When we think of earthquakes, we tend to think of specific places like San Francisco or Alaska, where major quakes have occurred. We probably also think of places like Indonesia and Bande Aceh, where an underwater earthquake and subsequent landslide caused the immense tsunami on December 26, 2004. Others of us may think in more general terms, like the Ring of Fire, the large volcanic and seismic zone ringing the Pacific Ocean that has spawned much of the activity in the places I just mentioned.
But rarely do we think of the central United States when discussing topics related to seismology. And that’s easily understandable, because earthquakes in Mississippi River Valley just don’t happen all that often. But when they do,…
It’s a relatively unknown geological fact that, as the longest river in the United States flows past southern Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas, it passes over a sizeable fault line. Known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, it encompasses the aforementioned states (as they border on the Mississippi River) as well as southern Illinois, western Kentucky, and even the northern tip of Mississippi. And in this area there have thousands of minor temblors and quakes in recent years, though no major quakes.
For those, we need to go back to the winter of 1811-12, when major quakes were recorded, quakes that rank as some of the most powerful in U.S. history. Beginning in December of 1811, two major quakes were followed by numerous smaller shakes and aftershocks. But all of those were the lead-up to the biggest of the quakes, which rocked the Midwest on February 7, 1812. Centered around New Madrid, Missouri, estimates have the quake at 8.0 on the Richter Scale, and it was felt on a massive scale.
How massive? Stories are told that the quake cracked sidewalks in the nation’s capital and knocked down chimneys in…are you ready?…Maine. All told, the quake was felt in an area that covers 1,000,000 square miles. By comparison, the infamous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake covered only about 6,000 square miles. Though the scale was partially due to the bedrock in which the quake occurred, this was still a tremendously powerful quake.
Today, the fault is still active, and there is growing concern that another major shake-up is building, particularly since we are now approaching 200 years since the quakes of 1812. What’s more, there has been very little earthquake preparation in the Midwest, and nothing at all approaching the scale of more earthquake-prone areas. A repeat of the 1812 events would be catastrophic, considering the major population centers that could be affected.
Recommended Reading: When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes – History, intrigue, and mayhem in one volume. I’ve yet to read this book, but from what I’ve seen, it’s going to be part of my next book order.