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What is to be done?

Scientists find new perils in global warming

Published Aug 26, 2006 9:23 AM

Scientists are now confirming what many people have suspected for several years: that there is a connection between global warming and a rise in seismic activity leading to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

This news should be yet another alert to governments around the world—especially the U.S., which produces one quarter of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming—that a Herculean effort must begin now to reduce the use of fossil fuels and at the same time prepare for massive emergencies.

Instead, the Herculean effort is going into taking toothpaste and bottled water away from airline passengers. It is going into the disastrous wars that Washington has either launched or provoked in the Middle East, which in turn are aimed at control of the world’s richest oil area to generate profits for the politically powerful energy companies and banks while there’s still money to be made.

All of this only compounds the problem of global warming and its effect upon our entire planet.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods—and earthquakes?

In the United States, there is now widespread awareness that devastating storms are being generated by a warmer Atlantic Ocean. Many parts of the country brace for hurricanes, tornadoes and floods each summer. In July, a heat wave that crossed the continent brought hundreds of deaths and a scorched earth susceptible to dangerous wildfires.

After Katrina, can there be any excuses for not preparing every community for the worst?

Yet even these casualties pale in comparison to the deaths in Asia over the last two years from earthquakes and related tsunamis. The Indian Ocean tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, caused by an earthquake deep below the sea off the island of Suma tra, killed about 250,000 people in a few hours. Had there been an early-warning system in place to alert people along the coasts to immediately seek higher ground, like the one the U.S. has installed around the Pacific rim, many, perhaps most, of these casualties could have been avoided.

The earthquake that hit a remote mountain area in Pakistan and Kashmir on Oct. 8, 2005, led to 75,000 deaths within the first month, and it was feared that many more people would not survive the harsh winter. An estimated 3.3 million people in Pakistan were left homeless, and landslides blocked most of the small roads into the area.

No one can say whether or not these particular earthquakes were precipitated by global warming. But it is a fact that the Earth’s crust is shifting as glaciers melt and water is redistributed around the planet.

‘Evidence is stacking up’

An article in New Scientist magazine of May 27 titled “Climate change: Tearing the Earth apart?” takes a cautious but clear look at what is already happening as a result of climate change.

“All over the world evidence is stacking up that changes in global climate can and do affect the frequencies of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and catastrophic sea-floor landslides. Not only has this happened several times throughout Earth’s history, the evidence suggests that it is starting to happen again,” writes Bill McGuire.

“The climate interacts with the Earth’s crust via the changing mass of water and ice that is shifted around the planet. The pressure of water and ice on the crust is considerable: 1 cubic meter of water weighs 1 ton, while the same volume of ice weighs slightly less, up to 0.9 tons. With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the loading and unloading of the Earth’s crust by ice or water can trigger seismic and volcanic activity and even landslides,” he explains.

Scientists have confirmed that during both the arrival and departure of the last ice age, there was a “link between glacial advances and retreats and the rate of global volcanism.”

In parts of the North American continent, the Earth’s crust may still be adjusting to the melting of glaciers some 10,000 years ago.

“Yet while we may still be feeling the effects of the last ice age,” says McGuire, “the impact of today’s warming trend might already be making itself felt. In 2004 NASA geophysicist Jeanne Sauber and geologist Bruce Molnia of the U.S. Geological Survey linked unloading of the crust as a result of the rapid glacial melting in south-west Alaska to a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in 1979, and warned that more could be on the way. ‘In areas like Alaska, where earthquakes occur and glaciers are changing, their relationship must be considered to better assess earthquake hazard,’ says Sauber.”

Today, cruise ships in Alaska’s magnificent Prince William Sound—the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill—routinely entertain their passengers by stopping within stone’s throw of ancient glaciers. To everyone’s delight, these melting mountains of ice pop and groan as they make their slow progress downhill, huge chunks breaking off and falling into the water every few minutes.

The story is the same all over the world. The snow is melting and glaciers are receding in the Alps, the Himalayas, the Rockies and the Andes, all of which are crisscrossed with geological faults.

“Of particular concern is the continental shelf around Greenland,” says McGuire. “Here, the unloading and uplift that would follow catastrophic melting of the ice sheet might trigger earthquakes strong enough to dislodge the huge piles of sediment that have accumulated around the edges of the land. The resulting underwater landslides could generate tsuna mis on a scale comparable to those that followed the Storegga slide 8,000 years ago off the west coast of Norway. ... The result was a tsunami more than 20 meters [60 feet] high in the Shetland Isles off the north coast of Scotland and up to 6 meters [18 feet] high along the east coast of the Scottish mainland. This region is now stable, but similar piles of sediment near Greenland are ripe for collapse.”

These catastrophes are still just in the realm of possibility. How ever, scientists are predicting that by the end of this century, if global warming continues, many glaciers will have melted and sea levels will have risen markedly. Within just one generation, this process may become irreversible.

What kind of future?

People with the means to do so start preparing for their children’s future at birth. They look ahead to getting them into good schools and making sure they have health coverage. They set up trust funds and take out life insurance policies to provide for their kids in case anything happens.

These are the people who run this capitalist society—the moneyed class. Why do they seem paralyzed when it comes to doing anything about the looming disasters of global warming? Do they really think that their money will protect them and their families? That they can buy their way out and the hell with the rest of us?

Of course, they’ve done it before. It wasn’t the rich in New Orleans who were left behind as the floodwaters rose. They don’t live in the trailer camps or flimsy shacks that explode when tornadoes roar by.

Yet even rich tourists were trapped by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years and during most of that time lived in communities where wealth was shared. Global warm ing caused by the combustion of fossil fuels began only decades ago. It is not the product of humanity per se, but of a particular socio-economic system, capitalism, that has vastly expanded the scientific-technological and productive apparatus—but without planning, with little forethought, and always driven by the bottom line: profits for the ruling class.

The human race will survive. It has been through many other catastrophes—both social and natural—and is a supremely adaptable species. But capitalism? It will have to go. Its gravediggers will be those who have the least to lose and the most to gain by breaking the political grip of the privileged few and reorganizing production on a rational, socialized basis to meet the long-term needs of all the peoples sharing this planet.