Free-associating with Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Lee Foote
4 min readMar 22, 2023
(USGS Photo Mona Loa Volcano)

We are emotionally shaken daily by the recent Turkey earthquake death toll. Earthquakes are one of those things that leap up into our existence un-announced and wreak havoc with entire regions. Science tells us we have a hand in hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding but we don’t rule the crustal movements of the earth’s tectonic plates. Possibly no other natural event is so purely a natural disaster as shifting Earth. Even combining the two words natural disaster, is illustrative; “natural” as in it is perfectly natural that earthquakehurricanetornadoflooddroughttsunamis happen, and “disaster” which is the way events play out on the lives of humans structured around a different set of expected conditions. If one lives in a stilted house near the mouths of the Indus, Amazon or Mississippi Rivers, a flood is a natural occurrence without much surprise or disaster. Alternatively, if one lives is a moist area of British Columbia, Canada or Indonesia, a three- year drought and the subsequent fires are so anomalous it is a disastrous to lives and livelihoods.

We know humans’ near-surface activities can trigger earthquakes and caused hundreds of recent earthquakes in central United States. These tremblers of low-earthquake regions are mapped around and linked to fracking activities that pump and pull fluids from under the earth. Earthquakes in Okla-dam-flat-homa? Well, the US Geological Society showed that between 2009 and 2016 Oklahoma out-earthquaked California. Strange times.

Now, I take my first wild-assed hypothetical (I have no data) step. What if our deep oil (and water) extraction is precipitating major earthquakes too? Not only are we altering the volumes of material in the mid-depths of the earth’s surface, we might be removing the natural molten earth lubricants that allow earth blocks, plate friction zones, and cavern-bulging to release tensions, slip, or erupt?

Sometimes I laugh at myself over the seemingly ridiculous “what if” thoughts I have, like the notion that oil and water extraction could actually cause the earth’s surface to sink noticeably. Then, years later, I read the scientific reports that veritably shout “Subsurface extractions the cause of 30 cm earth subsidence in California’s central valley”, or “New Orleans is sinking and it is not just from land surface causes — extraction has reduces subsurface elevation”. That is when I think, man, don’t be so shy with ideas that seem totally flat-Earth crazy. Share them. Wait 20 years and claim “I TOLD you so!” How sweet is that prescience?

Here is another one — Recent research indicates that the solid core of the Earth has reversed its spin direction. That core is the deepest source of our gravity field and trillions of tons of crustal rock feels that tug. Might plate movement, magma flow, and earthquake activity respond to such subtle gravitational pulls exerted on cubic miles of crustal material? Sure seems like it would be a bigger energy change than some ball-capped fracker flipping a valve.

Anyone who reads the news is well fed with educated thought about the atmospheric gas concentration changes we live with. We can see the direct CO2 measurements on the lab gauges from Mona Loa observatory samples. We can see the monster hurricanes and typhoons billowing up and swirling on radar maps and we can hear 90-year-old farmers saying “Seventy five years of farming and never seen anything like this.” So we have some credible warning of (1) The atmosphere temperature and gas concentrations are changed; (2) plants, animals, people, weather, and soils follow this lead over the decades; and (3) we have very few behavioral levers we can pull to reduce further negative impacts and to accommodate the creeping changes that will befall us because of the climate momentum underway.

Earthquakes and volcanoes are different though. They are almost, but not quite, Black Swan Events. In our minds, we recognize their occurrence is a possibility, but in our hearts, we live in denial that it will ever occur near us. Then, when one does, we fall apart and call it a pure natural disaster. This is an exercise of statistics of non-zero probabilities. Every spot on earth will experience an earthquake at some point in its existence; the questions become how often, how big, and when? Once every 80 thousand years for a destructive Indiana tremblor gives me about a one in a thousand chance for any given year of my expected lifespan. I will take those odds every time for a local earthquake.

Smoke particle Alberta sunset (Photo by author)

Volcanoes can affect the whole of our shared atmosphere. The same ash plumes that provide gorgeous dust-infused sunsets can restrict jet traffic and the big ones can ash-blanket the atmosphere and create years of cold, low-sun conditions that kill plants and many animal species. The 1815 eruption of volcanic Mount Tambora in Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) and later the 1883 Mount Krakatoa eruption also in that region, put so much fine ash into the atmosphere that the sun was blocked and wheat refused to grow across the Canadian prairies a half a world away. Snow in June and complete crop failures for two years running meant a serious setback for amphibians, migratory birds, reptiles and people living off the land. If you are a relativizer by nature, this makes climate change seem the weak chronic cousin to the acute ash cloud effect.

If you enjoy learning of and worrying about things over which we currently have miserably little control, well, volcanoes and earthquakes are your ticket. You are welcomed.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.