Thursday, 2 October 2014

Earthquakes in Groningen

It isn't everyday one feels an earthquake. Especially when one is located in inland, mainland Europe. But things in Groningen aren't always as they appear. For instance, we have the largest gas fields in Europe and provide the entire Netherlands with gas for their homes, as well as our neighbouring countries. The large tracts of gas fields in the province of Groningen have proved to be controversial, however: they bring in billions of Euros in revenue, and yet the extraction of the natural gas has caused thousands of people problems. I'm no scientist, but perhaps we can think of it like a Jenga set: the extraction of gas is like removing the pieces at the middle and bottom, creating an unstable top layer that is attempting to resettle. Plus, the layers are also subsiding, which isn't ideal in a place that is nearly below sea level as it is!

I first heard about these aardbevingen when a student gave a presentation about how her family and the farm they lived and worked on north east of the city were affected. The deep (and numerous) cracks in the family's farmhouse was quite shocking to see. For many people, it is something they live with daily. It is understandable that there is real worry and anger about the earthquakes: it isn't as if they chose to live on a fault line (eg: the San Andreas Fault line that affects San Francisco). No, these earthquakes are caused from something within our control: gas extraction.

Since the gas fields create so much revenue, it is doubtful that the extraction will stop altogether. It has been reduced in the worst affected areas. In all reality, it is probably cheaper for the companies like NAM to just pay the damage claims. I haven't an opinion either way, and it is easy as a city dweller to put the issue out of one's mind as "well, that's far away from here". Which, of course, it isn't.

On Tuesday, as I was giving a class in a building hundreds of years old, I felt the ground shudder. It felt just like a massive lorry was going past, and I thought nothing more of it. It lasted about 30 seconds and keeping a handle on the lesson was more my focus. It was only afterwards when I saw the news that I realised what had occurred. It was 2.8 on the Richter scale, which is a wee quake compared to other parts of the world, but for the Netherlands is fairly significant.

On my way home I'd seen RTL Noord television vans around the city, and there was a general air of intrigue about that made me look twice. Some students had been interviewed for the nightly news and they explained how their wardrobes had moved back and forth and some things had fallen off a shelf. The mayor felt it in the Stadshuis, the city officials tweeted about it...suddenly, a far away issue had just come a lot closer. It is another reminder: the city is no stranger to tremors, but it is considered unusual.

The earthquakes are expected to become worse, so it will be interesting to see how things progress in the near future. It is not just an economic debate, but it is also a political one. I've never experienced an earthquake before, but there is a first time for everything... and I have a sneaking suspicion that this will not be the last.

For more information about the earthquakes, have a look here.