A school lies damaged after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. W.L. Huber/USGS

Scientists have linked oil and gas exploration to several L.A.-area quakes, including one that led to the passage of earthquake-resistant building codes.

The Los Angeles Basin was (and still is) an incredibly productive oil source. By 1930, it’s thought about 25 percent of the world’s crude originated from the region.

And all that harvesting of oil and natural gas might’ve literally had consequences at the deepest level: Several earthquakes that struck the region in the ‘20s and ‘30s look to have been caused by rampant drilling, according to a new study from U.S. Geological Survey scientists.

The researchers link oil and gas production to earthquakes in 1933 in Long Beach, 1920 in Inglewood, and 1923 and 1929 near Whittier, just east of L.A. The Long Beach quake, though moderate in power, killed 115 people and destroyed structures (many built on landfill) over a vast area. Several schools and three square blocks of Compton basically crumbled; California responded to the disaster by enacting some of its first regulations for earthquake-resistant construction.

The problem is that drillers were using techniques that left the land sunken and unstable, writes the USGS:

During the early decades of the oil boom, withdrawal of oil was not balanced by injection of fluids, in some cases leading to dramatic ground subsidence, and potentially perturbing the sub-surface stress field on nearby faults.…

“It has been widely assumed that induced earthquakes do not contribute significantly to hazard in regions west of the Rocky Mountains, but our research suggests that damaging induced earthquakes might have occurred in the past,” said Susan Hough, USGS seismologist. “Our study further suggests that the rate of natural tectonic earthquakes in the Los Angeles basin for this time period might have been lower than previously estimated.”

The good news is SoCal's oil and gas industry no longer uses these antiquated processes. The bad is there’s ever-growing evidence humans are inducing earthquakes in places like Arkansas and Oklahoma, where the USGS says quake rates have “increased sharply in recent years.”

Another school that was totaled in the 1933 Long Beach quake. (USGS)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Videos

    5 Ways to Seriously Battle Traffic

    So long as cars are among us, road pricing, ramp meters, and diamond-shaped intersections can mitigate horrendous commutes, a new video explains.

  2. The Salk Institute, near San Diego
    Design

    This Is Your Brain on Architecture

    In her new book, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents scientific evidence for why some buildings delight us and others—too many of them—disappoint.

  3. Transportation

    Do Driverless Cars Need Their Own Roads Around Manhattan?

    A concept for AV expressways promises to reduce travel times, but falls into an old trap of car-centric planning.

  4. An empty storefront on a sidewalk with a "retail space for lease" sign in the window
    Life

    How Cities Can Save Small Shops

    Some places are already taking action, but New York City is lagging behind. Here’s a blueprint for keeping local retail healthy.

  5. Transportation

    5 Reasons to Be Wary of Elon Musk's Hyperloop

    High-speed vactrains might be the ticket for a Martian colony. As a practical transit investment for Earth, the technology has a long way to go.