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USGS: Oklahoma, Kansas Have Significant Potential For Damaging Earthquakes In 2017

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New United State Geological Survey maps have identified potential ground-shaking hazards in 2017 from both human-induced and natural earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S., known as the CEUS. This is the second consecutive year both types of hazards are forecasted, as previous USGS maps only identified hazards from natural earthquakes. This research was published Wednesday in Seismological Research Letters.

Approximately 3.5 million people live and work in areas of the CEUS with significant potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity in 2017. The majority of this population is in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Research also shows that an additional half million people in the CEUS face a significant chance of damage from natural earthquakes in 2017, which brings the total number of people at high risk from both natural and human-induced earthquakes to about 4 million.

“The good news is that the overall seismic hazard for this year is lower than in the 2016 forecast, but despite this decrease, there is still a significant likelihood for damaging ground shaking in the CEUS in the year ahead,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project.

The 2017 forecast decreased compared to last year because fewer felt earthquakes occurred in 2016 than in 2015. This may be due to a decrease in wastewater injection resulting from regulatory actions and/or from a decrease in oil and gas production due to lower prices.

Despite the decrease in the overall number of earthquakes in 2016, Oklahoma experienced the largest earthquake ever recorded in the state as well as the greatest number of large earthquakes compared to any prior year. Furthermore, the chance of damage from induced earthquakes will continue to fluctuate depending on policy and industry decisions, Petersen noted.

“The forecast for induced and natural earthquakes in 2017 is hundreds of times higher than before induced seismicity rates rapidly increased around 2008,” said Petersen. “Millions still face a significant chance of experiencing damaging earthquakes, and this could increase or decrease with industry practices, which are difficult to anticipate.”

Important Note: In the west, USGS scientists have focused on the hazard from natural earthquakes. Induced earthquakes have been observed in California as well, but they don’t significantly change the regional hazard level, which is already high due to frequent natural earthquakes.

What are Induced Earthquakes?

Induced earthquakes are triggered by human activities, with wastewater disposal being the primary cause in many areas of the CEUS. Wastewater from oil and gas operations can be disposed of by injecting it into deep underground wells. Injected fluids cause pressure changes that can weaken a fault and therefore bring it closer to failure. Most injection wells do not trigger felt earthquakes, suggesting that a combination of many factors contribute to such events.

“By understanding the relationship between earthquakes and wastewater injection, informed decisions can be made on processes such as controlling the volumes and rates of wastewater injected and determining which wells are most susceptible to inducing earthquakes,” said Petersen.

Many questions have been raised about hydraulic fracturing—commonly referred to as “fracking”—and more information can be found by reading common questions.

States with High Hazard

The maps indicate an especially high ground-shaking hazard in five areas of the CEUS in 2017. These same areas were identified in the 2016 forecast.

Induced seismicity poses the highest hazard in two areas, which are Oklahoma/southern Kansas and the Colorado/New Mexico area known as the Raton Basin. In those areas, there is a significant chance that damaging levels of ground motion will occur in 2017.

Enhanced hazard from induced seismicity was also found in Texas and north Arkansas, but the levels are significantly lower in these regions than that forecasted for 2016. While earthquakes are still a concern, scientists did not observe significant activity in the past year, so the forecasted hazard is lower in 2017.

There is also a high hazard for natural earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. The NMSZ is the only one of the five identified areas that has not experienced induced earthquake activity. The NMSZ had a higher rate of natural earthquakes in the past three years, leading to a slightly higher hazard potential compared to previous years in portions of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“The 2016 forecast was quite accurate in assessing hazardous areas, especially in Oklahoma,” said Petersen. “Significant damage was experienced in Oklahoma during the past year as was forecasted in the 2016 model. However, the significantly decreased number of earthquakes in north Texas and Arkansas was not expected, and this was likely due to a decline in injection activity.”

“There is specific concern in parts of the central U.S. since the forecasted hazard levels are higher than what is considered in current building codes, which only incorporate natural earthquakes,” said Petersen. 

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

Spotlight on Oklahoma

Between 1980 and 2000, Oklahoma averaged about two earthquakes greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7 per year. However, this number jumped to about 2,500 in 2014, 4,000 in 2015 and 2,500 in 2016. The decline in 2016 may be due in part to injection restrictions implemented by the state officials. Of the earthquakes last year, 21 were greater than magnitude 4.0 and three were greater than magnitude 5.0.

USGS research considers a magnitude 2.7 earthquake to be the level at which ground shaking can be felt. An earthquake of magnitude 4.0 or greater can cause minor or more significant damage.

The forecasted chance of damaging ground shaking in central Oklahoma is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California. 

“Most of the damage we forecast will be cracking of plaster or unreinforced masonry. However, stronger ground shaking could also occur in some areas, which could cause more significant damage," said Petersen.

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