A 5.1-magnitude quake hit with an epicenter in Sparta, NC Sunday morning, but despite the social media rumors, fracking was not to blame. (Image via Town of Sparta) Downtown Sparta NC
A 5.1-magnitude quake hit with an epicenter in Sparta, NC Sunday morning, but despite the social media rumors, fracking was not to blame. (Image via Town of Sparta)

The 5.1-magnitude earthquake was centered in western NC, but felt across the state. 

A 5.1-magnitude earthquake struck Sparta, in northwestern North Carolina, at 8:07 a.m. Sunday. The strongest quake to impact NC in over a century rattled the Piedmont region, and its tremors could be felt as far away as Atlanta, portions of Tennessee, Ohio and Washington DC.

“It felt like a big locomotive going by and a big wave coming underneath the bed,” Sparta Mayor Wes Brinegar told CNN. “A big wave coming to lift you.”

But the quake was not man made. The suddenness and severity of the quake, as well as the wide area rattled, prompted speculation on Twitter that natural gas fracking caused it. 

In response to the circulating social media rumors, The Washington Post reported that “Sunday’s quake did not appear to be associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.”

On Sunday, The Washington Post offered an explanation for the latest earthquake’s far reaching effects: The quake occurred at a shallow depth estimated at 2.3 miles deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which amplified the effects felt on the ground.

“Earthquake surface waves, the kind that produce the shaking we feel on the ground, travel farther on the East Coast than in the West,” the publication reported. “That’s because the crust east of the Rockies is less fragmented and more consolidated.”

North Carolina is unlike states like Oklahoma, where fracking has been a frequent practice and the number of earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or more has jumped from an average of less than five a year to about 40.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration told Ballotpedia that fracking was explored in North Carolina, but that it never was implemented. The administration reported that North Carolina had no oil or gas reserves as of May 2017, and that therefore no fracking has occurred in the state.

A 2018 report by Carolina Public Press also discounts hydraulic fracturing, which injects millions of gallons of water into oil and gas containing geologic formations deep underground, as a possible cause for earthquakes in NC, primarily because there is no fracking in North Carolina.

Although then-Governor Pat McCrory pushed the state legislature in 2014 to create The Oil and Gas Commission to open up the state to fracking, the commission was effectively shut down in 2016 as one of three commissions ruled unconstitutional in the landmark case McCrory v. Berger.

McCrory’s hopes for a statewide fracking bonanza ware further derailed by plummeting prices for natural gas.

Sarah Carmichael, an associate professor with the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Appalachian State University, told Carolina Public Press about additional barriers to fossil fuel exploration and development in North Carolina.

“Our geology is just wrong for fossil fuel development,” she said. “The amount of gas … is absolutely minuscule.”

In addition, upon taking office, Gov. Roy Cooper embraced a different energy policy for the state.

“Governor Cooper does not support fracking in North Carolina and does not think it is necessary,” Cooper spokesperson Jamal Little said in an email to Carolina Public Press in March of 2018. “His goal is to move our state toward a fully renewable energy future, which helps the environment and the economy.”

In a 2018 article, the Raleigh News & Observer also addressed fears that four then-recent earthquakes had been triggered by fracking.

Carmichael and North Carolina’s state geologist Kenneth Taylor told the News & Observer that the quakes had nothing to do with fracking or the companion process of injecting waste fluid into the ground. Nor have there been test wells drilled in the western and central portions of the state.

The two scientists reiterated that fracking is not permitted anywhere in North Carolina.

‘What a wake-up call.’

In Charlotte, approximately 100 miles from the quake’s epicenter, a firefighter’s union addressed the trembling felt in multiple homes on Twitter.

“Good Morning Charlotte, we are sure most of you are awake because yes, that was an earthquake you felt. No local reports of damage or injuries but what a wake up call,” the union posted.

In Sparta, the epicenter of the quake, there were reports of cracked basements and foundations, fallen chimneys, cracked roads, fallen items and at least one closed road, WXII reported. The only injury in town occurred when 7-year-old Manuel Perez sustained a minor cut on his knee when a picture frame fell on him.

Sunday’s earthquake was the strongest to shake NC since a 5.2-magnitude trembler struck Mitchell County, about 50 miles northeast of Asheville, on July 8, 1926, the North Carolina Geological Survey reported. A 5.5 quake shook Skyland, near Asheville in 1916.

On Twitter, WCNC Chief Meteorologist Brad Panovich posted that the quake was not only the 2nd or 3rd largest in North Carolina but also one of the largest in the Southeast on record.

Sunday’s earthquake was also not unexpected as it was anticipated by several foreshocks. Several smaller quakes, all 2.6-magnitude or lower, shook areas near Sparta on Saturday and early Sunday, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. Two more struck a few miles from Seymour, Tenn., last weekend.