The Power of Earthquakes


I’ve done posts about volcanoes before and nuclear winters they can create, but I’ve never tackled the subject of earthquakes. Which is a little weird, since I live much closer to an area likely to be demolished by an earthquake than a volcano (sort of, if the Yellowstone Super Caldera goes, I will die as a result ash emissions making the air unbreathable and possibly hydrochloric acid rains even in Missouri).

However, the New Madrid fault line runs through the south east of Missouri. I don’t think of earthquakes much, because I am divided from the south eastern part of Missouri by the Ozark mountains and the geological makeup of the Ozark Mountains, means that in Mid-Missouri, I am less likely to feel an earthquake in the New Madrid fault line than people in Alabama, even though I am significantly closer.

Beginning in November 1811, a series of more than 2,000 earthquakes rocked the New Madrid fault line. The majority of them were estimated to be very deep and not particularly strong. There were three major ones all over a 7.7 magnitude (estimated), December 1811, January 1812, and February 1812. The ground heaved its last major sigh in March 1812.

The epicenters of all the quakes was in the bootheel region of Missouri. They created massive, widespread damage to the southeastern part of the state. And gave a curious clue about the New Madrid fault.

We all know Japan, California, Alaska, Indonesia, are all prone to earthquakes. They can be terrible things that are very destructive. The average earthquake lasts only 30 seconds or less, making them some of the most destructive 30 seconds known to mankind. However, the 3 powerful quakes that shook the New Madrid in 1811 and 1812 all lasted more than a minute.

They rang church bells as far away as Toronto, Canada (for those that don’t know where Missouri is in the US, find the middle of the country and search around, it’s just over a thousand miles from New Madrid, Missouri and New York City, approximately the same distance exists between New York City and Miami, Florida).

In comparison, the earthquake that struck Chile in 2010 and shifted the earth on its axis by 3 inches lasted only 19 seconds. The one that struck Sendai, Japan in 2011 and caused failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant lasted 24 seconds.

The New Madrid produces thousands of small earthquakes a year. Many of them too small to be felt or noticed. However, it also produces a few decent sized ones every decade or so. The recent earthquake in Tennessee was caused by a shifting of the Tennessee/Georgia plate and therefore not activity specifically related to the New Madrid fault. It was a 4.4 and lasted less than 20 seconds.

However, the New Madrid might be due. A large earthquake – a magnitude over a 6.0 has not hit since the quakes of 1811-1812. Since the 1980s, earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 or higher have become more common along the fault line. And experts have been predicting a big one for as long as I can remember.

On a side note, I have experienced a 5.3 magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid. For a year between the spring of 1982 and spring of 1983, I lived in New Madrid, Missouri. In September 1982 (I had just turned 2 years old to give you an idea of why I don’t remember it), a 5.3 with an epicenter south of the small city of New Madrid struck during the night. Neither of my parents remember it. Interestingly, while researching my article on the Little Ice Age, I found a newspaper article discussing the 1982 quake in southern Missouri. One of the items discussed in the article was that concrete that had been poured the day before, had not cured before the earthquake hit and had to be demolished and re-poured. There was a legal battle regarding who would pay for the additional materials and labor to redo the job; the city of New Madrid, the Missouri Department of Transportation, or the company who had poured the concrete.

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