Can humans start an earthquake?


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Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me, as always, is Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant. You know us as Chuck and Josh.

Chuck Bryant: We debated this. It's Josh and Chuck.

Josh Clark: It's Chuck and Josh now.

Chuck Bryant: Dude, it's - what do you mean now?

Josh Clark: Well, it was Josh and Chuck. And then it became Chuck and Josh. I'm sure in the future it'll just keep rotating. It's like the wheel of time.

Chuck Bryant: Well, Josh and Chuck has a ring that I enjoy.

Josh Clark: How about Chosh and Juck?

Chuck Bryant: And Matt.

Josh Clark: Yeah, with special guest producer, Matt.

Chuck Bryant: Jerry's not here to spank us when we err.

Josh Clark: No. Which means we can get away with a lot of stuff!

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Although, I think we're self-regulating these days.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, we're doing pretty well.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: You want to get into it?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: You the earthquake in May of 2008?

Chuck Bryant: In China?

Josh Clark: Szechwan Province?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: It killed 80,000 people, I think, right?

Chuck Bryant: Awful. A 7.9.

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: On the old Richter scale.

Josh Clark: Is that how we pronounce it? I thought you spoke German.

Chuck Bryant: I just thought it would be funny if we mispronounced even things everybody knows. Because we have a reputation for mispronouncing difficult things.

Josh Clark: All right. Let's start doing it.

Chuck Bryant: The Richter scale.

Josh Clark: Okay. Well, on the Richter squale - can we do that?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: It hit a - what did you say? A 7.9?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, thereabouts.

Josh Clark: And like I said, it killed 80,000 people. It was an enormous horrific earthquake and very quickly - I remember NPR was there because they were covering the Olympics. So everybody went to Szechwan instead. Because it was right before the Olympics, right?

Chuck Bryant: We were here.

Josh Clark: We were here, but NPR did a month of coverage on this earthquake. Everybody was talking about it. But one thing that flew under the radar - at least my radar - was that there were, and still are, allegations that the earthquake was actually manmade. At least hastened by a manmade structure - specifically, the -

Chuck Bryant: You're pointing at me. The Zipingpu Dam.

Josh Clark: Something like that.

Chuck Bryant: Zipingpu.

Josh Clark: Zipingpu. Something like that.

Chuck Bryant: It flew below my radar, too. I had no idea about this.

Josh Clark: Did you see that on a search there's tons of articles on it. They just got no play.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: So what we're talking about is something that's called reservoir induced seismicity.

Chuck Bryant: Yes. And to a certain degree, induced seismicity to a greater extent!

Josh Clark: I don't know what you just said.

Chuck Bryant: Not only reservoirs. I've got a couple of other nuggets.

Josh Clark: Yeah, Chuck dug up some other manmade earthquake phenomena, right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Well, let's start with called reservoir induced seismicity, right? Or let's start with dams? How about that?

Chuck Bryant: Well, that's a good place to start.

Josh Clark: Or should we start with earthquakes?

Chuck Bryant: Actually, if you want to know about earthquakes, go listen to our How Earthquakes Work podcast, which is pretty good.

Josh Clark: Did we do that?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: God, I'm getting old.

Chuck Bryant: I know. Days are just kind of melting together.

Josh Clark: I was honestly thinking, "We should do one on earthquakes."

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, we already did. Remember the S-waves?

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure. All right. So we'll talk about dams instead. These things are - well, dams are getting bigger and bigger as humanity's engineering prowess is - not ours, but humanities, is getting better and better.

Chuck Bryant: And our needs are growing.

Josh Clark: Right. So I think constructing a dam in the first place, what you're doing is just putting a wall up in front of a river and letting the water backfill, right?

Chuck Bryant: Pretty easy.

Josh Clark: But by doing this, number one, you're changing the river hydrology downstream (e.g. the people downstream are in big trouble). But you also have to take into account the area around the dam. What was normally once just dry land with a river running through it, and probably some villages - you know, Lake Lanier - I think there's no natural lake in Georgia. They're all manmade from what I understand?

Chuck Bryant: That's what I understand, too.

Josh Clark: But Lake Lanier specifically has a town beneath it. And when the reservoir lowers, decreases, you can see a Gulf 76 sign popping up out of it. Have you ever seen that?

Chuck Bryant: No, really?

Josh Clark: It's creepy.

Chuck Bryant: That is creepy.

Josh Clark: That's why, also, they can never find somebody who dies in Lake Lanier because they get caught up in power lines or in a convenience store or something like that.

Chuck Bryant: Shopping.

Josh Clark: Yeah, under the water. Shopping dead. But around this area, in what used to be dry land, there's also dirt and rock and oftentimes mountains.

Chuck Bryant: Sometimes fault lines.

Josh Clark: Because you want to use the natural geography of the area to hold this water in, right?

Chuck Bryant: You ever been to the Hoover Dam?

Josh Clark: I haven't. I've flown over it. Does that count?

Chuck Bryant: Well, sure.

Josh Clark: I got a good gander of it at 10,000 feet.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, if you ever go, this is - a lot of people drive over the Hoover Dam or they stand on the edge of the Hoover Dam, like Bob Mould suggests. But I suggest that, if you're there, take the time to pay the dough - I don't know how much it is, $10.00 - and go down and take the tour. That's my only tip. Tip of the day.

Josh Clark: I've seen it on the TV.

Chuck Bryant: It's really cool looking and you can stand there and marvel at it. But when you get down in the guts of it is when you're really like, "Whoa.

Josh Clark: Yeah. It's a marvel of engineering.

Chuck Bryant: Absolutely.

Josh Clark: And like I said, it utilizes the surrounding geography to hold the water, right?

Chuck Bryant: Um-hum.

Josh Clark: But when you do this, you're applying a lot of water that didn't used to be there to the surrounding, say mountains. And all of a sudden you have something that we call landslides, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes. And usually you don't think of earthquakes when you think of that kind of activity. You think of landslides.

Josh Clark: Right. You want to tell them about the Italian landslide because you love to do the accents?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But do it in a really somber tone.

Chuck Bryant: Well, I'm not going to do it in an Italian accent. But it is one of the deadliest in history. It was in northern Italy in '63. And it killed 2500 people, an entire village was wiped out when 400 million cubic yards of mountain rock fell into the reservoir - I'm not going to pronounce that.

Josh Clark: The Vajont Dam?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it looks French.

Josh Clark: Yeah, well it's in the Alps, so it's close to France.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. And it created a tidal wave 856 feet tall.

Josh Clark: Right. So this 400 million cubic yards of rock goes into the reservoir. It displaces all that water, and yeah. And I read this wave that was generated by it; it crested over the top of the dam.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the dam was 856, so it was higher than that.

Josh Clark: It was equal to a 28-story building.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Imagine that on top of the dam, and it just came down.

Chuck Bryant: Crazy.

Josh Clark: And washed villages away.

Chuck Bryant: You're just sitting there in Italy in '63 enjoying your grappa having a good time.

Josh Clark: Not for long.

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: But apparently it took a full two minutes to get down there to wipe out the village.

Chuck Bryant: How long?

Josh Clark: Two minutes from what I read.

Chuck Bryant: That's like the mudslide in Guatemala - no warning.

Josh Clark: No. And there's also some in China that apparently have been pretty disastrous, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, which is a pretty famous dam on the Yangtze River, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. They're worried about that one.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And they should be from what I understand. Just about any time they raise or lower the reservoir, or when they initially filled it, landslides started happening. And there was one in 2007 that buried a bus. I guess it just caught them unaware. What a horrific death.

Chuck Bryant: To be buried in a bus?

Josh Clark: Well, to be buried alive in any way. But, yeah. Bus would probably be bad.

Chuck Bryant: Sure. Especially in a bus! Have you ever taken a bus trip?

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: I would not want to be buried alive on a bus trip.

Josh Clark: Nor would I. Because you're like, "I can't believe I'm surrounded by these people while I'm alive."

Chuck Bryant: Exactly. Not to make light of it.

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: Don't want to come across as insensitive.

Josh Clark: No. So Chuck, these are just landslides we're talking about. It's a totally different - destabilizing the dirt that holds up mountain rock is totally different from an earthquake, right?

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: So how do we get to the rese rvoir induced seismicity? How do we get to a dam creating an earthquake?

Chuck Bryant: Well, in the case of the one in China, the Zipingpu Dam is 50 stories tall. It can store more than one billion cubic meters of water from the Min Ja River.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: So all of a sudden you have a regular river that weighs a billion cubic meters more - well, that's not a weight, but you know what I mean. So that's going to create a lot more pressure on the ground beneath it.

Josh Clark: Right. Apparently -

Chuck Bryant: If there's a fault line there, you're in big trouble.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And we don't really know whether there are fault lines there when we're constructing dams, it turns out. Apparently, there was a survey in 1990 by the World Bank that found that 49 projects - more than three-quarters of them that were surveyed - all had unexpected geological activity. And apparently it costs millions and millions to do a survey of an area. And you may find that, yeah there's a fault line there we didn't know about. So companies who build dams oftentimes don't want to know whether or not there's a fault line there.

Chuck Bryant: I've seen that. That not a lot of research goes in - well, I don't want to say not a lot of research. But many times not enough research goes into the underground situation.

Josh Clark: Right. And for the Three Gorges Dam, they're actually - it's built over two fault lines. And they're just waiting for this thing to blow apparently.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and they said it might be a big one, too.

Josh Clark: So with the 2008 earthquake, China got into this issue of reservoir induced seismicity. And it's already cloudy. It's one of those walks like a duck scenarios because you have increase seismic activity in areas as reservoirs are being filled. You have earthquakes that people weren't expecting, obviously - even geologist weren't expecting - or seismologists - with an epicenter under the dam. So it's like, yes, dams are creating earthquakes. But again, there's a lot of money at stake if people become more aware of RIS, which is what people in the know call it. Then people who live downstream from a dam are going to want their houses earthquake proof, which is going to raise the cost through the roof.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, they're not going to do that.

Josh Clark: Right. And like I said, with China now in it, it's become obfuscated even further.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, because in the case of China, there's probably a lot of houses that need to be retrofitted.

Josh Clark: Well, not just that. The government's politically in the hot seat right now. The earthquake in 2008, they tried to distance themselves because it was a government project. And building a dam in and of itself, it's a very utilitarian pursuit if a dam can create an earthquake and kill people or there are landslides and that kills people. Because you're helping X number of people, like the Zipingpu Dam generates 760,000 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, yeah. You need dams for sure.

Josh Clark: You do. But at the same time, it's like, "Oh, okay. Well, there's a bus full of people that just got buried. But we have all this electricity."

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So when you throw that in, when you throw the money in - and then a 1994 paper in the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation - do you get that?

Chuck Bryant: That sounds like a laugh a minute.

Josh Clark: It does. It concluded that people in other countries, who were affected by reservoir induced seismicity from American built dams had legal grounds to sue those people in the U.S. for damages.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Doesn't surprise me.

Josh Clark: So basically there's a lot of people out there who are like, "RIS doesn't exist." But it does.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And it's not just the water pressure sitting on top of these plates that can cause it. What also happens is the water seeps down in there and fills up all the little cracks. And if there's way more water doing this, then that can cause fractures to become larger or to shift around. And that might be one of the reasons, too.

Josh Clark: Right. And it also lubricates it, doesn't it? It goes down to these fault lines. You think about it, you have tectonic plates - you have fault lines where the earth is basically sitting just on the tiniest ledge of one plate over another. And if you get some water in there and lube it up, then they slip and you have an earthquake.

Chuck Bryant: It's called pore pressure, my friend.

Josh Clark: Nice.

Chuck Bryant: Pore pressure is the fluid pressure in the pores and the fractures of the rocks. And it acts against the weight of the rock so when pore pressure's low, the imbalance of what they call an in situ earth - have you ever heard that phrase?

Josh Clark: Does it mean stable bedrock or something like that?

Chuck Bryant: Well, sort of. It's Latin. It can mean a bunch of different things, but in the case of the earth it means "in the place" as in water or oil that hasn't been extracted yet.

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Or gas - whatever's down there. Any kind of natural earth! So the balance of the in situ earth stresses will cause the occasional earthquake. And if the pore pressures increased, then it takes a lot less of an imbalance for these to get out of whack. And one of the reasons that might happen is, if you inject something into the subsurface or if you extract something from the subsurface - like maybe oil or water or gas. And that all made sense because I've often posed the question "Does the earth need it's oil?" Like we're extracting oil, but maybe it has a really vital function down there, maybe as a lubricant. I found out that that wasn't necessarily true. That, if we pull out all the oil from the - well, we can't pull out all the oil.

Josh Clark: I think they leave at least a third in all reservoirs because we just don't have the technology to get to -

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: But what I gathered from researching this a little bit today, is that it doesn't necessarily. It's such a small amount, still, compared to the density of the earth that these small empty pockets might make things move around and cause some minor tremors. But it's not like we're going to have the big one one day if we tap the oil out of the earth.

Josh Clark: But we also use water injection technology, too.

Chuck Bryant: Bingo.

Josh Clark: And that can cause an earthquake, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. And that's when you inject steam, water, or CO2 to either move the oil around or heat it up, make it more viscous. And that means it'll flow to a channel where it's easier to tap it. Or they do that for water wells, too, to make water more readily available.

Josh Clark: I think there were some surprising earthquakes in Colorado in the '90s that had to do with natural gas drilling.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, really?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Well, the other thing they do is, they inject waste water into the earth.

Josh Clark: I did not know that.

Chuck Bryant: I didn't either.

Josh Clark: I always wondered where it went.

Chuck Bryant: Well, a lot of it they re -

Josh Clark: I just assumed we were all drinking it.

Chuck Bryant: Well, I think in a certain amount we do. But there's way more waste water than there are mouths to drink it. So evidently they'll drill down into the earth and inject. They'll supposedly clean it - I say supposedly. They clean it.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: I never witnessed it, but why would they lie? Why would they lie?

Josh Clark: I don't know. I mean, who would like when money's at stake?

Chuck Bryant: So they inject the waste water back into the earth and that's - it hasn't created any problems thus far.

Josh Clark: Yet.

Chuck Bryant: Who knows?

Josh Clark: I remember we talked about carbon sequestration once, where we were talking about taking CO2, capturing it from smokestacks, and then putting it into the earth?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: And we were wondering, "What effect is that going to have?"

Chuck Bryant: Who knows?

Josh Clark: Well, we'll all find out what - when we do hit the big one from removing oil and then injecting carbon, CO2, into the earth. We'll find out what happens.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Some of these studies are all like, "Oh, no. It's not doing anything." But I'm of the belief that holding a cell phone up to your brain is going to cause some damage. And now they're saying, "No, it doesn't." But we haven't studied anyone who's done it for 30 years every day.

Josh Clark: Right, yeah. That's a good point.

Chuck Bryant: And an iPhone's like a little computer, you know?

Josh Clark: I know.

Chuck Bryant: I think we're going to see some fallout from that in about 25-30 years, brother.

Josh Clark: You know, Konger over at Stuff Mom Never Told You wrote an article on cell phones making you sterile.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, keeping it in your pocket next to the boys?

Josh Clark: Yeah. Don't want to do that.

Chuck Bryant: Eee.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck, one more thing. We should say very specifically - it seems like there is a consensus that RIS does exist, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: And there's a lot of people who want to downplay it.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Like the Chinese pointed out that prior to this earthquake in Sczechuan in 2008, the biggest RIS linked earthquake happened in 1967 in India. And it was like a 6.5. And they pointed that that was the biggest ever that was induced by a dam.

Chuck Bryant: Right, right.

Josh Clark: So we're not entirely certain how big these things can be or how much dams can contribute. But again, we don't really know what we're doing building dams, either, do we?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Mining, too. That can cause them. And I also read that building construction - like that tower in Taipei. That caused some minor earthquakes because it was so big.

Josh Clark: That's got to put hair on your chest if you're the project manager of a project that causes earthquakes?

Chuck Bryant: Sure. Press on.

Josh Clark: And we should also point out, lastly - dams can't create earthquakes all by themselves. There have to be a bunch of factors present. Like it has to be built on a fault line. It has to be huge. The dam, I think, has to be at least 100 meters high to create earthquakes that really register. But pretty much anytime you build a dam around a fault line, seismic activity increases as you fill it up.

Chuck Bryant: It's going to happen. We're not anti-dam. We should point that out. We love dams.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I guess that's it, right?

Chuck Bryant: I think so. I don't have anything else.

Josh Clark: All right. Well, if you want to read a little bit more about this and see some gripping pictures, you can type in humans and earthquakes. I think that'll probably bring this article up, right?

Chuck Bryant: Probably so.

Advertisement: This episode of Stuff You Should Know is brought to you by Go To Meeting, the affordable way to meet with clients and colleagues. For your free 30-day trial, visit gotomeeting.com/stuff.

Josh Clark: And this is a short one, Chuck, wasn't it?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I have some stuff to inject here at the end, into our subsurface. We have some announcements about New York, right? And t-shirts!

Josh Clark: Yeah, New York. We're going to New York. We're going to throw our hat and do a little twirl in the middle of Times Square because we made it after all. We're going to be at The Knitting Factory. We're having a Stuff You should Know Meet and Greet.

Chuck Bryant: Happy hour.

Josh Clark: With fans - happy hour. Come hang out with us. I mean, you pay for your own drinks or whatever but we're not charging anything to get in. We may or may not be wearing shirts. And it's going to be at The Knitting Factory on -

Chuck Bryant: We're going to have shirts. We're going to have t-shirts. We can go ahead and say that.

Josh Clark: That's right. We are. We will have shirts.

Chuck Bryant: Stuff You Should Know t-shirts. The very first ones! And Josh designed it. That's how awesome it is.

Josh Clark: Oh, go on.

Chuck Bryant: He did.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: It's pretty cool.

Josh Clark: Anyway, that's at the Knitting Factor in Brooklyn on Monday, June 7th, from 5:30-7:30, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes. And a concert will follow in the main space sponsored by The Onion newspaper, who are our buddies, now. And I think that's $10.00 or $12.00 if you want to get into that. And we'll be hanging out all night.

Josh Clark: Yes. We'll be there. And then Wednesday, June 9th, we're doing an All-star Team Trivia.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Featuring us, Joe Randazzo, who is the editor of The Onion, and -

Chuck Bryant: And a couple of other famous type nerdy famous people that are funny.

Josh Clark: Very nice.

Chuck Bryant: But we can't commit to those just yet because we don't want to disappoint you in case they don't show up.

Josh Clark: I guess we should tell them where it is, right?

Chuck Bryant: You don't think they should just drive around New York looking for us?

Josh Clark: Just guess.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it's at the Bellhouse, Josh, and that is in Brooklyn, New York. And it goes from 7:00-9:00. Trivia starts at 7:00 - doors at 6:30. So show up early and rub elbows with us and drink an adult beverage with us. Trivia starts at 7:00 and it's game on for the next two hours. And it should be a really fun time.

Josh Clark: Right on, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Sounds good, huh?

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: And we'll also put this on the Facebook page, too, just so people know.

Josh Clark: And if you're not a fan of ours or if you don't like our fan page on Facebook, go check it out. We're on there a lot. Actually, Chuck is just killing it, talking to people. He walks around shaking hands, kissing babies. It's crazy. It's awesome.

Chuck Bryant: Right, yeah.

Josh Clark: And we have a Twitter account, SYSKPodcast.

Chuck Bryant: You're killing the Twitter.

Josh Clark: Shh.

Chuck Bryant: You're very funny on there. And one last thing, if you listened to our Guatemala podcast, part one and two, you know that we worked with an organization down there called Cooperative for Education. And they have a text donation drive going. And if you aren't a super cheapskate, then you should give a measly $5.00 -

Josh Clark: $5.00.

Chuck Bryant: - to get textbooks for life for a Guatemalan student.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you don't even have to actually spend any money. You just pay your bill plus five bucks at the end of the month.

Chuck Bryant: You'll never even know.

Josh Clark: Right. You just text the word stuff to 20222! You'll get a text back and it'll say, "You sure?" Or something like that. And you text yes back! And there you go. Batta boom, batta bing. And what - data and wireless rates apply maybe?

Chuck Bryant: Yes. They definitely do in certain cases. And if you live outside the United States, you can go to the website coeduc.org and you can donate there if you live outside the United States.

Josh Clark: Boo yah.

Chuck Bryant: Worthy cause.

Josh Clark: Let's do listener mail now.

Chuck Bryant: Did we do t-shirts?

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: T-shirt contest is officially on, has been going on. It closes at the end of the month, May 31st, and midnight.

Josh Clark: Yes. That's Eastern Time, right?

Chuck Bryant: Eastern Time. If you submitted once, you've got to resubmit. Do a one-sided design, not on both sides, and that's pretty much our only limitations at this point. Except you have to be American.

Josh Clark: Yeah . It's crazy. Like you can't be a part of this!

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, if it's -

Josh Clark: You have to be a bystander. And innocent bystander, we hope. But, yeah, a bystander if you're not American. This is an American Stuff You Should Know t-shirt throwdown.

Chuck Bryant: Yes. And we would love for it to be everybody, but the laws of earth is what I've been saying. And I can't win a contest in Africa.

Josh Clark: Well, Chuck's going to night school right now to study international law. So once he gets his masters, we will be holding contests elsewhere, right?

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: If you want to send us listener mail, you just shoot it in an email to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.com.

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