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News Archive 2019


The underground rock laboratory where even the smallest quakes are of interest

The underground rock laboratory where even the smallest quakes are of interest

A unique research facility, the "Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies", in the Bedretto valley in the Canton of Ticino is currently nearing completion. Together with national and international partners, ETH Zurich will investigate technologies and processes that should enable the safe, efficient, long-term use of geothermal energy. The Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich is installing seven additional seismic stations in and around the rock laboratory. These instruments will be sensitive enough to record even the minutest tremors in the surrounding area.

The Bedretto Lab will be inaugurated on 18 May 2019. Take the opportunity to visit this unique rock laboratory and explore the history of the Alps deep inside a mountain. What's more, in front of the entrance tunnel leading to the lab you can learn more about the work that will be done there, test your knowledge by completing a rock quiz, see how core samples are produced and acquaint yourself with the various measuring systems used.

Register here for a free tour (in German or Italian).

Click here for some practical transport information.

Further information about the rock laboratory


First potential marsquakes detected

First potential marsquakes detected

On 19 December 2018, the NASA InSight mission placed a seismometer on the surface of Mars. It aims to record marsquakes in order to to gain a better understanding of the planet’s interior. Since the very first day, the data recorded is continuously scrutinized by the Marsquake Service led by ETH Zurich, operated by the Seismology and Geodynamics group and the Swiss Seismological Service. At first, the data mostly showed the frequency and intensity of dust devils, whirlwinds which are very common on Mars. This already proved that the seismometer was performing well. On 6 April 2019 (Sol 128, 15:32 local Mars time), researchers from ETH on duty for the Marsquake Service discovered a potential marsquake in the data. It is the first signal that appears to have come from inside Mars, even though its exact cause is still an on-going scientific investigation.

Three other signals of likely seismic origin occurred on 14 March, 10 April, and 11 April 2019. These signals are more ambiguous to the InSight team than the one on 6 April, but do not appear to be clearly associated with atmospheric disturbances or other known noise sources. They are smaller than the event on 6 April and were only detected by the more sensitive broadband sensors. The team will continue to study these events to try to determine their origin.

Based on these first records, marsquakes seem to be distinct to earthquakes. According to their size and long duration, they are more similar to quakes recorded on the Moon by the Apollo programme. Whereas on Earth plate tectonics is the dominant process that provokes quakes, on the Moon the cooling and contraction causes tremors. The relevant processes at Mars are not yet fully understood. In any case, stress is built up over time until it is strong enough to break the crust. Different materials can change the speed of seismic waves or reflect them, allowing scientists to use these waves to learn about the interior of a planet and model its formation. The events recorded until now are too small to provide useful data on the deep Martian interior. Nevertheless, they mark a milestone of the InSight mission, proving the efficiency of the data processing and analysis capabilities, both developed at ETH Zurich.


Can deep boreholes trigger earthquakes?

Can deep boreholes trigger earthquakes?

More than 100 deep boreholes have already been drilled to depths of 400 m or more in Switzerland. Among other things, they have served to explore the subsoil, whether for tunnelling, exploiting geothermal energy, as potential sites for final repositories, prospecting for raw materials or tapping into sources of groundwater and thermal water. Hundreds of thousands of such boreholes have been sunk all over the world. So far, to our knowledge, no damaging earthquakes have been triggered solely by drilling deep boreholes. Consequently, the simple answer to the question asked above is that instances of damage caused solely by sinking deep boreholes, without any further interventions in the subsoil, are extremely unlikely. However, micro-earthquakes with magnitudes of less than 1 have been documented in association with the drilling of deep boreholes. Thanks to a dense seismic network, such microquakes can be reliably recorded. It can then be better determined whether such seisms are related to the sinking of deep boreholes or triggered by natural causes.

Despite the very large number of deep boreholes drilled worldwide, data on earthquakes occurring in connection with them are rather sparse. One reason for this is that the probability of such quakes is very low. Another is that many deep boreholes have been drilled in uninhabited areas, so potentially noticeable quakes may not have been felt and reported by the public. In many places, such boreholes have not been - and are still not being - seismically monitored. Consequently, it is impossible to reliably record smaller induced earthquakes. In Switzerland, for example, a number of microquakes were recorded when the borehole for the Basel geothermal energy project was cemented. The strongest of these had a magnitude of 0.7, meaning that it released 500 times less energy than a magnitude 2.5 quake. Earthquakes above this magnitude can usually be felt.

The physical processes behind earthquakes triggered in certain circumstances by drilling boreholes are well understood. Deep boreholes sometimes alter local stresses and pore pressures in rock, and in some cases this can reactivate a nearby tectonically pre-stressed fracture, causing an earthquake. However, such stress changes usually only occur in the following two situations: firstly, when drilling into a stratum with high fluid pressures. In this case, under certain conditions, the rock fluid (liquid or gas) can find its way into the borehole, causing overpressure that can usually be reduced in a controlled manner. Alternatively, the borehole is sealed at the corresponding place deep underground. Secondly, when boring into a very liquid-permeable stratum or rock of very low strength. If this happens, some of the drilling fluid or cement may enter the surrounding rock. The drilling fluid is needed to bring the drilling dust to the surface and stabilise the borehole during the driving process. Once a section has been drilled, the borehole is lined with cemented pipe to keep it open in the long term. In most cases, though, stress changes only affect small rock volumes. So the probability of activating quite a large, pre-stressed fracture and thus triggering a fairly large, potentially noticeable earthquake is extremely low.

The Swiss Seismological Service (SED) at ETH Zurich does not normally recommend seismic monitoring in its Guide for Managing Induced Seismicity for deep boreholes (e.g. exploratory drilling). Nonetheless, to record evidence and clarify the distinction between natural and induced seismicity, it may make sense to install an additional monitoring station near a drill site. For this very purpose, to cite just one example, the SED is currently consolidating its network on behalf of Switzerland's National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) with a view to monitoring exploratory drilling in northeastern Switzerland.


Earthquakes in Switzerland in 2018

Last year, the Swiss Seismological Service (SED) at ETH Zurich recorded more than 900 earthquakes with magnitudes of between -0.2 and 4.1 in Switzerland and its neighbouring countries. 25 of these quakes had a magnitude of 2.5 or more. Earthquakes of this size can usually be felt by the local population. So 2018 goes down as an average earthquake year, albeit one from which we can learn a lot. Because even very small quakes provide valuable information about the subsurface and thus make it easier to estimate future seismic activity.

Thanks to Switzerland's dense and highly sensitive earthquake measuring system, even the smallest quakes almost anywhere in Switzerland can be recorded and analysed. Earthquakes indicate the locations of more (or less) active faults today or over the years and provide insights into fracture processes deep beneath our feet. The seismic waves caused by earthquakes also offer data on the subsurface through which they pass. For example, the speed at which they travel tells something about the physical properties of the rock at the locations in question. These findings contribute towards more accurate risk assessment. So even 'quieter' earthquake years yield valuable knowledge.

The two strongest earthquakes felt over the largest areas by the Swiss population occurred on 17 January and 1 February 2018 in Austria's Kloster Valley (Montafon) near the Swiss border. Both quakes reached a magnitude of 4.1. The most powerful earthquake in Switzerland itself, with a magnitude of 3.2, occurred on 23 August near the twin-peaked mountain Dents de Morcles in the Canton of Valais. The SED received around 400 reports from people who felt this quake, mainly in the Rhone Valley, whose soft subsurface particularly intensified the shaking. Other earthquakes, some of which were also clearly felt, occurred on 15 and 16 May near Châtel-St-Denis in the Canton of Fribourg (with magnitudes of 3.1 and 2.9), on 3 November near Martigny in the Canton of Valais (magnitude 2.9) and on 29 December near Fribourg (magnitude 2.9). Only the quakes in the Kloster Valley ended up causing minor damage, such as cracks in buildings' façades.

In addition, last year saw the occurrence of some remarkable earthquake swarms. A swarm entails numerous quakes occurring over a fairly long period, without there being any clear sequence of foreshocks, mainshock and aftershocks. The most notable swarm involved a series of earthquakes northeast of St. Léonard, near Sion in the Canton of Valais. This sequence was related to a fault that has repeatedly been associated with phases of heightened seismic activity since 2014. It is believed to be part of the Rhone-Simplon fault, which appears to be broken into separate segments in this area. Another earthquake sequence worth mentioning occurred in the border area between Italy, France and Switzerland, in the east of the Mont Blanc Massif. Last year, the SED pinpointed the locations of close to 100 earthquakes with magnitudes between 0 and 2.2 in that area.

In general, in 2018, as in previous years, most earthquake activity occurred in the Valais region, the Canton of Graubünden and the areas along the Alpine front. Despite this concentration of seismic activity, historically it has been shown that no parts of Switzerland are earthquake-free regions. Based on the long-term average, a serious earthquake with a magnitude of 6 or more occurs in the earthquake country Switzerland every 50 to 150 years.

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Experiment investigates how faulted rock retains CO2

Experiment investigates how faulted rock retains CO2

In order to achieve the ambitious UN climate targets, it is not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a complementary option, one can capture CO2 directly from industrial production or from the atmosphere and store it permanently in the deep underground. For enabling so-called negative emissions, sequestrated CO2 needs to be safely retained for centuries. Once injected into a reservoir, CO2 may escape again in two ways: through existing boreholes or through existing faults in the rock above the reservoir meant to seal it. Faults in this caprock may not only influence the long-term containment of CO2. They are also the place, where earthquakes may occur.

Currently, the physical and chemical parameters governing leakage through faults, and the effects of rock deformation and chemical interactions leading to induced seismicity, are not fully understood. There is further limited knowledge on Swiss-specific conditions, making it difficult to judge to what extent underground CO2 storage could be an option in this country. This is why scientists from the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich and the SCCER-SoE are conducting an experiment, in collaboration with the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering and the Institute of Geophysics at ETH Zurich as well as Swisstopo and EPFL. The experiment is taking place at the Mont Terri rock laboratory and part of the ELEGANCY project funded by the European Commission and the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.

Scientists will investigate how CO2 migrates withing a rock with faults, under what circumstances induced seismicity may occur, and how such a storage should be monitored best. Therefore, they will inject small amounts of CO2-enriched saltwater into a borehole that cuts through a small fault zone. To study how the fault zone reacts to the CO2 injected, they will observe the stability of the rock and analyse the coupling between fault slip, pore pressure, and fluid migration. Active and passive seismic sensors will monitor the variations of seismic velocities around the injection and register possible micro-earthquakes with magnitudes below zero.

In contrast to a full-scale CO2 storage project, this experiment only investigates the relevant processes with small amounts of CO2-enriched saltwater. Nonetheless, its findings will contribute to a better understanding of the relevant processes influencing the migration of CO2 in faults. Thereby, the experiment will also contribute to an enhanced site characterization. Worldwide, about twenty CO2 storage projects are already in operation, each sequestering up to three million tons of CO2 per year, and numerous plants are in the planning. In Switzerland, there is currently no CO2 storage project planned. 

Learn more about the ELEGANCY project: