Scientists hunt for cause of recent earthquakes in the South

Scientists hunt for cause of recent earthquakes in the South

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Scientists are sending additional sensors to south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle with aims of solving the mystery of what caused a spate of recent earthquakes.

Five earthquakes have been detected in the region within a three-week span.

Government researchers are trying to determine whether the quakes are related to oil and gas operations in the area, Al.com reported.

The U.S. Geological Survey is working with its partners to deploy seismometers around the area that will provide more information if additional quakes occur, said Justin Rubinstein, a geophysicist with the agency. The Geological Survey of Alabama and University of Memphis researchers are also involved in the overall effort.

“The USGS, along with state agencies, both in Florida and Alabama, have been taking a look at these earthquakes, and trying to understand what exactly is going on in that area,” Rubinstein said. “We’re getting these on the ground and when we have more instruments in the area, we’ll be able to better understand what has happened.”

The USGS reported in 2015 that 21 areas have seen an uptick in earthquakes believed to be related to oil and gas extraction operations. They include the Brewton, Alabama area near the Alabama-Florida line.

There were few earthquakes reported in that area before 1997. That year, several quakes — including one that was estimated to be magnitude-4.9 — struck near Brewton. That was Alabama’s second-largest earthquake ever recorded, Al.com reported.

Now, scientists will wait and see if there are additional quakes in the region to see whether the new instruments will provide more information on the cause of the quakes.

“The short answer is we don’t know,” Rubinstein told Al.com. “Certainly there isn’t historically a lot of seismicity in the area, but there is a history of seismicity.”

“This is common throughout the country,” Rubinstein added. “Even in areas where you don’t expect earthquakes, there are earthquakes from time to time. So, it is possible that these earthquakes are natural.”