Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

How Aquifers Could Trigger Earthquakes in Oklahoma

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Federal and university seismologists and geophysicists say oil and gas activity is likely driving Oklahoma’s uptick in earthquakes. The phenomenon, known as “induced seismicity,” is linked to waste fluid injection in disposal wells.

And while scientists say this fluid injection can trigger earthquakes, and suspect it’s doing so in Oklahoma, there are other theories as to what else could be contributing to the state’s exponential increase in seismicity.

One emerging theory is that depleted aquifers could trigger earthquakes when they suddenly refill. News 9′s Alex Cameron interviewed Tulsa geologist Jean Antonides:

Antonides says his research shows that aquifers near the location of certain earthquakes had been depleted, through both drought and increased human demand, and then suddenly refilled, through intense and heavy rains.

“When you have rainfall amounts of six inches over a few day period,” Antonides pointed out, “these rainfalls cover a thousand square miles — that’s a lot of weight.”

That much new weight – potentially trillions of tons — if it’s along or across a fault, can be enough to cause an earthquake.

Antonides’ paper lays out evidence that this hydrologic loading could have triggered, not only the Prague earthquake, but last April’s 4.3 magnitude quake in Luther, a 5.8 M quake in Virginia in 2011, and others.

It’s worth noting that Antonides works for an oil and gas company, Tulsa’s New Dominion, which operated a disposal well near the epicenter of the above-referenced Prague earthquake, the 5.6-magnitude temblor that is Oklahoma’s largest ever recorded.

Click here to read a .pdf of research on earthquakes near Arcadia by the Oklahoma Geological Survey's Austin Holland.

Oklahoma Geological Survey

Click here to read a .pdf of research on earthquakes near Arcadia by the Oklahoma Geological Survey's Austin Holland.

But the state’s official seismic authority, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, says Antonides research, which News9 reports hasn’t been published, is based on sound science. The OGS itself has theorized that the weight of the water that accompanied high lake levels in Lake Arcadia, could have contributed to earthquakes that shook near Jones and Luther in November 2013.

“I think, in some cases,” Holland told us, “there’s really strong evidence that hydrologic loads can trigger earthquakes.”

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  • Jack Wolf

    His hypothesis is loosely based on earlier work done that showed an increase in mega quakes following mega typhoons. The mega quakes occurred after the aquifers were depleted. See the AGU 2012 presentations on youtube. This however is the reverse.

    Keep in mind that the exceptional rains are tied to climate change, and therefore tied to fossil fuels. They are just trying to kick the can down the road again, but fail to realize there is no road at this point.

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma Joe Wertz

      Fascinating, @jack_wolf:disqus. Antonides just emailed me his paper, so I’m going to start digging through that. I’ve looked through the AGU 2012 stuff, but I can’t find the typhoon/megaquake research. Do you have a link handy?!

      • Jack Wolf

        Sorry – if was 2011. Here is the abstract:

        Disaster triggers disaster: Earthquake triggering by tropical cyclones

        Wdowinski, S.; Tsukanov, I.

        American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2011, abstract #U53E-06


        • http://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma Joe Wertz

          Thanks, @jack_wolf:disqus! Got some reading to do tonight!

          • Jack Wolf

            For more information, check the author’s citations and references then check out google scholar.

  • Charles Baudelaire

    @Joe Wertz
    , I’d like to get a copy of that paper too, if possible; I can’t find it published anywhere. I guess it must be an internal, New Dominion white paper? Can you post a link or his contact information?

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