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Climate change and its effect (or lack thereof) on earthquakes

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

With the death toll of the Turkey-Syria earthquake passing 40,000 just this morning, earthquakes, and natural disasters in general, are on all of our minds. But how do earthquakes even happen, and what role does climate change play in their formation?

In simple terms, an earthquake occurs when underground rock breaks and there is rapid motion along the area of breakage (called a fault). This release of energy leads to seismic waves that make the ground shake. The movement along the faults is generally due to the long-term build-up of tension and stress along the area. During the earthquake, the plates of rock move against each other until they get stuck again, which is when the earthquake ends.

However, it isn’t always this simple; typically, earthquakes follow a bell curve. They begin with foreshocks, which are smaller and weaker than full-fledged quakes. These are less discussed because they sometimes go unnoticed or don’t even occur. Following the foreshocks comes the mainshock—the main and most powerful earthquake. After that, there are aftershocks that are less catastrophic but still have the potential to be devastating. In Turkey and Syria, rescuers are feeling the effects of these aftershocks as buildings continue to crumble around them while they try to extricate victims trapped under the rubble.

Climate change’s role in earthquakes is a topic that scientists have been discussing for decades. Though a definite conclusion has not been made, NASA geophysicist Paul Lundgren says that the greatest climate variable that could add to stress loads around faults (therefore causing an earthquake) is surface water in the form of rain and snow. Lundgren says that several studies have supported such correlations, but they were seen in microseismicity, which refers to small earthquakes that humans can not even feel. So despite scientists finding correlations between surface water levels and microseismicity, it is difficult to do the same with larger earthquakes.

NASA researcher Donald Argus also notes the effect of droughts on earthquakes. Since droughts can change the size of mountains due to the loss of water, this could result in a change of pressure on the faults and cause earthquakes. Different studies also indicate that when humans extract groundwater during droughts the weight of the planet’s crust is altered, thus impacting stress and leading to an earthquake.

However, it is important to note that all of this is still just a theory. The sporadic and erratic nature of earthquakes makes it difficult to make reliable conclusions on the impact climate change has on their occurrence. What we do know is that our Earth’s system is incredibly complex and interconnected. Though we are not yet sure of the exact influence climate change has on earthquakes, it is safe to say that they are affected by the overall condition of the planet. That is why it is vital to continue to consider our impact on the environment, especially as we witness the tragedy in Turkey and Syria where thousands of lives were lost.

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