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U.S. Earthquake Risks on the Rise

Monday, May 4, 2015

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SAN FRANCISCO—Nearly half the population of the United States is living in earthquake-prone zones and long-term building losses from tremors average $4.5 billion per year.

Those are among the conclusions of new U.S. Geological Survey research recently presented to the Seismological Society of America during its annual meeting.

Earthquake damage
Ellis Maynard / FEMA

A new report suggests that more Americans are exposed to earthquake shaking. The house above was damaged during the 6.0 earthquake that struck Aug. 24, 2014, in Napa, CA.

News of the increased risks follows another USGS report that found man-made earthquakes on the rise in the central and eastern U.S.

All Shook Up

More than 143 million Americans living in the 48 contiguous states are exposed to potentially damaging ground shaking from earthquakes, according to the analysis of 2014 National Seismic Hazard Maps and the latest data on infrastructure and population from LandScan, a product of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As many as 28 million people are likely to experience strong shaking during their lifetime, the researchers say.

“This analysis of data […] reveals that significantly more Americans are exposed to earthquake shaking, reflecting both the movement of the population to higher risk areas on the west coast and a change in hazard assessments,” said co-author Bill Leith, senior science advisor at USGS.

In 1994, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that just 75 million Americans in 39 states were at risk for earthquakes.

Buildings at Risk

The researchers calculated systematically the losses that could happen on any given year, ranging from no losses to very high value of loss.

medical center

More than 6,000 fire stations, 800 hospitals and nearly 20,000 public and private schools are in areas most at risk of strong ground motion, according to the scientists. The medical center shown above sustained damaged during the 1994 Northridge, CA, earthquake.

They concluded that the average long-term value of building losses from earthquakes is $4.5 billion per year.

Most of those losses, 80 percent, are attributed to California, Oregon and Washington state.

Further, more than 6,000 fire stations, 800 hospitals and nearly 20,000 public and private schools are in areas most at risk of strong ground motion, according to the scientists.

A Real Threat

“Earthquakes remain an important threat to our economy,” Kishor Jaiswal, a research contractor with the USGS said in presenting the findings.

“While the west coast may carry the larger burden of potential losses and the greatest threat from the strongest shaking, this report shows that the threat from earthquakes is widespread,” he said.

Jaiswal conducted the analysis with colleagues from the USGS, FEMA and the California Geological Survey.

USGS hazard level reports are often used in building codes, insurance rates, emergency preparedness plans, and other applications.

Man-made Quakes on the Rise

The USGS also recently released a report finding that earthquake activity has sharply increased in the central and eastern U.S.

Since 2009, seismic activity has increased significantly in 17 areas in eight states including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Alabama, the USGS reported.

"This new report describes for the first time how injection-induced earthquakes can be incorporated into U.S. seismic hazard maps," said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Modeling Project.

The influx has been linked to the injection of wastewater into deep wells beneath the Earth’s surface from industrial operations.

USGS model
U.S. Geological Survey

Since 2009, earthquake activity has increased significantly in 17 areas in eight states including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Alabama, the USGS reported.

Wastewater that is salty or polluted by chemicals needs to be disposed of in a manner that prevents contaminating freshwater sources, according to USGS.  Large volumes of wastewater can result from a variety of processes, such as a byproduct from energy production.

The researchers say that wastewater injection increases the underground pore pressure, which may lubricate nearby faults, thereby making earthquakes more likely to occur. Although the disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, most wastewater disposal wells do not produce felt earthquakes, the scientists note.

More Questions

That report also identifies issues that must be resolved in order to develop a final hazard model, which is scheduled for release later this year.

The report addressed questions raised about whether hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is responsible for the recent increase in earthquakes. 

“USGS studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only occasionally the direct cause of felt earthquakes,” the scientists note.


Tagged categories: Building codes; Construction; Disasters; Government; Hazards; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Research

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