2011 might go down as the Year of the Earthquake -- primarily, perhaps, due to the massive 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake that occurred off the coast of Japan in March and caused 15,000 deaths, widespread destruction, a tsunami and multiple meltdowns at a the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant.
Closer to home, earthquake activity seemed to pick up all over Turtle Island -- although it's possible that the carnage in Japan has merely made us hyper-aware of tremors, quakes and temblors. Still, it's quite rare for residents of mid-Atlantic and northeastern states to be shaken as they were in August by a 5.8-magnitude Virginia quake that was felt from the Carolinas to Canada, and as far west as Chicago. Within the weeks that followed, a 6.8-magnitude quake struck Alaska and a 6.4-magnitude quake rattled Vancouver Island. In November, the largest quake in Oklahoma history shook Indian country, and in December the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that rattled the Mexican state of Guerrero and the capital Mexico City, killed at least three people.
Are earthquakes on the rise? Probably not, said a November report by the US Geological Survey that crunched numbers on large earthquakes around the world.
Yet others would have you believe that, in certain areas, earthquakes are not only on the rise but are being caused by human actions. A report in the New York Times examined the case of Youngstown, Ohio, which saw two quakes on March 17 and had seen seven more through mid-December. The article explains that when seismologists plotted the earthquakes' epicenters, they discovered that most coincided with a well being used to dispose of water and other by-products of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Fracking has already come under fire for potentially polluting water in nearby areas. And like most extractive practices, fracking is seen as prolonging the oft-discussed American "addiction" to oil by environmentalists who would rather develop solar, wind and hydro power.
In the midst of this charged debate, a question such as "Does fracking cause earthquakes?" is unavoidably loaded.
The New York Times report is careful not to give either side too much ammunition, saying that the Youngstown quakes and others that have occurred near fracking operations "raise the disquieting notion that [fracking] could lead, directly or indirectly, to a damaging earthquake." The article immediately points out that "Scientists say the likelihood of that link is extremely remote."
A report at ScientificAmerican.com takes a different tack, investigating whether fracking could have been a contributing factor to the 5.6-magnitude record quake that rocked Oklahoma in November. The article quotes seismologist Randy Keller of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, who does not dispute that fracking could play a role in small-scale seismic activity. "I won't say that man's activity never ever caused the release of seismic stress, but hydro-fracks are such small things," he said. "If we were talking a magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake, that'd be different, but it's awfully hard to imagine a hydro-frack being involved with one of this size. We also have to determine if there were any frack jobs going on there right now, but I don't think there were—it didn't happen in an area of particularly active oil and gas exploration."
Seismologist Art McGarr of the U.S. Geological Survey cautioned against trying to reason with earthquakes. "It is probably best not to attach much significance to perceived increases in seismic activity in Oklahoma," he said. "The occurrence of earthquakes anywhere is quite irregular."
With tar sands, fracking, and pipeline power-plays in the news on a daily basis, the feud between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry is only getting more intense. Yet many tribes are weighing fracking, even with its known imperfections, as potential economic salvation. If the threat of earthquakes becomes part of the equation, tribes may begin to wonder whether fracking for dollars might come at too great a cost.