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Unearthing explanations for New Madrid earthquakes

On Dec. 16, 1811, residents of New Madrid, Mo., were wrested from sleep by violent shaking and a deafening roar. A short time later, church bells hundreds of miles away in Boston began to ring. It was the first of three massive earthquakes that rocked the central United States between December 1811 and February 1812, even changing the course of the Mississippi River in their aftermath.

"A big earthquake in the same region as the 1811-1812 earthquakes would have devastating consequences should they recur today because of the population centers in St. Louis and Memphis," Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback told an audience Feb. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, Mo.

vWe simply need to know more about how these systems work in order to serve the public," added Zoback, the Benjamin M. Page Professor in Earth Sciences.

In a talk titled vTremors in the Heartland: The Puzzle of Mid-Continent Earthquakes," Zoback discussed what is presently known about the New Madrid seismic zone and his work creating geodynamic models of the region. Zoback began his career studying New Madrid. In 1976, shortly after receiving his doctoral degree, he participated in the first seismic work to identify the causative faults. In an article published in the February 2001 issue of Geology, Zoback and former graduate student Balz Grollimund presented a theory explaining why earthquakes occur in this area.

The New Madrid seismic zone, which is roughly at the juncture of Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee near the Mississippi River, is unusual because most earthquakes occur at the edges of rigid tectonic plates that essentially float on the fluid-like interior of the Earth. The plates produce earthquakes when they move over, under or beside each other. In California, earthquakes occur along the San Andreas Fault because the Pacific plate moves horizontally past the North American plate, li
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
20-Feb-2006


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