Geophysics student helps detect human-induced earthquakes
Graduate student Alex Eddy found research in microearthquakes particularly relevant to his interests and field of study in geophysics. He sought to gain real-world experience to complement his degree and participated in the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program (MLEF).
The MLEF Program provides students with fellowship opportunities to gain hands-on research experience with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy. The program’s mission is to strengthen and increase the pipeline of diverse future STEM professionals.
Eddy traveled to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), New Mexico, to conduct a fellowship in the geophysics group, under the mentorship of Ting Chen, Ph.D. The project involved investigating microearthquakes—typically 2.0 or less on the Richter scale—at fluid injection sites in Oklahoma.
Microearthquakes are known to be a direct product of fluid injection, and they can provide valuable information about the state of stress in the subsurface at these sites. By monitoring microearthquakes, researchers can assess seismic risk and potentially help mitigate larger earthquakes by recognizing the vulnerability of an area.
As their name suggests, microearthquakes are typically small and they sometimes go undetected by traditional seismic identification methods. At LANL, Eddy contributed toward efforts to develop a more accurate method for microearthquake detection.
“Researching at a national laboratory gave me a view into how multidisciplinary earth sciences can be. I learned that a geophysics education can be applied in several fields beyond seismology.”
To do so, Eddy used seismic data collected from Oklahoma, a state that has been significantly impacted by the rise of induced earthquakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2008, the state experienced on average one or two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude per year. By 2015, the number had increased to two or more per day. The dramatic increase has been costly to the state in terms of damage and safety.
With enough information about microearthquakes, however, it would be possible to understand changing subsurface stress conditions and subsequently identify areas at risk for induced earthquakes. Any amount of time to give forewarning to communities at risk can reduce property damage and lower loss of life or injury.
Findings from recent investigations were presented at the 2018 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. For Eddy, the MLEF experience was rewarding. “I truly appreciate having the opportunity to participate,” Eddy said. “Researching at a national laboratory gave me a view into how multidisciplinary earth sciences can be. I learned that a geophysics education can be applied in several fields beyond seismology.”
After his fellowship with MLEF, Eddy returned to the University of Texas at El Paso to finish his master’s degree in geophysics. He plans to apply for employment at national facilities and possibly return to LANL.
The MLEF Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.