Long-awaited study puts forth explanation for exponential increase in North Texas earthquakes, citing unprecedented wastewater injection into a geological formation above seismically active zones.
In an article contributed to The Dallas Morning News, science journalist Anna Kuchment covered the research of SMU seismologists on a possible explanation for the spate of earthquakes in North Texas in recent years.
Co-authors are SMU students and faculty Madeline Jones, Monique Scales, Heather DeShon, Beatrice Magnani, Brian Stump, Chris Hayward and Mary Layton, and University of Texas at Austin seismologist Cliff Frohlich.
By Anna Kuchment
Dallas Morning News
In a long-awaited study, researchers have offered a possible explanation for how oil and gas activity may have triggered earthquakes in Dallas and Irving last year.
The disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production and hydraulic fracturing “plausibly” set off the tremors, which shook Dallas, Irving, Highland Park and other cities from April 2014 through January 2016, said Matthew Hornbach, the study’s lead author and professor of geophysics at Southern Methodist University.
While the quakes were too small to cause much damage to buildings, they spread alarm through a metro area unaccustomed to feeling the ground shift.
The quakes contributed to a tenfold increase in North Texas’ earthquake hazard level, prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to warn of stronger quakes that could cause billions of dollars of damage, and moved local emergency managers to begin preparing for worst-case scenarios.
The study, posted online this week in the peer-reviewed journal Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, is the first scientific work to offer an explanation for the Dallas and Irving quakes. It also provides new evidence that other recent quakes in North Texas’ were likely induced by humans.
Such findings in recent years have prompted pushback from oil and gas companies. This week, through a trade group, they again came out swinging. Steve Everley, a spokesman for an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, questioned the scientists’ work. “Were they looking for media attention?” Everley said in an email. “The authors’ willingness to shift assumptions to fit a particular narrative is concerning, to say the least.”
The state agency that regulates oil and gas, the Railroad Commission, said in a statement that it was reviewing the report “to fully understand its methodology and conclusions.”
Independent experts contacted by The Dallas Morning News praised the study, while cautioning that more work remains before the cause of the Dallas and Irving earthquakes can be firmly established.
“It’s the single best explanation for the increase in earthquakes within the Dallas-Fort Worth basin,” said Rall Walsh, a Ph.D. candidate in geophysics at Stanford University who studies human-triggered earthquakes.
A new study Texas seismology researchers finds that humans have been causing earthquakes not just in North Texas but throughout the state for nearly 100 years.
Science journalist Anna Kuchment with The Dallas Morning News covered the research of SMU seismologists on the historical record of North Texas earthquakes and their causes.
The SMU seismology team on May 18 published online new evidence of human involvement in earthquakes since the 1920s in the journal Seismological Research Letters. The study found that human-caused earthquakes have been present since at least 1925, and widespread throughout the state. While they are tied to oil and gas operations, the specific production techniques behind these quakes have differed over the decades, according to Cliff Frohlich, Heather DeShon, Brian Stump, Chris Hayward, Mathew J. Hornbach and Jacob I. Walter.
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By Anna Kuchment
Dallas Morning News
Despite mounting evidence that oil and gas activity has triggered all of the recent earthquakes in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas regulators have consistently questioned the link. Now a new study by University of Texas researchers argues that humans have been causing earthquakes not just in North Texas but throughout the state for nearly 100 years.
“The public thinks these started in 2008, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said Cliff Frohlich, a senior research scientist at UT-Austin and lead author of the new study.
The paper, to be published Wednesday in the journal Seismological Research Letters, concludes that activities associated with petroleum production “almost certainly” or “probably” set off 59 percent of earthquakes across the state between 1975 and 2015, including the recent earthquakes in Irving and Dallas. Another 28 percent were “possibly” triggered by oil and gas activities. Scientists deemed only 13 percent of the quakes to be natural.
A spokesperson for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry, dismissed the study’s methods as “arbitrary,” but an expert at the U.S. Geological Survey said the study offers important new information that could affect the agency’s future threat assessments for Texas.
“The Commission will continue to use objective, credible scientific study as the basis for our regulatory and rulemaking functions,” Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission, wrote in an email after she and her colleagues reviewed an embargoed copy of the paper. “However this new study acknowledges the basis for its conclusions are purely subjective in nature and in fact, admits its categorization of seismic events to be arbitrary.”
Frohlich and colleagues at UT and at Southern Methodist University argue in the paper that state regulators have been slow to acknowledge the link between industrial practices and ground shaking. Oklahoma, which experienced 890 earthquakes of magnitude 3 and above last year compared with Texas’ 21, has recognized the connection and ordered operators to slash the volume of wastewater from oil and gas production that they pump into wells. Studies by academic scientists and those at the USGS have shown that pressure from high-volume wastewater injections has disturbed faults in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and a handful of other states, creating earthquakes.
The Railroad Commission has taken some similar steps, Nye wrote. In November 2014 the commission tightened its rules for disposal wells. Since then, it has received 51 disposal well applications. Of these, 22 permits were issued with special conditions, such as requirements to reduce daily maximum injection volumes and pressure and to record volumes and pressures daily as opposed to monthly.
Following a 4-magnitude earthquake near Venus and Mansfield last year, the commission asked one operator to plug its well to a shallower depth, Nye added, presumably to lower the risk that it would disturb a deep fault. Texas’ man-made earthquakes date to the early days of the oil and gas industry, the new study reports.
The first man-made quake struck in 1925 in the Goose Creek oil field along the Gulf Coast east of Houston. Humble Oil, a precursor of Exxon, had extracted so much oil that the ground sank and caused houses to shake and dishes to crash to the floor.
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Since 2008 the rate of Texas earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 has increased from about two per year to 12 per year, say the authors.
Earthquakes triggered by human activity have been happening in Texas since at least 1925, and they have been widespread throughout the state ever since, according to a new historical review of the evidence publishing online May 18 in Seismological Research Letters.
The earthquakes are caused by oil and gas operations, but the specific production techniques behind these quakes have differed over the decades, according to Cliff Frohlich, the study’s lead author, and co-authors Heather DeShon, Brian Stump, Chris Hayward, Mathew J. Hornbach and Jacob I. Walter.
Frohlich is senior research scientist and associate director at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin. DeShon, Stump, Hayward and Hornbach are seismologists in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Walter is at the University of Texas at Austin.
Frohlich said the evidence presented in the SRL paper should lay to rest the idea that there is no substantial proof for human-caused earthquakes in Texas, as some state officials have claimed as recently as 2015.
At the same time, he said, the study doesn’t single out any one or two industry practices that could be managed or avoided to stop these kinds of earthquakes from occurring. “I think we were all looking for what I call the silver bullet, supposing we can find out what kinds of practices were causing the induced earthquakes, to advise companies or regulators,” he notes. “But that silver bullet isn’t here.”
The researchers write in the article “A Historical Overview of Induced Earthquakes in Texas” that since 2008, the rate of Texas earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 has increased from about two per year to 12 per year. This change appears to stem from an increase in earthquakes occurring within 1-3 kilometers of petroleum production wastewater disposal wells where water is injected at a high monthly rate, they note.
Some of these more recent earthquakes include the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sequence between 2008 and 2013; the May 2012 Timpson earthquake; and the earthquake sequence near Azle that began in 2013.
The researchers suspected that induced seismicity might have a lengthy and geographically widespread history in Texas.
“For me, the surprise was that oil field practices have changed so much over the years, and that probably affects the kinds of earthquakes that were happening at each time,” Frohlich said.
In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, “they’d find an oilfield, and hundreds of wells would be drilled, and they’d suck oil out of the ground as fast as they could, and there would be slumps” that shook the earth as the volume of oil underground was rapidly extracted, he said.
When those fields were mostly depleted, in the 1940s through the 1970s, petroleum operations “started being more aggressive about trying to drive oil by water flooding” and the huge amounts of water pumped into the ground contributed to seismic activity, said Frohlich.
In the past decade, enhanced oil and gas recovery methods have produced considerable amounts of wastewater that is disposed by injection back into the ground through special wells, triggering nearby earthquakes. Most earthquakes linked to this type of wastewater disposal in Texas are smaller (less than magnitude 3) than those in Oklahoma, the study concludes.
The difference may lie in the types of oil operations in each state, Frohlich said. The northeast Texas injection earthquakes occur near high-injection rate wells that dispose of water produced in hydrofracturing operations, while much of the Oklahoma wastewater is produced during conventional oil production and injected deep into the underlying sedimentary rock.
For the moment, there have been no magnitude 3 or larger Texas earthquakes that can be linked directly to the specific process of hydrofracturing or fracking itself, such as have been felt in Canada, the scientists concluded.
The researchers used a five-question test to identify induced earthquakes in the Texas historical records. The questions cover how close in time and space earthquakes and petroleum operations are, whether the earthquake center is at a relatively shallow depth (indicating a human rather than natural trigger); whether there are known or suspected faults nearby that might support an earthquake or ease the way for fluid movement, and whether published scientific reports support a human cause for the earthquake.
In 2015, the Texas legislature funded a program that would install 22 additional seismic monitoring stations to add to the state’s existing 17 permanent stations, with the hopes of building out a statewide monitoring network that could provide more consistent and objective data on induced earthquakes.
Seismological Research Letters is a publication of the Seismological Society of America. — Seismological Research Letters
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) today released maps showing potential ground shaking from induced and natural earthquakes, including forecasts for the DFW metropolitan area. The North Texas Earthquake Study at Southern Methodist University provided data, and SMU scientists co-authored peer-reviewed publications cited in the report. The new earthquake ground shaking forecasts are a reminder to the cities and residents in the region that the occurrence of earthquakes increases the earthquake hazard in the area, regardless of cause. Residents should be prepared to experience ground shaking, just as we are prepared to experience tornadoes, hail storms and other events.
1. How did SMU research contribute to the USGS report?
SMU and partners currently operate a 30-station seismic network across North Texas, and stations are denser around the ongoing earthquake sequences (Azle-Reno, Irving-Dallas, and Venus-Johnson County). We focus on cataloging the ongoing seismicity over a wider range of magnitudes than the national USGS catalog documents, conducting detailed source studies to understand the physics of faulting, and identifying and mapping faults currently or potentially generating seismicity. We also study cause with the aim of potentially mitigating the increased seismicity rates experienced in North Texas since 2008. Finally, in order to provide improved local estimates of both the size of the earthquakes as well as their source characteristics, we are analyzing the locally recorded waveforms to produce empirical estimates of how ground shaking decays with range for each of the instrumented source regions. These empirical decay rates may provide data for refining the ground shaking forecasts.
The SMU research in its entirety helps inform appropriate parameter ranges for earthquake hazard mapping, and we therefore collaborate and cooperate with the USGS, as was done in preparation for the 2016 report being released Monday, and with city, state and federal agencies.
Peer-reviewed publications by SMU scientists and collaborators were used to classify most North Texas earthquakes as induced. These publications include those on the 2008-2009 DFW sequence (Frohlich et al., 2011), the 2009 Cleburne earthquakes (Justinic et al., 2012), and the 2013-2014 Azle-Reno earthquakes (Hornbach et al., 2015). Dr. Cliff Frohlich (UT-Austin) has published on induced earthquakes in Johnson County near the eventual 2015 Venus earthquake (Frohlich, 2012). Peer-reviewed publications regarding cause for the Irving-Dallas sequence had not been accepted for publication and the earthquakes were left classified as “undetermined cause” in the 2016 Induced Earthquake Hazard Mapping Project and treated as natural earthquakes in the probabilistic calculations for ground motion.
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2. What can and should DFW Metroplex residents do with this information?
The new earthquake ground shaking forecasts are a reminder to the cities and residents in the region that the occurrence of earthquakes increases the earthquake hazard in the area, regardless of cause. Residents should be prepared to experience ground shaking, just as we are prepared to experience tornadoes, hail storms and other events. People should remember to Drop, Cover and Hold On during an earthquake and not to evacuate a building until after shaking has stopped. Brick façade damage is possible under low to mid-intensity shaking, and you are most likely to be injured by falling objects and broken windows than by building collapse at the levels of ground shaking outlined in the USGS report.
We encourage residents to explore online resources on preparedness, such as the resources made available through FEMA and the USGS. Following the seven steps to earthquake safety is always a good idea: http://earthquakecountry.org/sevensteps/.
3. Have you been recording earthquakes in the Dallas-Irving area or has that sequence stopped?
The Irving-Dallas earthquakes began in April 2014 with the largest events occurring in January 2015. Earthquake rates in the Dallas-Irving area have been highly variable. While the rate has decreased over the last few months, we have seen similar short-term decreases in the past, and therefore the rate change should not be over-interpreted.
4. What is the earthquake magnitude equivalent of the USGS ground shaking forecast?
Earthquake magnitude is not the same as ground shaking intensity. Hazard maps are used to forecast ground shaking intensities, regardless of the magnitude of the earthquake that creates the motion. Ground motion, and hence hazard, depends on the earthquake size, distance from the epicenter, local geology, etc. Online resources equating intensity to magnitude are “rule of thumb” and should not be interpreted as directly relating the ground shaking forecasts to earthquake magnitude in the DFW area. Risk calculations use the known properties of building and infrastructure to estimate the probability of damage based on the underlying hazard assessment from ground shaking intensities.
Magnitude tells you the overall size of the earthquake. A single earthquake has one magnitude.
Intensity tells you what the earthquake shaking was like at a particular location. A single earthquake produces a range of intensities that depend on the location. The USGS “Did you feel it?” for the 2015 Irving-Dallas M3.6 illustrates this point. The Modified Mercalli Scale is described further here: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/mercalli.php. — Kim Cobb
SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.
SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.
SMU scientists and their research have a global reach that is frequently noted, beyond peer publications and media mentions.
By Margaret Allen
SMU News & Communications
It was a good year for SMU faculty and student research efforts. Here is a small sampling of public and published acknowledgements during 2015:
Hot topic merits open access
Taylor & Francis, publisher of the online journal Environmental Education Research, lifted its subscription-only requirement to meet demand for an article on how climate change is taught to middle-schoolers in California.
Co-author of the research was Diego Román, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
Román’s research revealed that California textbooks are teaching sixth graders that climate change is a controversial debate stemming from differing opinions, rather than a scientific conclusion based on rigorous scientific evidence.
The researchers tested the drugs by simulating their interaction in a computer-generated model of one of the cell’s key molecular pumps — the protein P-glycoprotein, or P-gp. Outcomes of interest were then tested in the Wise-Vogel wet lab.
The ongoing research is the work of biochemists John Wise, associate professor, and Pia Vogel, professor and director of the SMU Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery in Dedman College. Assisting them were a team of SMU graduate and undergraduate students.
The researchers developed the model to overcome the problem of relying on traditional static images for the structure of P-gp. The simulation makes it possible for researchers to dock nearly any drug in the protein and see how it behaves, then test those of interest in an actual lab.
To date, the researchers have run millions of compounds through the pump and have discovered some that are promising for development into pharmaceutical drugs to battle cancer.
Strong interest in research on sexual victimization
Teen girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after learning to assertively resist unwanted sexual overtures and after practicing resistance in a realistic virtual environment, according to three professors from the SMU Department of Psychology.
The finding was reported in Behavior Therapy. The article was one of the psychology journal’s most heavily shared and mentioned articles across social media, blogs and news outlets during 2015, the publisher announced.
The study was the work of Dedman College faculty Lorelei Simpson Rowe, associate professor and Psychology Department graduate program co-director; Ernest Jouriles, professor; and Renee McDonald, SMU associate dean for research and academic affairs.
Consumers assume bigger price equals better quality
Even when competing firms can credibly disclose the positive attributes of their products to buyers, they may not do so.
Instead, they find it more lucrative to “signal” quality through the prices they charge, typically working on the assumption that shoppers think a high price indicates high quality. The resulting high prices hurt buyers, and may create a case for mandatory disclosure of quality through public policy.
That was a finding of the research of Dedman College’s Santanu Roy, professor, Department of Economics. Roy’s article about the research was published in February in one of the blue-ribbon journals, and the oldest, in the field, The Economic Journal.
Chemistry research group edits special issue
Chemistry professors Dieter Cremer and Elfi Kraka, who lead SMU’s Computational and Theoretical Chemistry Group, were guest editors of a special issue of the prestigious Journal of Physical Chemistry. The issue published in March.
The Computational and Theoretical research group, called CATCO for short, is a union of computational and theoretical chemistry scientists at SMU. Their focus is research in computational chemistry, educating and training graduate and undergraduate students, disseminating and explaining results of their research to the broader public, and programming computers for the calculation of molecules and molecular aggregates.
The special issue of Physical Chemistry included 40 contributions from participants of a four-day conference in Dallas in March 2014 that was hosted by CATCO. The 25th Austin Symposium drew 108 participants from 22 different countries who, combined, presented eight plenary talks, 60 lectures and about 40 posters.
CATCO presented its research with contributions from Cremer and Kraka, as well as Marek Freindorf, research assistant professor; Wenli Zou, visiting professor; Robert Kalescky, post-doctoral fellow; and graduate students Alan Humason, Thomas Sexton, Dani Setlawan and Vytor Oliveira.
There have been more than 75 graduate students and research associates working in the CATCO group, which originally was formed at the University of Cologne, Germany, before moving to SMU in 2009.
Vertebrate paleontology recognized with proclamation
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings proclaimed Oct. 11-17, 2015 Vertebrate Paleontology week in Dallas on behalf of the Dallas City Council.
The proclamation honored the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which was jointly hosted by SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College and the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. The conference drew to Dallas some 1,200 scientists from around the world.
Making research presentations or presenting research posters were: faculty members Bonnie Jacobs, Louis Jacobs, Michael Polcyn, Neil Tabor and Dale Winkler; adjunct research assistant professor Alisa Winkler; research staff member Kurt Ferguson; post-doctoral researchers T. Scott Myers and Lauren Michael; and graduate students Matthew Clemens, John Graf, Gary Johnson and Kate Andrzejewski.
The host committee co-chairs were Anthony Fiorillo, adjunct research professor; and Louis Jacobs, professor. Committee members included Polcyn; Christopher Strganac, graduate student; Diana Vineyard, research associate; and research professor Dale Winkler.
KERA radio reporter Kat Chow filed a report from the conference, explaining to listeners the science of vertebrate paleontology, which exposes the past, present and future of life on earth by studying fossils of animals that had backbones.
SMU earthquake scientists rock scientific journal
Findings by the SMU earthquake team reverberated across the nation with publication of their scientific article in the prestigious British interdisciplinary journal Nature, ranked as one of the world’s most cited scientific journals.
The article reported that the SMU-led seismology team found that high volumes of wastewater injection combined with saltwater extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of unusually frequent earthquakes occurring in the Dallas-Fort Worth area near the small community of Azle.
The research was the work of Dedman College faculty Matthew Hornbach, associate professor of geophysics; Heather DeShon, associate professor of geophysics; Brian Stump, SMU Albritton Chair in Earth Sciences; Chris Hayward, research staff and director geophysics research program; and Beatrice Magnani, associate professor of geophysics.
The article, “Causal factors for seismicity near Azle, Texas,” published online in late April. Already the article has been downloaded nearly 6,000 times, and heavily shared on both social and conventional media. The article has achieved a ranking of 270, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 144,972 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and 98th percentile of 626 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.
The scientific article also was entered into the record for public hearings both at the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.
Researchers settle long-debated heritage question of “The Ancient One”
The research of Dedman College anthropologist and Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory David Meltzer played a role in settling the long-debated and highly controversial heritage of “Kennewick Man.”
Also known as “The Ancient One,” the 8,400-year-old male skeleton discovered in Washington state has been the subject of debate for nearly two decades. Argument over his ancestry has gained him notoriety in high-profile newspaper and magazine articles, as well as making him the subject of intense scholarly study.
Officially the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 and radiocarbon dated to 8500 years ago.
Because of his cranial shape and size he was declared not Native American but instead ‘Caucasoid,’ implying a very different population had once been in the Americas, one that was unrelated to contemporary Native Americans.
But Native Americans long have claimed Kennewick Man as theirs and had asked for repatriation of his remains for burial according to their customs.
Meltzer, collaborating with his geneticist colleague Eske Willerslev and his team at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in June reported the results of their analysis of the DNA of Kennewick in the prestigious British journal Nature in the scientific paper “The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man.”
The results were announced at a news conference, settling the question based on first-ever DNA evidence: Kennewick Man is Native American.
Science named the Kennewick work one of its nine runners-up in the highly esteemed magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” competition.
The research article has been viewed more than 60,000 times. It has achieved a ranking of 665, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 169,466 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and in the 94th percentile of 958 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.
In “Kennewick Man: coming to closure,” an article in the December issue of Antiquity, a journal of Cambridge University Press, Meltzer noted that the DNA merely confirmed what the tribes had known all along: “We are him, he is us,” said one tribal spokesman. Meltzer concludes: “We presented the DNA evidence. The tribal members gave it meaning.”
The new species, dubbed a prehistoric hoover by London’s Daily Mail online news site, was identified by SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, and paleontologist and SMU adjunct research professor Anthony Fiorillo, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
Jacobs and Fiorillo co-authored a study about the identification of new fossils from the oddball creature Desmostylia, discovered in the same waters where the popular “Deadliest Catch” TV show is filmed. The hippo-like creature ate like a vacuum cleaner and is a new genus and species of the only order of marine mammals ever to go extinct — surviving a mere 23 million years.
Desmostylians, every single species combined, lived in an interval between 33 million and 10 million years ago. Their strange columnar teeth and odd style of eating don’t occur in any other animal, Jacobs said.
As noted by the CERN Courier — the news magazine of the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, which hosts the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest science experiment — more than 250 scientists from 30 countries presented more than 200 talks on a multitude of subjects relevant to experimental and theoretical research. SMU physicists presented at the conference.
The SMU organizing committee was led by Fred Olness, professor and chair of the SMU Department of Physics in Dedman College, who also gave opening and closing remarks at the conference. The committee consisted of other SMU faculty, including Jodi Cooley, associate professor; Simon Dalley, senior lecturer; Robert Kehoe, professor; Pavel Nadolsky, associate professor, who also presented progress on experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider; Randy Scalise, senior lecturer; and Stephen Sekula, associate professor.
Sekula also organized a series of short talks for the public about physics and the big questions that face us as we try to understand our universe.