crust in general. As global warming causes serious droughts, and huge glaciers melt into water, raising ocean and sea levels (deglaciation), that pressure is being lost. Some scientists have suggested that “deglaciation and the associated loss of weight on the Earth’s surface has allowed a process called decompression melting to occur, where lower pressure facilitates melting in the mantle. Such melting has resulted in the formation of the liquid magma that fuels subsequent volcanic activity.”
Iceland is a case in point for this theory. Such decompression also increases the convection currents in the Earth’s mantle that move the tectonic plates, causing earthquakes at the faults.
It might not have been proved that climate change is linked to earthquakes, but the signs are there. As the saying goes, nature always finds a way. With the damage human activity is increasingly inflicting on the Earth’s atmosphere, nature may be reacting to keep its balance. The current wave of destructive activity might be nature’s reaction to human activity that is harming the ecological balance and other fundamentals of sustainable life on Earth.
It is not yet clear if the UN COP28 Climate Change Conference to be held in Dubai this year will discuss these possibilities. However, it will be taking place not long after the disastrous earthquake in Morocco and the horrendous flooding in Libya. The sting of death and destruction might be felt by the COP28 delegates, but whether they agree that climate change is partly responsible for it or not is another matter.
Meanwhile, urgent action is needed to tackle the real cause of nature’s rebellion: global warming. One of the main points discussed at the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh last year also needs to be tackled in Dubai: climate justice.
It is not acceptable that a few of the largest economies in the world, led by the US and China, produce more than three-quarters of polluting greenhouse gases, while underdeveloped countries like Libya, Morocco, and Syria are asked to pay the price of this in terms of the lives of their populations and the destruction of their limited belongings.
The world must not wait for science to prove more, though research is obviously very important and should continue, in order to take action now. Such action is imperative in order to mitigate future disasters. Complacency is not an option, and tackling climate change now is a must.
The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly