Does a high water level explain Lake Erie earthquakes?

It was hypothesized that rising Great Lakes water levels might be to blame, but a recent study said more investigation is needed.

Photo credit: Sue Thompson/Flickr

University of Michigan Geophysics Professor Yihe Huang

A significant earthquake centered near Cleveland under Lake Erie in 2019 drew the attention of researchers. Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out what set off the fault for the magnitude 4.0 quake.

It was hypothesized that rising Great Lakes water levels might be to blame, but a recent study said more investigation is needed.

University of Michigan Geophysics Professor Yihe Huang is among those studying Lake Erie seismic activity. She says they’ve got earthquake data going back to 2013, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause since water levels were rising each year.

“If we calculate how much stresses are caused by the lake water level change, we need to see that under certain scenarios and some certain conditions,” Huang says. “These water levels can trigger earthquakes, because the loading on the fault is favorable for nucleating or triggering earthquakes.”


Listen: Why earthquakes are happening under Lake Erie.

 


Earlier this year, the region again experienced earthquakes so there needs to be more continuous monitoring of seismic activity, Huang says. She and another scientist plan to use fiber optic cables that run under Lake Erie as seismometers in order to get more data and complete picture of the underlying fault structures. They plan to experiment first in Lake Ontario this summer.

“And if we have a more complete catalogue of the earthquakes, then we will be able to see whether there is a correlation between the water level and the earthquake.”

People may be more familiar with faults like the San Andreas in California and the one that caused the devastating New Madrid quake series in the heartland back in the 1800s. Huang says although the fault underneath Lake Erie is not as large, they are capable of causing some earthquakes that could be damaging.

“From our study, we have seen there are a bunch of small earthquakes in this region, which indicate that there is a full network here,” Huang says. “And this full network can definitely transfer the stresses with the loading and trigger sequences of earthquakes.”

Trusted, accurate, up-to-date.

WDET strives to make our journalism accessible to everyone. As a public media institution, we maintain our journalistic integrity through independent support from readers like you. If you value WDET as your source of news, music and conversation, please make a gift today.

Donate today »

Author

  • Russ McNamara

    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.