State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Can Big Earthquakes Disrupt World Weather?

The recent earthquake in Japan shifted the earth’s axis by half a foot. You may be wondering if that’s enough to change earth’s weather. No, not really, says Jerry McManus, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Earthquakes unleash a tremendous amount of energy, but not enough to upset the energy balance of earth’s atmosphere and oceans, which drive weather patterns in the short term, he says. Larger shifts of the planet’s rotational axis happen each year due to the fluctuating mass of earth’s atmosphere and oceans without changing the weather. These natural variations can push earth’s axis up to 39 inches, far more than the Japan earthquake’s 6.5-inch nudge or the 2010 Chile earthquake’s 2.8-inch shift.

Those shifts are tiny compared to long-term, cyclical shifts in earth’s movement that can raise or lower the planet’s thermostat. The planet currently leans at a 23.5 degree angle as it circles the sun, causing winter at one end of the globe and summer at the other, as its orientation toward the sun redistributes the amount of sunlight falling on each hemisphere annually. But the seasons can be greatly intensified depending on variations in earth’s tilt over long timescales. Every 41,000 years or so, earth’s tilt shifts about a degree in each direction—the equivalent of nearly 70 miles. At its highest tilt—24.5 degrees—more sunlight falls on the poles; at its lowest—22.1 degrees—more light falls on the equator.

Two other astronomical cycles shape earth’s climate: the changing shape of its elliptical path around the sun every 100,000 years or so, and the shifting wobble of its axis—much like a spinning top—on average, every 21,000 years. All three cycles are caused by the gravitational tug of the moon and the planets in our solar system.

In the first half of the 20th century, Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch painstakingly calculated how all three cycles—respectively referred to as obliquity, eccentricity and precession influence the amount of seasonal sunlight falling over the planet. Though the calculations that were his life’s work can now be made in a few minutes by a student using a laptop, the name “Milankovitch” still describes the cycles that are so fundamental to earth’s climate.

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Mark Reimers
12 years ago

I hear counter arguments all the time about how the natural cycles of earth account for the global warming we have experienced over the past century. As discussed in the article, these cycles are quite long when compared to the very short time frame of the recent intense global warming. We’re talking 10’s of thousands of years vs a couple of decades. Anyway, it’s comforting to know that even the most powerful earthquake won’t send us into the next ice age.

Cheers!

Travis Gillespie
Travis Gillespie
8 years ago

Another thought on “Can Big Earthquakes Disrupt World Weather?” The oceans currents were changed by the last big earthquake in Japan when part of it fell into the ocean. The ocean currents do affect the worlds weather, but how much will this affect it? I am just curious and seeking answers.

Respectfully yours.

bob
bob
Reply to  Travis Gillespie
2 years ago

excuse me? I was in Japan in 2011 when the quake happened. My area was hit with 6-7 in magnitude. In any case I dont recall any portion of Japan becoming permanently underwater.

Johnny Spann
Johnny Spann
Reply to  Travis Gillespie
1 year ago

I recorded a overnight change of about 5 days on the floor of a sun calendar in a maintenance shop where the sun shined through a crack above a large door facing south. I could track the sun’s movement the entire year. The mark would move 5/8″ each day. The day after the Japan earthquake it jumped about 10″ overnight. Just thought I would share that.

Cliff
Cliff
Reply to  Travis Gillespie
8 months ago

When the Earthquake happened in Japan the earth shifted bon its axis too, upto 3°.Surely this would have changed where the whole in the the atmosphere ( allegedly caused from CO 2) was and now is. This will change the angle of of direct sunlight and increasing the temperature.?

Kay
Kay
5 years ago

Of course the weather did not change, but since our position within the weather patterns changes from these events wouldn’t this affect our perception of the weather? In other words, if I move my thermometer from one location to another in my yard and take readings over a period of time, they would not produce the same average as when it was elsewhere in my yard. Also, the earthquake in Japan caused a huge collapse of an ice shelf, so is it possible that not all scientists, or weather reporters, are crediting the earthquake but instead are crediting climate change for that collapse? What about other earthquakes? And, is anyone looking at how tectonic plate movement is causing water levels to appear to rise on certain island countries when in fact the land mass is actually being pulled under the ocean by this plate movement? Furthermore, why, if climate change is such a big deal, are we not taking measures to adapt to changing conditions on a national level? For example, if I noticed that a river near my house was flooding more often, I would take steps to have my house jacked up and a new foundation put under it to raise it to prepare for flooding. I don’t waste time protesting climate change. That is as silly as protesting a snow storm or a tornado. I look at the problems it causes, and take steps to mitigate the carnage. Here in the U.S. we have reduced our carbon footprint while the rest of the planet just keeps raising theirs. Why are the protestors not protesting the behavior of other nations and economies, or doing concrete things to meet these challenges? Why are scientists engaged in fear mongering instead of going to conferences in these other countries and helping them introduce technologies and practices that lower their carbon footprints? It is very easy to complain about a problem, pat ourselves on the back for complaining, congratulate each other on how knowledgeable we are and how stupid everyone else is and go back to our air-conditioned houses, having not done anything concrete to fix the problem. We need to get real, and it would be nice if scientists would take a practical and compassionate scientific approach, look at the metadata, and stop this wasteful political approach and find reasonable ways to deal with climate change. The Weather Underground channel has recently begun using a flaming planet icon when ever it does a report on climate change. That is an example of science gone stupid. Bring back the real scientists. You will have the support of all the people when you scientists stop being political and get factual. When you stop misrepresenting statistics and when you start coming up with workable approaches to our changing climate and stop fear mongering, and once you actually become trustworthy then you will get back the respect you used to enjoy. But as long as you resort to flaming planet icons, and lying in order to push a change you want you will continue to be disrespected, and worse, ignored. How does that help anyone?

JasonCarey
JasonCarey
2 years ago

No, the weather did not change just like that, but the winds did. Little by little the winds had to go back to where they were before the tilt change. Earth rotates around the sun, moving the winds along with the earth. If the winds did not change that would mean earth was moving out of orbit with the sun. Earths orbit around the sun causes the wind to shift back into place. This changes the wind direction on earth, changing the weather, fire, global warming etc.