Texas introduces new earthquake-monitoring system

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Photo Credit: Jason Gade | Daily Texan Staff

Texas is shaking things up with its new earthquake-monitoring system.  

As part of the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program, scientists and engineers at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology are installing seismometers, devices that measure the ground’s motion, throughout Texas in order to better understand the rise in earthquakes in recent years. The sensors will help researchers locate where earthquakes occur, measure their intensity and determine potential causes. 

“TexNet is a great example of the state of Texas providing resources to the University to research a very important problem impacting the people and infrastructure of Texas,” said Ellen Rathje, professor of civil engineering and co-principal investigator of the project. 

Increases in seismic activity, especially in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area, caused Gov. Greg Abbott and the 84th Legislature to allocate $4.47 million in funding for TexNet in June 2015. The rate of earthquakes in the state has risen from one or two per year before 2010 to 15 small earthquakes per year in 2015, with 28 occurring in 2016 alone, according to the Bureau of Economic Geology. 

To better understand the spike in earthquakes, and whether they may be natural or caused by human activity, scientists plan to install 22 permanent and 36 portable seismometers through the state, said Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology. The seismometers, over half of which have already been installed, collect data on the Earth’s motion and send information back to the Bureau.

“We can identify the location and time that the earthquake happened,” Rathje said. “We’re getting information on the intensity of the shaking and its potential to cause damage.”

Many of the sensors are placed on private property, requiring collaboration with landowners and ranchers. The Bureau collaborates with Texas A&M University and Southern Methodist University, as well as agencies such as the Railroad Commission of Texas, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Tinker said a consortium of gas and oil companies interested in understanding the causes of these earthquakes also contributes data, financial support and technical expertise to the project. 

The rise in the number of earthquakes in Texas and its neighbor Oklahoma generally correlate with increased oil and gas activity, according to Rathje. She said this may be due to the injection of contaminated wastewater deep into the Earth, which results from fracking. Tinker said that 10 to 20 of the approximately 7500 wells in Texas where wastewater from oil and gas operations is disposed have been linked to increased earthquake activity. He added that while this correlation exists, the wells may not necessarily be responsible for the increase in seismic activity. 

“It’s very important to understand what all needs to happen with the University, government and industry to work together to address this challenge,” Tinker said.

Tinker added that he hopes Texas will take on a leadership role in studying earthquakes. 

“We’re hoping that Texas is leading the nation in investing in this kind of seismological network and the research to be done,” Tinker said.