Okay, I know this is a science fiction/nerdist website, but once in awhile I feel the need to express some notion or thought from my professional life, i.e. geoscience. I feel this need because A: occasionally I have an idea that I can’t really put forth in a peer reviewed journal because I’m not an academic and don’t really want to be, and B: Once in a blue-moon as I read peer-reviewed journals I see an idea I’ve had and think, “Hey, I had that idea! If only I had the skills, facilities, and where-with-all to propose, test, and propound that hypothesis in an acceptable form so that I could, I don’t know, be cool and junk.” It’s really just a version of that annoying thing people do when some new device or advance comes out and they say, “I totally thought of that before!” and if it wasn’t for their lack of engineering skills and business acumen then they would be inventing the I-phone or The Sims or Crystal Pepsi. Anyway, this isn’t really one of those. It’s not even original. I just noticed something odd when I was looking through earthquake logs… because that’s something I do…
Background: Oklahoma City, November 5th 2011, 10:50PM: I had just gotten home from work after a long day of differential equations and slinging beer. We lived in a fine little house in a wonderful enclave called Nichols Hills, a place famous for having more cops and billionaires per capita than anywhere else in America. Life was good. I sat down at the kitchen counter to read the recent edition of Time Magazine when the wiener dog came shrieking through the house. This wasn’t unusual. The wiener dog does that from time to time. This time however it was followed by the house shaking in an alarming fashion. Pictures swayed, cabinets opened, piles of books that I seem compelled to create fell over. It felt like it went on forever, the whole world was growling. Then it ended. I went to my desk and withdrew a list, checked off the box beside, “survive earthquake.” I was a happy man. I had just survived the strongest earthquake to hit Oklahoma in recorded time.
Fracking: In the days, weeks and months that followed their began a debate on whether this earthquake had been caused by fracking, the process of injecting salt water and a slurry of other chemicals into the ground at such prodigious pressures that the basement rocks fracture, giving up the natural gas locked inside them. People that hate Mother Nature said, “NOOOOO!” People that hate hot showers, cars, abundant food and America said, “YESSSSS!” Initially I was with the Nature Haters. No, we tiny humans cannot cause a 5.6 magnitude earthquake. I mean, that has the power of an atomic bomb and we’ve never created one of those, right?
Well I still don’t think we caused the 5.6. Oklahoma has earthquakes on occasion. From 1952 through to 1969 about ten significant earthquakes occurred in central Oklahoma (more if you break out foreshocks and aftershocks). This historic cluster seems to be similar to the above mentioned 5.6 and the 5.2 that occurred a few weeks later. But those are not the only earthquakes. The problem really seems to be that in the 20th century there were about 84 quakes, then in what suggests a directly proportional relationship (suggests only), the quakes increased as the fracking increased. 49 quakes in 2009 and up it goes.
In reality the quake numbers are far greater. In the years since 2009 the actual quake numbers are in the thousands per year, though the vast majority are exceedingly small. So here is where one of my geekier habits comes into play.
I want to introduce you to IRIS, a resource from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. Oh how I love thee. I go to IRIS every day to see what is shaking where. Just go there and you will see this:
This is an interactive map denoting all recent quake activity, current quakes, magnitude etc. And whats more, you can focus on the region and pull up the last thirty days of activity, and plot the region into a 3-D viewer, FANTASTIC! So I’m doing this and I think, “Why don’t I look at some various types of high activity regions around the world and see what they look like graphically when compared to Oklahoma. Here is what I found:
So, does fracking and/or deep waste water disposal cause earthquakes? Probably, but it’s doubtful that it could cause catastrophic tumblers, though one may argue that small shakings could increase the likelihood of catastrophic energy release in nearby faults. Dominoes are funny that way. The 1964 Alaska Earthquake (mag 9.2) caused old faithful in Yellowstone to change its eruption cycle over two thousand miles away. Granted that earthquake was about 10 to the 7 times more powerful than what Oklahoma is seeing, but again- dominoes. Does it matter? Depends on where you are I think. The damage to my house in Oklahoma in 2011 was twelve dollars when the scared dachshund peed on one of the overturned stacks of books. If I were an actuary I wouldn’t worry too much, and that is exactly why I’m NOT an actuary. Actuaries are very much worried about this. The fact that the debate is less heated in the media doesn’t mean that the debate is over. When fracking was first blamed every energy industry group had its puppet geologists out screaming bloody murder that fracking unequivocally can not cause quakes. Other puppets yelled back. Meanwhile science started happening, mostly quietly, mostly ignored. It’s not hard to find USGS sources and their state equivalents now saying that yes, fracking could be causing small earthquakes.
And there you go. If you have any questions on hydraulic fracturing, ask an expert.
Thanks for sticking around, and for all the emails asking me to get back to work. I was really touched… and kind of confused.