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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

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Methane Monster’s Grumbling Goes Global: 570 Methane Plumes Discovered on Atlantic Ocean Sea Floor

Greenhouse gas concentrations spike — heating the atmosphere and the deep ocean after a period of glaciation during which vast stores of carbon accumulated. Massive volumes of this carbon lay dormant — trapped in frozen ground and in clathrates on the sea bed. As the ocean and airs warm, these carbon stores release causing a massive spike of additional greenhouse gasses to hit the atmosphere and setting off ever-more-rampant heating. The cycle continues until much of these carbon stores out-gas, pushing the Earth into a hothouse state.

Sound chillingly familiar?

What I’ve just described is the process that most scientists believe occurred during the worst mass extinction event in the geological past — the Permian Extinction. A hothouse event that killed 95% of life in the oceans and 70% of life on land. And what humans are now doing to the Earth’s airs and waters through CO2 and related greenhouse gas emissions may well be shockingly similar.

Large methane release over East Siberian Sea August 2014

(Substantial methane release from the East Siberian Sea surface during early August likely in the range of 0.5 to 1 megatons points toward both atmospheric methane overburden and likely carbon store instability and large scale out-gassing in the Arctic. Image credit: Sam Carana and NOAA.)

From the Arctic tundra to the Arctic Ocean sea bed to the Atlantic Ocean, we have growing evidence of methane and CO2 releases from carbon stores that may well be at the start of just such a large scale feedback. Time and time again, we see evidence of significant (but not yet catastrophic) emissions from Arctic methane stores (see image above). With each passing year, the methane overburden in the Arctic air grows. And we have had increasing evidence of a growing volume of releases from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf sea bed, to the methane emitting melt lakes proliferating over the thawing permafrost, to the chilling and terrifying methane blow holes discovered this year in Siberia.

As of 2011, many Arctic scientists believed that human-caused heating could set off methane and CO2 emissions from that region equivalent to between 10 and 35 percent or more of current human fossil fuel burning by the end of this century. The lower boundary of this range is with rapid reductions in human greenhouse gas emissions, the upper boundary is under business as usual. Such a 35 percent equivalent emission, happening year on year for centuries, would be more than enough to push Earth into a runaway hothouse scenario without any further human greenhouse gas releases. And it is this scenario, or the even more chilling worse case of very rapidly ramping Arctic methane outbursts, that we should be very concerned about.

Atlantic Methane Hydrate Destabilization off US East Coast

Unfortunately, the vast carbon store in the Arctic is not the only potential source of heating feedback carbon release. For around the world, upon and beneath the ocean sea bed, billions of tons of methane lay stored in clathrate structures. These stores are separate from the large carbon deposits in the Arctic. But they are no less dangerous.

In 2012, Nature issued a study that found a store of clathrates composing billions of tons of methane was now destabilizing off the US East Coast. The study predicted large-scale releases in the multi-gigaton range from the southern region of the East Coast methane clathrate store due both to changes in the Gulf Stream circulation and to warming bottom waters — both impacts set off by human-caused climate change. The study was uncertain how fast such a release could occur, but noted that the eventual release was likely due to wide-scale clathrate degradation associated with ocean bottom warming.

Methane Seep off US East Coast

(Methane Seep off US East Coast. Image source: Nature.)

This year, research vessels returned to the region and found 570 plumes of methane venting from destabilized clathrate stores there. This result was surprising due to the fact that only three methane seep sources had previously been identified. The plumes were discovered in 50 to 1,500 meters of water, with most of the seeps occurring at between 250 and 600 meters depth, along a zone stretching from Cape Hatteras to Georges Bank. The seeps ranged in age from recent to 100 or even 1000 or more years old. Overall, the prevalence of seeps was more widespread than expected.

“This is the first time anyone has systematically mapped an entire margin,” Christian Berndt, a marine geophysicist at GEOMAR in Kiel, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said in an interview to Science Magazine. “They found that there was much more methane coming out than was suspected beforehand.”

Currently, only a small amount of the methane being released from the sea bed off the US East Coast is likely hitting the atmosphere and is probably not contributing anywhere near the volume of known emission sources from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Most of the gas is just absorbed by the water column, increasing acidification in the region and contributing to anoxia. But the known clathrate store off the US East Coast is very significant and large scale releases could result in much more widespread anoxia, acidification, and provide a substantial atmospheric heating feedback to human-caused warming. Very large and catastrophic outbursts could also result in slope collapse and generate tsunamis along the US East Coast. A concern that researchers may also need to further investigate.

Overall, as much as 300 to 400 gigatons of methane could be at risk and even a fraction of this store hitting the atmosphere would cause serious and lasting harm.

Overall, it is estimated that at least 30,000 methane seeps like the ones recently discovered off the US East Coast may now be active with potentially 10,000 in the East Coast region now under investigation. The current study provides a good base line for further exploration of what may well be a rather significant problem going forward.

“It highlights a really key area where we can test some of the more radical hypotheses about climate change,” said John Kessler, a professor at the University of Rochester, in an interview with the New York Times. “How will those release rates accelerate as bottom temperature warms?”

The acceleration would indeed have to be substantial to add to the already significant and troubling Arctic methane and CO2 release. But the sea bed stores are vast and the rate of human warming is very rapid. So the global ocean clathrate store is something to keep under close watch and the discovery of yet one more source that is already emitting at faster than expected rates is not at all comforting.

Links:

Widespread Methane Leakage From Sea Floor on Northern US Atlantic Margin

From Glaciation to Hothouse — Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Recent Changes to the Gulf Stream Causing Widespread Hydrate Gas Destabilization

New Study Shows East Coast Hydrates Destabilizing

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

Sam Carana

NOAA

Scientists Discover Hundreds of Methane Leaks Bubbling Up From the Atlantic Sea Floor

Sea Level Rise Found to Cause Slope Collapse, Tsunamis, Methane Release

Radio Ecoshock Interview: Record Floods, ENSO, Methane Release, and Slope Collapse

ecoshockradio_header

Last week, I discussed the issues of recent record floods, record ocean temperatures despite the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, methane release, slope collapse and ocean stratification along with other environmental and ecological issues surrounding our ongoing climate change crisis with Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock. The program became available online late Tuesday and will be airing on various radio stations around the US this week. You can click on the image above to listen to my 30 minute interview or you can listen to the entire 60 minute program which also includes an interview with Oxford marine biologist Dr. Alex Rogers here.

The professionally produced program will air on 71 radio stations over the coming week and will be continuously available online at Radio Ecoshock. This is, perhaps, one of the best interviews I’ve conducted and Alex Smith is a fantastic host providing fantastically insightful questions and analysis. So, if you have the time, I wholeheartedly suggest you listen to the entire program.

Those familiar with my blog will probably be well acquainted with the topics discussed. In addition, Dr. Rogers provides an excellent analysis of his recently published State of the Oceans 2013 report which is available here. In it Dr. Rogers explores ongoing threats to the world ocean system resulting from human activity and carbon emissions to include ocean acidification, increasing instances of ocean anoxia (both in the deep ocean and near coastlines), as well as the ongoing impacts caused by over-fishing. Rogers also hints at the growing problem of ocean stratification which combines with a warming ocean system to greatly increase anoxia.

State of the Oceans

(Link to 2013 State of the Oceans report here)

Perhaps most alarming is his explanation that fish species such as marlin are already altering their migration patterns due to changes in ocean water oxygen content — an ominous sign that we are already moving to a more stratified ocean state.

For reference, the following blogs will be helpful to those listening:

August 2013: Hottest Ocean Temperatures on Record Defy ENSO, Spur Continental Deluges

Growth Shock and our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation, Adaptation or Harm

A Requiem for Flooded Cities: Russian Flood Disaster Worsens, Amur River to Hit 30 Feet

I Have A Confession to Make: We Are In Trouble

The Methane Monster Grows New Teeth: Sea Level Rise Found to Cause Methane Release, Tsunamis, Slope Collapse

A Song of Flood and Fire

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse, Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet: Heinrich Events, Superstorms, and Warming the Deep Ocean

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