Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Earthquake Time Bombs!

UK Geo-hazards expert Dr. Bill McGuire ("Waking the Giants") on recent quakes & links to climate change. Oregon Professor Robert Yeats new book "Earthquake Time Bombs" - most cities at risk from quakes or mega-tsunamis.

About 12,000 years ago there was a period of "volcanic storms", so many erupted. The Earth was unstable, rocking and rolling with Earthquakes. Geologists know climate change destabilized the Earth's crust. Bill McGuire wrote an influential article in the Guardian newspaper about this in 2012.

Does that sound too fantastic? The weight of ice miles thick poured into the sea as that latest ice age ended. Released from that weight, land rose. Long-standing pressure points reacted, and the world shook. As the article in Live Science says:

"McGuire conducted a study that was published in the journal Nature in 1997 that looked at the connection between the change in the rate of sea level rise and volcanic activity in the Mediterranean for the past 80,000 years and found that when sea level rose quickly, more volcanic eruptions occurred, increasing by a whopping 300 percent."

Now, after recent big quakes in Japan and Ecuador, with more under-reported quakes around the world, some scientists are beginning to wonder if climate is starting to destabilize geology again. We talk with one of the world's best geophysical hazards experts, Britain's Dr. Bill McGuire, author of "Waking the Giants".

Even if that time of extra volcanoes and quakes is farther into our future, the threat of everyday earthquakes and tsunamis is larger now. That is because so much of the doubled and tripled human population lives near the sea. We've built our mega-cities - and nuclear power plants - within tsunami range. Eight thousand years ago, an earthquake caused an undersea land-slide off Norway. The tsunami raced around the whole North Atlantic, reaching up to 30 meters high - that's well over 90 feet.

Adding to it all: we've globalized the economy based on a network of mega-cities. Several of them sit on well-known faults that are bound to blow, with quakes well above 8 on the Richter scale. The most precarious is the financial hub of Tokyo Japan. We'll talk about what happened the last time Tokyo was nearyl levelled, and the next time, which Japanese scientists say is over 90% likely within the next couple of decades.

The aftershocks would be in the world's shaky financial system. Would a big quake in Los Angeles, Vancouver, or Tokyo be the trigger for a massive collapse in the global economy?

That's why our second guest, Dr. Robert Yeats from Oregon wrote his book "Earthquake Time Bombs". We'll go into that risk in depth.

I'm Alex Smith, as we shake up the world with Radio Ecoshock.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

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First Japan and then Ecuador. When major earthquakes strike, the media rush to Dr. William McGuire. He's a Volcanologist and world-known specialist in extreme geologic events. McGuire is Emeritus Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London. Bill has advised the UK government on global threats, and appears often on TV.

McGuire was also an author of the 2011 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding extreme events. His latest book is "Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes."

Dr. Bill McGuire

How could climate change affect earthquakes or volcanic action? One simple way is that in places like Iceland, a thick ice crust has covered over active volcanoes, like the Eyjafjalla Glacier. As that ice melts, it will enable the volcano to explode into the air. As we found out when the Eyjafjallajökull volcanoe erupted in 2010, the shroud of ash can shut down air travel over most of Europe. Research published in Geophysical Research letters tells us about a complicated process when the weight of ice allows land to rise, changing the melting temperature of Earth's crust. That could lead to more volcanoes in Iceland, and perhaps in other currently frozen places.

But that's the simple stuff. We know from geologic research that in previous times of mass ice loss, during global heating, the Earth started to rock and roll. Bill McGuire explains how in his book "Waking the Giant" in this Radio Ecoshock interview.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock 19 minute interview with Bill McGuire in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

So is climate change causing more quakes right now? We don't know, says McGuire. It's still early days for ice melt, despite the billions of tons lost from Greenland and Antarctica each year. There isn't enough signal among the noise to tell, given that there are always some earthquakes every year around the world. We don't yet know exactly when climate change will kick in. The largest impacts, the days of "volcanic storms" could be 5,000 or 50,000 years away. We don't know, and Earth has never had such a rapid trigger as human burning of fossil fuels. Until we know more, this expert says we should be careful about attributing each and every earthquake to climate change.

The deadly 2015 earthquake in Nepal could have a different climate angle. McGuire tells us that a heavier than normal monsoon season (which can be influenced by climate change) - can make the plains below Nepal heavier. This extra mass weighs on the great pressure point as the continent of India crashes into Eurasia. That might increase the quake risk in Nepal.

The only good news, McGuire tells us, is that a heavier ocean (with more meltwater in it) might actually calm the kind of deep ocean tectonic movement that caused the giant tsunami in Japan in 2011 (the one the knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plant). BUT those changes is sea levels and mass may increase the risk of undersea landslides that can create tsunamis, huge waves, around a whole ocean basin.

I hope our east coast North American listeners noticed that on-going threat from a collapse in the Canary Islands. There have been sea-slides before which created massive tsunamis all around the North Atlantic basin, from the United Kingdom to Canada, America, and right over Carribean islands. We really don't have to live on a fault line to be part of Earth's geologic pageant. Or course not everyone agrees that a mega-tsunami is likely. You can find out what a mega-tsunami is here on Wikipedia.

On April 20th, the Seismological Society of America (SSA) began it's 2016 Annual Meeting in Reno, Nevada. High on their list is the Cascadia subduction zone which runs just off the west coast of North America, from northern Vancouver Island in Canada to southern Oregon in the U.S.

There's been enough science to know this pressure point between two massive tectonic plates of the earth moves in a jolt every 400 to 600 years. That last one was in the year 1700. We don't know when the next one will be, but it's due. Aside from possible wreckage in Vancouver, Seattle and other coastal cities - the resulting tsunami would sweep clean the coasts of California and Hawaii. It would probably reach Japan, as it did in 1700.

The really huge threat, not just to the citizens but to the whole financial world, is a big quake - larger than 8 points - in Tokyo.

I read this at the Infowars site (not usually a reliable source):

"Scientists at Tokyo University estimate there is a 98 percent chance that, in the next 30 years, Japan will be hit by an earthquake equivalent to the “Great Kanto” of 1923, which measured 8.9 and killed an estimated 142,800 people. Seismologists at the Japan Meteorological Agency, however, put the odds of this happening at 70 percent."

So I checked those numbers with Bill McGuire. He says the numbers sound right. In any case, when the odds are so great, you can expect a quake relatively soon. Yes modern buildings in Tokyo are better designed for quakes, but McGuire says there are at least 80,000 wooden homes in Tokyo that could burn. In the past, he has called Tokyo "a city waiting to die".

Maybe that's extreme, but considering Japan is already in big financial trouble, still the second or third largest holder of U.S.Treasury bonds (which they could have to cash in), and still one of the top three financial centers of the global economy - a quake there just might trigger the next Great Depression.

Bill McGuire appears in this You tube video where he introduces four major threats. That's for another of his books "Global Catastrophe: A Very Short Introduction".

You can also read Bill's new short story about climate change and mass migration, called "Incoming" - at his web site


You can divide the human population into two kinds of people: those who have experienced a major earthquake, and those who have not. Each thinks differently.

Robert S. Yeats says we don't think about quakes nearly enough. Sooner or later, and likely sooner, a mega-city will be hit with something that makes the 911 terrorist attack in New York look small. His new book is "Earthquake Time Bombs" and he should know: Bob Yeats is a professor emeritus in geology from Oregon State University, author of the book "Living with Earthquakes in California" and co-author of "The Geology of Earthquakes".

Professor Emeritus Robert Yeats

Five years ago, Bob Yeats was interviewed by Scientific American. He told them Port au Prince in Haiti was in jeopardy due to a major fault line and lack of money to prepare. A week later, 100,000 people died in a catastrophic quake. Was that just chance? Yeats says "yes" because no one can predict an earthquake with exact timing. We do talk about new technology which can pick up the advance waves of a quake and give folks a very short warning.

We begin by looking at what we can learn from the deadly earthquake in Kathmandu Nepal - not the smaller one that hit in February 2016, but the big one in April 2015. Aside from the thousands killed, and hundred thousands homeless, some world heritage sites were destroyed, while modern buildings stood. What are we supposed to do to preserve the treasured past?


Reading this book, and it's a good read, I was surprised to learn that it's a mistake to go outside. When I was young, I was in the deadly 1971 earthquake in Los Angeles. Everyone ran outside, in their underwear in some cases. We had to look out for teetering palm trees - they have small roots - and power poles, but it seemed better than being crushed in the house. Why stay inside when an earthquake starts to rock and roll?

Yeats tells us about the bartender in a California quake who refused to let his patrons out the door when a quake struck. They would all have been killed by the pile of falling bricks. Certainly downtown in a modern city you might be killed by falling glass from tall buildings. It's a tough question, whether to say in or run out - but Yeats says you have better odds by remaining inside.

The second lesson of the Los Angles quake is that the first three days can be the test of surviving well, or not at all. Gas lines blew up into fires, electricity went out. In a worse quake, food deliveries would stop, and likely food stores would be looted and then empty. Meanwhile there are frightening aftershocks, so you may have to camp outdoors.

Right now Turkey is almost in civil war. Buildings collapse there just because of poor building standards. We talk about the risk in Turkey, and also in giant Mexico City.

Bob and I also discuss quake preparedness, both at the government level and personally.

I spoke to Robert Yeats at his home in Corvalis, Oregon.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock 33 minute interview with Robert Yeats in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

In an email, Bob writes:

"Be sure to tell your listeners about my online book, Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, available at It is available free since the book is used by emergency management. Canadians might legitimately take issue with the gringo-centric term "Pacific Northwest". The subduction zone goes about halfway up the continental margin off Vancouver Island. The tsunami chapter includes a description of the 1962 tsunami off Vancouver Island.

You can track quake activity now from a new mapping system from the US Geological Survey here. It was announced that for the first time, this map also includes human-induced earthquakes from fracking, although I didn't see that on their main map today.

You can monitor world earthquakes daily here.


Will we see a new wave of volcano eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis as climate heating melts the ice caps? Even without that, our just-in-time globally linked financial system is not suited to large-scale disasters. Add in the shaky economic times with unsupportable debt everywhere, mix in dwindling resources and the hits from extreme weather - it might not take much to darken our future.

Meanwhile, where I live in Canada, food prices went up 14% in just the last month. When I talked with our mega-hazards expert Bill McGuire, he had just come in from planting potatoes in their home in the highlands. His family moved out of London. I'm heading out tomorrow to plant my own potatoes in our little village plot. I moved out of Vancouver. Coincidence? Maybe.

I'm Alex Smith. If you can contribute to Radio Ecoshock, please do it here.

Thank you for listening, and caring about our world.

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