Seismic activities, earthquakes, happen quickly, but their consequences can last a long time.
At the industrial level, the timeline connecting the use of injection wells to store wastewater and consequential earthquake activity in the Raton Basin of Northeastern New Mexico and Southeastern Colorado is also a pretty short loop.
In 1994 extracting natural gas from coalbeds straddling the eastern end of the Colorado-New Mexico state line became big business. So big, that by 1999 the first of an eventual 28 wastewater injection wells was sunk into the ground, well on the Colorado side. 2 years later, an area that had been pretty seismically dormant for close to 30 years was getting very active.
Some local people noticed, but by and large these small-scale earth-shivers were easy to ignore.
Then, in 2011, there was a bigger quake than anyone could remember for the region, 5.3 on the Richter Scale, big enough to damage some buildings in Trinidad, Colorado, 15 miles from the epicenter.
That got a lot of people’s attention, and by 2014, the US Geological Service said it’s investigative study concluded that both the pretty big quake of 2011, and the swarm of smaller ones that started in 2001 almost certainly had the same cause: The presence, deep underground, of wells into which wastewater from natural gas extraction was being injected.
That same year, 2014, a team from the University of Colorado, Boulder offered an explanation. The injection well introduced a pressure rise, which became something like a pressure wave that traveled along faults and cracks and even the pores of the surrounding rock until something gave…and an earthquake occurred.
This year, just a few months ago, another team from UC Boulder’s Environmental Sciences school, took a great leap forward. They essentially proved the theses of cause, effect and mechanics by successfully modeling them on a computer. They used an extraordinary map of earthquake activity in the Raton Basin from 2008 to 2010, and records of how much wastewater has being injected where and when, and connected the dots.
Jenny Nakai is a graduate student and researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Her recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research demonstrated a link between deep water storage wells for waste products from hydraulic fracking and increased earthquake activity in southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico.
Jenny grew up in a lot of places: the Navajo Nation, Houston, American Samoa, and Albuquerque. She believes that research in earth sciences is increasingly important to deal with the resource and environmental challenges that we face today. Outside of studying, she enjoys organizing community events, hiking, running, and being outdoors. Her ultimate goal is to work as a geophysicist, researching global environmental problems and using her experience to educate communities.