Researchers Figure Out What's Causing Mystery Earthquakes in Texas and It's Not Nature

Researchers discover the cause of mystery earthquakes in Texas.  

Scientists have discovered another piece of the puzzle in the mystery of the earthquakes that have been happening in such states as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas since 2008. The researchers are certain the quakes are a result of fracking practices of the oil and gas industry.


In the past decade, Oklahoma, which used to have just one or two earthquakes per year, saw their number rise to more than 800. Texas saw an earthquake increase of 600 percent. Most of the quakes are small but there is potential for something bigger as, for example, Oklahoma had several stronger shakes larger than magnitude 5. 

Why are these quakes happening? Scientists have supposed for a while it was a by-product of fracking, a controversial industrial practice that involves pumping a high-pressure water mixture into deep underground wells to break up rocks and release the hidden oil or gas. Now the new seismological study concludes that fracking is the only possible explanation for the swarm of quakes that have hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area.


This graphic shows that while both Texas and Mississippi have experienced earthquakes since 2008, the quakes in Texas are on faults that have been silent for millions of years, indicating human activity of recent years has loosened them. Credit: Magnani and others. Sci. Adv. 2017. Vol 3., No. 11, e1701593

By studying a 450-million-year-old fault, the researchers found that there hasn't been seismic activity there for the last 300 million of those years. That's until humans showed up.

The paper's lead author Beatrice Magnani, a seismologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, explained their findings:

“There hasn’t been activity along these faults for 300 million years,” said Magnani. “Geologically, we usually define these faults as dead.”

Magnani and her colleagues believe that the faults are disturbed by the injection of wastewater, which disturb weak underground faults. Despite mounting evidence, the Texas government is not rushing to accept any nay-saying on fracking, used by its most lucrative industry.

Here's how fracking works:

For their study, the researchers used seismic reflection data, with images created by sound-wave-generating equipment, which sends sounds down into the ground and keeps track of the speeds it takes them to bounce off faults or other rock layers. Earthquake-producing faults exhibit vertical cracks, which serves as a way to tell whether the fault has been active. By comparing images from north Texas to other parts of what's called the New Madrid Seismic Zone along the Mississippi River, the scientists were able to conclude that the Texas fault has not been producing earthquakes in the past 300 years, unlike evidence to the contrary shown by its counterparts in the zone. 

The scientists calculated that the likelihood of there being a natural earthquake sequence in Texas in the past 10 years to be one in 6,000 and one in 60 million for two sequences. Considering that there were five earthquake sequences in Texas during this past ten-year span, the researchers write that it's “exceedingly unlikely” that they were not caused by human activity. 

You can read the study here, published in Science Advances.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.