Shaken and most likely stirred: How humans make earthquakes

Max Bruno, Reporter

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Used with permission/Nate Beeler/MCT Campus

 

     The ground is shaking, no, rolling: it seems as though waves pass through the carpet of the house, waves that could be enormous worms slithering under the framework and disrupting life above them for only a couple seconds.  A couple pictures and dishes fall onto the floor somewhere, shattering to bits.  The pieces jump up and down rapidly from the violent tremors that only slightly resemble the incessant jostling of a crowded childhood funhouse.
     I was involved in my first earthquake at the ripe old age of two, and it was traumatic enough to be ingrained within my memory.  My family had been living in California at that time — and coincidentally California is known for its earthquakes, mostly because of the state’s unfortunate location on the Ring of Fire (with no relation to Johnny Cash).  The Ring of Fire is not only known for the seismic activity, but also for the various amount of volcanic activity that occurs on it.
     Earthquakes began, or rather began to be recorded, in the year 416.  That first earthquake was the first ever in Japan’s recorded history, according to Baron Dairoku Kikuchi, and probably the world.  Many theories then began to sprout up to the question: what are these things?  Greeks believed it was Poseidon causing them; the Norse believed it to be Loki trying to escape his chains; some believed it to be aliens.  Further scientific research revealed that it was the tectonic plates shifting only a few inches each time, yielding the terrible quakes.  
     Yet, as time and technological development have increased in positive correlation since fifth grade science, earthquakes come from another source.
     The intention was never to cause an earthquake.
     “Unintentionally, it was a great experiment,” says Justin Rubinstein, a researcher on induced seismicity for the U.S.G.S..  And that’s what it was: in the 1960s, engineers at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical-weapons manufacturing center in Colorado, dumped waste fluids by injection down a 12,000 foot well.
     “More than a thousand earthquakes resulted, several of magnitudes close to 5.0,” writes Rivka Galchen, a reporter for “The New Yorker,” in her article “Weather Underground.”  Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is the process of injecting chemically treated water into the earth to fracture rocks in order to open oil and gas reserves.  It is also responsible for what happened in Colorado, and now many other places that support the procedure.
     This isn’t the only time earthquakes have been made through oil and gas exploration, according to Galchen.  “In Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, after dozens of smaller culminated in a 4.0, a nearby disposal well was shut down and the earthquakes stopped.  Around the same time, in Arkansas, a series of earthquakes associated with four disposal wells in the Fayetteville Shale led to a ban on disposal wells near related faults.”
     So the natural reaction would be to ban anything that could be a threat to the safety of others, right?  Wrong.  Not when it involves money.  And money, as we all know, can be quite a temptress.  Ohio is already attracting billions in investments from big-name firms, according to a 2011 report on money.cnn.com.
     Oklahoma receives most of its wealth from oil as well, mostly because it’s a larger oil state than Ohio.  But all this fracking?  It’s not a good thing, contrary to companies’ beliefs.  The act of fracking isn’t what usually causes the earthquakes though: it’s the disposal wells that come with it.
     Disposal wells are located thousands of feet underground and are encased in a layer of concrete; this is where used drilling liquid goes to its final resting place, according to statimpact.npr.com.  One would think that having the wells encased in concrete would make things safe; however, it’s not.
     “The model I use is called the air hockey table model,” says Cliff Frohlich, a scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas, in an interview with StateImpact reporters.  “You have an air hockey table, suppose you tilt it; if there’s no air on, the puck will just sit there.  Gravity wants it to move, but it doesn’t because there’s friction [with the table surface].”  Yet, it’s only when the air is turned on that the puck moves.
     “Faults are the same,” says Frolich.  “If you pump water in a fault, the fault can slip, causing an earthquake.”
     And boom: you have yourselves a manmade earthquake.
     For us Ohioans though, we might also see an increase in earthquakes with the increase of fracking in central and eastern North America.  Ohio has also had earthquakes, although it may be hard to believe, but most those have been very weak in seismic power.  The most recent baby quake was a 2.3 magnitude, 34 kilometers away from Willoughby, Ohio, according to ideo.columbia.edu.
     Now, for those who are inexperienced in earthquake safety, there’s not much you can do.  Even earthquake safety sites, such as usgs.gov, say the basics are to get under a sturdy table and hold on until the shaking stops.
     My only hope?  That someone finally realizes that fracking is worse for the Earth before an oil and gas company cause the largest earthquake ever to happen in the States. 

 

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2015-05-19 08:25:50

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