Study Links Italian Earthquakes to Ascent of Buried Carbon Dioxide

(CN) — After a 10-year study, researchers have complied enough data to draw direct links between the release of ancient underground carbon dioxide and earthquake activity in Italy.

While many often think of carbon dioxide as being an atmospheric compound, massive amounts of C02 lurk beneath Earth’s surface encased in rocks, minerals and even carbon reservoirs. These underground stores of carbon dioxide came to be after a series of biological and chemical shifts over much of Earth’s natural history, but while time may have entombed them, they are not always trapped forever.

When Earth’s tectonic plates move, the heat and energy can melt the carbon-rich rocks and minerals — otherwise known as carbonates — buried below Earth’s surface. Carbon dioxide is then released from the newly melted minerals, finding its way to a carbon reservoir or an underground aquifer where the CO2 dissolves into the water. From there the carbon dioxide is expelled through gas vents or natural springs.

Previous research efforts have documented how this process of releasing ancient carbon connects to earthquakes, with such studies finding that areas with higher earthquake activity can also experience higher carbon dioxide release rates. No previous study, however, has explored how that relationship plays out over a longer period of time — until now.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances details how a team of researchers collected roughly 10 years’ worth of data from the Apennine Mountains of Italy, with researchers specifically focusing on carbon dioxide levels found within spring water near the epicenter of the devastating L’Aquila earthquake of 2009.

After surveying the data, researchers concluded the concentration changes of carbon dioxide in the inspected spring water correlated significantly with the number — and even the intensity — of nearby earthquakes over a period of time.

Researchers suggest that if you take their results with the work that has previously been done on the subject, one can see pressurized gas and carbon dioxide may actually cause earthquake activity in the examined area of Italy.

Furthermore, the researchers found that once rising CO2 causes an earthquake, a vicious feedback cycle may take place immediately afterward. A sizeable enough earthquake, according to researchers, could result in even more carbon dioxide being released that would, in turn, result in more aftershocks and quakes. 

Giovanni Chiodini, first author of the study, said that these methods and researcher techniques could possibly find use in other parts of the world with seismic activity, which may lead to a better understanding of earthquakes.

“Potentially the method can be applied in almost all the seismic regions of the Earth and could be improved by developing automatic stations,” Chiodini said in an email. “I think that the availability of continuous data of deep CO2 emission in the area of Apennine (as well as in other areas) could be very important to better investigate the generation of the earthquakes.”

But research may shed light on other fields than tectonics. Based on researchers’ calculations, in this area alone Earth released roughly 1,800 kilotons of carbon over the duration of the study period — a statistic some are hopeful could be valuable insight for Earth scientists looking to better understand the carbon cycle.

While these insights could prove invaluable for scientists, for those that are potentially concerned over how the release of this ancient carbon dioxide may influence Earth’s ongoing struggle with CO2 pollution in our atmosphere, Chiodini suggested some context may be in order.

While it is true that carbon dioxide can be released into Earth’s atmosphere during an earthquake or other natural processes like volcanic activity, Chiodini said the amount of CO2 pumped into Earth’s atmosphere by earthquakes is minuscular compared to what is produced by fossil fuels, industry and the host of other human-driven activities that contribute to CO2 emissions.

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