University of Texas at Austin

Ongoing Earthquake Monitoring is Vital for Texas

February 28, 2019

Texas has seen its share of earthquakes in the distant past. They occurred naturally, when rock formations deep beneath the Earth’s surface slipped along existing faults and caused seismic waves to traverse and to vibrate the overlying layers of rock. However, in the last decade, the number of small earthquakes recorded in the state has increased dramatically -- most of them far too small to feel. Why has the rate of earthquakes increased in West Texas, the Dallas - Fort Worth area and elsewhere in the state?

To answer that question, the State of Texas funded and put in place one of the most sophisticated statewide earthquake monitor networks in the country. This network is called TexNet, and it is operated by the Bureau of Economic Geology, the State Geological Survey of Texas.

The TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program was established in 2015 by the 84th State Legislature. TexNet’s goals, in addition to installing and operating the network, are to locate earthquakes in Texas, work toward determining their causes, and to lessen any future impact from them on citizens and property.  To date, TexNet has installed 65 earthquake monitor (seismometer) stations across the state. Texas’ overall earthquake monitor network, including sensors managed by partner institutions, now totals 160 stations.

The majority of this sensitive equipment is streaming earthquake data in real-time to the Bureau in Austin, where an expert team of seismologists, geoscientists, and engineers from universities across the state work to decipher and interpret the information. In fact, TexNet support has allowed for productive collaborations with other university, government and industry researchers to study specific questions about these seismic events.  Research organizations from around the world have access to the streamed data.  Along with studying seismicity, scientists and engineers are examining the geology of Texas so that they can more accurately locate geological faults and assess whether conditions are prone for earthquakes of possible concern.  

Questions remain about the causes of the increase in Texas earthquakes, and the interplay between geologic processes and human influences, such as disposal of oilfield waste water by injection, hydraulic stimulation, and other industrial operations. This is where integrated research comes into play, which helps stakeholders make important decisions and assists operators and regulators with potential mitigating actions.

TexNet works very closely with state agencies, such as the Railroad Commission of Texas, to provide the best information available on earthquake events so that they can make decisions on how industry operations should be monitored and potentially regulated. The energy industry has access to and closely watches TexNet data to make decisions that allow them to conduct best practices in their drilling operations. The public and other researchers also rely on this information. Having specific geologic and earthquake data reduces uncertainty so that vital decisions can be made with a much higher degree of confidence.

To help the citizens of Texas, the TexNet earthquake operations team has recently developed the TexNet Earthquake Catalog, a dynamic interactive mapping web page that provides information on the location of seismometers operating in Texas and data on the location and magnitude of recorded earthquakes across the State. The map includes events recorded since January 1, 2017, when data collection began. Keeping Texas citizens informed about earthquake activity helps to mitigate the effects of future earthquakes through improved knowledge and preparation. The TexNet Earthquake Catalog and its data, found on the Bureau of Economic Geology’s website, are accessible to everyone and to other national and international earthquake reporting systems.

TexNet provides the very important connection between raw data being collected and streamed by the statewide seismometer network, and the critical decisions that the State of Texas must make to manage earthquake activity in West Texas. As the 86th State Legislature continues its deliberations this Session, it is key to note that TexNet’s existence and success are due to the vision that Texas senators, representatives, and Governor Abbot showed in creating and funding it four years ago.  TexNet serves as a powerful state, academic, industry, and public partnership to keep citizens informed and safe, while maintaining a vital workforce and producing critical energy for Texans.