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The susceptibility of Oklahoma’s basement to seismic reactivation


Recent widespread seismicity in Oklahoma is attributed to the reactivation of pre-existing, critically stressed and seismically unstable faults due to decades of wastewater injection. However, the structure and properties of the reactivated faults remain concealed by the sedimentary cover. Here, we explore the major ingredients needed to induce earthquakes in Oklahoma by characterizing basement faults in the field, in seismic surveys and via rock-mechanics experiments. Outcrop and satellite mapping reveal widespread fault and fracture systems with trends that display a marked similarity to the trends of recent earthquake lineaments. Our three-dimensional seismic analyses show steeply dipping basement-rooted faults that penetrate the overlying sedimentary sequences, representing pathways for wastewater migration. Experimental stability analysis indicates that Oklahoma’s basement rocks become seismically unstable at conditions relevant to the dominant hypocentral depths of the recent earthquakes. These analyses demonstrate that the geometry, structure and mechanical stability of Oklahoma’s basement make it critically susceptible to seismic reactivation.

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Fig. 1: Earthquakes and basement lithology in Oklahoma.
Fig. 2: Outcrop fractures.
Fig. 3: Three-dimensional seismic data and structural data compilation.
Fig. 4: Depth distribution of seismic stability and earthquakes in Oklahoma.

Data availability

All data and materials that support the findings of this study can be made available, in some form, to any researcher for purposes of reproducing or extending the analysis upon request to the corresponding author. The 3D seismic data from Osage County are publicly available through Osage Nation. Oklahoma Geological Survey data products can be found at Field mapping data can be provided upon request by contacting the corresponding author. Laboratory data appearing in Supplementary Figs. 4 and 6 acquired during experiments at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, and the friction data used in this study can be obtained from


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We acknowledge the USGS Induced Seismicity Project for providing financial support and laboratory expertise/time to conduct the experiments presented in this manuscript. We thank N. Beeler and A. Barbour for their helpful reviews. We thank Osage Nation and SpyGlass Energy, LLC, for providing the seismic data used in this study. We also thank the Oklahoma Geological Survey for providing earthquake and focal mechanism data.

Author information




F.K., D.A.L., Z.R. and B.M.C. wrote the manuscript. F.K. and C.S.J. performed satellite fracture mapping. F.K., C.S.J., Z.R. and B.M.C. completed the fieldwork. J.C.C. assisted with earthquake relocation and epicentre-cluster lineament mapping. F.K. and K.J.M. completed the 3D seismic analysis. C.B.M., D.A.L., Z.R. and B.M.C. designed, performed, and analysed the friction experiments.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to B. M. Carpenter.

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Kolawole, F., Johnston, C.S., Morgan, C.B. et al. The susceptibility of Oklahoma’s basement to seismic reactivation. Nat. Geosci. 12, 839–844 (2019).

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