Monday, July 6, 2009

Swiss geothermal quakes hit the NY Times

A few days ago, the New York Times reported on the earthquakes that occurred in Basel, Switzerland a few years ago around a geothermal site. A few "minor" earthquakes (between 3 and 3.5 on the Richter scale) and more than 3,000 earthquakes smaller than 3 on the Richter scale occurred when water was pumped into the boreholes. Now, new projects are popping up in California, so the New York Times apparently felt compelled to report on the events in Switzerland.

A number of petty things are wrong in the article, which makes me wonder if the New York Times doesn't have anyone who speaks German or knows basic cultural facts. "Shafer Lane" is Schäferweg, and the English for Münster is "minster," so "Münster Cathedral" is like saying "Church Cathedral." In addition, Basel is not a "city of medieval cathedrals"; a cathedral is the seat of a bishop, and back in the Middle Ages there was only one denomination, so most towns did not have a cathedral, and those that did had only one.

And then there are a few things more central to the topic at issue. For instance, it is not true that the event was "soon forgotten by nearly everyone outside Switzerland." As the article writes later, "Geothermal Explorers’ insurance company ultimately paid more than $8 million in mostly minor damage claims to the owners of thousands of houses in Switzerland and in neighboring Germany and France." The article does not, however, point out that a similar event took place some 30 minutes north of Basel in the German town of Staufen (just south of me). Lots of similar projects are planned. The event in Basel is still quite a hot topic in this part of Germany and neighboring France.

While I basically agree with the skepticism expressed in the New York Times, the article does not cite proponents of geothermal who claim that these minor quakes -- as bad as they are -- relieve stress underground, thereby preventing a major quake which could flatten a city. I don't know enough about this to make a call, but the engineers are certainly taking on a lot of responsibility here.

In closing, it should also be pointed out that oil and gas extraction has been the cause of some major earthquakes and similar disasters, though generally not close to a major city. But that will not appease the residents of this small German town near a coal mine, who suffer from earthquakes as severe than those in Basel.

For those of you who can read German, I reported on the events in Switzerland back when they happened here, here, and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment