When it comes to human-induced earthquakes, the number one cause that comes to mind is mining. And it’s easy to conclude why. Just think what happens during the extraction process — which includes digging tunnels or shafts deep into the earth, sometimes as deep as 2 miles down to reach buried mineral deposits — and you can imagine what kind of effect that can have.
As humans progressed and technology became more advanced, however, mining ceased to be the only earthquake-inducing (also referred to a seismogenic) activity. Today, there are several other industrial activities that have come to be recognized as seismogenic too. And we’re not talking about minor scale earthquakes. Depending on the type and scale of industrial activity, human-induced earthquakes can sometimes be strong enough to cause widespread damage, destruction and even death.
Some examples of modern-day seismogenic industrial activities include oil and gas extraction, geothermal energy production, filling of water reservoirs behind dams and constructing massive mega-structures.
Acknowledging the growing number of potentially seismogenic industrial activities, a Netherlands-based oil and gas company known as Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV initiated a thorough review of all human-induced earthquakes around the world. And the findings are nothing short of disturbing.
For starters, the study revealed that industrial growth aggravates the problem of induced earthquakes. It showed that since minor earthquakes can trigger more severe ones, increasing industrial activity can inevitably result in extremely destructive ground movements.
To illustrate, mining used to be a small-scale activity. The equipment used was primitive, which also meant that it could only dig shallow tunnels. But with advancements in technology and higher demand for mining products like oil and coal, the mining industry had to expand. Which meant larger mines and deeper and more intense digging. This, in turn, resulted in stronger and more frequent mining-related quakes, which also meant more severe damage to properties and a higher number of fatalities.
Other examples cited by the report as published by The Conversation include: filling of the 32-mile-long Koyna reservoir in West India which resulted in a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 1967, causing at least 180 fatalities and the destruction of the dam; the construction of the 700-megaton Taipei 101 building in the 1990s which is being blamed for the increased size and frequency of earthquakes in nearby areas; oil and gas production which is causing magnitude 6 earthquakes in California; shale-gas hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) which cause small earthquakes and occasionally larger ones like the magnitude 4.6 quake which hit Canada; geothermal steam and water production in the Cerro Prieto Field, Mexico associated with earthquakes as strong as 6.6 magnitude; about 170 water reservoirs that are supposedly inducing earthquakes all over the globe; and several others more.
It has now reached a point that when an earthquake occurs, it’s no longer being thought of as a natural event. Instead, there’s a tendency to put the blame on some large-scale industrial project.
The bigger the projects are, the more serious the earthquakes they can cause. And it seems there’s no stopping this trend now because as the world’s population grows and the more advanced technology becomes, industrial activities and projects logically tend to expand in that direction too.
Does this mean we should just let what happens happen? Definitely not. Unless we want to live in a world where frequent earthquakes become the norm, we have to take control of things we still can control while we still have the chance. As the report recommends: “A balance must be struck between the growing need for energy and resources and the level of risk that is acceptable in every individual project.”