Bananas and Staplers—and Water and Earthquakes?

Potatoes and spam email. Laptops and biscuits. Bananas and staplers. Water and earthquakes. What’s the correlation between all these objects? There seemingly is none. For the first three pairs in the list, such an assumption would be mostly correct. However, let’s reexamine the last pair in the list: water and earthquakes. You may question the legitimacy of my claim—you may suggest that there simply is no correlation between the two, and that it is inherently impossible for something as simple as water to cause something as tremendous as an earthquake. How can water, perhaps the single most important thing to the existence of life on our planet, possibly stimulate a natural hazard that has the potential to destroy infrastructure, claim human lives, and cause further damage by stimulating a tsunami? The answer may not be straightforward yet, but the correlation will soon be obvious.

The American state of Oklahoma saw an exponential increase in the number of earthquakes it has seen in the past decade—from 50 earthquakes in 2009 to 5417 in 2014, an increase of over 108 times over a period of 5 years (Wittgott). Uncoincidentally, the extraction of crude oil and natural gas from the state additionally rose considerably during this time (Wittgott). However, with these processes comes large volumes of toxic wastewater that must be disposed of (Wittgott). Oftentimes, this water is disposed of by injecting it thousands of feet underground in order to prevent it from contaminating drinking water (Wittgott). Although a seemingly harmless method, it stimulates the expansion of rocks as the water fills the rocks’ pores (Wittgott). Subsequently, the rock pushes harder on existing faults, whose plates are usually locked in place, and causes them to slip and cause earthquakes (Wittgott).

This demonstrates two inherently sound principles that are often overlooked. Firstly, that it is imperative to consider the correlation between two seemingly unrelated things. Secondly, that we must consider the greater implications of an action. At first thought, after having learned that injecting toxic water deep underground stimulates earthquakes, one may propose one of two simple solutions: to get rid of the water elsewhere or to reduce the volume of crude oil and natural gas extracted. However, both of these solutions have their downfalls. This is rooted in the fact that there are few places where water that is toxic to such a large extent may be safely disposed of. Dumping it in a body of water would perhaps be even more detrimental as its runoff would have the possibility to contaminate the drinking water supply—which would possibly lead to death if consumed (Wittgott). Likewise, although the other solution is seemingly viable, we must consider the effect that such an action would have on the state’s and perhaps the nation’s economy—it is suggested that as much as a fifth of the state’s jobs are rooted in the industry and it raises a considerable amount of money for the state through taxation (Withgott). Thus, this demonstrates that all decisions require a delicate balance between all factors that must be considered—and moreover, that there is always another factor that is overlooked. Therefore, it is imperative to consider all the possible implications of an action before acting on it.

Withgott, Jay, and Matthew Laposata. Environment: The Science Behind the Stories. Pearson, 2016.

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