On the coastal edges, we have learned to fear the water’s fury when it is whipped by storms into froth and frenzy, surging over beaches and roadways, through cars and houses, knocking down bridges and businesses. Humans are slow to accept that our own actions have made these storms hotter and more furious. We are learning (those of us who have not closed our minds against science and fact) the possible consequences of the last hundred years’ profligate spending of resources.
But we thought that only water was engaged in this battle, with results limited to storms, and sea level rise, and scarcity. Now we learn that the earth can turn against us, too.
As climate change accelerates, the entire planet is getting involved. As more water sluices from the glacial shelf and buries the deep ocean plates under greater pressure, this pressure must have relief. The weight of the water causes the earth’s crust to bend and deform; at the continental margins and marine islands, this pressure squeezes the magma that is present, causing violent and explosive releases. At the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago, sea levels jumped to where they are today, and caused a 300% increase in volcanic activity in the Mediterranean. (Bill McGuire, “The Earth Fights Back, in the Guardian, 7 August 2007.)
And it is not just volcanoes. Earthquakes may also be triggered by warming trends.
One cubic meter of ice weighs nearly 2,000 lbs, and when it is removed from areas such as Greenland through melting, the rocks are no longer suppressed by the weight, resulting in their ability to shift position and rebound more easily. “Greenland quakes have risen from 6 to 15 a year between 1993 and 2002, to 30 in 2003, 23 in 2004 and 32 in the first 10 months of 2005, closely matching the rise in Greenland’s temperatures over the same period.” (Goran Eckstrom) Earthquakes along coastal shores, or from subduction along underwater slopes such as occurred during the series of Sumatran-Andaman earthquakes in 2004, cause tsunamis that travel for thousands of miles, spreading destruction in their wake.
In the face of drought, the earth is changing. Texas is experiencing the worst drought in half a century. Without rain for over a month in 100 degree temperatures, the earth is shrinking, causing subsidence and diminishing pressure against underground pipes, resulting in water pipes breaking and further exacerbating the drought. “One city outside Dallas, Kemp, already experienced a dress rehearsal this month when every faucet was shut off for two days to fix pipes bursting in the shifting and hardening soil.” (“Down to the last drop,” Washington Post, 18 August 2011.)
As the resources of clean water and safe refuge shrink, humans must acknowledge the reckoning. The Earth is responding, not as a series of discrete and separate incidents, but as a unified and enmeshed system. Can the appropriate human response be any less?