What If Earthquakes Never Happened? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Earthquakes are one of the most destructive types of natural disaster in the world. They strike without warning, causing huge, global tragedies. They happen because of plate tectonics and how the Earth's crust moves around... But what if that process stopped? No seismic activity... No high-magnitude epicentres... No earthquakes... In this video, Unveiled finds out what would happen if earthquakes never took place...
What if Earthquakes Never Happened?
Our planet is perhaps more fragile than we like to think, and at any moment the Earth could shake beneath our feet and dramatically rip apart. Earthquakes are devastating and destructive, difficult to predict and they often lead to an enormous loss of life. Does it have to be this way, though?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if earthquakes never happened?
Earthquakes happen because of a sudden release of pressure on a plate boundary. This is because the Earth’s crust is made of different, enormous tectonic plates… And when they meet, these plates can either get stuck against each other, or one can get pushed beneath the other, before a sudden shift causes tremors around the world. You don’t need to be especially close to a boundary to feel the rumbles, although ‘quakes are often strongest along the lines themselves. Essentially, plates move because of tectonics and convection currents, so a world without earthquakes would also be one without these.
A hypothetical Earth without tectonic plates naturally has no plate boundaries at all, as Earth’s crust forms one enormous mass. But it doesn’t mean we’d lose only earthquakes. We’d also lose a large majority of volcanoes because any that aren’t created above hotspots (such as Yellowstone) are formed along plate boundaries. And even hotspot volcanoes could disappear, as an Earth with no fault lines should also have an incredibly strong, almost impenetrable crust - with zero cracks or weak points and nowhere for magma to break through. We’d see significantly fewer tsunamis, too - which are usually caused by earthquakes under the sea. But it’s not just a reduction in natural disasters, because even standard, not-directly-life-threatening mountains wouldn’t be as abundant, as many of the world’s most prominent mountain ranges are formed along plate boundaries as well. In general, our planet would appear a very different place!
But there’s a problem: Earth has two types of crust - continental and oceanic. Oceanic crust is thinner but denser, so its constantly dragged beneath its continental counterpart in areas known as subduction zones. It’s an ongoing geological process, and one that ensures our “land and sea” planet looks like it does. But, if Earth had just one, giant crust, we could wind up with a world that’s either entirely oceanic or entirely continental - neither of which boasts great prospects for human evolution. In fact, in either scenario, humans probably wouldn’t exist at all. Without the two types of tectonic plate, Earth would be incapable of making new crust or destroying the old… It’d stagnate for billions of years, unable to change, adapt or grow.
The effects run deeper still, though. The movement and subduction of Earth’s plates helps to push convection currents in the mantle - which generates massive amounts of heat. So, without these currents, and without their heat, the mantle would get cooler and cooler, until it eventually solidified. It’s what some scientists think could have happened to Mars a long time ago. So, in a roundabout way, if earthquakes never happened then Earth could well end up an ancient wasteland; just another uninhabitable planet in the solar system.
But, for a more optimistic outlook, say there was a way to achieve the best of both worlds; for earthquakes to disappear, but for the essential processes that trigger them to remain. Humanity evolves, society is more or less the same, and the planet hasn’t died. There’d still be fewer tsunamis, volcanoes and mountains, but there’d be no prospect of Earth transforming into an inhospitable husk. What about our lives would change?
For starters, with significantly fewer dangers to understand, predict or protect against, we wouldn’t have nearly as many people actually studying the Earth in the first place. The number of geologists, seismologists and geographers would fall; a change we’d perhaps only notice when investigating how and why other planets have earthquakes. Similarly, lots of anti-earthquake technology wouldn’t have been invented, because there’d be no need for it… meaning that cities in particularly earthquake-prone areas like Japan and the West Coast of America would look very different, without specific infrastructure to “earthquake-proof” against disaster. Perhaps, without the risk of earthquakes, society would turn even more of its attention toward building defences against other types of natural disaster, like hurricanes and tornadoes.
Clearly, though, the biggest and most positive difference in a world without ‘quakes would be that millions of people would no longer be under threat, and millions more would never have been in danger in the past. Events throughout human history have shown just how devastating earthquakes can be. In ancient civilizations, they were often thought to represent the wrath of the gods… but had they never happened that wrath would never have been felt. Era-defining volcanic events like the eruptions of Vesuvius or Krakatoa would also never have unfolded, nor the tsunamis that may have served as the basis for the Biblical Great Flood. So, even our mythology and scripture would be altered had these powerful, unseen forces never have struck at all. What’s thought to be the deadliest-ever recorded Earthquake was in Shaanxi, China in the 16th century, causing an estimated 830,000 deaths. Remove earthquakes from the story of life on Earth, then, and so many lives aren’t lost.
Finally, what of the other scenario, where earthquakes of the past have still happened, but the earthquakes of the future for some reason stop happening. In this world, people would know what earthquakes were and remember the destruction they can cause, and so we’d never be truly free of their influence. The Great Missouri Earthquake of 1990 serves as a case study of sorts, to see how humans would most likely behave in these conditions. When it was predicted that one of the deadliest ‘quakes in American history would strike the Midwest state, schools were shut, people stayed home, and everyone prepared for the worst. But then… nothing happened. There was no earthquake, and everyone was safe… but the panic bred because of a supposedly “overdue” disaster had led to mass hysteria. So, if earthquakes just stopped happening everywhere, we’d all most likely live in perpetual fear… waiting for their inevitable return.
And it’s not even as though, if typical earthquakes did somehow disappear, we’d never feel the ground shift beneath our feet. The earth could still shake for other reasons, including if and when it suffers an asteroid collision. Such an event would be rarer but would still signal immediate danger - placing us at the mercy of nature.
In general, though, an Earth without earthquakes thankfully avoids all of the death, damage and chaos that these seismic events can cause. But, scientifically speaking, a quake-free (and tectonics-free) Earth isn’t necessarily all that appealing. It would be a barren and inhospitable wasteland with a solid-rock mantle. And that’s what would happen if Earth never had earthquakes.