Oklahoma coming to terms with unprecedented surge in earthquakes

By Hailey Branson-Potts in the Los Angeles Times

Crescent, Okla., like much of the state, has been hit by numerous earthquakes in recent weeks. Many scientists blame drilling operations. (Mark Potts / LA Times)

When Austin Holland was being considered for his job as the sole seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey in 2009, his interviewer posed a wry question: “Are you going to be able to entertain yourself as a seismologist in Oklahoma?”

Back then, the state had a 30-year average of only two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year. As it turns out, though, boredom has been the least of Holland’s concerns. Over the last five years, the state has had thousands of earthquakes — an unprecedented increase that has made it the second-most seismically active state in the continental United States, behind California.

The state had 109 temblors measuring 3.0 or greater in 2013 — more than 5,000% above normal. There have already been more than 200 earthquakes this year, Holland said.

Scientists have never observed such a dramatic swarm of earthquakes “in what’s considered a stable continental interior,” Holland said. “Whatever we’re looking at, it’s completely unprecedented.”

Oklahoma has always had the potential for earthquakes; it has a complex underlying fault system. But until recently, the most powerful quake of the modern era was a 5.5-magnitude temblor in 1952 that left a 15-meter crack in the state Capitol.

Scientists say the more likely cause of the recent increase is underground injection wells drilled by the oil and gas industry. About 80% of the state is within nine miles of an injection well, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Oklahoma has seen a boom in oil and gas production, including the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of shooting water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure to extract oil and natural gas. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several universities suggest there is a link between the quakes and disposal wells, where wastewater from fracking is forced into deep geological formations for storage.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times

Scientists find 800,000-year-old footprints in UK

Evidence is earliest proof of human life in Northern Europe, oldest prints found outside Africa

Some of the human footprints, thought to be more than 800,000 years old, found in silt on the beach at Happisburgh on the coast of England. A camera lens cap indicates scale.British Museum/AP

They were a British family on a day out — almost a million years ago.

Archaeologists announced Friday that they have discovered human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old — the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in Northern Europe.

British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the discovery — recounted in detail in the journal PLOS ONE — was “a tangible link to our earliest human relatives.”

Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors. They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male.

They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or “pioneer man,” whose fossilized remains have been found in Spain. That species died out about 800,000 years ago.

Read more at Al Jazeera America

Alberta Government Quietly Funded Researchers Behind ‘Independent’ Report Boosting Keystone XL

An aerial view of crude oil production in Alberta, Canada. (Flickr, Howl Arts Collective)

Before the State Department released its controversial Environmental Impact Study last week, a consulting firm called IHS CERA primed the news media by releasing its own study last year claiming that the Keystone XL wouldn’t make a substantial difference in emissions. The report was released as an “independent” study. TheNation.com filed a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request to the Alberta government, and found that taxpayers in Canada paid IHS CERA hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The heavily redacted contract, a version of which can be found here, provides $325,000 from the government of Alberta to IHS CERA. In addition, public budget documents from Alberta reveal that taxpayers in Canada have provided IHS with more than $545,426 in payments over the last year for energy-related work.

The Alberta government has been one of the most aggressive proponents of the pipeline. Last year, Alberta retained two DC lobbying firms with strong ties to Secretary of State John Kerry, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, to push for speedy approval of the Keystone XL.

Echoing the State Department EIS released last week, the IHS CERA claimed that even without the Keystone XL, Canadian oil sands would be developed by other means. “Even if the Keystone XL pipeline does not move forward, we do not expect a material change to oil sands production growth,” claims the authors.

However, assessments of the market by Toronto-Dominion Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and other leading financial analysts have found that the Keystone XL is critical for the development of the high-carbon oil sands market.

Read more at The Nation

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The Geologic Origin of Mima Mounds: A New Hypothesis

Naturalist John Muir (By Francis M. Fritz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Mima mounds, geologic structures found at the southern termini of ancient continental glaciers in North America, represent the erosional remnants of frost polygons in ancient permafrost zones. As the Earth’s climate warmed and glacial ice sheets retreated at the start of the current interglacial period, the Holocene, the disappearance of the permafrost ice wedges defining the boundaries of frost polygons produced the drainage and subsequent erosional patterns that resulted in the geologic phenomena that are now termed “mima mounds.” That these structures in North America are specifically associated with the Puget Sound and Great Lakes basins, regions understood to have been areas of continental glacial maxima during the last glacial event, is major corroborative evidence of this hypothesis.

© 2013 by Paul Kennedy