In the first of the Superman movies with Christopher Reeves, the Man of Steel does battle with Lex Luthor, an evil billionaire who’s found a way to create eartquakes with nuclear weapons and plans to make a mint in real estate by sinking California. Again in “A View To a Kill”, James Bond must stop a mad microchip mogul from unleashing artificial earthquakes on his Silicon Valley competitors. A few years ago Hugo Chavez even suggested that America was doing this to other nations (as have many others, usually citing “HAARP”)The idea of man-made earthquakes has long been a dream of cartoonish supervillains, but until recently it had been mostly confined to comic books and conspiracy theories.

Now, research is suggesting that this might actually be happening. The US is now experiencing about six times as many earthquakes as it’s ever recorded before. The culprit? Oil and gas extraction, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in particular. Lex Luthor would be proud.

If I were trying to start an earthquake, fracking seems like a logical way to start. Pumping large amounts of high-pressure water, solvents and lubricants into the ground seems guaranteed to make it less stable, and possibly trigger a much larger reaction. So far the USGS is drawing a connection with larger numbers of low-level quakes, but there’s a lot of lingering questions about whether more serious quakes could result as these operations expand. Like the climate, seismic science still isn’t very well understood, making any tinkering potentially catastrophic.

A few years back a friend of mine coined a phrase in his exasperation with issues like climate change and ozone depletion, “they broke the sky”. Have we now broken the ground, too? Are we now pushing the envelope of seismic change?

This is far from the first time fracking has come under fire. Even without earthquake risks there’s also fears about air pollution and water contamination which have made it one of the most controversial kinds of energy production around, right up with tar sands extraction and mountaintop removal. Nova Scotia has recently placed a two-year moratorium on the technology, saying it needs more time to study the impacts. Protesters far and wide are arguing the same, and with this new evidence one can only hope that more of these projects will be halted.

What scares me most, here, is at the end of the day these man-made earthquakes were (probably) not intentional. Another of the greatest achievements of our species has passed as a footnote while we busy ourselves pretending everything is normal. There was no Lex Luthor here, just the same petrochemical industries we’ve known for years. Our industrial economy has now reached such a scale that “natural” disasters are now an expected side-effect, without any conspiracies or supervillains required.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

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