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After an earthquake in 2022, researchers believe areas around Midland may be more prone to earthquakes

A large earthquake struck just north of Midland on Friday, Dec. 16.
United States Geological Survey
A large earthquake struck Midland in 2022, which researchers now believe could have activated nearby faults — causing more earthquakes to occur in the surrounding area.

As Midlanders were preparing for the winter holidays in 2022, the city was suddenly rocked by an intense earthquake — it was one of the largest earthquakes recorded in the state in recent years.

The earthquake, which struck on Dec. 16, was initially recorded as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake but is now listed as a 5.2 quake by the U.S. Geological Survey. Even though the tremors came as a surprise to many, this was actually the second earthquake above a 5.0 magnitude to strike the Permian Basin in a month. Now, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin believe the 2022 quake may have long lasting effects on the greater Midland area.

In an article published in the academic journal Seismological Research Letters, a team of scientists found evidence that earthquakes have been on the move northeast of Midland, becoming more common around the communities of Stanton and Big Spring, Texas.

“The fault zone has been activated, and it has the capability to trigger additional earthquakes that can be felt by humans, especially because it’s so close to major cities along Interstate 20,” Dino Huang, the lead researcher on the study, said in a press release.

The study looked at the number of earthquakes recorded by TexNet, UT Austin’s statewide seismic monitoring network, and found that in the Midland area, between 2017 and 2023, there were 1,305 quakes — the majority were small and caused no damage.

By analyzing the data from these quakes, Huang and his colleagues mapped out fault systems around Midland and eastern parts of the Permian Basin. They determined the region’s seismicity was elevated, but according to UT Austin’s press release researchers could not determine “future earthquake frequency, magnitude or when they might strike.”

Seismic activity has been on the upswing across West Texas, which has been linked to the boom in oil and gas activities in the Permian Basin in recent years. Thisinduced seismicity has been linked to companies injecting wastewater into the ground — a practice that can increase the pressure on faults.

“You cannot unring the bell,” said Alexandros Savvaidis, one of the researchers that worked on this study.

“The seismicity in this area has been increasing with time,” according to Savvaidis, who also leads the seismology research team at UT Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology. “Especially after the recent higher magnitude earthquakes.

Despite earthquakes striking the Midland area prior to 2022, Savvaidis believes the 5.2 magnitude earthquake put more stress on the region’s faults — most likely increasing the number of seismic events. Now, earthquakes appear to be happening along a northeastern line away from Midland, which researchers are referring to as a “migration.”

According to Savvaidis, it could take years before the area sees a decrease in earthquakes.

“It will take time and we expect it will take years,” he said. “The activation of the faults began a long time ago and it will take time to get into a state of equilibrium where nothing is moving.”

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.