Several news websites posted reports today that the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the federal agency in charge of recording and studying earthquakes, issued a "rare earthquake warning" for Oklahoma. They did issue a statement saying that a strong earthquake could happen in the future, but using the term "warning" is pure hype.
The USGS released a joint statement with the Oklahoma Geological Survey on May 2 advising that a string of small earthquakes across central Oklahoma could signal that a larger earthquake is coming in the future.
The rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased remarkably since October 2013 – by about 50 percent – significantly increasing the chance for a damaging magnitude 5.5 or greater quake in central Oklahoma.
"While it's been known for decades that Oklahoma is 'earthquake country', we hope that this new advisory of increased hazard will become a crucial consideration in earthquake preparedness for residents, schools and businesses in the area," said Dr. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards at USGS. "Building owners and government officials should have a special concern for older, unreinforced brick structures, which are vulnerable to serious damage during sufficient shaking."
The release shows pretty solid evidence that there's been a massive uptick in the amount of seismic activity across Oklahoma over the past couple of years, increasing from less than ten earthquakes per year before 2007 to over 140 through May 2 of this year alone.
The study points out that a "likely contributing factor" to the increase in seismic activity is the injection of wastewater into the earth partially as a byproduct of "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing. The USGS points out that when wastewater is pumped deep into the ground for disposal, the process can trigger a small, localized earthquake.
The statement points out several times that the increased seismic activity in Oklahoma could herald a larger, more damaging earthquake (greater than a 5.5) sometime in the future, but that's about it. A large earthquake could happen tomorrow, or a year from now, or never. The USGS is just pointing out that a significant quake in the area is a possibility given the evidence as it stands today.
What the sites breathlessly reporting an "earthquake warning" are ignoring is that the original statement was issued on October 22, 2013, and updated on May 2. They're picking up on it today because the information was pushed to the media this morning through a press release.
People are used to hearing "tornado warning" or "severe thunderstorm warning" in the context of an imminent, life-threatening danger that requires immediate action. Calling the statement an "earthquake warning" is hype. If anything it's an "earthquake advisory" or "possible earthquake statement." But where's the fun that?
[Images via USGS — the top image shows the overall risk for an earthquake around the country given historical earthquake activity along known fault lines]
(The paragraph on fracking was initially inaccurate and was corrected by the author.)