People knew we could induce earthquakes before we knew what they were. As soon as people started to dig minerals out of the ground, rockfalls and tunnel collapses must have become recognized hazards.
Today, earthquakes caused by humans occur on a much greater scale. Events over the last century have shown mining is just one of many industrial activities that can induce earthquakes large enough to cause significant damage and death. Filling of water reservoirs behind dams, extraction of oil and gas and geothermal energy production are just a few of the modern industrial activities shown to induce earthquakes.
A groundbreaking study shows direct link between fracking and earthquakes in Canada https://t.co/yO8Po5yI9d https://t.co/UB237MxyAl— Climate Reality (@Climate Reality)1481439789.0
As more and more types of industrial activity were recognized to be potentially seismogenic, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, an oil and gas company based in the Netherlands, commissioned us to conduct a comprehensive global review of all human-induced earthquakes.
Our work assembled a rich picture from the hundreds of jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the national and international scientific literature of many nations. The sheer breadth of industrial activity we found to be potentially seismogenic came as a surprise to many scientists. As the scale of industry grows, the problem of induced earthquakes is increasing also.
In addition, we found that, because small earthquakes can trigger larger ones, industrial activity has the potential, on rare occasions, to induce extremely large, damaging events.
How Humans Induce Earthquakes
As part of our review we assembled a database of cases that is, to our knowledge, the fullest drawn up to date. On Jan. 28, we will release this database publicly. We hope it will inform citizens about the subject and stimulate scientific research into how to manage this very new challenge to human ingenuity.
Our survey showed mining-related activity accounts for the largest number of cases in our database.
Initially, mining technology was primitive. Mines were small and relatively shallow. Collapse events would have been minor—though this might have been little comfort to anyone caught in one.
But modern mines exist on a totally different scale. Precious minerals are extracted from mines that may be over two miles deep or extend several miles offshore under the oceans. The total amount of rock removed by mining worldwide now amounts to several tens of billions of tons per year. That's double what it was 15 years ago and it's set to double again over the next 15. Meanwhile, much of the coal that fuels the world's industry has already been exhausted from shallow layers and mines must become bigger and deeper to satisfy demand.
As mines expand, mining-related earthquakes become bigger and more frequent. Damage and fatalities, too, scale up. Hundreds of deaths have occurred in coal and mineral mines over the last few decades as a result of earthquakes up to magnitude 6.1 that have been induced.
Other activities that might induce earthquakes include the erection of heavy superstructures. The 700-megaton Taipei 101 building, raised in Taiwan in the 1990s, was blamed for the increasing frequency and size of nearby earthquakes.
Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that filling large water reservoirs can induce potentially dangerous earthquakes. This came into tragic focus in 1967 when, just five years after the 32-mile-long Koyna reservoir in west India was filled, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing at least 180 people and damaging the dam.
Throughout the following decades, ongoing cyclic earthquake activity accompanied rises and falls in the annual reservoir-level cycle. An earthquake larger than magnitude 5 occurs there on average every four years. Our report found that, to date, some 170 reservoirs the world over have reportedly induced earthquake activity.
The production of oil and gas was implicated in several destructive earthquakes in the magnitude 6 range in California. This industry is becoming increasingly seismogenic as oil and gas fields become depleted. In such fields, in addition to mass removal by production, fluids are also injected to flush out the last of the hydrocarbons and to dispose of the large quantities of salt water that accompany production in expiring fields.
A relatively new technology in oil and gas is shale-gas hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which by its very nature generates small earthquakes as the rock fractures. Occasionally, this can lead to a larger-magnitude earthquake if the injected fluids leak into a fault that is already stressed by geological processes.
The largest fracking-related earthquake that has so far been reported occurred in Canada, with a magnitude of 4.6. In Oklahoma, multiple processes are underway simultaneously, including oil and gas production, wastewater disposal and fracking. There, earthquakes as large as magnitude 5.7 have rattled skyscrapers that were erected long before such seismicity was expected. If such an earthquake is induced in Europe in the future, it could be felt in the capital cities of several nations.
Erin Brockovich Meets With Oklahoma Residents Impacted by Human-Induced Earthquakes https://t.co/t2YhvkEhyE @foodandwater @joshfoxfilm— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484441407.0
Our research shows that production of geothermal steam and water has been associated with earthquakes up to magnitude 6.6 in the Cerro Prieto Field, Mexico. Geothermal energy is not renewable by natural processes on the timescale of a human lifetime, so water must be reinjected underground to ensure a continuous supply. This process appears to be even more seismogenic than production. There are numerous examples of earthquake swarms accompanying water injection into boreholes, such as at the Geysers, California.
Other materials pumped underground, including carbon dioxide and natural gas, also cause seismic activity. A recent project to store 25 percent of Spain's natural gas requirements in an old, abandoned offshore oilfield resulted in the immediate onset of vigorous earthquake activity with events up to magnitude 4.3. The threat that this posed to public safety necessitated abandonment of this US$1.8 billion project.
What This Means for the Future
Nowadays, earthquakes induced by large industrial projects no longer meet with surprise or even denial. On the contrary, when an event occurs, the tendency may be to look for an industrial project to blame. In 2008, an earthquake in the magnitude 8 range struck Ngawa Prefecture, China, killing about 90,000 people, devastating more than 100 towns and collapsing houses, roads and bridges. Attention quickly turned to the nearby Zipingpu Dam, whose reservoir had been filled just a few months previously, although the link between the earthquake and the reservoir has yet to be proven.
The minimum amount of stress loading scientists think is needed to induce earthquakes is creeping steadily downward. The great Three Gorges Dam in China, which now impounds 10 cubic miles of water, has already been associated with earthquakes as large as magnitude 4.6 and is under careful surveillance.
Devastation in Sichuan province after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, thought to be induced by industrial activity at a nearby reservoir.dominiqueb / Flickr
Scientists are now presented with some exciting challenges. Earthquakes can produce a "butterfly effect": Small changes can have a large impact. Thus, not only can a plethora of human activities load Earth's crust with stress, but just tiny additions can become the last straw that breaks the camel's back, precipitating great earthquakes that release the accumulated stress loaded onto geological faults by centuries of geological processes. Whether or when that stress would have been released naturally in an earthquake is a challenging question.
An earthquake in the magnitude 5 range releases as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. A earthquake in the magnitude 7 range releases as much energy as the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Tsar Bomba test conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. The risk of inducing such earthquakes is extremely small, but the consequences if it were to happen are extremely large. This poses a health and safety issue that may be unique in industry for the maximum size of disaster that could, in theory, occur. However, rare and devastating earthquakes are a fact of life on our dynamic planet, regardless of whether or not there is human activity.
Our work suggests that the only evidence-based way to limit the size of potential earthquakes may be to limit the scale of the projects themselves. In practice, this would mean smaller mines and reservoirs, less minerals, oil and gas extracted from fields, shallower boreholes and smaller volumes injected. A balance must be struck between the growing need for energy and resources and the level of risk that is acceptable in every individual project.
Gillian Foulger is a professor of geophysics at Durham University. Jon Gluyas is a geologist who began work in the oil industry after completing a Ph.D. Twenty eight years later in 2009 he joined Durham University as professor in geoenergy, carbon capture and storage. Miles Wilson is a Ph.D. student in the department of earth sciences at Durham University. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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