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“a primordial swerve [of matter] says that the world is not determined, that an element of chanciness resides at the heart of things, but it also affirms that so-called inanimate things have a life, that deep within is an inexplicable vitality or energy, a moment of independence from and resistance to us and other bodies: a kind of thing power.” -Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter
Earlier this week, the strongest earthquakes in 35 years shook a typically quiet, remote area of Arkansas. These latest quakes were just a few of the thousands that have been “swarming” near the towns of Guy and Greenbriar since October. The phenomenon has been given the nickname, the Guy Earthquake Swarm.
The quakes have surprised locals and geologists alike, as Guy lies outside of the known hazard area of the nearby New Madrid Seismic Zone. According to USGS maps of the seismic zone, Guy lies at the far edge, only within the 20% range of potential disturbance.
Despite its location in the middle of the continent, the New Madrid holds volatile seismic potential. During a three-month period in 1811 and 1812 the fault produced four earthquakes that measured over 8.0. Interestingly, the New Madrid Seismic Zone is made up of reactivated faults that formed when what is now North America rifted apart from the supercontinent Rodinia (about 750 million years ago). Further rifting created more faults 200 million years ago, further destabilizing the region. These ancient faults have been buried by newer sediments, but still remain structurally weak. The weight of the continental glaciers during the Pleistocene also contributed stress.
But if the faults and rifts of the New Madrid aren’t responsible for the Guy swarm, what is?
fracking site in PA image: arimoore
In recent years, several oil and gas companies moved to the Guy region and set up more than 400 wells for the extraction of natural gas. This process is known as hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracking, or just plain old fracking (the Department of Energy supported the production of a “primer” on the process called “Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States”).
Fracking involves acknowledged environmental risks caused by the injection of huge amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals (some considered to be carcinogenic) into the ground at high pressures. This fractures rock formations and releases natural gas, along with benzene and radium which occur naturally thousands of feet underground. All of this “water” is then pushed deeper into the earth through injection wells that descend to depths of thousands of feet. And that can lubricate the surrounding rock, possibly leading to quakes.
Given this reality, the connections between these quakes and human actions seems to be more than just “temporal and spatial.” There is growing acceptance of the conclusion that the Guy earthquake swarm can be traced to the disposal wells.
According to the Times, scientists have been researching induced seismicity (aka human-caused earthquakes) for decades, starting with the hundreds of quakes recorded in Colorado after the Army injected fluid into a well near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Scott Ausbrooks, a geologist with the Arkansas Geological Survey, has said of the fracking injection wells in the Guy area: “what you could be looking at is a case where the strain was already there . . . You’d be fast-forwarding the clock.”
The particular formation that yields so much natural gas from under Guy is called Fayetteville Shale. It is a black, organic-rich rock of Mississippian age (around 330 million years old) that exists under much of northern Arkansas, at a depth of around 7000 feet. The “deep” natural gas produced here is called thermogenic. And, “although much of the organic matter [that created the gas] is amorphous and of uncertain origin, it is generally believed that much of it was derived from planktonic algae.” This organic material, transformed through monumentally slow and long events of geologic time and force (such as temperature and pressure) now fuels modern lives. We can thank primordial pond scum for heating our homes and powering our computers in 2011.
pond scum, image rodzvilla
Given the extent of the mysterious, nearly continuous rumblings below Guy, FOP can only conclude that humans are encountering what Jane Bennett calls in her book “thing power” or “vibrant matter” right there in depths of the Fayetteville formation. Bennett’s “speculative materialism” talks of “nonhuman vitalities” and “strangely vital things that rise up to meet us.” The Guy earthquake swarm is just the kind of thing that could prove her point about how nonhuman forces are active participants in events. In other words, rocks are a source of action. They have material agency.
For us at FOP, it seems the time is right to acknowledge the tangible and material connections that exist between Mississippian pond scum and our everyday lives. It’s hard not to take the recent earthquakes in Arkansas as evidence of the inherent and inextricably material interrelatedness between human and “vibrant” geologic forces. Bennett and other philosophers urge us see that it’s all quite literal:
humankind [is] a particularly potent mix of minerals . . . the material of Earth’s crust has been packaged into myriad moving beings whose reproduction and growth build and break down mater on a global scale. People, for example, redistribute and concentrate oxygen . . . and other elements of Earth’s crust into two-legged, upright forms that have an amazing propensity to wander across, dig into and in countless other ways alter Earth’s surface. We are walking, talking minerals. (Bennett, p. 11)
Bennett’s words about the “political ecology of things” seem written for those who are riding out the Guy swarm: “There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore.”
The Arkansas earthquakes can be tracked here.
It’s worth noting that fracking has garnered much media attention beyond Arkansas. There has been extensive coverage in the Times; the topic is included in Cooper Union’s informative exhibition Landscapes of Extraction; and Gasland, a film about fracking in New York State, was nominated this year for an academy award. The fracking proposed for New York State would intersect with the organic rich, Marcellus Formation, a Middle Devonian formation a mile or more below the surface and Utica Shale, located a few thousand feet below the Marcellus deposited about 440 to 460 million years ago during the Late Ordovician.
On the eve of this posting, a breaking news item appeared in Bloomberg.com: on a day that saw earthquakes of 3.2 and 3.7 magnitude, Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission is considering temporarily shutting down two injection wells that have been linked to recent earthquakes in the region.
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