Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Seismometer deployment to monitor drilling at Balcombe

If you follow me on twitter as well as reading my blog will know that I go by the name @TheFracDoctor. This choice of name was influenced in part by the fact that I had recently finished my PhD, and as anyone who has experienced the flush of post-viva success, there is the temptation to put the word ‘Doctor’ in front of everything. 

But also it is the role of the doctor to monitor the health of his patient, and that is how I see seismic and micro-seismic monitoring – a tool to monitor the health of a fracture stimulation.

In the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to do this for real in the UK for the first time: deploying seismometers around Cuadrilla’s planned Balcombe well. I’ll note right now that the current Cuadrilla plan is to drill into limestone for conventional oil, with no intention of hydraulic fracturing at this stage, but we wanted to get some experience deploying seismometers for this sort of situation.

However, Balcombe is the site of the now-infamous ‘Battle of Balcombe’ and has been at the center of much debate of unconventional gas extraction (these stations were put in a month ago, well before the events of last week). Of particular focus has been the risk of seismic activity to the Balcombe Viaduct.

This spectacular bridge, built in 1841, still carries the main London-to-Brighton rail line:

After the seismic events during stimulation at the Preese Hall well, Blackpool, concerns were raised about the possibility of similar seismic activity affecting this bridge. So we decided to deploy seismometers while they drill their Balcombe well. There are no plans for fracking at the moment, so we’re not expecting any seismic activity. Our main aims were (1) to get some experience deploying seismic stations in rural England, and (2) to record baseline activity prior to drilling.

Baseline data will help us understand the noise levels in the area, which will determine the size of the smallest earthquake we can detect – obviously the lower the noise level, the smaller event you can detect. The current traffic light scheme for seismicity proposed by DECC requires events as small as M0.0 to be detected. We want to see if this will be possible with a small array of 4 surface seismometers (we will compute the expected shaking from an M0.0 event, and see if it emerges above the noise).

Baseline data will also enable to see what changes (if any) drilling activities produce.

I will post updates as and when we collect and analyse the data. For now, this seems like a good time to share some holiday snaps, so you get to learn about what we do when we deploy seismometer arrays, and what they look like.

Firstly, here’s the piece of kit that we use: a Trillium 120 seismometer:

This is a fairly standard piece of kit in earthquake seismology, capable of measuring the vibration of the earth across a wide frequency, from long periods (up to 60 seconds) up to the sampling rate of 250Hz.

To reduce the noise from things like wind and rain, they need to be buried 50cm or so under ground. Which means you have to dig a hole. I used to work on building sites during my A-levels, and I was delighted when I got my degree, knowing that my days of manual labour were over (because digging holes all day is TOUGH work). Yet, a masters degree and PhD later, and here I am digging holes all day!

Once the pit is ready, the seismometer is carefully placed into the hole:

The batteries and data logger go in the steel box next to the pit. We run cables, insulated inside fire hose, from the instrument into the box:

Initial covering for the instrument, to further minimise surface noise, is provided by its ‘lid’, the black dome you can see below:

Once we are happy that the instrument is working properly, we fill the hole (being careful not to dislodge the insulating cover from the instrument. We lay a waterproof sheet just below the surface, and pile turf on top as a final covering:

Finally, we put a small chicken-wire fence around the station. This is more of a deterrent than anything else: it’s not likely to stop a marauding cow, nor is it really capable of keeping out a determined rodent (animals chewing on loose cables is a real problem in many seismic deployments):

And after all that (a couple of hours work at least), you have your seismic station:

We placed 4 stations in total, including one a few hundred yards from the viaduct:

As we set this station up, we could see the vibrations from the trains going past every 5 minutes recorded on our seismometer. It will be interesting to see what caused more vibration – the Preese Hall earthquakes or the train going past at a distance of a couple of hundred yards. After all, the initial concern at Balcombe was that seismicity would trouble the bridge – even though this is a bridge that is being shaken by an express train every 5 minutes.

We enjoyed our two days in the picturesque British countryside, and we were very glad we missed all the protestors. Fortunately, the stations are all a couple of km at least from the London Road protest site, and accessible from other roads, so that’s a gauntlet we won’t have to run. The only disturbance we saw was from these guys:

So there’s our seismic deployment in Balcombe. More to follow once we’ve analysed the data.


  1. Well I hope the white noise from the drilling didn't keep you awake like it does to the rest of the village.

    1. Between 10pm and 7am, the noise from the site must not exceed 42 decibels at the nearest residential properties (this from the Balcombe Council report). That's the same noise as from a fridge.

      I'm in contact with some Balcombe residents, one of whom lives within 1km of the site, and he says he can barely hear the site.

      I was in the area yesterday servicing our seismometers, and couldn't hear the drilling (I could hear noisy combine harvesters, and the trains going through).