The New Madrid fault – and yet it moves

Seismologists take a look at the aftershock activity on this intra-plate seismic zone and then make a Monty Python joke. Unfortunately, it’s not funny…

Study: New Madrid fault zone alive and active.

The New Madrid fault zone in the nation’s midsection is active and could spawn future large earthquakes, scientists reported Thursday.

It’s “not dead yet,” said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough, who was part of the study published online by the journal Science.

Researchers have long debated just how much of a hazard New Madrid (MAD’-rihd) poses. The zone stretches 150 miles, crossing parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

Previous studies have suggested that it may be shutting down, based on GPS readings that showed little strain accumulation at the surface. Other research came to the same conclusion by blaming ongoing quake activity on aftershocks from the 1800s, which would essentially relieve strain on the fault.

The latest study suggests otherwise. Hough and USGS geophysicist Morgan Page in Pasadena, Calif., analyzed past quakes in the New Madrid region and used computer modeling to determine that the continuing tremors are not related to the big quakes two centuries ago.

The report in Science mag is titled “The New Madrid Seismic Zone: Not Dead Yet”. The researchers looked at the data in terms of normal decay of aftershocks from a major quake. In short, their models didn’t fit with the conclusion that the current activity was consistent with empirically derived models that showed the fault activity was dying out. The statistical analysis was more consistent with the model that strain continues to accumulate. This means the risk of serious earthquake hazard to the central and eastern US is still a real concern.

The New Madrid quakes caused a high degree of damage in 1811-1812 with a ridiculous amount of aftershocks. Because of the location of this fault array, the energy from seismic movement travels VERY far, reaching Washington DC and Boston. Therefore, the potential for damage is huge. Also, the area is heavily populated compaired to the early 1800s. So, in other words, we’re f***ed. I don’t want to scare people because there is nothing you can do to prevent such a catastrophe. You can be prepared the best you can. But another large quake event may NOT happen in our lifetime. We can’t know. All we can do is observe and study and hope to learn more about these strange tectonic beasts.


Note the pronunciation: It’s New MAD-drid, not like the Spanish city. You will look silly if you say it the wrong way.

Also: Dead Plants Hold Earthquake Secrets | LiveScience.


  2 comments for “The New Madrid fault – and yet it moves

  1. January 24, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    I grew up in St Louis and the tales of the Mississippi flowing the wrong way are part of every kid’s education there. And the infrastructure is not prepared for it to happen again. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about Missouri’s decaying bridges and I’d be stunned if a significant fraction of the residential buildings were up to code for earthquakes.

  2. January 27, 2014 at 6:43 PM

    A New Madrid quake would devastate infrastructure from New Orleans to Chicago, essentially cutting the west from the east. Something like this would have a global economical impact. And like a Yellowstone Super Eruption, there isn’t a thing we can do about it.

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