Residents of the Midwest may have noticed some slight shaking on Tuesday afternoon, March 2. According to the United States Geological Survey website, a small earthquake occurred in southeastern Missouri, just southeast of Sikeston.
The size of this quake was labeled by the USGS as 3.7 and was centered closest to the town of East Prairie, Missouri. The quake was registered at a depth of 3.6 miles. The epicenter was located 111 miles west of Clarksville, Tennessee and 136 miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri.
The quake was small and most residents would have barely noticed it. The New Madrid Seismic Zone averages a small number of earthquakes each week but they are usually too small in magnitude to be noticed or felt.
The southern Illinois, southeast Missouri, western Kentucky, western Tennessee and northeastern Arkansas region in the Midwest is located on the New Madrid Fault Zone. The New Madrid holds the record for the largest earthquakes in North America. During the winter of 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes and aftershocks occurred near New Madrid, Missouri along the fault zone which would later be named the New Madrid Fault Zone.
The first massive earthquake happened after 2 a.m. on December 16, 1811. This earthquake was believed to have been an 8.0 or larger. Reports state that the quake was felt as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Norfolk, Virginia – a distance of more than 600 miles. Chimneys were reported to have been toppled in Louisville, Kentucky.
Two other principal aftershocks occurred on January 23 and February 7, 1812. Experts believe the quake that struck on February 7 was the largest of the three main quakes.
The USGS website states that it is estimated the initial quake from December 16 spawned around 1,000 aftershocks.
The area where these earthquakes were centered had a very small population and which meant that damage to structures was minimal. However, damage to the land was immense.
Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee was formed by the earthquakes. Reports of huge fissures in the ground are recorded. Some of these fissures were so large that men on horseback could not cross them. Farmland was damaged by excessive ruts and fissures. The damage from this series of earthquakes led the U.S. Congress to pass the very first disaster relief act in 1815 to aid landowners who had lost the use of the land. Landowners were provided with compensation of land in other areas.
Extensive damage along rivers and waterways was reported, including the disappearance of islands, the caving in of riverbanks and even claims that the Mississippi River flowed backward.
Could earthquakes of this magnitude or greater occur today in the New Madrid Fault Zone? This has been debated for many years among residents and experts. According to the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Department of Geology website, a seismic event of the same magnitude as the 1811-1812 earthquakes occurring today in the New Madrid Fault Zone would cause a substantial loss of life and property damage – most likely in the billions of dollars.
This area is now heavily populated and would include the cities of Memphis, Tennessee, St. Louis, Missouri, Paducah, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana. Many experts believe that the New Madrid Fault Zone is overdue for a large earthquake. USGS experts believe there is a 25-40 percent chance that the New Madrid Fault Zone will have a major earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater within the next 50 years (USGS Fact Sheet FS-131-02 – October, 2002).
See Where to Find Information About Recent Earthquakes and Tsunami Warnings and 5.2 Midwestern Earthquake Serves as Wake-Up Call – Literally.