Geologists have no easy answers to earthquake questions
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Monday, November 07, 2011
5/30/12 at 6:10 AM
Nov. 7: State bridges appear fine after quakes, ODOT says
Nov. 7: Damage left in wake of Saturday's quake
Nov. 6: Earthquake jolts Oklahoma
The third earthquake to rock Tulsa in three days proves one thing about geology: You can’t predict it.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 8:46 p.m. earthquake that was felt in Tulsa had a magnitude of 4.7 and an epicenter five miles northwest of Prague, very close to the spot where the first quake in the spate struck early Saturday.
Oklahoma Geological Survey instruments put the quake at a 5.0 magnitude.
Monday night’s shaking came just as geoscientists thought Oklahoma might be ready to settle down.
Before the latest temblor, State Geologist Randy Keller said history teaches that as aftershocks get further apart — as they were earlier Monday — they fade away.
Except, he added, earthquakes simply aren’t predictable in human time.
Austin Holland, a research seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey, says more shaking along the Wilzetta Fault — which stretches from near Tecumseh to Creek County — is possible anytime, and Oklahoma has many other faults.
The immediate cause of the earthquakes is one of their great uncertainties, said University of Tulsa Geosciences Chairman Bryan Tapp.
“We really don’t understand the actual triggering mechanism for the quakes that occurred on the weekend,” he said.
From a broad perspective, the cause is known but certainly not simple. The region has seen intense tectonic deformation — although the really dramatic earth-trembling days ended about 300 million years ago, Tapp said.
The North American tectonic plate is moving to the west, which creates tension throughout the continent. That tension will break free from time to time at weak spots — faults, Keller said.
In this region the Anadarko Basin and the Arkoma Basin are subsiding, while other areas are being pushed up, meaning tension builds along those fault planes, and at some critical moment, the two sides of the fault slip, Tapp said.
That’s when things get rolling.
There is one thing the three geoscientists agree on: It doesn’t make any sense to think hydraulic fracking by petroleum exploration has anything to do with the weekend’s excitement — no matter what you may have read on the Internet.
Holland said that hypothetically, fracking can cause small, localized earthquakes but that there’s a much simpler explanation for these events — a known fault line and a continent’s worth of geopressure.
“It’s just too deep. If somebody wants to believe something, they will, but it just isn’t logical to believe anything going on 10,000 feet above you is coming down into the solid basement rock and causing things to move,” Keller said.
How big was Saturday night’s earthquake? Depends on whom you ask.
The U.S. Geological Survey puts the quake at 5.6 in magnitude, making it the largest in contemporary state history.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey puts it at 5.3, slightly smaller than a 1952 earthquake near El Reno.
Austin Holland, a research seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said the numbers are going to change and are imprecise by nature.
“There’s as many different magnitude scales as there are seismologists. And so just because you do it in a different way and there’s a different number that comes out of it, does that make the earthquake any different? It doesn’t,” he said. “Whether you want to call it a 5.3 or a 5.6, it really is a significant earthquake.”
The number stuck on the El Reno event is no more specific, he added.
By California standards, Oklahoma’s earthquake wasn’t much, but by Oklahoma standards, it’s about as big as you’re likely to see — with one significant exception.
State Geologist Randy Keller said a well-studied fault near Meers, in far southwestern Oklahoma, could unleash a very large earthquake — something on the 7.0 scale. Such a quake could cause significant damage in Lawton and Wichita Falls and be felt throughout the eastern half of the United States, he said.
This video was shot Saturday night by Bryse Forguson, 14, who was listening to music while a computer webcam was pointing at him and running, when Saturday night's earthquake hit, said his grandmother, Sherri Hall. Bryse, of Fayetteville, Ark., was visiting his grandparents in Hominy in Osage County -- about 80 miles north of the epicenter of the quake near Prague. "We thought the whole house was going to fall down," Hall said.