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

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

digital twins concept
digital twins concept

How AI could solve supply chain shortages and save Christmas

Just-in-time shipping is dead. Long live supply chains stress-tested with AI digital twins.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration 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.