The Great New Madrid Earthquake
Roman numerals indicate estimated Modified Mercalli intensities for a 6.5 magnitude earthquake.
Based on maps in W. Atkinson, 1989, The Next New Madrid Earthquake, Southern Illinois University Press
The recent earthquake which struck Kobe, Japan, resulted in the loss of over 5000 lives and millions of dollars in property. However, large parts of the United States are also subject to large magnitude quakes – quakes which could be far more powerful than the Kobe quake! Although we tend to think of California and Alaska as the places where most of our earthquakes occur, the fact is that the central U.S. has been the site of some very powerful earthquakes.
In the past three centuries, major earthquakes outside of California and Alaska generally occurred in sparsely-settled areas, and damage and fatalities were largely minimal. But some took place in areas that have since been heavily built up. Among them are three earthquakes that occurred in 1811 and 1812 near New Madrid, MO. They are among the Great earthquakes of known history, affecting the topography more than any other earthquake on the North American continent. Judging from their effects, they were of a magnitude of 8.0 or higher on the Richter Scale. They were felt over the entire United States outside of the Pacific coast. Large areas sank into the earth, new lakes were formed, the course of the Mississippi River was changed, and forests were destroyed over an area of 150,000 acres. Many houses at New Madrid were thrown down. “Houses, gardens, and fields were swallowed up” one source notes. But fatalities and damage were low, because the area was sparsely settled then.
The probability for an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater is significant in the near future, with a 50% chance by the year 2000 and a 90% chance by the year 2040. A quake with a magnitude equal to that of the 1811- 1812 quakes could result in great loss of life and property damage in the billions of dollars. Scientists believe we could be overdue for a large earthquake and through research and public awareness may be able to prevent such losses.
Los Angeles can expect to be mightily damaged by movement on the San Andreas Fault, or the Newport-Inglewood or other neighboring faults, most probably within the next 25 years. But the Eastern and Midwestern states also face ground shaking of colossal proportions, repetitions of such known upheavals as the 1886 Charleston, S.C., quake, the 1755 Boston quake, and the Jamaica Bay quake hundreds of years ago on New York’s Long Island. The granddaddy of them all was the 1811-1812 series of three great quakes on the New Madrid Fault (halfway between St. Louis and Memphis beneath the Mississippi), which shook the entire United States. The next time the New Madrid Fault produces such a quake, it is estimated 60 percent of Memphis will be devastated, leaving $50 Billion in damage and thousands of dead in its wake. Memphis, you see – like Armenia – has looked down the barrel of a loaded seismic gun for decades, but has done virtually nothing to move out of the crosshairs.
Eyewitness Accounts of the 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes
- Eliza Bryan, New Madrid, Territory of Missouri, March 22, 1816
- John Bradbury, a Scottish naturalist, December 15, 1811
- George Heinrich Crist, a Kentucky resident, December 16, 1811
- A Detailed Narrative of the Earthquakes which occurred on the 16th day of December, 1811
- The Mississippi Valley-“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”
- On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811- 1812
- Introduction to the New Madrid seismic zone
- Uncovering Hidden Hazards in the Mississippi Valley
- Detailed account of the 1811-1812 quakes
- Detailed account #2 of the 1811-1812 quakes
- The Enigma of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812 (pdf document)
- New Madrid seismic zone: Evaluating the hazard In mid America
- Earthquakes in Indiana – description of the 1811 quake and general descriptions of earthquakes
- English Hills fault – these faults are outside the area generally considered the “New Madrid fault zone”
- The eighteen largest earthquakes in the United States
- The ten largest earthquakes in the World
- The largest earthquakes in the US state-by-state
Maps and Graphics
- There are many published accounts of the effects of the 1811 and 1812 earthquakes.
Among these, the best known and most thorough is that of Fuller (1912), which includes an annotated bibliography of the principal publications of the nineteenth century on the subject. In his description of the earthquakes outside the epicentral area, Fuller draws heavily upon the work of Mitchill (1815), who in turn made much use of contemporary newspaper accounts, but without giving specific credit to the sources.
- Map of Central U. S. Earthquakes 1800-1983
- Map of Central U. S. Earthquakes 1975-1995
- Isoseismal map for the Arkansas earthquake of December 16,1811, 08:15 UTC (first of the 1811-1812 New Madrid series).
- Map of Earthquake Features of the New Madrid District; by Myron L. Fuller, 1912
- Map showing extent of earthquake disturbances; by Myron L. Fuller, 1912
Current Seismic Work
- Recent Earthquakes and Active Volcanoes – with real-time maps
- New Madrid earthquakes recorded 1974-1997
- New Madrid earthquakes recorded in the past 14 days
- Broad Band Station Map – high resolution map of the positions of seismographs
- CERI Seismic Data
- New Madrid Seismic Network
- Shallow structure in the Missouri Bootheel region
- Recent Earthquakes in Central US – real-time map
- Recent Earthquakes in Central US – list of magnitude, time and location
- The Messenger – February 28, 1811 (60 kb pdf)
- The Messenger – February 28, 1811 (7.5 MB jpeg scan), Masthead (1.2 MB jpeg scan)
- A compilation of many contemporary newspaper accounts (1811-1812)
Institutions involved with the New Madrid Fault Zone
- Arkansas Center for Earthquake Education and Technology Transfer – Little Rock, AR
- Saint Louis University Earthquake Center – Saint Louis, MO
- The Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) – at MSU, Memphis Tenn.
- United States Geological Survey, Geologic Division – Menlo Park, CA
- National Earthquake Information Center and a map of the big ones – Rockville, MD
- Central United States Earthquake Consortium, funded by FEMA – Memphis, TN
- Nuttli paper on 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes
- Paper on New Madrid Earthquake; R. Street
- Active Faults
- Search for and Study of Sand Blows at Distant Sites Resulting from Prehistoric and Historic New Madrid Earthquakes
- A “Strawman” Logic Tree for the New Madrid Seismic Zone
- Slow Deformation and Lower Seismic Hazard at the New Madrid Seismic Zone
- Shear-Wave Splitting from Microearthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone
- GPS geodesy in the New Madrid Seismic Zone: an investigation of monument stability and error sources
- Intraplate Strain Accumulation in the New Madrid Seismic Zone
- New Madrid Seismic Zone – Overview of Earthquake Hazard and Magnitude Assessment based on Fragility of Historic Structures
- Midwest Earthquakes
- Geodynamics of Intraplate Earthquakes: A Study of The New Madrid Seismic Zone
Photography of the Area
- Trees with double sets of roots
Trees with double sets of roots. Elevated trees left by scooping out of sand by overflowing Mississippi waters south end of Reelfoot Lake. The surface is now about at its original level and the original tree trunk can be seen continuing down to the level of the ground. Later the tree was buried by sand to depth of 5 feet and new roots formed. Still later the sand was removed. New Madrid earthquake. Lake County, Tennessee. 1904.
- Sand blow (Sand Volcano) of craterlet
Sand blow (Sand Volcano) of craterlet type in area of disturbance, Caruthersville. New Madrid earthquake. Pemiscot County, Missouri. 1904.
- Landslide trench and ridge
Landslide trench and ridge in the Chickasaw bluffs, east of Reelfoot Lake, resulting from the New Madrid Earthquake. Obion County, Tennessee.
- Trees tilted by New Madrid earthquake
Trees tilted by New Madrid earthquake, Chickasaw bluffs east side of Reelfoot Lake. Note twist of trees into upright position.
- Landslide scarps in Chickasaw Bluffs Landslide scarps in Chickasaw Bluffs, east of Reelfoot Lake, New Madrid earthquake. Obion County, Tennessee. 1904.
- Fissure filled with intruded sand
Earthquake fissure filled with intruded sand, formed at the time of New Madrid earthquake. Mississippi County, Missouri. 1904.
- Linear sand blows
Coalescent of linear blows obstructing drainage in the Arkansas district. Sand blows of the New Madrid earthquake, Blytheville. Mississippi County, Arkansas. 1904
- Original document from the Territorial Governor and its Cover
Document dated January 13th, 1814 and signed by the Territorial Governor, William Clark, asks for relief for the “inhabitants of New Madrid County. This was possibly the first example of what would later be the job of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): to restore the order after a major disaster. NOTE: This is very hard to read. Anyone wishing to work this out and email it to me will be given attribution here forever!
- A series of annotated photographs by the National Earthquake Information Center
- Picture of a woodcut portraying the damage caused by the quake