Shake, Rattle, 'n Roll:
The New Madrid Fault Past and Present
Honors Colloquium: "Dirt in the Disk Drive"
When you think of California, your mind probably conjures up images
of warm sunny beaches, oranges, palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, sun tan
lotion, blondes in bikinis, muscle men, surfers, the Beach Boys, night
clubs, Hollywood, the rich and the famous, and, of course, earthquakes.
The San Andreas fault is the source of California's major eruptions
(Lowell, 1996). One of the most infamous earthquakes to rock California
hit on April 18, 1906 with the strongest tremor measuring 8.3 on the
Richter scale (Cherny, 1996). This quake was
responsible for a fire that burned uncontrollably in San Francisco for
three days and two nights. Various other major earthquakes dot
California's shaky history and are expected to continue into the future
(Lowell, 1996). As a result, California has developed and implemented
earthquake safety measures to prevent loss of life and property (U.S.
Geological Survey Circular, 1990). Although California's beauty is
alluring, its earthquakes are less than inviting.
An earthquake is a vibration of the Earth's surface due to elastic
waves (Sharnberger, 1996). Earthquakes are divided into two types based
on the depth of their focus (Zobach, 1996). These types are a shallow to
moderate focus or a deep focus earthquake. The focus is the origin of
the quake's vibration. A shallow to moderate focus is less than 70
kilometers below the Earth's surface in a layer called the lithosphere.
The most destructive and common types of quakes occur at this depth.
Earthquakes occurring at 70 to 700 kilometers are deep focus events;
they are not as common.
theory explains the causes of an earthquake (Scharnberger, 1996). The
main concepts are the lithosphere is composed of moving plates and a
resistance towards movement causes stress to build at the plates'
boundaries. When a certain level of stress builds between the
boundaries, it must be released. One way in which the stress is released
is by the tectonic plates in the lithosphere slipping past one another
resulting in an earthquake.
Throughout the years, the effects of an earthquake have served as the
main determination of its magnitude (Scharnberger, 1996). One of the
most well known scales for determining an earthquake's magnitude is the
Richter scale developed by professor Charles Richter in the 1930's. The
seismograph records the amplitude of seismic waves or magnitude. For
example, a one millimeter maximum amplitude recorded 100 kilometers from
the epicenter, the region on the surface of the Earth directly above the
origin of the quake, is a 3 on the Richter scale. Each ten fold increase
or decrease in amplitude is a one step movement on the scale. The
Richter scale does not have a maximum value; however, it is not
effective in accurately measuring quakes with a magnitude greater than
8.5 as is characteristic of other scales. Each value of the Richter
scale signifies a thirty fold increase in the energy released by the
earthquake. Scientists are able to make measurements at varying
distances from the epicenter because the amplitudes vary consistently
with a consistent change in distance.
The severity of the effects of an earthquake depends on three
factors: magnitude, distance from the fault, and depth of the foci (Zobach,
1996). The larger the magnitude, the more energy the quake releases and
the longer it lasts. Regions closer to the epicenter are more vulnerable
to greater destruction. A deeper focus affects a small area.
An earthquake may have various effects on a region. Earthquakes are
known to produce fissures, cracks in the land that can range from
centimeters to meters in width (Milne, 1939). Land slides as well as
changes in the level of water in lakes may also occur. Rivers have been
known to overflow, dry up completely, or even change directions as the
result of an earthquake. These effects are why California takes
earthquake preparation seriously.
Scientists analyze specific warning signs in order to make earthquake
predictions. These signs include the angling of land surfaces, varying
magnetic and electrical field strengths, and alterations in the
direction and amount of water flow (Scharnberger, 1996). A higher
frequency of tremors as well as minor eruptions and abnormal animal
behavior are also symptoms of an impending quake.
Almost a century before the infamous earthquake that destroyed most
of San Francisco, another destructive quake left its horrendous mark not
on California but on the central United States. Picture yourself in the
early 1800's. You are snuggled warmly in your bed as the mantel clock
chimes two o'clock on a December morning. You pull the covers more
tightly around you to keep out the cold. The fire burned out hours ago.
Dreams begin to fill your head. The mind conjures up images of standing
on a stool reaching for a pot on the top self. The stool begins to shake
violently and you feel yourself hitting the floor. Suddenly the bed
begins to shake as though a continuation of the dream - except it's
reality. Your feet struggle to plant themselves
firmly on the cold, ground floor as your heart fills with panic and
distress. You ask yourself if the world is ending and begin praying to
God as the rumbling finally ceases.
This is what roused the people of New Madrid, Missouri and countless
other settlements from their beds in 1811 (Penick, 1976). By today's
standards, the quake ranged from 8.4 to 8.8 on the Richter Scale,
slightly stronger than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (Harper,
1996). New Madrid was the closest settlement to the origin of the
eruption and from which the fault earned its namesake (Introduction to
New Madrid, 1998). This event, widely unknown, started on December 16
and left a path of destruction and terror for months to follow (Penick,
"As much as I love my place in Kentucky- I never want to go back.
From December to April no man- no woman or animal if they could talk
would dare to believe what we lived through." George Heinrich Crist;
April 14, 1813
The New Madrid fault, the source of the 1811-1812 earthquakes,
affects a forty mile wide, two hundred mile long stretch from the
Missouri- Illinois border to Memphis, Tennessee (Harper, 1996). Most
Americans are not even aware of its existence much less its devastating
"There was a great shaking of the earth this morning. tables and
chairs turned over and knocked around- all of us knocked out of bed. The
roar I thught would leave us deaf if we lived. It was not a storm. When
you could hear, all you could hear was screams from people and animals.
It was the worst thing that I have ever witnessed. It was still dark and
you could not see nothing neither man or woman was strong enough- sound
would never stop." George Heinrich Crist, December 16, 1811
During the quake the town of New Madrid dropped more than ten feet in
elevation and was flooded by the Mississippi River (Harper, 1996). The
Mississippi actually flowed from the south to the north for several
hours. The floor of the river buckled causing flooding and the formation
of Reelfoot Lake in Kentucky. In fear, many people moved out of their
homes into tents and later light wooden structures (Penick, 1976).
This picture shows a tree's exposed
roots as a result of the Mississippi
River overflowing during the 1811-1812 New Madrid eruptions (National
Earthquake Information Center, 1999).
"When it got day break
you could see the damage done all around. We still had our home it was
some damage. Some people that the home was not built to strong did not.
We still have to hunt our animals. Every body is scared to death. We
still do not know if anybody was killed." George Heinrich Crist,
December 16, 1811
The wrath of the New Madrid did not cease there. Aftershocks
continued along the New Madrid fault until another major eruption, equal
in size to the first, occurred a little more than a month later (Penick,
"What are we gonna do? You cannot fight it cause you do not know
how. It is not something that you can see. In a storm you can see the
sky and it shows dark clouds and you know that you might get strong
winds but this you can not see anything but a house that just lies in a
pile on the ground- not scattered around and trees that just falls over
with the roots still on it. The earth quake or what ever it is come
again today. It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost
our Amanda Jane in this one- a log fell on her." George Heinrich Crist,
January 23, 1812
A third major eruption followed on February 7, 1812 with aftershocks
comparable in strength to the main eruption (Penick, 1976). The ground
continued to shake for five months afterward. Most of the houses that
had remained standing were now destroyed and a mass evacuation resulted.
"If we do not get away from here the ground is going to eat us
alive. We had another one of them earth quakes yesterday and today the
ground still shakes at times. We are all about to go crazy- from pain
and fright." George Heinrich Crist, February 1, 1812
Amazingly the New Madrid earthquakes produced tremors which were felt
within one million square miles (Penick, 1976). People as far away as
Canada and the Gulf Coast felt the vibrations (Harper, 1996). One
thousand eight hundred and seventy-four shocks were recorded for nearly
a three month period between December 16 and March 15 (Penick, 1976).
Eight of those were considered violent and ten severe.
"You could not hold onto nothing neither man or woman was strong
enough- the shaking would knock you lose like knocking hickory nuts out
of a tree. I don't know how we lived through it. None of us was killed-
we was banged up and some of us knocked out for a while and blood was
every where." George Heinrich Crist, December 16, 1811
What would happen if an earthquake
similar to the 1811- 1812 eruption occurred today? The U.S. Geological
Survey predicts an earthquake of that magnitude would cost billions of
dollars in damages and the lives of thousands (1990). People from Denver
to New York City would feel the vibrations. Chimneys would collapse in
Chicago, Knoxville, Dallas, and Kansas City. The entire Central United
States would face structural damages especially to sky scrapers and tall
buildings. Are you thinking to yourself, "But we don't get earthquakes
in the midwest."? Wrong. The New Madrid fault remains active and another
major eruption is possible.
Each cross represents the location of an earthquake eruption since
1974 (Schweig, 1998)
The Geological Survey further predicts that an eruption of 6.0 or larger
along the New Madrid will result in large losses (1990). The losses will
stem from poorly supported buildings and structures to the amount of
people living near the fault. Areas of high population face the greatest
danger. The land of the midwest itself is poorly constructed for an
earthquake. Far reaching, loose sedimentary rock provide an unstable
base that actually promotes ground vibration. A fourth factor is the
large area at risk. These factors are aiding the amount of destruction
the New Madrid can produce.
Earthquake History of
Most of Missouri's
earthquake activity has been concentrated in the southeast corner of
the State, which lies within the New Madrid seismic zone.
The written record of
earthquakes in Missouri prior to the nineteenth century is virtually
nonexistent; however, there is a geologic evidence that the New
Madrid seismic zone has had a long history of activity. The first
written account of an earthquake in the region was by a French
missionary on a voyage down the Mississippi River. He reported
feeling a distinct tremor on Christmas Day 1699 while camped in the
area of what is now Memphis, Tennessee.
Whatever the seismic
history of the region may have been before the first Europeans
arrived, after December 16, 1811, there could be no doubt about the
area's potential to generate severe earthquakes. On that date,
shortly after 2 AM, the first tremor of the most violent series of
earthquakes in the United States history struck southeast Missouri.
In the small town of New Madrid, about 290 kilometers south of St.
Louis, residents were aroused from their sleep by the rocking of
their cabins, the cracking of timbers, the clatter of breaking
dishes and tumbling furniture, the rattling of falling chimneys, and
the crashing of falling trees. A terrifying roaring noise was
created as the earthquake waves swept across the ground. Large
fissures suddenly opened and swallowed large quantities of river and
marsh water. As the fissures closed again, great volumes of mud and
sand were ejected along with the water.
The earthquake generated
great waves on the Mississippi River that overwhelmed many boats and
washed others high upon the shore. The waves broke off thousands of
trees and carried them into the river. High river banks caved in,
sand bars gave way, and entire islands disappeared. The violence of
the earthquake was manifested by great topographic changes that
affected an area of 78,000 to 130,000 square kilometers.
On January 23, 1812, a
second major shock, seemingly more violent than the first, occurred.
A third great earthquake, perhaps the most severe of the series,
struck on February 7, 1812.
The three main shocks
probably reached intensity XII, the maximum on the Modified Mercalli
scale, although it is difficult to assign intensities, due to the
scarcity of settlements at the time. Aftershocks continued to be
felt for several years after the initial tremor. Later evidence
indicates that the epicenter of the first earthquake (December 16,
1811) was probably in northeast Arkansas. Based on historical
accounts, the epicenter of the February 7, 1812, shocks was probably
close to the town of New Madrid.
Although the death toll
from the 1811-12 series of earthquakes has never been tabulated, the
loss of life was very slight. It is likely that if at the time of
the earthquakes the New Madrid area had been as heavily populated as
at present, thousands of persons would have perished. The main
shocks were felt over an area covering at least 5,180,000 square
kilometers. Chimneys were knocked down in Cincinnati, Ohio, and
bricks were reported to have fallen from chimneys in Georgia and
South Carolina. The first shock was felt distinctly in Washington,
D.C., 700 miles away, and people there were frightened badly. Other
points that reported feeling this earthquake included New Orleans,
804 kilometers away; Detroit, 965 kilometers away; and Boston, 1,769
The New Madrid seismic zone
has experienced numerous earthquakes since the 1811-12 series, and
at least 35 shocks of intensity V or greater have been recorded in
Missouri since 1811. Numerous earthquakes originating outside of the
State's boundaries have also affected Missouri. Five of the
strongest earthquakes that have affected Missouri since the 1811-12
series are described below.
On January 4, 1843, a
severe earthquake in the New Madrid area cracked chimneys and walls
at Memphis, Tennessee. One building reportedly collapsed. The earth
sank at some places near New Madrid; there was an unverified report
that two hunters were drowned during the formation of a lake. The
total felt area included at least 1,036,000 square kilometers.
The October 31, 1895,
earthquake near Charleston, Missouri, probably ranks second in
intensity to the 1811-12 series. Every building in the commercial
area of Charleston was damaged. Cairo, Illinois, and Memphis,
Tennessee, also suffered significant damage. Near Charleston, 4
acres of ground sank and a lake was formed. The shock was felt over
all or portions of 23 states and at some places in Canada.
A moderate earthquake on
April 9, 1917, in the Ste. Genevieve - St. Marys area was reportedly
felt over a 518,000 square kilometer area from Kansas to Ohio and
Wisconsin to Mississippi. In the epicentral area people ran into the
street, windows were broken, and plaster cracked. A second shock of
lesser intensity was felt in the southern part of the area.
The small railroad town of
Rodney, Missouri, experienced a strong earthquake on August 19,
1934. At nearby Charleston, windows were broken, chimneys were
overthrown or damaged, and articles were knocked from shelves.
Similar effects were observed at Cairo, Mounds and Mound City,
Illinois, and at Wickliff, Kentucky. The area of destructive
intensity included more than 596 square kilometers.
The November 9, 1968,
earthquake centered in southern Illinois was the strongest in the
central United States since 1895. The magnitude 5.5 shock caused
moderate damage to chimneys and walls at Hermann, St. Charles, St.
Louis, and Sikeston, Missouri. The felt areas include all or
portions of 23 states.
Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 6, Number 3, May-June 1974,
by Carl A. von Hake.
Earthquakes in the central or eastern United States effect much
larger areas than earthquakes of similar magnitude in the western
United States. For example, the San Francisco, California,
earthquake of 1906 (magnitude 7.8) was felt 350 miles away in the
middle of Nevada, whereas the New Madrid earthquake of December 1811
rang church bells in Boston, Massachusetts, 1,000 miles away.
Differences in geology east and west of the Rocky Mountains cause
this strong contrast.
What exactly is the chance of another major eruption? The
statistics about the likelihood of a future damaging earthquake are
conflicting. One prediction calls for a 2.7- 4.0% of an 8.0
magnitude or greater, similar to the 1811-1812 quakes, in the next
50 years and a 30% chance for a 7.0 (Patterson, 1998). The
probabilities continue to increase with a 6.0 magnitude. There is an
incredible 86- 97% chance over the next fifty years resulting in
structural damage. The extent of the structural damage could range
from cracked foundations to collapsed buildings. An earthquake of
6.5 magnitude could cost $3.6 billion dollars in damage (U.S.
Geological Survey Circular, 1990). Another report calls for a 50%
chance of a 6.0 or greater by 2000 and a 90% chance by 2040
Here in the Midwest, we have been well versed on tornadoes,
floods, and fires. We've memorized and practiced drills to handle
almost any emergency. We take vaccines against diseases like polio,
lock jaw, and measles. We buy life insurance to protect our loved
ones in the event of an untimely death. We need to learn what to do
in the event of an earthquake. Education is the key. We need to take
safety measures to protect our homes and our lives.
Mandatory school drills should be implemented for earthquakes
just as schools practice for a tornado or fire. People must be aware
of earthquake safety just like any other natural disaster.
We need to revise building codes for new construction to make the
structures able to withstand earthquakes. Modification is also
necessary to existing structures. One of the underlying deficiencies
surrounding the New Madrid fault is lack of research and publicity.
Much of the nation's attention is focused on the earthquakes that
plague California. This attention stems from the higher frequency of
eruption's (U.S. Geological Survey Circular, 1990). Though the New
Madrid fault erupts less frequently, it affects a much larger area
increasing the possible amount of damage. A California earthquake
will reach an area only 1/10 as large as a New Madrid quake.
Some advancement has been made to study and prepare for the next
major earthquake in the Midwest. The Central United States
Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC) was founded in 1983 (Schweig, 1998).
The organization promotes public education and earthquake safety
research between Midwestern states (Schweig, 1998). Since 1990, the
United States Geological Survey (USGS) has increased its focus on
the New Madrid seismic zone. Earthquake
education has been adopted by many schools including those in
Kentucky who mandated it. Three states, Arkansas, Kentucky, and
Tennessee, have Earthquake Awareness Weeks. Geologists also
completed maps in 1995 depicting which portions of the central U.S.
were most susceptible to intense shaking during an eruption. In
addition, most states have been working to reinforce existing
building structures and develop appropriate earthquake building
codes. Kentucky and other states who have shown such insight into
earthquake awareness are to be commended, but there is a reluctance
among people in other states to take this issue seriously.
While researching the New Madrid fault, I found it extremely
difficult to locate predictions for the next eruption. The
scientific community is making great strides in their study of
earthquakes and earthquake prediction; however, scientists are still
not able to provide guarantees. The chance of a tornado striking a
tornado prone area is 0.0363 or every 250 years, yet we prepare for
them (Tornadoes, 1998). Only one in 2.5 million stand a chance of
being struck and killed by lightning every year, although everyone
takes shelter at the first sight of it (Weather Flashes- Page 3,
1998). We know how to react to other natural disasters. Now we must
learn how to react to earthquakes.
"A massive earthquake hit today. 8.0 on the Richter scale
they're saying. Not much damage though a few of the older structures
not under the new building codes need repair. It could have been
much worse if people hadn't been prepared. The trembling was quite
startling, but everyone stayed calm. No casualties have been
reported thus far. Mostly people escaped with a few cuts and
bruises." Jennifer Dondlinger, April 23, 2009
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