It’s been a shaky 2014 so far across America, with a series of fairly major earthquakes rocking several regions of the continent from North to South.
As Californians were gently shaken from their slumber this morning by a 2.7 magnitude earthquake just after 5:21 AM PST today, we ask whether the "Big One" is looming.
This tremor follows the previous shake-ups that Californians suffered last month, when a chain of seismic events and aftershocks registering up to 5.1 magnitude reminded residents that they live atop some of the world’s most volatile faults, and caused many to stock up on supplies in preparation for the massive earthquakes that geologists have been predicting for some years.
For a personal insight, read Anne and Whitley Strieber’s account of the L.A. quakes in Anne’s Diary entry "What’s It Like…To Go Through a Midsized Earthquake?"
Elsewhere in Northern America, a powerful earthquake registering 6.7 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of B.C., 40km from Port Alice and about 100 km from Port Hardy recently. The quake occurred at around 8:10 p.m. local time on Wednesday and, although it was significant enough to generate one, thankfully it did not result in a tsunami. The force was felt up to 575 km from its epicenter, however, as far away as Kelowna, B.C., where it caused buildings to sway and windows to rattle.
Earlier this month on April 2nd, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck near the village of Pisagua, in Chile. The huge tremor resulted in landslides, power-cuts and generated tsunami waves of over 7 feet. Four men and one woman died as a direct consequence of the earthquake.On March 16, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck 37 miles west-northwest of Iquique, with a 6.1-magnitude quake following a week later.
Earthquakes are not uncommon in this area, as Chile is situated in the so-called "Ring of Fire", a sweep of volcanoes and fault lines that encircle the Pacific Basic and are prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Geologists believe that the region should prepare for an even larger quake which could strike at any time:
"This magnitude 8.2 is not the large earthquake that we were expecting in this area," said Mark Simons, a geophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena, California. "We’re expecting a potentially even larger earthquake."We do not know when it’s going to occur."
Seismic activity is a natural phenomenon, and periodic large events are almost a certainty, but are human factors increasing the likelihood of seriously huge earthquakes?
The U.S. Geological Survey has recorded 10 earthquakes in Oklahoma since Sunday, including a 4.0 magnitude quake, which brings the total number of earthquakes over 2.5 magnitude in the region this month up to 135. The largest quake was a 4.3 magnitude on March 30 near Crescent in Logan County. This constitutes a record level of seismic activity for the region, and seismologists have concerns that the increase is linked to "fracking", a controversial method of extracting oil and gas from underground reserves. It involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks, a procedure which has been shown to alter pressure points and cause shifts in the earth.
Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey who compiles local seismic data for the USGS, said the earthquake activity in the state is reaching unprecedented levels:
"We have had almost as many magnitude 3 and greater already in 2014 than we did for all of 2013," Holland said.
A similar situation exists in Kansas, which has experienced a marked increase in the number of tremors, with a swarm of 56 earthquakes being recorded in the past seven months.
Those keen to promote the use of fracking dispute the connection, but a recent study conducted by geologists in Ohio linked the increase in activity directly to the contentious process.
Bill Leith, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist, commented: "We’ve statistically analyzed the recent earthquake rate changes and found that they do not seem to be due to random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates."
Experts are encouraging officials to take the potential risk seriously:
"While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety and the environment," said James Zehringer, director of Ohio’s natural resources department.
Those, like the recently shaken Californians, who already live with the knowledge that a large earthquake could happen at any time must surely be wary of any factor likely to increase the probability of such an event. Yet fracking is already being considered on a large scale in the seismically precarious state, albeit under the auspices of a law passed last year which imposed various protective measures and required the state to research fracking safety; however the law does not preclude the opening of new wells whilst the study is being conducted.
Coincidentally, fracking has also been recently introduced in Chile, though not in the same area as the recent quake, but some studies linked a huge quake there in 2010 to seismic activity in distant Oklahoma. The study also discovered a direct connection between a 9.0 earthquake in Japan in 2011 and a swarm of smaller quakes in a West Texas oil field that used fracking. A 4.1 quake near fracking wells in Prague, Oklahoma, was linked to an 8.8 quake in Chile in 2010. The Chile quake also shook the
It surely makes sense to research this process in full before continuing to employ its use on a large scale. When it comes to earthquakes, Mother Nature does not need a helping hand.