Researcher says the next large central US earthquake may not be in New Madrid

February 8, 2011, University of Missouri-Columbia

This December marks the bicentennial of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which are the biggest earthquakes known to have occurred in the central U.S.

Now, based on the earthquake record in China, a University of Missouri researcher says that mid-continent earthquakes tend to move among fault systems, so the next big earthquake in the central U.S. may actually occur someplace else other than along the New Madrid faults.

Mian Liu, professor of in the College of Arts and Science at MU, examined records from China, where earthquakes have been recorded and described for the past 2,000 years. Surprisingly, he found that during this time period big earthquakes have never occurred twice in the same place.

"In North China, where large earthquakes occur relatively frequently, not a single one repeated on the same fault segment in the past two thousand years," Liu said. "So we need to look at the 'big picture' of interacting faults, rather than focusing only on the faults where large earthquakes occurred in the recent past."

Mid-continent earthquakes, such as the ones that occurred along the New Madrid faults, occur on a complicated system of interacting faults spread throughout a large region. A large earthquake on one fault can increase the stress on other faults, making some of them more likely to have a major earthquake. The major faults may stay dormant for thousands of years and then wake up to have a short period of activity.

Along with co-authors Seth Stein, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University, and Hui Wang, a Chinese Earthquake Administration researcher, Liu believes this discovery will provide valuable information about the patterns of earthquakes in the central and eastern United States, northwestern Europe, and Australia. The results have been published in the journal Lithosphere.

"The New Madrid faults in the central U.S., for example, had three to four large events during 1811-12, and perhaps a few more in the past thousand years. This led scientists to believe that more were on the way," Stein said. "However, high-precision Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements in the past two decades have found no significant strain in the New Madrid area. The China results imply that the major earthquakes at New Madrid may be ending, as the pressure will eventually shift to another fault."

While this study shows that mid-continent earthquakes seem to be more random than previously thought, the researchers believe it actually helps them better understand these seismic events.

"The rates of earthquake energy released on the major fault zones in North China are complementary," Wang said. "Increasing seismic energy release on one fault zone was accompanied by decreasing energy on the others. This means that the fault zones are coupled mechanically."

Studying fault coupling with GPS measurements, history, and computer simulation will allow the scientists to better understand the mysterious mid-continent earthquakes.

"What we've discovered about mid-continent earthquakes won't make forecasting them any easier, but it should help," Liu said.

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not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
Is the New Madrid zone likely to be affected by post-glacial isostasis ? My thought is that it may have been strained to breaking by crustal flexure after the glaciers & ice-dam mega-lakes went away...
not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
or it used to be part of a more ancient fault line that is recieving stress by being pushed by the atlantic fault line and held in place by the san andreas fault.
not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
Is the New Madrid zone likely to be affected by post-glacial isostasis ? My thought is that it may have been strained to breaking by crustal flexure after the glaciers & ice-dam mega-lakes went away...

Scandinavia has experienced great re-bounce after the glaciers melted and some areas (Finland, Northern Sweden) are still rising fast but we don't have any huge earthquakes. Historically the biggest quakes recorded in Norway are not more than 6 and usually the quakes are less than 4. The re-bounding of the crust cannot produce magnitude 8 quakes like those observed in New Madrid.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
Take a look at the Mississippi River system from New Orleans to Chicago, up Lake Michigan and through the Soo Locks, and then on a ragged line extending upwards to Hudson's Bay. This is a failed continental rift that could possibly yet snap open. But do not entertain notions that it would suddenly open in a Richter 11 cataclysm and drain all the Great Lakes to the sea in a gigantic flood wave. Aint gonna happen dudes.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2011

Glad to hear that someone can predict earthquakes.

What about sun sneezes?

Oliver K. Manuel
1 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2011
I believe Caliban's post in a mid 2010 article of a 'new theory', now closed to posting, has the germ of it here in that the North American plate is not a unit but an agglomeration of co-moving smaller plates. There is an old plate boundary, a failed rift, lying along the Mississippi River course and running up to Chicago and along the bottom of Lake Michigan to the Soo; possibly continuing then northward to the ancient meteor crater artifact now known as Hudson's Bay. This rift may yet be still active as there may be remnant energy left in the ancient mantle plume that once produced the original 'crack in the world' called the Mississippian Rift. But then the main thrust of the primordial plume may have shifted and now underlies Yellowstone's super volcano, with only a few tendrils still powering the accumulations of stresses in the Rift. Then too, continental drift may be shifting the plume eastward into Illinois, giving rise to the recent quakes there.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2011
Hudson's Bay is not a crater.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2011
Our current best understanding of Earth and its interactions with the Sun were just published on arXiv:

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