Assessments of seismic risk have relied until recently on records of destructive earthquakes going back centuries and their relationship to tectonic features, mainly active faults. They usually predict up to 50 years ahead. The US Geological Survey has now shifted focus to very recent records mainly of small to medium tremors, some of which have appeared in what are tectonically stable areas as well as the background seismicity in tectonically restless regions. This enables the short-term risk (around one year) to be examined. To the scientists’ surprise, the new modelling completely changes regional maps of seismic risk. The probabilities in the short-term of potentially dangerous ground movements in 17 oil- and gas-rich areas rival those in areas threatened by continual, tectonic jostling, such as California. The new ‘hot spots’ relate to industrial activity, primarily the disposal of wastewater from petroleum operations by pumping it into deep aquifers.
Fluid injection increases hydrostatic pressure in aquifers and also in the spaces associated with once inactive fault and fracture systems. All parts of the crust are stressed to some extent but the presence of fluids and over-pressuring increases the tendency for rock failure. While anti-fracking campaigners have focussed partly on seismic risk – fracking has caused tremors around magnitudes 2 to 3 – the process is a rapid one-off injection involving small fluid volumes compared with petroleum waste-water disposal. All petroleum production carries water as well as oil and gas to wellheads. Coming from great depth it is formation water held in pores since sedimentary deposition, which is environmentally damaging because of its high content of dissolved salts and elevated temperature. Environmental protection demands that disposal must return it to depth.
The main worry is that waste water disposal might trigger movements with magnitudes up to 7.0: in 2011 a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit a town in oil-producing Oklahoma and damaged many buildings. Currently, US building regulations rely on earthquake risk maps that consider a 50-year timescale, but they take little account of industrially induced seismicity. So the new data is likely to cause quite a stir. These are changing times, however, as the oil price fluctuates wildly. So production may well shift from field to field seeking sustainable rates of profit, and induced seismicity may well change as a result.
None of these areas are likely to experience the horrors of the 25 April 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal. However, it also occurred in an area expected to be relatively stable compared with the rest of the Himalayan region. The only previous major tremor there was recorded in the 14th century. This supposedly ‘low-risk’ area overlies a zone in which small tremors or microearthquakes occur all the time. Such zones – and this one extends along much of the length of the Himalaya – seem to mark where fault depths are large enough for displacements to take place continually by plastic flow, thereby relieving stresses. Most of the large earthquakes have taken place south of the microseismic zone where the shallow parts of the Indian plate are brittle and have become locked. The recent event is raising concerns that it is a precursor of further large earthquakes in Nepal. Its capital Kathmandu is especially susceptible as it is partly founded on lake sediments that easily liquefy.
Note added: 13 May 2015. Nepal suffered another major shock (magnitude 7.3) on 12 May in the vicinity of Mount Everest. It too seems to have occurred in the zone of microearthquakes formerly thought to mark a zone where the crust fails continually bu plastic deformation thereby relieving stresses. Kathmandu was this time at the edge of the shake zone