Monday, March 26, 2007

Memphis May or May Not Expect Earthquakes in the Future — And That's Final

Posted By on Mon, Mar 26, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Back in the early 1800s, a series of earthquakes leveled the town of New Madrid, Missouri, and made the Mississippi River flow backwards for 4 days. Some people said the quakes made bells ring in Philadelphia.

There weren’t Richter counters back then, but seismologists say the quake could have been anywhere from 7.0 to 8.9 on the scale. Now, some scientists say, we can rest assured that the New Madrid fault is dying.

Probably.

Seth Stein, a scientist at Northwestern University, believes that the New Madrid fault is running out of steam. The series of deep cracks produces hundreds of small earthquakes every year, very few strong enough to be felt. Due to a lack of unusual heat flows within the fault, Stein believes that it is reaching the end of a recent pulse of activity. And the hundreds of tremors felt per year? Simply aftershocks of the 1811/1812 earthquakes.

But don’t start building that 15 foot-high Jenga tower you’ve been planning for years. Many other scientists disagree with Stein’s findings.

Memphis geophysicist Robert Smalley's professional opinion is that arguing about "a temperature effect" on the New Madrid "is just a waste of time." Ouch. Stein probably felt that one.

Eugene Schweig of the U.S. Geological Survey is a bit more generous. He states that Stein’s study relies on incomplete data. Why the faultline produces quakes at all is still a mystery, and until it is better understood, he says that people should focus on preparing for the next big one.

So, to sum up, Memphis may or may not have a large magnitude earthquake in the future. We don’t really know. It’s a good thing we have experts to tell us these things. We might be a little confused otherwise.

— Cherie Heiberg

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