Sustainability Column: Too Much Friction

Many people like to think that earthquakes, the one natural hazard that is not directly influenced by climate change, will not increase in number as the Earth becomes hotter. While these people are right in that the temperature will not cause the number of earthquakes to rise, they do not understand that humans are having a far greater impact on earthquakes than previously thought.

Earthquakes typically happen when two tectonic plates are moving. Converging plates typically cause earthquakes, but transform boundaries can serve as a cause as well. Earthquakes produce energy which shakes the ground and whatever else is in the surrounding area. Buildings made with strong, ductile and flexible materials will fare better in an earthquake than those made with brittle or weak materials. Why does this matter?

 Many cities throughout the U.S. have building codes to ensure that infrastructure is built in such a way as to withstand earthquakes. However, these building codes do not ensure safety against the biggest and deadliest of earthquakes, and some cities (and whole countries) do not have building codes at all.

Earthquakes are also no longer just happening along fault lines. National Geographic featured an article about humans and their increasing impact on earthquakes, stating that “730 sites [have been documented] where human activity caused earthquakes over the past 150 years.” These large numbers are concerning, especially when considering the fact that geologists do not completely understand the effect we are having on these earthquakes. Two major causes of these earthquakes have been dams and hydraulic fracking.

Dams cause earthquakes that are, according to National Geographic, “by far the deadliest.” National Geographic gives the example of Sichuan Province, China where a 7.9 level earthquake struck, resulting in 80,000 people dying or going missing. This earthquake was believed to have been caused by the creation of the Zipingpu Reservoir and the 320 million tons of water being stored over a well-known fault line.

Fracking injects water into deep levels of rock and sediment in order to extract oil and gas. Not only does the water used for this process become contaminated, but the rocks themselves become lubricated and are more likely to slip against each other and cause earthquakes. That is why earthquakes have been happening in the middle of tectonic plates. In Oklahoma alone, thousands of small and large earthquakes occur annually in a region that was previously geologically quiet.

We will only see more of these cases as mining grows around the world and large coal and oil companies become more powerful. Oklahoma’s previous attorney general, Scott Pruitt, held back many of the advances the state could have made to stop these problems. In 2015 alone, when he still held office, the state experienced 857 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher, according to The Atlantic. Per The Atlantic, during Pruitt’s time, Oklahoma “developed the worst human-made earthquake problem in the country,” made worse by the fact that Pruitt would not admit to fracking as the cause of these earthquakes.

 Now, with Pruitt as the director for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a man who frequently sued and fought against the agency he now presides over, he appears to have anything but the environment as his priority. The Washington Post wrote an article commenting on Pruitt’s newly released emails where he “regularly huddled with fossil fuel firms and electric utilities about how to combat federal environmental regulations.” This close relationship with the fossil fuel industry is much worse than what this article can cover. In terms of earthquakes, though, it means that any efforts Oklahoma might be attempting to make to reduce its earthquakes just got much tougher. With Pruitt slashing regulations for these fuel companies, it only makes it more difficult for Oklahoma and other states working to ban fracking to do so.

Many states like New York and Maryland, as well as the entire country of Scotland, have already banned fracking due to both public opposition and environmental concerns. Banning fracking completely will not immediately stop these human-induced earthquakes, but it would be a significant start. Educate yourself on fracking and dam construction and reach out to your legislators to stop human-induced earthquakes from creeping into your area.         

Contact Maggie Dunn at [email protected].