Issue 283, Friday 30 November 2012 - 16 Muharram 1434
Environment: Drilling the earth and making it quake
By Sarah Marshall, University of South Florida
According to a recent study, groundwater flow and over pumping aquifers may affect seismic activity. Though the correlation between groundwater and earthquakes has previously been made, the magnitude 5.1 quake that took place in Lorca, Spain, in May last year, brought the issue to light in relation to over-pumping water.
It is claimed that such a quake was an eventual inevitability, but according to Science News, “Lorca is also a place where lots of water gets pumped from underground for farming and drinking. As a result, the land surface is subsiding at about 10 cm each year, the highest rate known in Europe.”
Extracting water causes changes in the stresses of the crust, and in Lorca, the fault was located on the border of aquifers where there were changes in water level.
Studies show that water levels for wells and springs tend to change just before an earthquake and often do not return to previous levels. Chemical changes in groundwater have been observed before seismic activity in Kamchatka, Russia, and Karabuk, Turkey.
When it comes to water, it would seem that people view it as an infinite resource, as a need and a right, but we must appreciate that not all have access to clean drinking water, and some even get life-threatening diseases from consuming this basic human need. Industrial water use surely outdoes residential, but all sectors need to close the tap for anything beyond necessity, or else our children and grandchildren will have shaky futures.
Seismic activity is also a concern when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, or pumping water and chemicals into shale in order to extract natural gas. This practice is becoming increasingly popular, as natural gas is considered a renewable resource to some. Yet the process of extracting such gas is immensely intensive, and has even been blamed as the cause of methane-filled flammable water in the mid-Western United States. A plethora of chemicals, including the hazardous air pollutant methanol, are used in order to keep the fracture in the rock open to extract the gas.
A seismologist from the University of Texas found a “strong correlation” between the locations of injection wells and minor earthquake events in North Texas, though he claimed that there was no need to worry about such minor events as magnitudes 2.5 or 3. The results, as well as the conclusion of such a study, say a lot about a culture that calls for business before health; essentially that human activity is affecting the underground movement of the earth, and that it is nothing to worry about. Shall we wait until such injection wells incite magnitudes 5 and 6 earthquakes to do something about it?
Our beloved gas it will one day run out. The US possesses a potential of 110 years of natural gas extraction, and are thus ramping up hydraulic fracturing injection wells. This is surely not a long-term solution to one nation or the world’s energy needs, and there will be a day when we have no choice but to use renewable sources of energy, because we will have drilled everything else from beneath our feet.
Natural disasters have been occurring on a much more frequent basis over the last decade, and scientists often blame climate change, yet a compilation of environmental research would point to a combination of anthropogenic causes. These causes all come back to the issue of humans living unsustainably, beyond the Earth’s means.
Our wasteful practices that call for more gas and water than necessary are literally causing the earth to shake. What must it take for us to realize that things cannot go on like this forever? Some say, it will take an event that adversely affects such a large percentage of the privileged population on the planet that they will have to rebuild their infrastructures. Have there not been enough victims already?
Major earthquakes in the last decade include a Magnitude 9.0 in Japan with over twenty thousand fatalities, a 7.0M in Haiti with over three hundred thousand deaths, and a magnitude 7.9 in China with over eighty-thousand fatalities. Do we really feel so confident as to tamper with the ground beneath our feet?
Sarah Marshall, Director of Politics & Activism, Student Environmental Association, University of South Florida