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Stronger ‘Frackquakes’ Are on the Way, Scientists Warn

Stronger ‘Frackquakes’ Are on the Way, Scientists Warn

Written by Emily Atkin

The man-made earthquakes that have been shaking up the southern United States only stand to get stronger and more dangerous as the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, increases, scientists warned at a Thursday conference.

According to multiple reports, scientists attending the Seismological Society of America annual meeting agreed that fracking can change the state of stress on existing faults to the point of failure, causing earthquakes. That stress is generally not caused by fuel extraction itself, but by a process called “wastewater injection,” where companies take the leftover water used to frack wells and inject it deep into the ground.

Though it was previously believed that the man-made earthquakes could not exceed a 5.0 magnitude, many now say that larger quakes could become the norm as more and more water is stored underground.

“I think ultimately, as fluids propagate and cover a larger space, the likelihood that it could find a larger fault and generate larger seismic events goes up,” Western University earth sciences professor Gail Atkinson reportedly said at the meeting.

Because of this and other warnings, the U.S. government also announced on Thursday that it would begin to track the risks that these so-called “frackquakes” pose, and start including them on official maps that help influence building codes.

Though the U.S. Geological Survey is known for mapping regular earthquakes and alerting local governments about their risks, it has never taken man-made quakes into account. It made the decision to do so, however, after finding that two strong earthquakes in heavily-drilled areas of Colorado and Oklahoma in 2011 were likely the result of wastewater injection from fracking.

Wastewater injection is not the only thing connected to what the USGS is now calling “induced” earthquakes, however. Gail Atkinson, an earthquake scientist at Western University in Ontario, told the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday that the actual process of extraction from fracking could be causing the quakes as well. Fracking is uniquely characterized by its process — injecting high-pressure streams of water, chemicals, and sand into underground rock formations, “fracturing” the rock to release oil and gas. This could also trigger the quakes, Atkinson said.

“Waste water is the dominant cause,” she said. “But what we are seeing as time goes on is that there are also events being induced from hydraulic fracture operations.”

Thursday’s warning is just one more bullet on a list of scientific papers warning of fracking-induced quakes. Researchers at Southern Methodist University, for example, recently linked a string of 2009 and 2010 earthquakes in Texas to the injection of fracking wastewater into the ground. In early 2013, fracking wastewater disposal was also linked to the 109 earthquakes that shook Youngstown, Ohio in 2011 — an area that hadn’t ever experienced an earthquake before an injection well came online in December 2010.

Despite the research, many involved in bringing fracking operations to fruition in some of the more earthquake-ridden places don’t believe a link exists. After experiencing more than 30 small earthquakes in three months, residents of the north Texas town of Azle in January traveled three hours to a Texas Railroad Commission meeting in Austin, urging commissioners to halt the use of the wells.

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, however, refused to acknowledge a connection.

“It’s not linked to fracking,” he said at the time. “If we find a link then we need to take a hard look at all these injection wells in this area. Reexamine them … Perhaps there something that we’re not aware of underground.”

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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100 comments

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7:13PM PDT on Jul 26, 2014

What's most scary is the trashing of the oceans with plastic and toxins, and the unrelenting emission of greenhouse gases. It will take the earth millions of years to recover from that assault once the human race goes extinct.. if the earth survives.

12:06PM PDT on May 27, 2014

Money talks. Health and safety come in last. Greed wins every time.

9:05AM PDT on May 13, 2014

Couldn't have said it better than Mona E. Thing is that these people are not stupid though, they are just greedy, power hungry and totally without conscience. Loathe them to my core.

8:24AM PDT on May 12, 2014

no surprise

7:56AM PDT on May 11, 2014

Taken globaly humans are the most stupid species roaming this once beautiful planet. If the morons running the game are not replaced soon by people with a brain, things do not look good.

12:38AM PDT on May 10, 2014

it doesn't take a scientist to tell us that fracking will cause earthquakes.......anyone could tell us that......these big oil companies who flash the cash are also destroying our planet and they are the main abusers to our climate change....which they must be accountable for ......mother nature is violently angry and we must repair our planet now !..........INNOCENT LIVES WILL BE LOST !

9:24AM PDT on May 9, 2014

Our government has just published a report on fracking, recommending that it goes ahead in the UK, written by a bunch of people with vested interests in fracking companies and their investors.

5:27AM PDT on May 9, 2014

Oh I am sure someone is doing that Tony C whether we will ever see it is another matter. And even if it is sent out they have an army of well paid off scientists that are paid to refute anything thsat makes them look bad. And if that doesnt work they have an even larger army of lawyers.

1:18AM PDT on May 9, 2014

Isn't there some way someone can map all the fracking sites and all the earthquake sites around the world and superimpose on a map and see if they join up at certain points. If they do then that to me would be a VERY STRONG indication that fracking produces earth quakes. Mother nature for billions of years has made earthquakes and does NOT need help from oil corporations.

2:38PM PDT on May 8, 2014

VERY FRIGHTENING!!! -Bev

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