News / Science & Technology

Earthquake Science Still a Shaky Business

Accurate predictions still elude scientists

New Madrid Earthquakes 1811-12. One side of fault trench or
New Madrid Earthquakes 1811-12. One side of fault trench or "fissure" near banks of St. Francis River, Clay County, Arkansas. 1904.

Multimedia

Audio

The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that rattled the East Coast of the United States in August caught everyone - even geologists - by surprise. But even when there's reason to think an earthquake could be around the corner, scientists still can't make good predictions.

It’s been 200 years since big earthquakes rocked the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a fault system that runs down the central U.S. through parts of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. The region has had plenty of smaller quakes since then, but no one can really say when the next big one might be.

The New Madrid earthquakes of the winter of 1811 to 1812 have become the stuff of legend. They were so powerful, the story goes, they made the Mississippi River run backwards.

“It was what we call a thrust fault," says Susan Hough of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. "And it came up to the surface beneath the river and actually created a stair step in the river bottom, to where it set up waves that went coursing back upstream.”

According to Hough, much of what we know about those early quakes comes from first-hand accounts, like this one written by future United States president Zachary Taylor, who felt the shaking 370 kilometers away in Louisville, Kentucky.

The sight was truly awful: houses cracking; chimneys falling; men, women and children running in every direction - in their shirts - for safety and a friend of mine was so much alarmed as to jump (out) of a window and was very much hurt.

Hough’s calculations put the largest New Madrid earthquake at about 7.0, the same magnitude as the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The official USGS estimate is 7.7.

The problem is, scientists can’t predict when, where, or even if another earthquake will happen.

Northwestern University geophysicist Seth Stein doesn’t expect another big quake at New Madrid anytime soon. He and others have been using GPS technology to measure how the ground moves - or deforms - along active faults.

“Now, normally the way earthquakes work is that you store up energy, the ground deforms before a big earthquake - kind of like stretching a spring - and then it snaps, and you have an earthquake,” Stein says.

That warping of the ground has been measured in California, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington - along every U.S. fault where we think a big earthquake is on the way. So that’s what Stein and his colleagues expected to see when they started taking those same kinds of GPS measurements at New Madrid.

To their complete surprise, they saw absolutely no motion of the ground. Stein says part of the explanation could be that seismic zones in the middle of a continent seem to behave differently from those in places like California, where the huge plates that make up the earth’s surface thrust up against each other.

“Faults in the middle of the continents will be active for short periods of time geologically, maybe a few thousand years, and then they’ll turn off and be inactive for times, and then start up again," he says. "So it looks like we may be seeing the end of one of those cycles.”

But many other geologists don’t agree. Robert Williams of the USGS in Colorado says you can’t ignore the past. The earthquakes 200 years ago liquefied the soil underground, blasting jets of wet sand out onto the surface.

“There’s been some great science done, with geologists digging into these 1811, 1812 sand blows, and then, lo and behold, discovering evidence for older sand blows caused by earthquakes of about the same magnitude as the 1811, 1812 sequence,” Williams says.

They realized that before 1811, there had been quakes in about 1450, and again before that, in 900. Williams says that pattern of very large earthquakes means another big one could be on the way.

“We can’t predict earthquakes. So the geologic record is really the strongest piece of evidence we have to remain concerned about earthquakes there in the New Madrid region.”

Experts hope by the time the next big quake does hit the region, we’ll be ready for it.

You May Like

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs