Developments in understanding seismicity triggered by hydraulic fracturing

Abstract

As recently as 2015, it was common in the scientific literature to find assertions that the risk of triggering a damaging earthquake by hydraulic fracturing (HF) — an industrial process where pressurized fluids are used to create or open fractures within rock layers — could be treated as negligible. However, that viewpoint has changed dramatically. It is now clear that the hazard from induced seismicity (including HF) exceeds the natural hazard in low-to-moderate seismicity environments. As such, to mitigate risk to vulnerable and critical infrastructure, it is important to address the likelihood and triggering mechanisms of HF-induced earthquakes. Although it is sometimes claimed that HF-induced earthquakes can be accurately predicted, avoided or controlled, critical knowledge gaps still remain. In this Review, we discuss six fundamental issues surrounding induced seismicity, focusing specifically on HF-induced events, including: the triggering mechanisms of HF seismicity; the relationship between tectonic environment and HF seismicity; the similarities and differences between induced and natural events; the damage potential associated with HF-induced seismicity; whether HF-induced events can be predicted; and the relative hazards of HF-induced and natural seismic events. We finish by outlining future research directions that are required to minimize the uncertainty and hazard that surround induced seismicity.

Key points

  • Hydraulic fracturing can trigger earthquakes large enough (generally, magnitude >4) to cause potentially damaging ground motions, with actual damage depending on the intensity of motions and the vulnerability of nearby infrastructure.

  • The triggering of anomalous events (M >2) requires a source of stress perturbation, a pre-existing, critically stressed fault with sufficient surface area to host a felt event and a coupling mechanism that connects the source to the fault, either directly or indirectly.

  • Induced earthquakes are similar to their natural counterparts with respect to source characteristics, magnitude–frequency characteristics and ground motions.

  • The hazard from earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing might greatly exceed the natural earthquake hazard in regions of low to moderate seismicity, which is consequential for the seismic safety of nearby (<10 km) infrastructure.

  • Potentially damaging induced events cannot be confidently predicted in advance of operations. Current risk-mitigation strategies, such as traffic light protocols, have not yet proved reliable. Further development of hazard forecasting and mitigation approaches is a critical future area of research.

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Fig. 1: Global distribution of induced seismicity.
Fig. 2: Possible triggering mechanisms of HF-induced seismicity.
Fig. 3: Ground motions and damage potential from induced events.
Fig. 4: Traffic light protocol thresholds for various regions worldwide.
Fig. 5: Relationship between cumulative injected volume and seismic moment.

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Acknowledgements

The authors receive financial support for their research programmes from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank James Verdon for constructive discussions that contributed to the manuscript and Minhee Choi for assistance in preparing the final manuscript.

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Glossary

Operationally induced microseismicity

Weak seismicity that is expected to occur during operations such as hydraulic fracturing or development of an engineered geothermal system.

Unconventional plays

Oil and gas resources whose porosity, permeability, fluid-trapping mechanism or other characteristics differ from conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Creep

A process in which permanent plastic deformation occurs owing to various microscale or atomic-scale mechanisms.

Failure criteria

A mathematical model defining stress conditions under which failure might occur, such as the Mohr–Coulomb failure criteria.

Epidemic-type aftershock sequence (ETAS) models

Cascading point processes derived from Omori’s law that can be used to simulate the temporal patterns of earthquake sequences in a given region.

Microseismicity

Seismicity of magnitude less than 0.

Double-couple

A mathematical model for an earthquake-source mechanism, consisting of two orthogonal force couples. The mechanism is typically parameterized using the strike and dip of the fault plane, as well as the rake (slip vector).

Stress drop

The co-seismic reduction in shear stress acting on a fault (the difference between the shear stress on the fault before an earthquake and the shear stress after an earthquake).

Intensity

The effects of earthquake ground motion on the natural or built environment.

Epicentre

The point on the surface vertically above an earthquake’s focus.

Peak ground acceleration

Maximum instantaneous amplitude of the absolute value of the acceleration of the ground.

Seismic moment

A measure of the size of an earthquake based on the product of the rupture area, the average amount of slip and the force that was required to overcome fault friction.

Runaway rupture

The initiation of larger-magnitude earthquakes that extend past the stimulated region. These events primarily release tectonic strain on faults outside the stimulated region.

Foreshocks

Earthquakes that precede the largest earthquake in a sequence.

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Atkinson, G.M., Eaton, D.W. & Igonin, N. Developments in understanding seismicity triggered by hydraulic fracturing. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 264–277 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0049-7

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