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UPDATED: How Humans Cause Earthquakes

Fracking is just the latest cause to make the news for its link to quakes

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Some scientists have suggested the weight of water in the lake created by the Zipingpu Dam in China triggered the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (courtesy of flickr user TaylorMiles)

Update on April 16, 2012: A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey to be presented Wednesday indicates that the “remarkable increase” in earthquakes in the continental United States that rate greater than 3 on the Richter Magnitude Scale is “almost certainly manmade.” The authors note that although it is unclear whether new hydrofracturing (a.k.a. fracking) techniques to recover natural gas are to blame, “the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells.” —Joseph Stromberg

On Saturday, a magnitude 4.0 earthquake shook eastern Ohio, a week after a smaller temblor in the region worried officials so badly that they halted work on a fluid-injection well in Youngstown.

This wasn’t the first case in which the injection of fluids into the earth has been linked with earthquakes. In April, for example, the English seaside resort town of Blackpool shook from a magnitude 2.3 earthquake, one of several quakes now known to have been caused by hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking,” which involves pumping large amounts of fluid into the ground to release natural gas) in the area. The link has been known for decades—a series of quakes in the Denver, Colorado, region in 1967 was caused by fluid injection.

The phenomenon is so well known that Arthur McGarr, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, has developed a method to predict the highest magnitude of an earthquake that could be produced by hydraulic fracturing, carbon sequestration, geothermal power generation or any method that involves injecting fluid deep into the earth. Though the method doesn’t allow scientists to predict the likelihood that such a quake would occur, it will let engineers better plan for worst-case scenarios, McGarr told Nature.

Hydraulic fracturing naturally causes small tremors, but bigger quakes may occur if the liquid migrates beyond the area where it’s injected. The New York Times reports:

The larger earthquakes near Blackpool were thought to be caused the same way that quakes could be set off from disposal wells—by migration of the fluid into rock formations below the shale. Seismologists say that these deeper, older rocks, collectively referred to as the “basement,” are littered with faults that, although under stress, have reached equilibrium over hundreds of millions of years.

“There are plenty of faults,” said Leonardo Seeber, a seismologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Conservatively, one should assume that no matter where you drill, the basement is going to have faults that could rupture.”

Earthquakes caused by fracking are of particular interest right now because the number of wells, particularly in the United States, has been skyrocketing (along with reports of nasty environmental consequences, such as flammable water). But this is only one way that humans are causing the earth to quake. Mining (taking weight from the earth), creating lakes with dams (adding weight on top of the earth) and extracting oil and gas from the earth have caused at least 200 earthquakes in the last 160 years, Columbia University earthquake scientist Christian Klose told Popular Science.

Klose’s research has demonstrated that coal mining was responsible for Australia’s most damaging earthquake in recent memory, the magnitude 5.6 Newcastle earthquake of 1989. And in 2009, he was one of several scientists who suggested that the magnitude 7.9 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province in 2008, which left 80,000 dead, could have have been triggered by the Zipingpu Dam. (That wasn’t the first time a dam was linked to an earthquake—Hoover Dam shook frequently as Lake Mead filled.)

It can be easy to look at our planet and think we’re too small to really do much damage, but the damage we can do can have severe consequences for ourselves. ”In the past, people never thought that human activity could have such a big impact,” Klose told Wired, “but it can.”

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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