*Editor’s note: The article previously said there were increased earthquakes in southwest New Mexico. This has been corrected to southeast.
NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – From barely noticeable rumbling to extreme shaking, earthquakes can be found around the globe. And that includes New Mexico. But there are some key aspects of our geology that affect how often we get quakes and how strong those quakes are.
The basics of earthquakes
Earthquakes can have a range of both human and natural causes. Humans can cause shaking: Large mining equipment can shake nearby houses, fracking can lead to quakes, and nuclear weapons testing can cause vibrations that are detectable around Earth.
Of course, most quakes happen without humans. Volcanic activity can rumble the ground, and when the Earth’s crust slips along faults, some of the largest quakes happen.
New Mexico’s faults and quakes
Here in New Mexico, faults can be found throughout the Rio Grande Valley. In fact, the Rio Grande lies in a valley because the eastern portion of the state is slowly pulling away from the western portion. In the middle, is a rift valley.
“The general reason that we have earthquakes in New Mexico is because we are in an area that’s being very slowly — like a couple millimeters per year — pulled apart,” explains Mairi Litherland, a geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and New Mexico Tech. “And this is seen in the geology with the Rio Grande Rift.”
Given the geology, New Mexico is prone to earthquakes along the Rio Grande Valley. But most of them are relatively small, Litherland says. The largest quakes happen in “subduction zones,” usually near the edges of continents. So New Mexico is unlikely to ever see a truly massive quake. But smaller ones are fairly common all along the Rio Grande Valley.
The Socorro region is also prone to quakes, but for a slightly different reason: magma. More than 10 miles beneath the town, a pocket of magma lies, occasionally moving slightly. As a result, many of New Mexico’s earthquakes are centered around Socorro.
“Until very recently, the part of the state that experienced the most earthquakes was actually Socorro,” Litherland says. This was “due to the presence of the Socorro magma body, which is a magma body that’s basically very slowly inflating. And so it tends to produce earthquake swarms that happen every few years.”
But now, southeast New Mexico sees the most quakes. That’s primarily due, at least in part, to human activity.
“We have been experiencing some induced seismicity from the oil and gas industry in the Raton Basin and in the Permian Basin,” Litherland says. “Historically those areas had sort of a similar seismicity rate to the rest of New Mexico.” But in the past few years there have been more recorded quakes in these oil-rich regions.
Activities like injecting wastewater from oil and gas operations into the ground, or fracking, can cause already-present faults to slip and cause earthquakes. And it’s not just oil and gas work that can cause quakes. Litherland says any time people change the existing pressures underground — by building a dam or pumping water underground, for example — there’s the potential to activate faults.
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One year of data shows that many small earthquakes happen throughout New Mexico. Data from USGS.
Earthquakes in New Mexico history
Scanning through New Mexico’s historical newspapers, you’ll find several accounts of earthquakes throughout the years. The vast majority of the state’s quakes are too small to cause much of a buzz. But the few that made it into the papers provide a unique glimpse into local history.
Take the January, 1966 earthquake near Dulce, New Mexico. It registered as somewhere around a magnitude 5 earthquake, meaning it had enough energy to damage nearby buildings.
“It sounded like a herd of wild horses was running across the roof,” one resident told an Albuquerque Tribune reporter. Another resident said it sounded like an explosion.
The quake broke windows and damaged the walls of buildings on Jicarilla Apache land. But, according to newspapers from the time, there was only one injury.
Litherland says the biggest quake in New Mexico’s recorded history was a magnitude 6 in the Socorro region during 1906. Historical newspaper accounts show that the quake gave residents quite a scare!
“The city [Socorro] is in a stage almost bordering on a panic,” a reporter wrote in the 1906 Albuquerque Evening Citizen. “Almost the entire city will camp in the open tonight, and should rain follow, which is threatening now, a more serious condition may arise than at present.”
But an even bigger quake shook New Mexico nearly 20 years before the Socorro quakes. It just wasn’t centered in New Mexico.
Regarded as the biggest known earthquake in the state’s history, the 1887 Sonora Earthquake was centered in Northern Mexico, but was felt throughout much of New Mexico.
“That’s the largest earthquake that’s known to have happened along the Rio Grande Rift,” Litherland says. “So yeah, we do have to be aware that an earthquake of that size could happen. However, we do know that earthquakes of that size happen very infrequently.”
If you feel an earthquake, Litherland encourages you to report it! Doing so can help scientists better track quakes across the state.
“We don’t always know exactly how that shaking is being felt in the local community,” Litherland says. “And so, there’s a U.S. Geological Survey website called ‘Did you feel it?’ And I would encourage anyone, if you’re feeling earthquake, go to that website and and report what you felt and that will just help us have a better understanding of what’s going on.”