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Increased Frequency of Earthquakes Linked to Fracking Wastewater Injection Wells

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Increased Frequency of Earthquakes Linked to Fracking Wastewater Injection Wells

EcoWatch

By Laura Beans

The increased rates of earthquakes occurring in the central and eastern U.S over the past few years is a growing cause of concern. Two recent reports delve into the probability of man-made, wastewater induced earthquakes.

According to the U.S Geological Survey (USGS), more than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred from 2010-2012, compared with a much lower national average rate of 21 earthquakes per year observed from 1967-2000. The USGS also found that the increase in seismic activity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this is a byproduct of oil and gas production which uses the process of fracking for extraction. The fracking wastewater is disposed of into wells specifically designed and approved for this purpose.

Seismicity of the coterminous U.S. and surrounding regions, 2009–2012. Black dots denote earthquakes with a magnitude ≥ 3.0 are shown; larger dots denote events with a magnitude ≥ 4.0. Background colors indicate earthquake hazard levels from the U.S. National Seismic Hazard Map (NSHM). Graphic courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

The journal Science published a report Thursday, concluding that powerful earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger swarms of minor quakes near wastewater-injection well sites like those used in oil and gas recovery, sometimes followed months later by quakes big enough to destroy buildings.

What seems to happen is that wastewater injection leaves local faults "critically loaded," or on the verge of rupture. Even weak seismic waves from faraway quakes are therefore enough to set off a throngs of small quakes in a process called "dynamic triggering."

Geologists have known for 50 years that injecting fluid underground, by the impoundment of water in reservoirs, surface and underground mining, can increase pressure on seismic faults and make them more likely to slip. The result is an induced quake.

The "natural gas boom" of recent years has been linked to an increase in small to moderate earthquakes. According to Rueters, seismologists at Columbia University say they have identified three earthquakes—in Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas—that were triggered at injection-well sites by major quakes a far distance away.

The seismic waves from an 8.8 quake in Maule, Chile, in February 2010 triggered a 4.1 magnitude quake in Prague, OK—site of the Wilzetta oil field—some 16 hours later. Months of smaller tremors in Oklahoma ensued, and then on Nov. 6, 2011, a 5.7 magnitude quake—the largest yet associated with wastewater injection—hit the city of Prague. It destroyed 14 homes, buckled a highway and injured two people.

"The fluids [in wastewater injection wells] are driving the faults to their tipping point," said Nicholas van der Elst of Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who led the study. 

Before the advent of injection wells, triggered earthquakes were a purely natural phenomenon. Now, according to the Science paper, triggered quakes can occur where human activity has weakened faults.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING and FRACKING WASTEWATER pages for more related news on this topic.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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