Maximum magnitude earthquakes induced by fluid injection



Analysis of numerous case histories of earthquake sequences induced by fluid injection at depth reveals that the maximum magnitude appears to be limited according to the total volume of fluid injected. Similarly, the maximum seismic moment seems to have an upper bound proportional to the total volume of injected fluid. Activities involving fluid injection include (1) hydraulic fracturing of shale formations or coal seams to extract gas and oil, (2) disposal of wastewater from these gas and oil activities by injection into deep aquifers, and (3) the development of enhanced geothermal systems by injecting water into hot, low-permeability rock. Of these three operations, wastewater disposal is observed to be associated with the largest earthquakes, with maximum magnitudes sometimes exceeding 5. To estimate the maximum earthquake that could be induced by a given fluid injection project, the rock mass is assumed to be fully saturated, brittle, to respond to injection with a sequence of earthquakes localized to the region weakened by the pore pressure increase of the injection operation and to have a Gutenberg-Richter magnitude distribution with a b value of 1. If these assumptions correctly describe the circumstances of the largest earthquake, then the maximum seismic moment is limited to the volume of injected liquid times the modulus of rigidity. Observations from the available case histories of earthquakes induced by fluid injection are consistent with this bound on seismic moment. In view of the uncertainties in this analysis, however, this should not be regarded as an absolute physical limit.