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In a story I'm working on, a rogue nation-state has decided to attack another country. They want to make the attack seem more natural, though, and so they've decided to trigger an earthquake. This nation-state has access to quite a lot of funds, and has bought weapons from a number of arms dealers; their arsenal somewhat resembles that of the Canadian Armed Forces. That said, they have short-range ballistic missiles, and a decent air force.

Other countries, of course are not happy with this, and have threatened to retaliate if this nation uses any of their weapons. This is why the leaders of this country want to attack indirectly, so they can try to deny any responsibility for the disaster. They're willing to use any weapons they have, with the exception of nuclear weapons, because they don't have any. They have a lot of conventional explosives, but not nuclear capability, or the chance to develop any.

Essentially, given a strong military, is there a way for this country to trigger seismic activity of some sort that could be felt by people in nations a few thousand miles away? It doesn't have to be targeted anywhere in particular; it just has to happen. If so, how strong an earthquake can they produce?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Jan 4 '18 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ I suggest reading Ken Follett's "The Hammer of Eden", a really nice novel about the people of a commune who threaten to cause an earthquake using a seismic vibrator on the San Andreas Fault, demanding that the government stop the construction of a dam that would flood the valley in which they secretly live. $\endgroup$ – Hankrecords Feb 7 '18 at 9:57

12 Answers 12

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How to make an earthquake

Earthquakes are massive. They're possibly the largest-energy event that humans experience regularly, rivaled only by hurricanes. The Earth does a lot of this energy creation for us and when earthquakes happen, it's the result of that energy being released. Fortunately, earthquakes are essentially limited to fault areas- the boundaries on the edges of plates where they rub up against each other, creating transform, convergent, or divergent plate boundaries. The center of tectonic plates is relatively stable, so I hope your enemies live near a large fault system or we're going to have a much harder time.

As a simple model, imagine two elastic piece of plastic pressed against each other being pulled in opposite directions. Eventually, the pulling force overcomes the force of static friction, and the plastic slips. Thus, there are two places we can affect this process: decrease the frictional force or increase the "pull" force.

Decreasing the frictional force:

This is definitely the easiest way of solving this problem, because humanity is already doing it. Fracking-induced tremors are a hot-button issue in the US right now, but the science is pretty well established. Ellsworth (2013, in Science) reviewed a lot of the literature and found that "injection-induced earthquakes [...] clearly contribute to seismic hazard." He references a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in Oklahoma in 2011 that was tied to local fracking behavior. Interestingly, the use of fracking may not only directly cause earthquakes, but can also make them more likely to be triggered by other earthquakes. In this case, the fault is weakened just enough to make it susceptible to triggering when seismic waves pass through.

The mechanism behind this is a bit more complicated than our simple model of elastic plastic, but intuitively is the same. By injecting fluid in between the two plates, they slip more easily and the tension in those plates is released. In real life, the introduction of fluid and changes in pressure weaken a preexisting fault and allow movement.

To use this mechanism to attack another country is less a question of military might and more a matter of politics. Introduce your frenemies in the other country to fracking techniques and watch their country crumble. (Due to earthquakes, of course, not the desperate and all-consuming realization that one lives above an easily removable energy resource that everyone in the world would suddenly be interested in.)

If you're desperate enough to need such an earthquake now, you might be tempted to use the biggest bombs you have. PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS. The USGS has considered this possibility and is rather dismissive of it. They detail several tests and the bomb signature was always greater than the seismic signature, and even when detonated on a seismically active area such as the Aleutian Islands it failed to produce an earthquake. (Of course, that's conveniently also what the government wants you to think...) One of the most persuasive arguments they use is to point out that the Moon exerts tidal forces every day ~40x larger than the Tsar Bomba. Although I don't believe Canada maintains any nuclear weapons, your country might still have a pretty big bomb, but it won't be big enough- any fault that could be triggered by a bomb would already have been triggered by the tidal forces of the Moon.

Increasing the pull force

Well, that might have been a fairly dissatisfying answer but it doesn't get much better. Despite it's reputation for delicacy, the Earth is a fairly stable place. The source of plate movement was hotly debated for a while, but has been pretty well resolved mostly in favor of slab pull. Slab pull is the result of oceanic plates cooling after formation, causing a reduction in volume and an increase in density with age. Eventually, they become more dense than the mantle material and sink.

If you've dropped a cookie in a glass of milk, you have a good idea how this works- the cookie starts out more buoyant than the milk and floats on the surface, giving you hope that it can be rescued. By the time you've returned with a fork, however, the air pockets have been replaced with milk and sadness, the cookie as a whole is now more dense than the milk, and it sinks to the bottom.

I personally have no idea how we could affect this process. It's density driven and takes literally millions of years, so there's not a whole lot humans can do on this end to force earthquakes to happen.

Honorable mention

If your enemy nation is on a coast, it may be easier to cause a tsunami than an earthquake. Michael Crichton's book State of Fear has a group use

explosives to trigger the collapse of an Antarctic ice shelf

which would cause a fairly sizable tsunami if nearby.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great answer, thanks. I was reading through the paper you referenced (specifically, about fracking), and I was wondering if there are any alternative injection-based choices (or supplements) to fracking. It's currently my top choice, but I'm curious. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 3 '18 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ Yes! We also use injection wells to dispose of wastewater and restore underground water supplies. There are even some cool proposals to inject CO2 directly underground as a carbon-capture method. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_capture_and_storage $\endgroup$ – Dubukay Jan 3 '18 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, the drawback to the fracking approach is the challenge of covertly building a network of drilling rigs and fracking fluid reservoirs along the target faultline... $\endgroup$ – jeffronicus Jan 3 '18 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Although Canada is not nuclear capable, and we do not station nukes on our land, we DO have a couple. Sort of. We don't really know exactly where they are. The Americans dropped at least two on us, entirely by accident. One in Quebec, one in BC. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 3 '18 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the cookie analogy. I wish it had been part of the geology program at high school! $\endgroup$ – Eth Jan 9 '18 at 12:17
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Investment

The key to destroying your enemy through earthquakes is to invest in their country. Specifically, we know that Dams and Mines can cause earthquakes if located in the "right" place. Furthermore, we suspect that fracking and other forms of oil extraction could cause earthquakes.

If you wish to damage another country through earthquakes in a stealthy manner, then you ought to locate potential mining, damming, and fracking locations that are close to fault lines. These investments can be made in a stealthy manner, and will bring value to the table up until they are destroyed by your earthquake.

You could even make these investments out in the open, as a way to mend relations with an enemy nation. In this case, first responders and disaster aid shipments could hide commandos sent in to seize key strategic locations if you intend to launch a major invasion. Your troops (as well as any employees you had at these locations) would be in the perfect position to move in the aftermath of a destructive earthquake.

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Imagine you are dragging a giant rubber tractor tire across the ground by reeling it in with a steel cable at a rate of 2 to 5 centimeters per year. It wouldn't really be a continuous movement. When the tension in the cable got stronger than the static friction of the tire against the ground it would scoot a tiny distance, maybe a few millimeters, across the ground and rest again. That's essentially what an earthquake is scaled down.

Now imagine an angry ant pounds on the cable with it's tiny fists. That's what your conventional explosives are doing. The forces involved in a tectonic plate moving are enormous even when compared with nuclear weapons. The best you can do is trigger that tire to move again just a little bit earlier. In doing so you may actually be lessening the severity of the earthquake by releasing that tension earlier before it builds up even more.

There's not much information on the possibility of triggering earthquakes with conventional explosives, but luckily nuclear munitions are often measured in their equivalent TNT tonnage, and people have worried about the potential to trigger earthquakes with nuclear testing in the past.

"The elastic strains induced in the epicentral region by the passage of the seismic wavefield generated by the largest of the nuclear tests, the May 11 Indian test with an estimated yield of 40 kilotons, is about 100 times smaller than the strains induced by the Earth's semi-diurnal (12 hour) tides that are produced by the gravitational fields of the Moon and the Sun." - https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/can-nuclear-explosions-cause-earthquakes?qt-news_science_products=7#qt-news_science_products

Note the nuclear tests are not conducted at the fault line, but relatively distant.

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    $\begingroup$ What is the order of magnitude difference in force between rubber tire cable tension and angry ant fists? While colorful, this doesn't really prove anything. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 3 '18 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any numbers or stats that could support the point you're trying to make? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 3 '18 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ It's very easy to convert richter scale measurements, but I've been trying to research hard measurements of force in tectonic forces and its surprisingly difficult to locate. Any kind of back of the envelope math I could do to extrapolate the forces from the energy wouldn't be very accurate. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Lujan Jan 3 '18 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion Literally? Ants don't have fists. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 3 '18 at 21:27
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A Swiss scientist, Markus Haering actually found himself in court because he sort of...partially destroyed a town. With earthquakes. He wanted to produce geothermal energy by boiling water on rocks three miles underground, then sending the superheated water up through a steam turbine.

It wasn't this experiment that caused the quakes. It was the huge drill he used near a fault line...

$7.35 million in property damage later, the dude was in court, acquitted because it wasn't intended and they stopped once they figured out what was happening.

So while the answer to "Can a rogue nation trigger an earthquake?" is yes, it's also no, given your requirements that this be done far away from the epicenter in their own space. Because when we have caused seismic events it's been all about location, location, location.

It has to be at precisely the right place with the right conditions. And back in 2009 when Haering caused those earthquakes, we had so little understanding of seismic geology, that Haering wasn't even sure how it happened.

But, in the world of fiction, this is less about armaments and more about secret knowledge that no one has here yet.

In this fictional world, they would have to be in country where they are in the correct location to achieve this effect, as well as the knowledge to do so. Your biggest hurdle will be precision, and that you want the effect to be thousands of miles away from the cause. As others have noted, the earth is more stable than you would think--but I'd add, except when it isn't--in special circumstances and places, it's more unstable.

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Based on your "Reality Check" tag, I give you an example from real life:

https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/bingham-canyon-manefay-landslides/

On April 10, 2013, two massive landslides carried about 145 million tons of waste rock into the bottom of the open pit at Bingham Canyon, the largest copper mine in the U.S. These are the largest mining-induced landslides in history. The two slides, named the Manefay landslides by Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC), started in the northeast corner of the open pit—the first at 9:30 p.m. was larger (nearly 100 million tons), and the second followed a little over an hour and a half later. The second slide was followed 11 minutes later by a small, shallow earthquake (about magnitude 2.5) beneath the mine, induced by the rapid shifting weight of the slides. Notably, the Manefay slides resulted in no injuries or deaths, but they significantly changed the face of the mine and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the operation.

Here are a few more links about the same event:

http://www.e-mj.com/features/4108-recovering-from-bingham-canyon-s-record-setting-2013-slide.html#.Wk6F9VXty01

https://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/mine-landslide-triggered-quakes/

https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865593617/Kennecott-slide-triggered-16-earthquakes-study-shows.html

This shows that it is possible, with modern technology and the right conditions, to actually trigger an earthquake.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that the damage from a magnitude 2.5 earthquake is limited to feelings of alarm in the few people who notice it -- it's not even enough to shift pictures hanging on the walls or knock things off shelves. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 4 '18 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Absolutely correct. However, it is a real life historical example of a human-made structure actually causing an earthquake. One would have to upscale or find a location with unique circumstances to make it bigger. Ooooor, just drop rocks from orbit, though the earthquakes at that point become a secondary side show. $\endgroup$ – nijineko Jan 4 '18 at 23:15
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The closest we can get to artificial earthquakes is by detonating a nuke underground. Ranging from Little Boy to Tzar Bomb, one can have earthquakes between magnitude 6 and 8 (source).

But...

Detonating a nuke underground means you have to dig a tunnel until the desired location, meaning in the enemy territory. Digging is not silent and can be easily detected, and moreover it takes a significant amount of time, logistic and energy.

Moreover, nuclear explosions have a peculiar seismic spectrum, so even though one can speculate of a super silent drilling machine, as soon as the nuke explodes no geologist will be fooled.

A very remote possibility, more in the sci-fi realm due to our present knowledge, is that the underground nuclear detonation could trigger a distant active fault to release its stored energy (i.e. a nuke detonated under continental Asia could trigger the fault below Kanto region in Japan).

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, pumping water into and out of the ground, as in fracting, seems to work pretty well in causing earth quakes. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 3 '18 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ the US government seems to disagree that digging tunnels are not silent nytimes.com/2016/09/02/us/… rt.com/news/331331-us-israel-tunnel-detection $\endgroup$ – Reed Jan 3 '18 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Reed Those tunnels are very shallow and generally through "dirt". A tunnel deep enough to attempt to trigger earthquakes will be going through bedrock. I think the large tunnel bore machines are detectable by seismographs. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Jan 3 '18 at 22:00
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This scenario has been imagined by Alistair MacLean in his novel Goodbye California https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye_California

The key aspect here is to look for tectonic fault lines.

In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock. Large faults within the Earth's crust result from the action of plate tectonic forces. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes. - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fault_(geology)

Detonating powerful explosives inside a fault line can certainly cause a major earthquake.

How strong can the earhquake be? Enough to make a large territory sink into the ocean. California is known to be a dead territory from a geological perspective. One day, even without terrorist intervention, a major earhquake will occur, with the outcome that California will sink into the Pacific. Just google "california earthquake sink into ocean" to find more details. (there are also some more recent articles claiming that this will not happen)

Can the attack seem natural? Yes. Fault lines stretch along thousands of miles. You can detonate the bomb in any place, and the impact will be felt all along the fault line, basically thousands of miles apart. In the picture below, notice how the San Andreas fault goes into the territory of Mexico. So, practically, a bomb can be detonated in Mexico and have impact over California.

enter image description here

fault lines also go under the oceans, making it even more convenient to detonate the bomb

enter image description here

a second idea: google for "haarp project earthquake". I don't really know if radio frequency can cause earthquakes, but some people claim they can. Just read to find out more.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! Interesting first answer. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jan 5 '18 at 9:28
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An earthquake can be triggered by a large enough landslide, but the investment in time and resources would almost certainly be better spent elsewhere.

Especially since an earthquake is not easily controlled and may well hurt your own forces as badly as those of the enemy, and because you likely have to trigger that massive landslide inside enemy territory.

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About the only way that has been proven to induce earth quakes is fracking. Pumping water into and out of the ground, raising and lowering the water table. Trouble is, it is a local phenomena. The earthquakes happen where the fracking occurs.

See Induced Earthquakes for a description and theory.

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    $\begingroup$ A couple other answers have already talked about this. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 3 '18 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE 226868 I didn't see any actual references to information on fracting, except a comment I made in the question. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 4 '18 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ If you wanted to add a reference, I would recommend turning this into a comment on one of the answers that do mention fracking. But Dubukay's answer does have at least one reference for fracking (the paper mentioned early on). $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 4 '18 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ OOOpps.Apologies to Dubukayn but I missed it because TL:DR. Fracking got stuck in a section on dropping a bomb. The basic premise of the article generally was about fault lines, and tearing them apart. Fracking is lubricating them. Nevertheless, the reference I gave was not specifically about fracking, but about injected fluid induced earthquakes. It goes beyond fracking. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 4 '18 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ Another way is extracting natural gas. This is causing small earthquakes and tremors in the north of the Netherlands for several years now, and is starting to get worrisome enough the Dutch government is considering limiting or even stopping the gas extraction. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 5 '18 at 8:23
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Yes.

By conventional means, you can just make a detonation in the proper spot and a catastrophic earthquake can be started.

Right after WW2, the United States developed the 20 tons T12 demolition bomb, which was designed to create an earthquake effect. Later, they created the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 14 Tons bomb that can go very deep.

Using such bombs in the correct tectonic-sensitive spots can generate devastating earthquakes. A nuke in the proper spot could be even more damaging.

By unconventional means, Tesla could do it around 100 years ago - he proved that he can generate a local quake using a hand-held device. Following that tech, in 1989 there were 10 countries in the world capable of such technology. After the post-Soviet era, the number of countries with access to meteorological and similar types of scalar-wave based weapons increased.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jan 4 '18 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ Tesla's oscillator seems very controversial (it even was "mythbusted") and I don't think the poor scientist needs to suffer from more desinformations. $\endgroup$ – GlorfSf Jan 4 '18 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ If they "mythbusted" it like they did with coca-cola, I'll give them a clear zero trust score. And it's not controversial. The right resonating frequency damaging a specific material is a known scientific fact. While that, Tesla's deeds are documented by the FBI. $\endgroup$ – Overmind Jan 4 '18 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Overmind Actually, if i remember correctly, they did not busted it, they proved it & show it on some old steel bridge... $\endgroup$ – Jan 'splite' K. Jan 4 '18 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ These techniques produce devastating, very local earthquakes. Great for taking down a few buildings or collapsing a tunnel (or bunker), but not much good for damaging a city. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 4 '18 at 20:55
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This started as a comment on Dent7777's answer, but got a bit long.

A mining operation would be a good idea indeed. In Groningen (Netherlands), recurring inadvertent earthquakes are a problem. Usually at least 10 a year from which 1-2 above 3.0 Richter (source in Dutch). That's when trying not to create them.

Imagine the damage you can do when all of a sudden you start your worst possible plan and create them on purpose. 4,5 is theoretically possible with mining equipment, I imagine you can get a lot worse if you add explosives into the mix.

Oh, and the best of all? No fault lines are required.

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There was a novel that I read a couple years back. In that, bombs are exploded at strategic locations deep inside the earth to force tectonic plate moments, and the villian stole a specialized kind of truck for that and was a part of a kind of native Americans and used their reservations as a hideout. He blackmails the state of California after causing considerable damage by causing an earthquake on a specified day. I forgot the name of the novel, though. But it involved communal living and that triggered some kind of friction between 2 females that helped uncover the plot.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Do you know the name of the author and do you have a more detailed explanation of how this would work? Thanks $\endgroup$ – Mithrandir24601 Feb 7 '18 at 11:02

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