Technology has finally given us the ultimate Mad-Scientist Weapon; Humans can now CAUSE Earthquakes!

Back when I was young I liked to watch all of the spy shows. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Wild, Wild West, and Get Smart, I watched them all. Now sooner or later every one of those shows would broadcast an episode where a mad scientist or criminal organization would invent an Earthquake Machine with which they could threaten civilization. In fact season three of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. actually had two episodes where the bad guys were causing earthquakes.

(A quick aside about the way scientists measure the strength of earthquakes for those who aren’t familiar with the Richter scale. Each increase by +1, say from a 3 to a 4, means 10 times the amount of energy in the earthquake. So therefore a Magnitude 4 earthquake has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 3. A magnitude 5 has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 4 and therefore 100 times the energy in a 3. Now a magnitude 3 earthquake might actually be felt by someone right at the epicenter but most people would notice nothing. At the other end of the scale I lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake that killed several hundred people in the San Francisco area. That earthquake was a magnitude 8, or 100,000 times as powerful as a magnitude 3.)

I think of those old shows every time I hear about another earthquake occurring in the state of Oklahoma. You see up until some ten years ago Oklahoma was just about the most geologically stable place on Earth. Really, the nearest fault line is over 500 kilometers away and every since the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began monitoring Oklahoma the state had averaged about 2 tremors of magnitude 3 or more each year and the strongest earthquake ever measured in the state was a magnitude 5.5 way back in 1952!

No more, in the year 2015 there were over a thousand, that’s 1,000 earthquakes, 500 times as many as were recorded in the average year between 1972 and 2008! The quakes are getting stronger as well. In 2016, just one year there were 4 earthquakes of magnitude 5 or more including a magnitude 5.8 quake. The map below shows the levels of seismic activity in Oklahoma and surrounding areas.

Distribution of Recent Oklahoma Earthquakes (Credit: USGA, Public Domain)


So what happened? Where did all of this sudden increase in seismic activity come from? Well we’re doing it. That’s right human beings now possess the technology to cause earthquakes!

The technology is called hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly ‘fracking’ and fracking is used by the oil and natural gas industry as a means of rejuvenating oil wells and fields and that are no longer producing.

The technique involves the injection of large quantities of pressurized water, with various chemicals, deep into the ground that frees up trapped pockets of oil and gas enabling them to be economically pumped out. The US petroleum industry considers fracking to be nothing less than a miracle, vastly increasing domestic production and making the US once again energy independent.

But earthquakes are only one of the problems associated with fracking. Here in Pennsylvania the problems have included natural gas escaping into people’s homes along with the chemical laden water getting into the ground water. If you’d like to watch a YouTube video of a homeowner lighting her kitchen faucet on fire thanks to fracking click on the link below.

So here we have another case of a technology with great economic promise that also has definite drawbacks and again we have people taking a stand rather than trying to find a workable compromise. One major issue is the possibility of taxing the gas and oil companies so that everyone shares in the wealth being brought out of the ground. There also have to laws however that require petroleum companies to deposit a certain amount of money for the cleanup of their sites before they start fracking. Like mining companies, oil companies have a nasty habit of taking everything they can out of the Earth and then declaring bankruptcy so they don’t have to clean up anything.

So long as we continue the process of fracking the number and intensity of the earthquakes in Oklahoma will only increase. Of course we cannot even consider a reasonable solution where fracking is safely employed with monitoring and regulatory oversight. That would kill our economy or destroy the environment.

Anyone who has read a few of the posts on this blog knows that I am pro technology but I think it has to be used wisely. After all, we’re not just mad scientists in some stupid 1960s TV show are we?