Deja Vu

A new study by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, not yet published but scheduled to be presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America, reports a dramatic increase in earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater over a large area of the U.S. More interestingly, the report states that the increase is “almost certainly man-made,” and attributes it to oil and gas production.


MSN reports thus:


The study said a relatively mild increase starting in 2001 comes from increased quake activity in a methane production area along the state line between Colorado and New Mexico. The increase began about the time that methane production began there, so there’s a “clear possibility” of a link, says lead author William Ellsworth of the USGS.

Since I’m a data junkie, I retrieved some data on earthquake occurrences in the study region. The data I retrieved are from only one of the catalogues used in the USGS study, and I haven’t applied the control measures used by the study authors, so my numbers don’t theirs match exactly — but it should at least give us an idea whether or not there is an obvious increase in earthquakes as dramatic as reported.

Annual counts of earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater looks rather like, well, a hockey stick:

Monthly counts look rather like, well, a hockey stick:

What really surprised me about the news report, and gave me a distinct feeling of deja vu, was not the dramatic (truly!) increase in earthquakes or its attribution to human activity. It was what the Oklahoma state seismologist had to say. I already expected him to cast doubt on the findings for political rather than scientific reasons, because Oklahoma is so deeply involved with the fossil fuel industry. What amazed me was how he attempted to do so:


Austin Holland, the Oklahoma state seismologist, said the new work presents an “interesting hypothesis” but that the increase in earthquake rates could simply be the result of natural processes.

Holland said clusters of quakes can occur naturally, and that scientists do not yet fully understand the natural cycles of seismic activity in the central United States. Comprehensive earthquake records for the region go back only a few decades, he said, while natural cycles stretch for tens of thousands of years. So too little is known to rule out natural processes for causing the increase, he said.

Does that sound familiar?

Perhaps what should surprise me is that he didn’t blame it on galactic cosmic rays. Or movement of the sun around the solar system barycenter. Or the moon. But we all know the real reason: leprechauns.

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23 responses to “Deja Vu

  1. Susan Anderson

    only slightly OT:
    One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

    I’d been following the earthquake news since the first tendrils hit my radar – I think it was about a year ago – and to me what’s surprising is that there has been very little pushback, despite this example. I have to assume that’s because it’s true. I had always assumed that drilling deep holes into the earth’s crust was dangerous, got laughed at about it a few years back and decided it was I who was being foolish and superstitious. But now we have BP, the North Sea gas leak, and this.

    The Mordor quote is because I’m frightened by the traction the “one world government” meme has among those whose education, while perhaps complete in one sense, is incomplete on following evidence, checking things out, and exercising critical thinking. Also the insistence that any Republican who dares follow his own senses is a RINO. To have half the people in the country convinced that they *must not* think for themselves is to me truly terrifying.

  2. Doesn’t someone have to accuse USGS scientists of a funding-induced bias for the analogy to be complete?

  3. “A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock, of which there were neither in this region.”

    … therefore, if as we hope this is merely a natural occurrence, we can anticipate either volcanic activity or large earthquakes …. oh, wait ….

  4. t_p_hamilton

    I asked my geology colleague about whether fracking causes earthquakes. He instantly said “Of course.” followed by a bunch of tomfoolery about cracking rocks and faults etc. But what does he know – decades ago he turned down a job from what is now Chevron.

  5. I would think that Leprechauns would be a more appropriate explanation if this was an Irish phenomenon. Then again, oil is “black gold.”

    I haven’t read the paper yet and will soon, but is oil and gas production something that just recently started up in Oklahoma, or is it new means of production that are causing these results?

    • Well perhaps “in Oklahoma” isn’t the best description, I briefly confused your discussion on the Oklahoma state seismologist with the area of study, the US mid-continent.

  6. The Oil & Gas companies have done a good job of getting ahead of this issue, successfully convincing state & local governments of the relative safety of fracking, with these earthquakes seen as only minor inconveniences that for the most part are “harmless”. The riches of gas and oil to be squeezed out of rock are just too tempting a target and the industry and government too closely aligned in most cases. When a larger quake hits, and the court cases and lawsuits begin to roll in, it will get more attention, and I hope then the issue of responsibililty will come to the front and center. But as we saw even with the Gulf oil disaster, that the thirst oil and the huge profits to be made seem to trump all. Even the average Joe or Jill sixpack will probably accept a few earthquakes now and then, so long as the damage to their homes is not too great, if it means that they can keep driving their Hummer as much as they want.

  7. Natural cycle, lol. If there is a natural tenfold increase in mag 3, there should also be if it’s natural a tenfold increase of Mw X>3 earthquakes, since the Gutenberg-Richter “law” was never defeated for natural cases. That means more Mw 4, 5, 6 … and it would have triggered a flurry of studies by seismologists around the world (especially the Japanese – imagine that they get ten times more Mw 9 earthquakes because of a “natural cycle”).
    Of course, there is nothing remotely close to that happening. I don’t buy it at all. I will poll my colleagues, but that sounds utter rubbish.

    I don’t know about “skeptic” climatologists, this is not my field. But I know that a seismologist (even a bad one) *must* know the Gutenberg Richter law and its implications, this is almost a reflex for everyone in the field. Austin Holland is either not a seismologist, or he is deceiting. No other choice.

    If you wish to get deeper in the study, I recommend two ways :
    – the most accessible way is to compute the Gutenberg Richter law (see Wikipedia) for magnitude up to Mw=4 or 5 for a decade before 2009 and for 2009-2012. The second duration is a bit short, though. If you see a clear break of the law for the second duration, something unnatural is happening.
    – of course, the most obvious way : study the locations and find if they are more closely correlated with well positions. This is however a pain because you have to find the locations of earthquakes (with error bars), and the locations of wells …

    maybe there is also something to do with the average distance between two successive events in time ?

    • ok, I just saw that Ellsworth is the first author of the study – I think he’s best placed to check the location of the swarms :] (coauthor of a powerful relocation method for earthquake swarms)

    • So, you’re saying we should expect that earthquakes induced by fracking and/or wastewater injection will *not* follow the Gutenberg Richter law. If true, and there’s an upper cutoff magnitude for these anthropogenic quakes around 3, then the quakes aren’t very important. If, on the other hand, these quakes transfer stresses to larger faults … then eventually G-R could catch up and we’ll see large quakes and lawsuits.

      (Of course going to such efforts to get carbon to put into the atmosphere is a problem regardless of the earthquakes.)

  8. “The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep…”
    (Not Mordor. Moria. And not leprechauns. If only.)
    :-)

    • Susan Anderson

      Yes indeed, all that delving recalls the Balrog. However, my OT bit was about the “one world government” meme that is catching on like wildfire, and I think it is worthy of Sauron. Seems to have been carefully rolled out and market tested (ALEC, Koch, et al. – my bad introducing politics – feel free to edit).

      [Response: Perhaps more suited to the open thread.]

  9. I hope this is not out of line because even though its tongue in cheek there is some truth to it. People from OK and KS might be better off blaming the increase on the gays. One reason gays were looked down upon in biblical times is because what they did, well, was believed to be the cause of earthquakes. I remember that from some PBS doc awhile back.

  10. Besides, if there was any chance that setting off a lot of little earthquakes would be a clue that a region was already primed for a very rare large earthquake, that pattern could be observed in nature. What else could do that? Nothing. Well, okay, tides. Well, uh …
    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2012/2012GL051179.shtml

    So, this Mississippi River fault that runs through the middle of North America, it’s quiet now, right?

    … tickle, tickle, tickle ….

  11. Say, Tamino, how variable is Sol likely to be, if it’s typical of its type? Or if it’s at the high end of variability? I keep wondering — given we know about the Carrington Event.

    [Response: I’m not sure, but I think someone did a study of main-sequence G-spectrum stars (like the sun) and didn’t find evidence of sufficient variability. However, it would be hard to detect. Just to give a ballpark figure of what we’re looking at, solar variability during the solar cycle (about 1 W/m^2) amounts to a brightness variation of about 1 millimagnitude — only the best photometers are sufficiently precise to detect that and they haven’t been monitoring stars at that level for very long.]

  12. According to the abstract, it looks like it’s likely related to coalbed methane (CBM) production from the Raton Basin in New Mexico and waste-fluid disposal in Arkansas. It doesn’t say hydraulic fracturing is involved, not directly at least.

    Even though CBM wells in the Raton Basin of New Mexico are often fracked, CBM also produces a lot of formation water in the first couple of years as the well de-waters and then the water must be disposed of, typically in waste-disposal (injection) wells. And, frankly, CBM fracks are pretty small in the grand scheme of things, certainly not comparable to the size of shale-gas fracks.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was well-waste disposal in the Raton Basin too. There’s a long history of documented, small, very local seismic activity related to waste-fluid injection. But what the study doesn’t give any indication of is how many wells would be responsible for this rise in earthquake activity. Given that we’re only talking about 134 events in 2011, it might only be a few. Certainly, where production or disposal wells are sited can be regulated better (by using geophysics to identify any underground fault trends to avoid).

    Something that definitely deserves more study at least.

  13. That mucking about with the contents of strata causes earthquakes is not surprising; witness sink holes and subsidence from humans drawing too greedily on the water table, or even earthquakes after a valley is loaded by a new dam. A simple test in this case would be to stop drilling, and see if the quakes tail off as the strata reaches a new equilibrium, but that’s about as likely as an alcoholic putting down the bottle to see if their liver stops taking damage…

    However, making obvious predictions and linkages from science and statistics might be problematic for a public figure, especially in a business-friendly and litigation-happy environment. Look no further than the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 for litigation gone wild.

  14. The oil and gas industry has gotten away with much worse. Tornqvist et. al. (Geology 2006) and others have shown that west of the Mississippi Delta, the Chenier Plain in Louisiana and Texas is geologically stable. Robert Morton (many publications) has shown that the very rapid rates of subsidence that is occurring along hundreds of miles of coastline there is due to depressurization of oil and gas fields and subsequent collapse of the overlying strata as well as with activation of surface faults. That area is already experiencing inundation by the sea that isn’t expected from eustatic rises until the next century (4 to 6 feet per century), all due to man-made subsidence.

  15. I have no reason to doubt that the increase in quakes is anthropogenic. The majority of these quakes are weak and insignificant, they might actually release pent up subsurface energy thereby eliminating large quakes. SanFrancisco would do well with more of these man made micro-quakes.

    I could not care in the least that they are manmade, keep fracking baby! Wahoo!