Seismicity in the contiguous United States between 2009 and 2012. Black dots denote earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 3.0. U.S. Geological Survey

Scientists say fracking is part of why Oklahoma now rivals California in quake activity.

This isn't just the stuff of comic-book villains: Real humans in the real world—actually, in Oklahoma, of all places—can cause earthquakes. 

Scientists have known about man-made earthquakes for decades. They've blame some reservoirs for seismic activity because reservoir water that trickles underground ends up lubricating faults that then slip—or, quake—as a result. 

These days, there appears to be a more common and growing culprit: fracking. (Scientists believe it's the deep disposal of wastewater from fracking that incites seismic events.) Some states where fracking is on the rise are in turn experiencing more and more earthquakes—which is why earthquake scientists believe the big one could strike Oklahoma any moment. "People are starting to compare Oklahoma to California in terms of the rate of magnitude-threes and larger," said Robert Williams, a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a warning saying it's crucial for Oklahomans to prepare for the "increased hazard." That prediction is based on a flurry of earthquakes that registered at least 3.0 or higher in magnitude, an uptick that scientists agree is linked to fracking in the state. More on that in a minute. First, let's look at how seismic activity has changed in Oklahoma.

* * * 

The rate of 3.0-or-larger earthquakes in Oklahoma jumped by about 50 percent since last year alone—and the increase is even more dramatic if you look at Oklahoma's longterm quake history. The earliest year for which there are reliable USGS records is 1978, so we'll start there. 

For 30 years—from 1978 until 2008—Oklahoma experienced an average of two earthquakes per year that measured 3.0 of bigger. But then something crazy happened. In 2009, the number of earthquakes began to shoot up. And it kept climbing. "People thought oh this might be a swarm of earthquakes, where you get a series of small quakes that build up to a bigger one then dies off," Williams said. "But this has just gone on and on. It's over a much broader area. We're not even calling it a swarm anymore. It's surprising."

Last year there were 109 earthquakes of 3.0 or bigger in Oklahoma—a record high. But by one-third of the way through this year, Oklahoma had already logged 145 earthquakes of that magnitude. Looking at these numbers, scientists believe there's a significant chance the state could see a damaging magnitude 5.5 (or bigger) quake next. Last month, Oklahoma made headlines when it experienced seven earthquakes—most strong enough to knock dishes off shelves, the largest measuring at a magnitude of 4.3—over the course of a single weekend. Officials are now developing an emergency earthquake plan for the state, where there has been a 500 percent increase in the purchase of earthquake insurance in three years, according to local TV station KFOR

"It's an unprecedented situation in Oklahoma state history," Williams told me. "And it's kind of a seismological rule of thumb that when you have certain number of earthquakes in a region over time, there's a relationship between the rates of smaller  earthquakes and the rates of larger ones. We're applying that rule to Oklahoma."

Scientists say the connection between increased seismic activity and fracking is clear, but there's still a lot we don't understand. And that's because there's a lot about fracking that we don't actually know. We don't know the pressure at which wastewater is injected, and we don't know how deep into the ground wastewater is injected—it could be hundreds of feet, or it could be miles. "The depth of injection matters," Williams said. "If it's really deep, the pore pressure changes affect where faults have more energy to release... But the operators of these wells aren't required to produce this information in detail."

There are also questions about which chemicals are used in the fracking process. Companies might use different materials in the fluids that help break up rock and extract petroleum. And without fully understand why fracking causes earthquakes when it does, we also can't figure out why it doesn't always cause them. Correlation, of course, isn't causation. Why does fracking seem to be linked to an uptick in earthquakes in some places but not in others? 

"We don't know exactly why," Williams said. (Some of the other states where seismic activity is on the rise: Arkansas, Texas, and to a lesser extent, Ohio and Colorado.) "There are a lot of questions yet to be answered. But a key point: There are thousands of wastewater wells across Oklahoma and we're seeing this concentration [of earthquakes] in central Oklahoma."

Part of the reason it's so hard to understand the connection between fracking and earthquakes is because there's no federal rule about what energy companies have to disclose about their fracking activities. "The states are the regulatory level for the oil and gas industry," said Matthew Kelso, the manager of data and technology for the site FracTracker.org. "Because of that, they each set up their own laws and their own requirements for what kind of data is collected."

So it's "extremely difficult" to compare fracking operations nationwide. That hasn't stopped Kelso and his colleagues from trying. They went to every state government in the country to produce an incredibly thorough look at fracking facilities nationwide. They don't have all the information they want—"violation data is very hard to come by," for instance—but it's a start. Kelso hopes the maps will inspire people to start asking questions about fracking that's happening around them. 

"One of the big things to think about is, if you own land, do you also own mineral rights?" Kelso said. "That's a clear consideration because there could be drilling activity on your land even if you don't authorize it if the mineral rights are owned by somebody else. If you depend on well water, there's a pretty good chance you should be aware of activity happening in your area... Other than that, things like road impacts, traffic jams, your roads being crushed by heavy trucks. There are social impacts as well. As boom towns develop around fracking, rents go up."

For people on the ground in Oklahoma, the priority has been to prepare for more earthquakes—including the big one that seems destined to come. From an earthquake-tracking Facebook group called Stop Fracking Oklahoma

my fear is people are far from being prepared for a 5.0+ quake in Oklahoma. Do you know how to shut off your gas meter? Have you 5 days of drinking water stored? Should you stay in your brick house during a quake, or any house in Oklahoma (I can't believe any are built well enough to stand up to a strong quake)? Unfortunately, building to withstand a tornado doesn't mean it is quake proof.

About the Author

Adrienne LaFrance
Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers technology. She was previously an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR.

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