Did Your SUV Cause the Earthquake in Haiti?

The other day, environmental blog the Thin Green Line wrote:

At the American Geophysical Union meeting late last month, University of Miami geologist Shimon Wdowinski argued that the devastating earthquake a year ago may have been caused by a combination of deforestation and hurricanes (H/T Treehugger). Climate change is spurring more, stronger hurricanes, which are fueled by warm ocean waters….

The 2010 disaster stemmed from a vertical slippage, not the horizontal movements that most of the region’s quakes entail, supporting the hypothesis that the movement was triggered by an imbalance created when eroded land mass was moved from the mountainous epicenter to the Leogane Delta.

I have heard this theory before, that landslides and other surface changes can trigger earthquakes.  Now, I am not expert on geology — it is one of those subjects that always seems like it would be interesting to me but puts me in a coma as soon as I dive into it.   I almost failed a pass-fail geology course in college because in the mineral identification section, all I could think to say was “that’s a rock.”

However, I do know enough to say with some confidence that surface land changes may have triggered but did not cause the earthquake.  Earthquakes come from large releases of stored energy, often between plates and faults.  It’s remotely possible land surface changes trigger some of these releases, but in general I would presume the releases would happen at some point anyway.  (Steven Goddard points out the quake was 13km below the surface, and says “It is amazing that anyone with a scientific background could attempt to blame it on surface conditions.”)

The bit I wanted to tackle was the Thin Green Line’s statement that “Climate change is spurring more, stronger hurricanes.”   This is a fascinating statement I want to attack from several angles.

First, at one level it is a mere tautology.  If we are getting more hurricanes, then by definition the climate has changed.   This is exactly why “global warming” was rebranded into “climate change,” because at some level, the climate is always changing.

Second, the statement is part of a fairly interesting debate on whether global warming in general will cause more hurricanes.  Certainly hurricanes get their power from warm water in the oceans, so it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that warmer water would lead to more, stronger hurricanes.  It turns out the question, as are most all questions in the complex climate, is more complicated than that.  It may be hurricanes are driven more by temperature gradients, rather than absolute temperatures, such that a general warming may or may not have an effect on their frequency.

Third, the statement in question, as worded, is demonstrably wrong.  If he had said “may someday spur more hurricanes,” he might have been OK, but he said that climate change, and by that he means global warming, is spurring more hurricanes right now.

Here is what is actually happening (paragraph breaks added)

2010 is in the books: Global Tropical Cyclone Accumulated Cyclone Energy [ACE] remains lowest in at least three decades, and expected to decrease even further… For the calendar year 2010, a total of 46 tropical cyclones of tropical storm force developed in the Northern Hemisphere, the fewest since 1977. Of those 46, 26 attained hurricane strength (> 64 knots) and 13 became major hurricanes (> 96 knots).

Even with the expected active 2010 North Atlantic hurricane season, which accounts on average for about 1/5 of global annual hurricane output, the rest of the global tropics has been historically quiet. For the calendar-year 2010, there were 66-tropical cyclones globally, the fewest in the reliable record (since at least 1970) The Western North Pacific in 2010 had 8-Typhoons, the fewest in at least 65-years of records. Closer to the US mainland, the Eastern North Pacific off the coast of Mexico out to Hawaii uncorked a grand total of 8 tropical storms of which 3 became hurricanes, the fewest number of hurricanes since at least 1970.

Global, Northern Hemisphere, and Southern Hemisphere Tropical Cyclone Accumulated Energy (ACE) remain at decades-low levels.

The source link has more, and graphs of ACE over the last several decades (ACE is a sort of integral, combining the time-average-strength of all hurricanes during the year.  This is a better metric than mere counts and certainly better than landfall or property damage metrics).

So, normally I would argue with alarmists that correlation is not causation.   There is no point in arguing about causation, though, because the event he claims to have happened (more and stronger hurricanes) did not even happen.  The only way he could possibly argue it (though I am pretty sure he has never actually looked at the hurricane data and simply works from conventional wisdom in the global warming echo chamber) is to say that yes, 2010 was 40-year low in hurricanes, but it would have been even lower had it not been for global warming.  This is the Obama stimulus logic, and is just as unsupportable here as it was in that context.

Postscript: By the way, 2010 was probably the second warmest year in the last 30-40 years and likely one of the 5-10 warmest in the last century, so if warming was going to be a direct cause of hurricanes, it would have been in 2010.    And yes, El Ninos and La Ninas and such make it all more complicated.  Exactly.  See this post.

13 thoughts on “Did Your SUV Cause the Earthquake in Haiti?

  1. klem

    The claim that earthquakes can be triggered by the erosion of landmasses is entirely correct, they can. And the imbalance created when this eroded land mass was moved from the mountainous epicenter to the Leogane Delta is entirely plausible and quite likely. This is a continuous process which requires thousand if not millions of years to complete. And this particular fault commonly pops every few hundred years, it’s quite regular. But there is no way that this imbalance of eroded mountains can be attributed to human activity, it is not supportable. It is bazaar speculation, nothing more. Surely it was not the Miami Geologist who suggested this, hopefully.

  2. ADiff

    “Climate change is spurring more, stronger hurricanes, which are fueled by warm ocean waters”

    So, where are they? There have been fewer hurricanes than ever recently. This is just one of many predicted affects of ‘AGW’ that simply have not been observed. Storms…ice coverage….sea level…. Is there ANY AGW consequence prediction that HAS been accurate? I sure don’t see any!

    What can we conclude about a speculative theory when the things it predicts don’t happen? Perhaps the entire theory needs serious reconsideration.

  3. Mervyn Sullivan

    You know what… I think I’m going to apply for a grant to research whether man-made global warming is causing gorillas in Africa to yawn more, thereby causing them to sleep less, thereby increasing the amount of wind they pass, which is somehow minimizing their life span by up to an hour, on average.

    I bet I’d even know, before hand, what the results of my study would ultimately reveal! More importantly, I bet I’d even get the grant despite the fact that I’m not even a scientist!

    One thing is for sure… at least my study would have more credibility than has this study linking climate change and the earthquake in Haiti.

  4. klem

    That’s not all. The link between anthropomorphic climate change and earthquakes was also made when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted last spring. The link wet something like; we drive SUVs and emit carbon, the carbon warms the air, the air melts the glaciers on the flanks of the volcano relieving it of billions of tons of ice, the flanks then rebounds upward causing subsurface earthquakes and ultimately causing the volcano to erupt. So earthquakes and volcano ARE caused by you driving your SUVs. Simple, it’s all your fault.

    People get paid good money to think up this crap. Nice work if you can get it.

  5. Ike

    Warren brings up an excellent point.

    Earthquakes are the release of stored energy.

    Therefore, it is in our best interest to cause as many of them as possible, to minimize the amount of energy in each quake.

    By forcing everyone to drive SUVs and burn coal, we can create enough small earthquakes around the planet to avoid having a large 8-or-9 magnitude quake.

    It’s for the children.

  6. Ben

    Well Ike, if that is the case, why not drive bigger SUV’s and burn extra coal so that we can save the world from 7 magnitude quakes too?

    Its for the children , right?

  7. Kevin Marshall

    When I was at primary school, a teacher said that a butterfly flapping its wings in England could cause a typhoon in the South China Sea. Weather is essentially based on highly complex, chaotic and interconnected forces, so the argument is essentially correct. An insignificant initial input could be the start of a chain of events that could increase in impact at each stage. However, each of the other forces must be finely balanced. But far bigger and more immediate forces are at work that will most likely cause the typhoon. The chances of the English butterfly causing the Chinese typhoon are infinites ably small.
    Similarly, to demonstrate the case that climate disruption causes earthquakes that start 13 miles down would require that the other forces are very finely balanced. We have nothing like the knowledge required of these complex and chaotic forces to determine if they were at a sufficiently finely balanced state to be tipped over by the lesser forces on the surface. The presumption must be that it is the larger forces that were the cause.
    There is a further stage to this argument. Even if climate change was initial trigger, it is only in conjunction with the bigger forces being finally balanced in a particular way that will have caused the earthquake. The fact that things were so precarious means that the earthquake would most likely have happened a short time later.
    Warren, a thought experiment could be made from your positive feedback demonstration. Mount some dominos to topple a few feet away from the upturned bowl. The first domino must be so finally balanced that the ping-pong ball can topple it. The dominos should grow in size, with the final one next to a tall skyscraper. The incremental size increase should be small enough to keep the topple going. Set up the experiment on a windy day and start the ball rolling in a random direction. It is entirely possible the ping-pong ball will topple the skyscraper. But equally possible that either other forces will be at work, or the dominos will fail to gain the momentum to topple the skyscraper, despite careful calculations.

  8. sf

    Just an idea here: Could it be that even though the paid “experts” claim the globe is warming, the decrease in “ACE” (loosely, total strength and incidence of large storms) could actually be an indicator that the planet is *cooling* slightly?

    IOW, could ACE be not an excellent proxy for integrated global temperature, but actually the *best*?

    It’s long been known that surface heating often triggers big storms. If other inputs are essentially constant, it’s hard to see how a warmer planet wouldn’t have more storms–whether more of them or the same number but more energy.

  9. sf

    Comment should read “IOW, could ACE be not JUST an excellent proxy for integrated global temperature, but…”

    When I inserted the word “just” in brackets in the above correction, it vanished. Apparently the comment engine took brackets to be some html command.

    Computers…gotta’ love ‘em.

  10. mrcphysics

    ACE isn’t a good proxy for Global temperature for a lot of reasons, the two most important being that it’s granular and noisy (suffers from a lot of natural variation), and that there are other large factors not caused by temperature that are known to cause changes in ACE.

  11. joe

    i totally agree with this, i have noticed this myself because i live in Texas and im used to alot of hurricanes,but we have had less and less recently.

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