Mining, fracking and other georesource activities pose various environmental hazards – groundwater contamination, air pollution, and even significant earthquakes
The EPOS Thematic Core Service for Anthropogenic Hazards (TCS AH) consortium was created to facilitate global-scale open data access and research of anthropogenic hazards related to georesource exploitation.
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In this episode, we’re looking at the ground-breaking research and resources developed by the partners and scientists of the Thematic Core Service for Anthropogenic Hazards (TCS AH) Consortium. This collaborative pan-European working group (pioneered by prof. Beata Orlecka-Sikora and prof. Stanisław Lasocki, from Institute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences) focuses on the need for, and utility of, a platform that tracks and combines data in areas where human activity is causing geological hazards and societal concern. Their work highlights the importance of long-term sub-surface monitoring in areas where industries such as mining can induce and trigger seismic activity.
The exploitation of georesources, e.g. from mining, hydrocarbon exploitation, hydraulic fracturing, and the underground storage of liquid and gas, pose various environmental hazards. In addition to seismicity, there are the issues of groundwater contamination, deformation of the ground surface, and air pollution. Even seemingly less ground intrusive processes like reservoir impoundment for the creation of water resources or hydropower can trigger large earthquakes from factors including the stress of the imposed load.
Risks to operators working in the area, including infrastructure loss and human fatalities, are also potential hazards, in certain sub-surface environments should there be any new fractures and changes to rock-mass permeability. This is particularly concerning in densely populated parts of Europe where these activities often take place close to inhabited areas.
Without mitigation, vital technological activities that are instrumental to a low-carbon future may also be threatened by georesource exploitation.
Despite ongoing global research, the risks of these human activities, or anthropogenic hazards to give them their formal name, are poorly understood. There are many reasons for this lack of knowledge including the complex nature of geological and geophysical processes. Additionally, data from operation sites is often proprietary. What’s needed is a holistic approach and broader access to integrated data.
To address this need, facilitate research and foster innovative solutions and the development of best practices, the Thematic Core Service for Anthropogenic Hazards, or TCS AH was devised. This new cooperative research undertaking has been developed by European representatives from science and industry. It utilises the broader solid earth science framework of the European Plate Observing System program or EPOS. This large transnational program integrates over 250 distributed national research infrastructures under a governance framework covering implementation, best practice and sustainability strategies, outreach, and dissemination.
TCS AH specifically, facilitates global-scale open data access and research of anthropogenic hazards related to georesource exploitation.
The data are gathered for the platform in thematic episodes. Each episode then forms a comprehensive set of geophysical, industrial, and environmental data relating to induced or triggered seismicity from the exploitation of a particular georesource. TCS AH combines data and software applications to provide a flexible, collaborative virtual laboratory workspace for users. This integrated resource is accessed via the EPISODES platform , short for European Plate Induced Seismicity Observations & Datasets within EPOS Services, and is open to all.
This highly useful platform provides access to three key resources:
- data and metadata gathered in thematic episodes;
- applications for online data processing;
- and user-organised workspaces for storing and sharing data and applications.
Currently, there are 67 applications integrated into the EPISODES platform. These applications allow the analysis, processing, and visualisation of data from the platform as well as the data that is being uploaded by the user. This ranges from simple data management routines to advanced services for specialised data analysis. 3D GIS Visualisations and an Application Workbench allowing users to create their own custom applications have also been recently integrated.
The platform applications (or software tools) are grouped into 13 thematic categories including ‘earthquake interactions’ and ‘stress field monitoring’.
The platform has episodes for eight industries: Co2 Sequestration, conventional hydrocarbon extraction, geothermal energy production, reservoir impoundment, unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, underground gas storage, underground mining, and wastewater injection.
Software tools enable users to perform research and analysis on seismic catalogue data or waveform recordings. The workspace is designed to provide users with a framework to organise data and applications into scientific projects. All data stored in the user’s workspace can be shared with other designated platform users for a collaborative open data experience.
An example of how this platform might be used by stakeholders is for assessing the correlation between injection rate and seismicity rate. For example, users can look at how seismicity that has been induced by hydraulic fracturing for shale gas or geothermal energy production correlates with the rate of fluid injection.
Discovering the nature of the relationships between induced seismicity and the industrial events that cause it is probably the most important goal of anthropogenic seismicity studies. Doing so is the only way to develop methods of mitigating these seismic hazards.
Recent research from the pioneering members of TCS AH ,published in the journal Energies in January 2022, highlights a proven real-world need for this ground-breaking work that the TCS-AH community is doing; The case study on a hydro fracturing-related earthquake that occurred in Wysin, Poland in June 2019.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a high-pressure fluid injection technique used to increase a rocks’ matrix permeability – or more simply, to blast the rock apart to facilitate gas or fluid flow. This technique is commonly used for shale gas extraction. And, as is the case with all georesource exploitation, hydraulic fracturing is known to have adverse effects. This includes inducing earthquakes that are scientifically linked to anthropogenic causes, as seen in two magnitude 5+ earthquakes in Sichuan province China.
Although the majority of induced quakes from these industries are very small, this destructive potential understandably evokes public concern. And this worry is heightened because, although events are typically laterally located within one to two kilometres of hydro fracturing activity, some have been recorded across much larger distances.
The timing of hydro fracturing-related seismic events is also of interest. Mostly, they occur during stimulation and then often decay quickly. Occasionally, activity continues after industrial work has been completed, but only for a few months at most.
This is where the 2019 Wysin earthquake is atypical. Although this magnitude 2.8 earthquake did spatially correlate with the location of earlier exploratory hydro fracturing operations, its timing was off. There were, in fact, two weaker events of a more typical nature during stimulation. But then everything was quiet for 35 months until the June 2019 earthquake.
Despite such a long lag having never been observed before, researchers concluded that hydro fracturing was indeed what triggered the event. See, Wysin is located on the very weakly seismically active Precambrian Platform. And, in one thousand years of historical documents, no natural earthquakes have been reported in this area. So, the incredibly low probability of such a random space-time coincidence is a strong argument against the event being of natural origin.
Furthermore, there had been no other technological activity capable of triggering earthquakes in that area. So if the June 2019 event was triggered rather than naturally occurring, it could not have been by any other actions.
The Wysin earthquake determines a new time horizon for the effect of hydro fracturing on the stress state that can trigger seismicity. This event highlights that time-dependent deformation and its induced stress changes should be considered in shale gas reservoir exploitation plans. It also highlights the need for open data.
Stanisław Lasocki – Director of Thematic Core Service. Anthropogenic Hazards, describes how the Wysin event hightlights the importance of TCS AHS work.
“To date,” he says, “our understanding of Anthropogenic seismic processes has significantly grown but is still rather limited, and further observations and analyses are needed. This was demonstrated by the Wysin earthquake, the occurrence of which was inconsistent with previously recognized patterns of fracking triggered seismicity, and, which highlight the importance of long term monitoring.
Abundant observational material to verify and creatively modify current views on anthropogenic seismic processes is imperative for knowledge growth and understanding in this field, TCS AH strives to facilitate this.”
The team behind TCS AH has been engaging in outreach work to spread awareness of anthropogenic hazards and the services that the platform offers. As well as online promotion campaigns, face-to-face interactions, and scientific dissemination, approximately ten training workshops have taken place. Over two hundred anthropogenic hazards stakeholders from the scientific community across seven countries have been trained to use the EPISODES platform.
The platform has also been used as a teaching tool and for research projects within universities and for outreach and education in high schools and colleges.
In August 2019, the EPISODES platform passed more than one thousand registered users – an incredible increase of 720% since the project launched in 2015. To continue growing the platform, the TCS AH consortium is open to new collaborations and potential partners. Collaboration is also welcome from companies that are producing equipment for seismic activity monitoring or the accompanying processes.
A key goal of the consortium is to broker projects and develop opportunities for new interdisciplinary and international collaborations. Other long-term objectives include establishing TCS AH as a coordinating framework for the anthropogenic hazards community and potentially providing an online repository for archived industry data. The consortium also wishes to develop a robust research infrastructure with the capacity to address anthropogenic hazards challenges.
Stanislaw Lasocki adds again “The ability to combine users’ codes with software applications implemented on the EPISODES platform was the final piece of the plan to integrate the anthropogenic hazards research infrastructure. With this – recently added as an Application Workbench – the functional design of the integration, developed years before, has finally been fully implemented. We provide users with a virtual laboratory equipped with all the elements needed to conduct scientific experiments, teach future scientists and engineers, and increase the knowledge of societies about anthropogenic geohazards.
Of course our plans for the EPISODES platform do not end there. Further enrichment of each element of the integrated infrastructure with new data and applications will continue, as will work to ensure it’s sustainability in the long term through training workshops, collaborative research and by developing innovative solutions to industry, education, and for outreach, whilst also working to link the platform with the other services in the wider European Plate Observing System.
TCS AH’s drive to facilitate knowledge transfer, make new discoveries, and boost understanding of hazards associated with georesourcing will ultimately stimulate innovation. This has significant benefits for industry, science, and society.
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