Thinking Aloud: Geology 101?

June 11, 2015 by Darius 

Last Friday, in Malaysia, an earthquake killed 18 people on a mountain considered sacred by many locals.  While such natural disasters are unfortunate, they happen.  More newsworthy is the fact that some Malaysian authorities claimed that foreign backpackers who took nude photos at the mountain’s summit may have caused the earthquake.  I don’t need to get into the logic of such a claim.

But in case you thought Western countries are more sensible when it comes to science and natural disasters, think again.  One need look no further than Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has long relied on oil and gas to power its economy.  Over the last few years, hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has paved the way for a boom in natural gas production.  There’s one problem: fracking, which involves breaking underground rock with high-pressure fluid, causes earthquakes.  For the last several years, more and more evidence has surfaced about the link between fracking and earthquakes.  Statistics alone should suffice: historically, Oklahoma has experienced an average of 1.6 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater per year.  In 2013, there were more than 100 such earthquakes, and in the first half of 2014 alone, there were more than 140 (see graph below, courtesy of the US Geologic Survey).

Oklahoma earthquakes

What has Oklahoma’s legislature done in response?  Stick its head into the sand.  Two weeks ago, after the state’s own geological survey division recently concluded that it is “very likely” that fracking is causing the proliferation of earthquakes, Oklahoma’s governor signed a law making it all but impossible for local governments to ban or otherwise regulate fracking.  Oklahoma’s government is aware of the earthquake problem; it has consciously chosen to ignore it.

Blaming indecent activity for earthquakes is daft.  But so is refusing to take steps to stop human activity from causing them.


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