Induced Earthquakes Raise Chances of Damaging Tremors in 2016: USGS Report

The most significant hazards from induced seismicity are concentrated in six states. Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas

Around 7 million people live in places vulnerable to man-made tremors, according to a first ever report from the U.S. Geological Survey on the hazards of human-induced quakes.

For the first time, the United States Geological Survey is releasing maps that show the potential ground-shaking hazards from human-induced quakes. In the past, maps from USGS only identified tectonic hazards.

According to the USGS, more and more earthquakes are being caused by humans activities, such as waste water injection.

The most significant hazards from induced seismicity are concentrated in six states. Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. Oklahoma and Texas have the largest populations exposed to induced earthquakes, according to the USGS.

The USGS Did You Feel It? website has archived tens of thousands of reports from the public who experienced shaking in those states, including about 1,500 reports of "strong shaking or damage.”

"In the past five years, the USGS has documented high shaking and damage in areas of these six states, mostly from induced earthquakes," said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project.

Petersen says the purpose is to help people understand the risks.

“In California, people are very aware that they have a problem with earthquakes. This is nothing new for them,” Petersen said.

What is new are maps that now account for the potential of earth movements caused by fracking – and its byproducts such as when the oil industry disposes waste water by pumping it into deep wells.

“In the scientific world, the issue about pumping water underground, and can that trigger an earthquake? That was solved conclusively in the 1960’s,” said Dr. Pat Abbott, professor emeritus of Geology at San Diego State University. “Yes. Humans can trigger earthquakes by pumping water underground.”

Abbott said even though it’s well-known that humans can trigger earthquakes, in individual cases it’s very tricky to say whether an individual quake was caused by humans or whether it was just mother nature.

Still, the risks are great.

“When we talk about how bad a human-triggered earthquake can be, we can go back to China in 2008. The earthquake that killed the panda bears? 87,000 people killed. That earthquake was almost certainly triggered by human activities,” Abbott said, adding it was not triggered by fracking but rather building a dam a half a mile away from an active fault.

Around seven million people live and work in areas that could be affected by earthquakes caused by human activity, according to the report.

"By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S.," said Petersen. "This research also shows that much more of the nation faces a significant chance of having damaging earthquakes over the next year, whether natural or human-induced."

People living in areas of higher earthquake hazard should learn how to be prepared for earthquakes, and guidance can be found through FEMA’s Ready Campaign. 

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