Posts filed under “Science”

Human Activity Can Cause Earthquakes

It’s Official: Human Activity Can Cause Earthquakes

Human Activity Is Officially Acknowledged to Cause Earthquakes

The United States Geological Survey is America’s official expert on earthquakes. It’s the Federal agency charged with monitoring, reporting on, researching and stressing preparedness for earthquakes.

So I was surprised to read the following statement by the USGS:

Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada. The cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil, and the use of reservoirs for water supplies. Most of these earthquakes were minor. The largest and most widely known resulted from fluid injection at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado. In 1967, an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 followed a series of smaller earthquakes. Injection had been discontinued at the site in the previous year once the link between the fluid injection and the earlier series of earthquakes was established. (Nicholson, Craig and Wesson, R.L., 1990, Earthquake Hazard Associated with Deep Well Injection–A Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1951, 74 p.)

Injection Wells Can Induce Earthquakes

The New York Times noted in February:

Researchers with the Arkansas Geological Survey say that while there is no discernible link between earthquakes and gas production, there is “strong temporal and spatial” evidence for a relationship between these quakes and the injection wells.

For decades, scientists have been researching induced seismicity, or how human activity can cause earthquakes. Such a link gained attention in the early 1960s, when hundreds of quakes were recorded in Colorado a few years after the Army began injecting fluid into a disposal well near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory points out:

Induced seismicity [i.e. earthquakes] in oil and gas production has been observed ever since the 1930s, i.e., ever since large scale extraction of fluids occurred. The most famous early instance was in Wilmington, California, where the oil production triggered a series of damaging earthquakes. In this instance the cause of the seismicity was traced to subsidence due to rapid extraction of oil without replacement of fluids.


In the last decade a number of examples on earthquake activity related to oil and gas production as well as injection of liquids under high pressure have been observed, although not with as serious consequences as for Wilmington. Almost all induced seismicity associated with petroleum extraction can be traced to either fluid injection or extraction. In some recent cases injection of produced water (excess water extracted during oil and gas extraction) has produce significant seismic activity. Examples are in Colorado and Texas where gas and oil production yield large volumes of water that must be put back underground. In some cases the water cannot be put back exactly where it was produced and over pressurization of the water causes induced seismicity.

Lawrence Berkeley Lab provides details:

Fluid pressures play a key role in causing seismicity. Explained in simple terms, fluids can play a major role in controlling the pressures that are acting on the faults. The fluid pressure in the pores and fractures of the rocks is called the pore pressure.


Injecting fluids into the subsurface is one way of increasing the pore pressure and thus allowing the faults and fractures to “fail” more easily, thus inducing an earthquake.

That is why in many cases induced seismicity is caused by injecting fluid into the subsurface or by extracting fluids at a rate that causes subsidence and/or slippage along planes of weakness in the earth. Figure 2 is an example of induced seismicity being caused by water injection. Figure 2 is a cross section of the earth showing the location of the earthquakes (green dots), the locations of injection wells (thick blue lines) and production wells (thin lines, these wells extract fluid). Note the large number of events associated with the injection wells.

Figure 2 Example of injection related seismicity; note the close correlation between water injection wells and the location of the seismicity

Figure 2. Example of injection related seismicity; note the close correlation between water injection wells and the location of the seismicity.

For additional scientific documentation, see this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

“Fracking” Can Cause Earthquakes

Lawrence Berkeley Lab also points out that hydrofracturing (or “fracking” for short) can cause earthquakes:

Another type of induced seismicity is that which is associated with “hydrofracturing”. Hydrofracturing is done by injecting fluid into the subsurface to create distinct fractures in order to link existing fractures together in order to create permeability in the subsurface. This is done to extract in situ fluids (such as oil and gas). Hydrofracturing is distinct from many types of shear induced seismicity because hydrofracturing is by definition only created when the forces applied create a type of fracture called a tensile fracture, creating a “driven” fracture. Shear failure has been observed associated with hydrofracturing operations, as the fluid leaks off into existing fractures, but due to the very high frequency nature of tensile failure ( seismic source at the crack tip only) only the associated shear failure is observed by microseismic monitoring . However, hydofracturing is such a small perturbation it is rarely, if ever, a hazard when it is used to enhance permeability in oil and gas or other types of fluid extraction activities. To our knowledge hydrofracturing to intentionally create permeability rarely creates unwanted induced seismicity large enough to be detected on the surface even with very sensitive sensors, let alone be a hazard or an annoyance. In fact the very small seismic shear events created from the shear failure associated with the hydrofracture process are used to map the location of the induced permeability and as management toll to optimize fluid production. If not for the very small shear events it would be much more difficult to understand the effect of hydrofracturing because the seismic energy created from the “main fract” is to low to be detected, even from he most sensitive instruments at the surface of the earth Figure 3 is an example of how seismicity is used to map these hydrofractures. Last but not least another reason that the seismic risk is so low associated with hydrofracture operations in that they are of relatively low volume and short durations ( hours or days at the very most) compared to month and years for other type of fluid injections described above.

Figure 3. Cross section through a stimulation well showing six different stages of hydrofracture stimulation and the associated seismicity ( magnitude -1.0 to -2.5) during the entire hydrofracture (less than 24 hours) Warpinski et al 2005.

Figure 3. Cross section through a stimulation well showing six different stages of hydrofracture stimulation and the associated seismicity (magnitude -1.0 to -2.5) during the entire hydrofracture (less than 24 hours) Warpinski et al 2005.

AP reported in February:

Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey, said the quakes are part of what is now called the Guy earthquake swarm – a series of mild earthquakes that have been occurring [in Arkansas] periodically since 2009. A similar swarm occurred in the early 1980s when a series of quakes hit Enola, Ark.

Ausbrooks said geologists are still trying to discover the exact cause of the recent seismic activity but have identified two possibilities.

“It could just be a naturally occurring swarm like the Enola swarm, or it could be related to ongoing natural gas exploration in the area,” he said.

A major source of natural gas in Arkansas is the Fayetteville Shale, an organically-rich rock formation in north-central Arkansas. Drillers free up the gas by using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – injecting pressurized water to create fractures deep in the ground.

Ausbrooks said geologists don’t believe the production wells are the problem, but rather the injection wells that are used to dispose of “frack” water when it can no longer be re-used. The wastewater is pressurized and injected into the ground.


Ausbrooks said the earthquakes are occurring in the vicinity of several injection wells.


[Police Chief Dave Martini] the earthquakes started increasing in frequency over the past week and that the disposal well has seen an increase in use recently.

Websites Ask Whether Fracking Caused the Virgina Quake

Front-page articles at Daily Kos, OpEdNews, and RT ask whether the August 23rd Virginia earthquake was induced by fracking.

I have no idea whether or not this is true, and have been too busy to look at the supposed evidence of drilling near the epicenter of the earthquake.

But given that some human activity is officially acknowledged to be able to induce earthquakes, it’s worth asking these types of questions. 

Category: Science, Think Tank

Incredible Science Discoveries

It has been an amazing month for science. MIT researchers have succeeded in printing solar panels onto any piece of paper. Dutch company PlantLab has figured out how to triple the yield of plants using only 10% of the water typically needed: When grown outdoors plant photosynthesis is only about 9% efficient. With the correct…Read More

Category: Science, Weekend

Hubble Stares Deep into Dust-Choked Galaxy

11 million light-years away, deep inside the massive spiral galaxy Centaurus A (also known as NGC 5128), baby stars are bursting into existence. Although these enigmatic events appear to be choked by a thick shroud of dust, the Hubble Space Telescope has looked into the cosmic smog, revealing previously unseen intricacies of this well-known galaxy. Below:…Read More

Category: Science, Weekend

Space Shuttle Discovery – 360VR Images

I can confidently tell you this will be the most insane thing you will see today: > click for interactive 3d shuttle interior Hat tip Mike R!

Category: Science, Weekend

Synthetic Biology: E. Chromi

E. chromi is a collaboration between designers and scientists in the new field of synthetic biology. In 2009, seven Cambridge University undergraduates spent the summer genetically engineering bacteria to secrete a variety of coloured pigments, visible to the naked eye. They designed standardised sequences of DNA, known as BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

Each BioBrick part contains genes selected from existing organisms spanning the living kingdoms, enabling the bacteria to produce a colour: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. By combining these with other BioBricks, bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin. E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM).

Designers Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King worked with the team to explore the potential of this new technology, while it was being developed in the lab. They designed a timeline proposing ways that a foundational technology such as E. chromi could develop over the next century. These scenarios include food additives, patenting issues, personalised medicine, terrorism and new types of weather. Not necessarily desirable, they explore the different agendas that could shape the use of E. chromi and in turn, our everyday lives. This collaboration has meant that E. chromi is a technology that has been designed at both the genetic and the human scale, setting a precedent for future collaborations between designers and scientists.

E. chromi by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

E. chromi from Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg on Vimeo.


Design: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & James King
Animation – Cath Elliot (Little Giant Pictures)
Music – Matthew Irvine Brown
Illustration – Alice Hoult

Category: Science, Video

GMO’s Jeremy Grantham in Sunday NYT Magazine

One of the more interesting things you will read this weekend is the Sunday NYT Magazine’s spread on legendary investor Jeremy Grantham. GMO’s chief strategist discusses quite a few topics ranging from investing to global warming to commodity plays to doom & gloom. (Yeah, I have a few words in it). There are a number…Read More

Category: Commodities, Investing, Media, Science

The Octopus & the Coconut

Sounds like an Aesop Fable: Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, showing sophisticated tool use behaviour. Footage shot by Dr Julian Finn of Museum Victoria. Finn, J.K., T. Tregenza and M.D. Norman. (2009) Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus, Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009

Category: Science, Weekend

Dinosaur Art!

Love this site: Fuck Yeah, Dinosaur Art! > Click For More Dinosaur Art

Category: Science, Weekend

Massive Sun ‘Twister’ Swirls Up 12 Earths High

A stalk-like prominence rose up above the sun, then split into roughly four strands that twisted themselves into a knot and dispersed over a two-hour period (July 12, 2011). A NASA satellite has caught a stunning, yet eerie, video of a huge plasma twister rising up from the surface of the sun. The video, taken…Read More

Category: Science, Weekend

Galaxy Survey Fly Through

The 6dF Galaxy Survey has collected more than 120,000 redshifts over the southern sky over a 5 year period from 2001 to 2005. Its goal is to map our southern view of the local universe, and use the peculiar motions of one-tenth of the survey to measure galaxy mass. It covers more than eight times…Read More

Category: Science, Weekend