Enhanced Remote Earthquake Triggering at Fluid-Injection Sites in the Midwestern United States

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Science  12 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6142, pp. 164-167
DOI: 10.1126/science.1238948

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Movers and Shakers

We tend to view earthquakes as unpredictable phenomena caused by naturally shifting stresses in Earth's crust. In reality, however, a range of human activity can also induce earthquakes. Ellsworth (p. 10.1126/science.1225942) reviews the current understanding of the causes and mechanics of earthquakes caused by human activity and the means to decrease their associated risk. Notable examples include injection of wastewater into deep formations and emerging technologies related to oil and gas recovery, including hydraulic fracturing. In addition to directly causing increased local seismic activity, activities such as deep fluid injection may have other ramifications related to earthquake occurrence. Van der Elst et al. (p. 164; see the news story by Kerr) demonstrate that in the midwestern United States, some areas with increased human-induced seismicity are also more prone to further earthquakes triggered by the seismic waves from large, remote earthquakes. Improved seismic monitoring and injection data near deep disposal sites will help to identify regions prone to remote triggering and, more broadly, suggest times when activities should, at least temporarily, be put on hold.


A recent dramatic increase in seismicity in the midwestern United States may be related to increases in deep wastewater injection. Here, we demonstrate that areas with suspected anthropogenic earthquakes are also more susceptible to earthquake-triggering from natural transient stresses generated by the seismic waves of large remote earthquakes. Enhanced triggering susceptibility suggests the presence of critically loaded faults and potentially high fluid pressures. Sensitivity to remote triggering is most clearly seen in sites with a long delay between the start of injection and the onset of seismicity and in regions that went on to host moderate magnitude earthquakes within 6 to 20 months. Triggering in induced seismic zones could therefore be an indicator that fluid injection has brought the fault system to a critical state.

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