Assessments of seismic risk have relied until recently on records of destructive earthquakes going back centuries and their relationship to tectonic features, mainly active faults. They usually predict up to 50 years ahead. The US Geological Survey has now shifted focus to very recent records mainly of small to medium tremors, some of which have appeared in what are tectonically stable areas as well as the background seismicity in tectonically restless regions. This enables the short-term risk (around one year) to be examined. To the scientists’ surprise, the new modelling completely changes regional maps of seismic risk. The probabilities in the short-term of potentially dangerous ground movements in 17 oil- and gas-rich areas rival those in areas threatened by continual, tectonic jostling, such as California. The new ‘hot spots’ relate to industrial activity, primarily the disposal of wastewater from petroleum operations by pumping it into deep aquifers.
USGS map highlighting short-term earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced earthquakes (source: US Geological Survey)
Fluid injection increases hydrostatic pressure in aquifers and also in the spaces associated with once inactive fault and fracture systems. All parts of the crust are stressed to some extent but the presence of fluids and over-pressuring increases the tendency for rock failure. While anti-fracking campaigners have focussed partly on seismic risk – fracking has caused tremors around magnitudes 2 to 3 – the process is a rapid one-off injection involving small fluid volumes compared with petroleum waste-water disposal. All petroleum production carries water as well as oil and gas to wellheads. Coming from great depth it is formation water held in pores since sedimentary deposition, which is environmentally damaging because of its high content of dissolved salts and elevated temperature. Environmental protection demands that disposal must return it to depth.
The main worry is that waste water disposal might trigger movements with magnitudes up to 7.0: in 2011 a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit a town in oil-producing Oklahoma and damaged many buildings. Currently, US building regulations rely on earthquake risk maps that consider a 50-year timescale, but they take little account of industrially induced seismicity. So the new data is likely to cause quite a stir. These are changing times, however, as the oil price fluctuates wildly. So production may well shift from field to field seeking sustainable rates of profit, and induced seismicity may well change as a result.
None of these areas are likely to experience the horrors of the 25 April 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal. However, it also occurred in an area expected to be relatively stable compared with the rest of the Himalayan region. The only previous major tremor there was recorded in the 14th century. This supposedly ‘low-risk’ area overlies a zone in which small tremors or microearthquakes occur all the time. Such zones – and this one extends along much of the length of the Himalaya – seem to mark where fault depths are large enough for displacements to take place continually by plastic flow, thereby relieving stresses. Most of the large earthquakes have taken place south of the microseismic zone where the shallow parts of the Indian plate are brittle and have become locked. The recent event is raising concerns that it is a precursor of further large earthquakes in Nepal. Its capital Kathmandu is especially susceptible as it is partly founded on lake sediments that easily liquefy.
Note added: 13 May 2015. Nepal suffered another major shock (magnitude 7.3) on 12 May in the vicinity of Mount Everest. It too seems to have occurred in the zone of microearthquakes formerly thought to mark a zone where the crust fails continually bu plastic deformation thereby relieving stresses. Kathmandu was this time at the edge of the shake zone
Geologists who study turbidites assume that the distinctive graded beds from which they are constructed and a range of other textures represent flows of slurry down unstable steep slopes when submarine sediment deposits are displaced. Such turbidity currents were famously recorded by the severing of 12 transatlantic telecommunication cables off Newfoundland in 1929. This happened soon after an earthquake triggered 100 km hr-1 flows down the continental slope, which swept some 600 km eastwards.
Typical structures in Upper Carboniferous turbidites near Bude, Cornwall, UK (credit: Flickr, Earthwatcher)
Sea beds at destructive margins provide the right conditions for repeated turbidity currents and it is reasonable to suppose that patterns should emerge from the resulting turbidite beds that in some way record the seismic history of the area. British and Indonesian geoscientists set out to test that hypothesis at the now infamous plate margin off Sumatra that hosted the great Acheh Earthquake and tsunamis of 26 December 2004 to kill 250 thousand people around the rim of the Indian Ocean (Sumner, E.J. et al. 2013. Can turbidites be used to reconstruct a paleoearthquake record for the central Sumatra margin? Geology, v. 41, p.763-766).
Animation of Indonesian tsunami of 26 December 2004 (credit: Wikipedia)
Cores through turbidite sequences along a 500 km stretch of the margin formed the basis for this important attempt to test the possibility of recording long-term seismic statistics. To avoid false signals from turbidity currents stirred up by storms, floods and slope failure from rapid sediment build-up 17 sites were cored in deep water away from major terrestrial sediment supplies, which only flows triggered by major earthquakes would be likely to reach. To calibrate core depth to time involved a variety of radiometric and stratigraphic methods
Disappointingly, few of the sites on the submarine slopes recorded turbidites that match events during the 150-year period of seismic records in the area, none being correlatable with the 2004 and 2005 great earthquakes. Indeed very little correlation of distinctive textures from site to site emerged from the study. Some sites on slopes revealed no turbidites at all from the last 150 years, whereas turbidites in others that could be accurately dated occurred when there were no large earthquakes. Only cores from the deep submarine trench consistently preserved near-surface turbidites that might record the 2004 and 2005 great earthquakes.
These are surprising as well as depressing results, but perhaps further coring will discover what kind of bathymetric features might yield useful and consistent seismic records from sediments.
Review of Fracking Issues posted on 31 May 2013 briefly commented on a major academic study of the impact of shale gas exploitation on groundwater. The 12 July 2013 issue of Science follows this up with a similar online, extensive treatment of how underground disposal of fracking fluids might influence seismicity in new gas fields (Ellsworth, W.J. 2013. Injection-induced earthquakes. Science, v. 341, p. 142 and doi: 10.1126/science.1225942) plus a separate paper on the same topic (van der Elst, N.J. et al. 2013. Enhanced remote earthquake triggering at fluid-injection sites in the Midwestern United States. Science, v. 341, p.164-167).
Major shale gas basins (credit: Wikipedia)
It was alarm caused by two minor earthquakes (<3 local magnitude) that alerted communities on the Fylde peninsula and in the seaside town of Blackpool to worrisome issues connected to Cuadrilla Resources’ drilling of exploratory fracking wells. These events were put down to the actual hydraulic fracturing taking place at depth. Such low-magnitude seismic events pose little hazard but nuisance. The two reports in Science look at longer-term implications associated with regional shale-gas development. All acknowledge that the fluids used for hydraulic fracturing need careful disposal because of their toxic hazards. The common practice in the ‘mature’ shale-gas fields in the US is eventually to dispose of the fluids by injecting them into deep aquifers, which Vidic et al. suggested that ‘due diligence’ in such injection of waste water should ensure limited leakage into shallow domestic groundwater.
The studies, such as that by William Ellsworth, of connection between deep waste-water injection and seismicity are somewhat less reassuring. From 1967 to 2001 the central US experienced a steady rate of earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 3.0, which can be put down to the natural background of seismicity in the stable lithosphere of mid North America. In the last 12 years activity at this energy level increased significantly, notably in areas underlain by targets for shale-gas fracking such as the Marcellus Shale of the north-eastern US. The increase coincides closely with the history of shale-gas development in the US. The largest such event (5.6 local magnitude) destroyed 14 homes in Oklahoma near to such a waste-injection site. Raising the fluid pressure weakens faults in the vicinity thereby triggering them to fail, even if their tectonic activity ceased millions of years ago: many retain large elastic strains dependent on rock strength.
Apart from the mid-continent New Madrid seismic zone associated with a major fault system parallel to the Mississippi, much of the central US is geologically simple with vast areas of flat-bedded sediments with few large faults. The same cannot be said for British geology which is riven with major faults formed during the Caledonian and Variscan orogenies, some of which in southern Britain were re-activated by tectonics associated with the Alpine events far off in southern Europe. Detailed geological maps show surface-breaking faults everywhere, whereas deep coal mining records and onshore seismic reflection surveys reveal many more at depth. A greater population density living on more ‘fragile’ geology may expect considerably more risk from industrially induced earthquakes, should Britain’s recently announced ‘dash’ for shale gas materialise to the extent that its sponsors hope for.
Nicholas van der Elst and colleagues’ paper indicates further cause for alarm. They demonstrate that large remote earthquakes. In the 10 days following the 11 March 2011 Magnitude 9.0 Sendai earthquake a swarm of low-energy events took place around waste injection wells in central Texas, to be followed 6 months later by a larger one (4.5 local magnitude). Similar patterns of injection-related seismicity followed other distant great earthquakes between 2010 and 2012. Other major events seem not to have triggered local responses. The authors claim that the pattern of earth movements produced by such global triggering might be an indicator of whether or not fluid injection has brought affected fault systems to a critical state. That may be so, but it seems little comfort to know that one’s home, business or community is potentially to be shattered by intrinsically avoidable seismic risk.