High levels of helium-3 have been discovered in oil wells in Southern California, which changes everything we thought we knew about the Newport-Inglewood fault line and has reignited fears of another “big one.”
On Earth, helium-3 is insanely rare. It is only found in the mantle, which sits, on average, 18 miles below our feet. If helium-3 is leaking up toward the surface along the Newport-Inglewood fault line, that means the rift runs all the way down through the Earth’s crust – far deeper than scientists had ever thought.
It also means that the damage risk from an earthquake along the Newport-Inglewood fault is far greater than anyone had previously thought. It could potentially produce earthquakes as powerful as the more publicized San Andreas fault, which destroyed 80% of San Francisco in 1906 and infamously halted the World Series in 1989.
But is it a warning that a major earthquake is on the horizon?
Well, no. The discovery of helium-3 simply means that the fault is far more important than previously believed because of its potential to produce larger earthquakes. The leaking helium does not correlate with any unusual seismic activity nor does it change any of the current earthquake predictions for Southern California.
What is helium-3?
Helium-3 is a non-explosive, non-radioactive isotope of helium that on Earth, is only found in the mantle. It’s believed to exist there as a remnant of the Big Bang. It’s so rare here, that its natural abundance makes up just 0.000137% of the planet.
There may be a huge store of helium-3 right next door to us, however.
The sun is constantly emitting helium-3, which is carried through space via solar winds. Earth’s atmosphere blocks any helium-3 from collecting here, but because our moon lacks a true atmosphere, many scientists believe that billions of years worth of the stuff has just been accumulating in the lunar dust.
China is planning to go up there and find out.
Why the big deal about helium-3?
Helium-3 is highly sought after for use in nuclear fusion, which many believe will eventually solve the world’s growing energy crisis and forever eliminate any need for fossil fuels. (One space shuttle cargo bay of helium-3 could power the entire United States for a year.) It’s so sought after in fact, that one ton of helium-3 is said to be valued at around $3 billion.
China thinks there is 1.2 million tons of helium-3 sitting on the moon and if they’re right, we may see the first attempt at colonization of the lunar surface in the form of a giant strip mine.
A mission to collect and return moon soil samples for testing is planned for 2017. If China finds helium-3, they plan to start building and shipping it back to Earth. You can read more about the project here.
Oh, and if you were wondering what 1.2 million tons of helium-3 at a rate of $3 billion/ton amounts to… it would equal $3.6e+15 (or in layman’s terms – the requirement for an all new form of currency because there isn’t that much money in the world).
Who would have thought that the moon was so profitable?