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With the number of earthquakes rising, USGS warns West Texans to prepare for higher magnitudes

Earthquakes are on the rise. Government action has been taken. So what's next?
Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 7:54 AM CST
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MIDLAND, Texas (KOSA) - Since 2018, Midland-Odessa has had a severe case of the shakes.

“If you are living in Midland or Odessa, you are now living in earthquake country,” said Justin Rubinstein, the project leader of the USGS Induced Seismicity Project, which studies man-made earthquakes.

West Texas has seen a massive increase in earthquakes over the past few years. You’d be forgiven if your first response is to blame fracking, but that’s not the case.

“It’s unclear why, but fracking doesn’t seem to be causing a significant percentage of the earthquakes,” Rubinstein said.

While fracking does cause earthquakes in places like China, they’re not common here in the U.S.

Most of the induced earthquakes in the U.S. are caused by water disposal.

The science behind that can get complicated, but Rubinstein has an easy way to understand it.

“The easiest way to think about this is an air hockey table,” he said. “When an air hockey table is off, the puck doesn’t move very quickly. It’s hard to move it, but if you turn the air on, the puck slides easily. This is really what’s happening.”

CBS7 ran Midland-Odessa through a USGS online database looking for instances of earthquakes over the past five years measuring 2.0 or greater.

The results were alarming.

In 2017 and 2018, Midland-Odessa had 0 recorded earthquakes with a magnitude of at least 2.0.

In 2019, that number increased to 4.

In 2020, it ballooned to 40 earthquakes.

In 2021, it reached 98.

As of Feb. 7, 2022, we’ve already seen 14 earthquakes 2.0 or greater. That’s on pace for 134.

What’s happening in West Texas has been seen before.

A similar increase in earthquakes occurred last decade in Oklahoma due to oil and gas operations. Eventually, some of those earthquakes broke into the 4s and 5s, with the largest being a 5.8 in 2016, which damaged homes. Government action was taken to mitigate the frequency of the state’s earthquakes.

The Railroad Commission of Texas has stepped in, stopping deep water injections around the area.

“In general, you start seeing a response relatively quickly, say within six months to a year, and it can be faster than that,” Rubinstein said.

While that’s good news for Midland-Odessa, it doesn’t do much for more rural parts of West Texas. Those numbers will likely continue to increase, and the more earthquakes you have, the greater chance there is for severe damage.

“Have a plan for what you’re going to do if there is a big earthquake, if your home is damaged,” Rubinstein said. “That means having an earthquake kit. So, having supplies, generally we think of 72 hours [of water and food].”

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