Scientists learn from Gulf of Mexico earthquake

(WVUE) - Earth scientists are learning more about the earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico. They say the data will not only offer insight into what's beneath the ocean floor, but it will also help planners in the oil and gas industry. Plus, it could help scientists predict the possibility a tsunami would threaten the Louisiana Coast.

On land or at sea, it's unlikely anyone felt Sunday's 4.6 magnitude earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico. There was no damage, there were no injuries, but for scientists it was a big deal.

"Beneath the ocean is a really dynamic environment," said Tulane Geology Professor Cindy Ebinger.

Ebinger says much of what happens on our planet is hidden from view on the ocean floor.

"There are, across this area, many many faults, and those faults are creeping, are moving almost silently," Ebinger said.

A fault is a break in the rocks that make up the Earth's crust. Ebinger says at sea, it's tough to know exactly where an active fault lies. That is, until there's an earthquake.

"We're now trying to understand which areas are more active than others and then plan accordingly," said Ebinger.

Sunday's earthquake hit about 160 miles southeast of New Orleans, not far from an area shaped by the Mississippi with canyons, steep slopes and salt domes. Ebinger says shifts in faults and sediment can change the surface of the ocean floor.

"Say there's an earthquake here that destabilized these really steep slopes and caused a lot of sediments to move down. They would push a lot of water out of the way, and that could generate a tsunami that would have a wave probably getting this way in a way propagating out from the shore," Ebinger explained.

There was no tsunami warning with Sunday's quake, but Ebinger says tracking underwater earthquakes can help them predict the likelihood of a tsunami by giving them a better understanding of where these ocean-floor landslides may be.

Yet, it's not just scientists who value this information.

"We need to make sure they are doing everything they can to safeguard their people and the environment," said Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Gulf Coast Region Public Affairs Officer Karla Marshall.

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) ensures oil and gas companies operate safely. Marshall says companies are required to report any impacts to operations due to earthquakes or hurricanes.

"Always we are looking to incorporate lessons learned and future rule-making we undertake, so all of the reports are useful to us for that reason," Marshall explained.

There were no reports of damage from the 4.6 quake, but Ebinger says the information learned from it could prove critical for future oil and gas exploration.

"No company would want to build a platform over an active fault system unless they had properly engineered structures," said Ebinger.

Ebinger says there's an earthquake of this magnitude or smaller every three to five years in the Gulf of Mexico. She says this one was larger than most.