Database of presumed human-caused earthquakes created


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The uncertainty of science: Geologists have assembled a database of more than 700 earthquakes they think might have been caused by human activity.

The Human-Induced Earthquake Database, or HiQuake, contains 728 examples of earthquakes (or sequences of earthquakes) that may have been set off by humans over the past 149 years. Most of them were small, between magnitudes 3 and 4. But the list also includes several large, destructive earthquakes, such as the magnitude-7.8 quake in Nepal in April 2015, which one paper linked to groundwater pumping.

Miles Wilson, a hydrogeologist at Durham University, UK, and his colleagues describe the database in a paper set to be published on October 4 in Seismological Research Letters2. The scientists say that HiQuake is the biggest, most up-to-date public listing of human-caused quakes ever made. By bringing the data together in this way, they hope to highlight how diverse induced quakes can be — and help society to understand and manage the future risk.

Many of these quakes were likely caused by human activity. Many however might not have been. The jury is still out, as the article reluctantly admits near the end.

All possible instances of induced quakes were included “without regard to plausibility”, writes the team, because of the difficulty involved in deciding what constitutes absolute proof that an earthquake was caused by human activity. But that could mislead people about the real hazard from induced quakes, says Raphaël Grandin, a geophysicist at the Institute of Earth Physics in Paris. “When you put a dot in the database, and a scientific reference behind it, then you may lead the non-expert to think that the earthquake was caused by humans,” he says. Such a listing might hide scientific uncertainty, as with the Chinese quake: despite the paper linking it to reservoir filling, many seismologists do not believe it was triggered by human activity.

In other words, they included every quake that had the slightest suggestion it was connected to human activity, without noting the uncertainties. This makes this database to me somewhat suspect. Rather than identify the known reliable links between human activity and quakes in order to learn what causes them, this database seems more designed as a political propaganda tool aimed at limiting future human activity. It certainly doesn’t clarify our knowledge on this subject, but instead muddies the water significantly.

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6 comments

  • Garry

    I suspect that the whole idea behind this may be to link fracking to earthquakes.

    Perhaps there is a link; there are worse approaches than listing every possible instance of human activity causing earthquakes. But that’s only a starting point; it may in fact have negative value unless there is proper follow-up, which could take centuries before anything solid is learned.

  • wayne

    Garry–
    Do more than suspect! You are absolutely on point.

    Sounds like they want to data-mine for their pre-conceived conclusions. That being said; there are definitely instances of human induced seismic events– look up “deep well injection.”

  • Chris

    I have often wondered why the Californians ( sounds like an alien race – maybe it is) have not used fracking techniques on places like the San Andreas to release the plate pressure instead of letting it continually build.

  • Garry

    That sounds like a journey into the unknown; I don’t think we understand anything about human-caused earthquakes at this point, not even if it’s a real phenomenon or not.

    Perhaps a logical next step is an attempt at a human-caused quake, but that would be better attempted somewhere that doesn’t pose any danger to a large population in a developed area.

  • wayne

    Chris/Garry–

    The vast majority of “earthquake activity,” is at a level perceptible only to seismographs.
    (They have been studying induced seismic activity & deep-well injection,since the late 1940’s at a minimum.)
    If I recall correctly, there are about 50 “earthquakes” per day on Earth at a level which is detectable and which can be pinpointed as to location, with any accuracy.

    One of the most “famous” incidence of deep-well injection causing seismic activity in the USA– disposal of waste at the Rocky Mountain arsenal.

    A fairly good summary is at:
    “Human Induced Earthquakes from Deep Well Injection”
    https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43836.pdf

  • Edward

    From the article: “Susan Hough, a seismologist at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California, says she understands why the HiQuake team included all possible instances of induced quakes. ‘I suspect the authors were unwilling to pass judgement on published studies, which I consider a reasonable decision,’ she says. ‘If you start down the road, where do you stop?’ [Miles Wilson, a hydrogeologist at Durham University, UK] agrees. ‘Any judgement calls we leave to users,’ he says.

    So, let me get this right. The experts on the subject are not willing to pass judgement on published studies but want those judgement calls to be performed by the inexpert, inexperienced users? The experts believe that the amateurs are better able to judge the compilation of summaries of the conclusions of the papers than the expert scientists are able to judge the actual papers themselves? Did I get that right?

    If the experts cannot determine fact from fantasy, then what good are they? What are we paying their salaries for, if it is not for their expert opinions? If it is just data collection and dissemination, then I could do that for less than the salary of just one of those guys, and I wouldn’t have to put my reputation on the line, just like they aren’t willing to do.

    Each paper that a scientist writes is supposed to be good enough that the scientist does not worry about it damaging his reputation. If it isn’t that good, then it is not ready for publication. If its conclusions are suspect, then it should not be referenced by others. That goes for the database of earthquakes; if it assumes that all the temblors are certainly human caused when there is actually doubt for some, most, or all, then it is a misleading database and therefore useless or harmful.

    For the article to point out its uselessness at the end of the article does a disservice to its readers.

    One engineer that I worked for recommended that if I get bored with an article, paper, annual report, etc. to skip to the end, because we can learn a lot of interesting things that don’t get mentioned until then. I have been doing just that for decades, and he is right. This article is yet another example.

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