Man-Made Earthquakes: Fact or Fiction?

  • Joe Wertz

The team at Reveal produced a nifty video on Oklahoma’s earthquake surge that shows, with entertaining visuals, the science of “induced seismicity” — the scientific mechanism that explains how disposal wells used by the oil and gas industry can trigger earthquakes.

The video, produced by Ariane Wu, was based on a reporting collaboration between myself and Reveal’s Michael Corey. The prospect of human’s triggering earthquakes isn’t new, and disposal wells aren’t the only non-naturally occurring activity that has made the earth shake, Corey and Wu explain in a web post accompanying the video:

Large-scale geothermal power plants also can be a trigger for earthquakes, notably at The Geysers in the California wine country.

And underground nuclear tests produce measurable seismic waves. In fact, much of what we know about the size and success (or failure) of North Korea’s nuclear tests comes from seismologists’ analysis of the small earthquakes the blasts triggered.

Man-made earthquakes are a well-documented phenomenon, and what’s happening in Oklahoma is only the most extreme example to date. It’s true that most of the earthquakes in Oklahoma have been small, but earthquakes are like a lottery you don’t want to win. For every 10 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0, there’s one 4.0. And if you have enough 4’s, you’ll eventually have a 5.

In recent years, however, there has been a spike in unusual earthquakes in big oil and gas states, they write:

Other oil-producing states aren’t so lucky. The U.S. Geological Survey has identified areas in eight states as having measurable levels of induced seismicity. (Translation: man-made earthquakes.) Those include parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arkansas, Alabama, Ohio and, of course, Oklahoma.