The ongoing earthquake swarm in central Oklahoma has increased speculation that wastewater injection wells used by the oil and gas industry are at least partially to blame for the rise in seismic activity.
But, obviously, it’s probably only one factor. Oklahoma’s underground does have “a great number of faults of varying sizes,” according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Any larger view of the issue needs to take that basic fact into account and also the historical record of earthquakes here.
But what if overall climate change, coupled with wastewater injection wells, are making the earth move here more frequently? That may seem implausible, at first, but it does make sense that primarily human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels that cause global warming, could be to blame for the dramatic increase in earthquakes here. It’s an understatement to say that overall humans haven’t been good stewards of the planet, and it should come as no surprise that there are ramifications for this.
First, here’s what we know for sure: Oklahoma has experienced 200 earthquakes of a 3.0 magnitude or above on the Richter scale since 2009, according to scientists. The state’s largest recorded earthquake, measured at a 5.6 magnitude, occurred near Prague in 2011. In recent days, there have been dozens upon dozens of small earthquakes in central Oklahoma, rattling buildings and nerves here.
Scientists have been considering the impact of wastewater injection wells used in oil and gas production on the increase in seismic activity here, but what about the larger issue of climate change?
British professor Bill McGuire’s 2012 book, Waking the Giant: How a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, makes the case for a link between global warming and earthquakes. McGuire, a geophysicist argues that the recent rise in sea levels caused by climate change impacts the earth’s crust in particular ways.
Introducing his book in The Guardian, McGuire writes that the “earth beneath our feet” is a “slumbering giant that tosses and turns periodically in response to various pokes and prods.” He adds this:
Mostly, these are supplied by the stresses and strains associated with the eternal dance of a dozen or so rocky tectonic plates across the face of our world; a sedate waltz that proceeds at about the speed that fingernails grow. Changes in the environment too, however, have a key role to play in waking the giant, as growing numbers of geological studies targeting our post-ice age world have disclosed.
McGuire asks this question: “Could it be then, that if we continue to allow greenhouse gas emissions to rise unchecked and fuel serious warming, our planet’s crust will begin to toss and turn once again?”
It may seem like a long leap to connect McGuire’s hypothesis with earthquakes here in Oklahoma, but keep in mind that studies have shown that earthquakes in other countries can contribute to a seismic event elsewhere. In fact, researchers have linked a 4.1 magnitude earthquake in Prague to a 2010 8.8 earthquake in Chile. This, in turn, probably led to the 5.6 earthquake in Prague in 2011.
Let’s simplify it. Manmade global warming through carbon emissions creates rising sea levels, which are caused by the melting of glaciers and the arctic ice cap. This puts pressure on underground plates, which then places stress on the world’s underground faults, triggering large earthquakes and other extreme events. Those earthquakes can then trigger other earthquakes thousands of miles away. Wastewater disposal injection wells now make some areas in Oklahoma even more susceptible to earthquakes linked to other larger earthquakes elsewhere.
Again, it may seem like a large leap, but it makes sense when considered holistically. The injection wells are created through fossil fuel production, which leads to the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming in the first place. It could be all connected. It makes sense, on an organic level, that oil and gas activity, coupled with the climate change, has created the Oklahoma earthquake swarm.
A New York Times article on Sunday noted how some countries, such as the Philippines, that contribute the least to global warming suffer the most from its consequences. The recent typhoon in that country killed thousands of people. Scientists have predicted that global warming is responsible for more severe and frequent weather events throughout the world. Should we add earthquakes to that list?