Have researchers solved the mystery of Wisconsin's strange rumblings?

Four days of unexplained shaking and odd rumblings in a small Wisconsin city has captivated the imaginations of people across America.  Could it be a sign of the apocalypse?  An alien invasion?  Subterranean creatures unknown to science?  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, these odd tremblings in Clintonville are the result of minor earthquakes.  The USGS believes that these minor quakes, registering 1.5 on the Richter Scale, produced strange sounds because of the unique rock formations which lie under Wisconsin.

Normally, such tiny quakes would not be felt because the energy produced would be absorbed by the ground.  This isn't the case in Wisconsin, where the ground is considered by geophysicists to be "very consolidated", which means that there is a lack of fault lines.  A series of minor earthquakes in Ohio which took place earlier this year were nearly identical to the Wisconsin quakes.  Some have suggested that the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") was the culprit behind the Ohio quakes.

USGS geophysicist Paul Caruso refutes this theory as the cause of the Wisconsin tremors.

According to a CNN story published on March 23, Caruso claims that no hydraulic fracturing had been taking place in Wisconsin.  On the surface, Caruso's statement is factually accurate, but it is also entirely misleading.  While CNN and other sources consider the mystery solved, we here at JOTB aren't quite ready to dismiss the Wisconsin quakes as a freak occurrence of nature.

Our investigation has revealed that exploratory drilling has been taking place in central Wisconsin for quite some time, and current mining operations undertaken by the natural gas industry coincide with the location of the mysterious quakes and odd rumblings.

Well Servicing Magazine, an online publication for the gas drilling industry, recently published an article entitled "Drilling in the Non-Productive States" , which describes drilling attempts made in Wisconsin.  The article's author, Andy Maslowski, states: A few test holes have also been drilled in Wisconsin. When contacted in December, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey in Madison said no production has been established in her state. The last well drilled in Wisconsin was put down to 4,966 feet in Bayfield County in 1995.

While the state lacks gas production, Wisconsin is still critically important to the natural gas industry.  A type of fine silica sand found abundantly in Wisconsin is popular with the gas industry for use in hydraulic fracturing.  This sand has been mined extensively in the region where the earthquakes have taken place.  A 2011 article by PR Watch entitled "Wisconsin Becomes Part of Gas Industry's Land Grab" states that "the industry is looking to scrape the Midwestern state of its rolling hills by extracting its sand".  The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that at least 16 sand mines and processing plants have been built in Wisconsin within the past few years, with 25 other sites awaiting approval.  Waupaca County, home of the strange earthquakes, is one of the fifteen or so counties in which sand extraction is a booming business.

Unfortunately, no one is sure what effect this extensive sand mining will have on the environment.

The 2011 PR Watch article states:

The growing number of proposed mines have launched the state into unchartered waters. Many companies are obtaining permits from towns that have never dealt with sand mining before, and that don't have robust land-use controls. The local governments are unprepared to deal with these huge companies and are unfamiliar with what to anticipate from the mines and processing sites. 

Since the state has very lenient restrictions on sand mining, gas companies are scouring and scraping Wisconsin at a breakneck pace in order to provide sand for fracking.  Since silica is a known carcinogen, many advocacy groups believe that it is only a matter of time until Wisconsin residents see a marked increase in lung diseases, as the fine silica particles hang over the state like a Depression-era dust cloud over Oklahoma.  The explosive growth of sand mining, coupled with a severe lack of oversight and environmental regulation, may prove to be the cause of more than just lung cancer or deadly silicosis- ultimately, it may also prove to be the cause of strange tremblings beneath Waupaca County.