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A shallow earthquake swarm close to hydrocarbon activities: discriminating between natural and induced causes for the 2018–19 Surrey, UK earthquake sequence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Stephen Hicks
  • James Verdon
  • Brian Baptie
  • Richard Luckett
  • Zoe Mildon
  • Thomas Gernon
Original languageEnglish
JournalSeismological Research Letters
DateAccepted/In press - 10 Jul 2019

Abstract

Earthquakes induced by subsurface industrial activities are a globally emotive issue, with a growing catalogue of induced earthquake sequences. However, attempts at discriminating between natural and induced causes, particularly for anomalously shallow seismicity, can be challenging. An earthquake swarm during 2018–19 in south-east England with a maximum magnitude of ML 3.2 received great public and media attention because of its proximity to operating oilfields. It is therefore vital and timely to provide a detailed characterisation of the earthquake sequence at present, and to decide based on current evidence, whether the earthquakes were likely natural or induced. We detected 168 low-magnitude earthquakes and computed detailed source parameters of these events. Most earthquakes occurred at a shallow depth of 2.3 km, >1 km deeper than the geological formations targeted by the oilfields, and laterally >3 km away from the drill- sites. We combine the east-west trending cluster of the seismicity with 2-D seismic reflection profiles to find the causative fault system for the earthquakes. A b-value close to unity and strike-slip faulting mechanisms are consistent with tectonic reactivation along a pre-existing fault. Overall, we find no indicators in the earthquake parameters that would strongly suggest an induced source. Nor do we find any clear trends between seismicity and drilling activities based on operational logs provided by the operators. Injected volumes are near-zero and monthly production amounts are many orders of magnitude smaller than other reported cases of extraction-induced seismicity. On balance, and based on the available evidence, we find it currently unlikely that nearby industrial activities induced the seismic swarm. Most likely, the Surrey earthquakes offer a uniquely detailed insight into shallow seismicity within sedimentary basins. Nevertheless, self- reporting of injection and production times and volumes by operators, and the lack of easily- and publicly-available oilfield operational data continues to be a point of concern for local residents.

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