Skip to Content

Man-Made Earthquakes Are on the Rise, But They Don’t Have to Be

There are alternatives to the wastewater injection that causes earthquakes and contaminates groundwater.
March 29, 2016

When the U.S. Geological Survey released its new one-year prediction of earthquake risk on Tuesday, it said some parts of Texas and Oklahoma now face the same dangers as quake-prone areas of California—and that the rise was caused by underground disposal of wastewater produced during extraction of oil and natural gas.

Wastewater is a two-pronged problem. The increased seismic risk in areas where earthquakes are normally rare is putting some seven million people at risk, according to the USGS. Such tremors are usually small, but man-made quakes have been recorded at up to magnitude 5.6.

Then there is the water itself. Extracting oil or gas through a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping large quantities of water underground at high pressure to fracture rock. When the water flows back out, it is laden with chemicals used in the process, plus salts and heavy metals flushed out from the rocks. (In addition to fracking, conventional oil drilling also brings up dirty water.) Most of this water is later pumped underground. 

But it doesn’t need to be. Emerging treatment alternatives, including membrane desalination and ozone treatment, could render the water usable again. In addition, researchers are honing a large-scale distillation process that uses relatively little energy.

These processes are more expensive than shipping wastewater to a disposal well and injecting it, but the costs are not so high when the detrimental effects of pollution or earthquakes—and of diverting clean water in the first place—are considered.

In the meantime, the risks keep growing. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area in particular, the USGS says, the chances for man-made quakes have dramatically increased since 2014, and a significant earthquake there could cause up to $9.5 billion in damages.

(Read more: USGS, Washington Post, “One Way to Solve Fracking’s Dirty Problem,” “How to Clean the Gas and Oil Industries’ Most Contaminated Water”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.