Earthquakes in a Warming World

Earthquakes in a Warming World


words by ruth h. burns

As climate change causes increased seismic activity, ancestral teachings about earthquakes continue to provide life-saving knowledge to modern day Indigenous folks, writes Ruth H. Burns.

In the northern plains of the continental United States where my people, the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota and Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation) reside, earthquakes are rare but not entirely unheard of. We have stories, clear through the 1900s, of occasional rumblings underfoot. These accounts were backed up by seismologists, so they have been supported by western science as actually taking place. 


Earthquakes are defined as any sudden shaking of the ground caused by the passage of seismic waves through Earth’s rocks. These earthquake-triggering waves are caused by the release of energy stored in Earth’s crust, generally prompted by giant rock faces slipping against one another. Naturally, this rock slippage most often occurs along geologic fault lines where rock masses move against each other. The major fault lines of Earth’s crust are located on the edges of major tectonic plates, and it is along these fault lines where we see the most violent earthquakes.


Native Nations indigenous to the west coast of the continental United States are positioned along such fault lines, so they have a rich oral history of earthquakes. 


Geologists of today tell us that there was a major quake that occurred on the night of January 26, 1700, when the Juan de Fuca plate was pushed under the North American plate. It scored a 9 on the Richter scale, which is about as big as an earthquake can get. The quake was so powerful that the west coast instantly and permanently plummeted over six and a half feet. The tsunami caused by the earthquake flooded the ground more than 1,000 feet inland.


What’s particularly interesting about the quake that occurred on the night of January 26, 1700, is that Tribes all along the coast also made note of it. According to the Yurok people, when the quake began, they took refuge on the top of a hill, like their ancestors had done, and performed a ritual dance during the event. When they returned to their village after the ritual, they would discover that it had been completely submerged in water, and would never return to its previous state. Their ancestral teachings saved them from a certain death that would have resulted had they remained near the coast in their low-lying village during the earthquake and tsunami that followed.

Indigenous people across the globe have stories about earthquakes.

The Hoh and Quileute people tell of a time that thunderbird and whale battled, causing the mountains to shake and the ocean to rise. The Nuu-Chah-nulth First Nations say dwarves dancing around a drum in the mountains caused the quake, and as a result, the nearby Huu-ay-aht people, who had no time to awaken, were swept away into the waters. The Makah people also know of the earthquake that shook their world in 1700.


Indigenous people across the globe have stories about earthquakes. To the Maori of New Zealand, Ruaumoko is the god of earthquakes and volcanoes. Ancestral teachings continue to provide life-saving knowledge to modern day Indigenous folks as well. When a tsunami caused by a 2004 earthquake raged across Indonesia, it killed more than 200,000 people. Yet only seven of over 78,000 indigenous Simeuleans were killed thanks to ancient stories that were passed down, which told them what to do when earthquakes happened and enabled them to survive.  

Today, earthquakes are becoming more frequent and more severe as a result of global warming.


While earthquakes cause tsunamis, new research is revealing that vast storms like hurricanes, along with other events brought on by climate change, can lead to an increase in seismic activity and thereby cause more earthquakes. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), when there are significant changes in atmospheric pressure that occur in congruence with hurricanes, it causes a release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust. This leads to earthquakes that may not be as violent but last a comparatively long time, even after storm waters subside. Scientists have also discovered that monsoon season actually increases the weight of water on the Earth’s crust to such a degree across the Indian subcontinent that it changes seismic activity in the Himalayan mountains. 


Moreover, as glaciers melt due to global warming, subsurface magma shifts and causes changes in the stress upon Earth’s crust. Surprisingly, this can lead to an increase in volcanic activity, which is directly related to earthquake development. There’s even a term for it: glacial earthquakes. They typically peak in the summer months in places like Greenland, but as global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, glacial earthquakes are growing in strength and frequency. 


The most substantial way that climate change seems to cause an upswing in earthquakes is through droughts. Studies from 2017 show that the rising and falling stress loads of locales along fault lines and plate boundaries related to drought led to the movement of entire mountain ranges.

As my Native ancestors taught, everything is connected—so of course Earth’s crust has a distinctive relationship with all that surrounds it.

The rapid decline in the availability of freshwater that all living creatures require to survive means a greater strain on underwater aquifers because we extract freshwater from them. This requires the pumping of groundwater throughout the Earth’s crust at ever greater depths. Such extractive practices have been directly correlated to impacting stress loads on the Earth’s crust, leading to seismic activity on the San Andreas Fault in California where drought conditions have prevailed in recent years. 


There also seems to be a direct correlation between an increase in earthquakes and fracking, which is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into shale rock underground to force open existing fissures and thus extract fossil fuels. While the United States Geological Survey denies that a recent upsurge in earthquakes in the areas where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is now widespread is directly caused by that method of fossil fuel extraction, they do admit that there is an increase in earthquakes in these regions and that it is primarily caused by disposal of waste fluids utilized in the process, which are indeed a byproduct of oil production.


The extraction of fossil fuels, and fracking specifically, drive climate change on planet Earth. The process of hydraulic fracturing releases pockets of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. There is such a direct link between the release of methane from fracking that it is detectable from space in satellite imagery. 


As my Native ancestors taught, everything is connected—so of course Earth’s crust has a distinctive relationship with all that surrounds it. We interact with it, and these interactions may cause earthquakes. Everything on the surface, including us, is affected by seismic events. The crust of Mother Earth has many unstable small fractures. Even the simple passage of tides, which are caused by the gravitational pull of Grandmother Moon, gives rise to tremors in the Earth’s crust. 


It is our inability to understand this connection that prevents humanity from facing the challenges of climate change, and also, from understanding our reality and our crucial role in the Universe as the children of Earth.

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