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STUDY: Slowing Earth’s Rotation May Mean More Powerful Earthquakes in 2018

Two geophysicists found a correlation between a slowing in the Earth’s rotation and an uptick in major earthquakes. Since the Earth has been slowing for the past few years, we might see more big tremors in 2018.
earth's rotation, earth's slowing rotation, earthquakes, earthquake clusters, what causes earthquakes

Planet earth with fault lines and tectonic plates, computer artwork. (Getty Images)

On November 30, thousands of people on the East Coast got a surprising afternoon jolt when a 4.1 earthquake struck Dover, Delaware. People reported feeling the quake as far north as Connecticut and as far south as Virginia. It was a rare occurrence on that side of the U.S., and it sent the hashtag #earthquake trending for a few hours. But if a couple of geophysicists in Colorado and Montana are correct, we might be talking about #earthquakes a lot more in 2018.

Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado and Rebecca Bendick of the University of Montana published a study in Geophysical Research Letters in August suggesting that the periodic slowing of the Earth’s rotation coincides with an increase in larger earthquakes. They already knew there was an uptick in earthquakes approximately every 32 years, and in searching for what might cause these cyclical clusters, they found just one major correlation: the Earth’s slowing rotation during the five preceding years. According to atomic clocks, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing in tiny increments — fractions of a millisecond — for more than four years. This means we might be due for an earthquake cluster next year.  

The Earth’s periodic slowing is typically imperceptible, but Bilham says it could be seen as a “five-year heads-up on future earthquakes.” And, unfortunately, the earthquakes he predicts for next year may be a lot stronger and more devastating than the one that recently rattled East Coasters.

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The cyclical cluster usually includes a bump in earthquakes that measure more than 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale. A regular year sees about 15 to 20 earthquakes of that size or larger. Next year, the researchers say, Earth could see 25 to 30 such quakes. And those could be less like the tremblor the East Coast felt last week and more like the devastating 7.3 magnitude quake that killed 300 Iranians earlier in November.

So, what’s actually happening beneath the ground?

To read more, please continue to page 2.

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  • Kaitlin Ugolik is a journalist and editor living in Brooklyn. She writes about health, science, and technology, and is currently working on a book about the future of empathy.

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