Stress in Earth’s crust determined without earthquake data

New approach that also doesn’t require expensive drilling may interest oil and gas industry

October 7, 2021

Earths Crust
Los Alamos scientists have developed a method to monitor the orientation of the earth’s stress for the vast regions that lack data from an earthquake. Credit: Dreamstime

Los Alamos, N.M., Oct. 7, 2021–Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a method to determine the orientation of mechanical stress in the Earth’s crust without relying on data from earthquakes or drilling. This method, which is less expensive than current approaches, could have broad applicability in geophysics and provide insight into continental regions lacking historical geologic information.

“We utilized the nonlinear elastic behavior in rocks and applied a new technique to monitor the orientation of the maximum horizontal compressive stress in rocks in parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico,” said Andrew Delorey of Los Alamos. “The orientation of that maximum horizontal compressive stress reveals which fractures in the rock will be active.”

North-central Oklahoma was selected because induced seismic activity has been ongoing in the region after decades of injected wastewater from oil and gas operations. That seismic activity occurs on faults optimally oriented in the regional stress field. North-central New Mexico was selected to compare the results to a geologic setting straddling a continental rift separating the Colorado Plateau from a stable section of the earth’s crust.

The scientists determined that the earth exhibits stress-induced anisotropy of nonlinear susceptibility that is aligned with the maximum horizontal compressive stress in these two different geologic settings. Rocks become stiffer when compressed and softer when extended, but this effect isn’t instantaneous. The rate is faster in the orientation where the ambient stress field is most compressive. By measuring this rate in different orientations, scientists can determine the orientation where ambient stress is most compressive. 

Determining the geophysical stress orientation, or the direction of maximum horizontal compressive stress, is usually determined by drilling narrow, deep boreholes. However, borehole drilling is expensive and only provides a single data point.

Additionally for vast regions, the geophysical data simply hasn’t been collected because it is too expensive. This method provides an alternative.

Their approach could be essential for the oil and gas industry trying to avoid hazards and optimize production. In the case of hydro fracking, the fractures will open in the direction of the minimum horizontal compressive stress, which scientists can now determine before any drilling.

Paper: "Estimation of the orientation of stress in the Earth's crust without earthquake or borehole data,"  by Andrew A. Delorey, Christopher W. Johnson, and Paul A. Johnson and Götz Bokelmann of the University of Vienna was published in September in Nature’s “Communications Earth and Environment Journal.”

Funding: Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences Division Grant; the Department of Meteorology and Geophysics at the University of Vienna, which hosted a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist during this study; and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development.

About Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is managed by Triad, a public service oriented, national security science organization equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), the Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and the Regents of the University of California (UC) for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.