It’s a bleak scenario, but a possible scenario!
What if a massive earthquake struck along the New Madrid fault?
Such an extreme natural disaster would kill or injure 60,000 people in Tennessee.
A quarter of a million people would become homeless.
The Memphis airport – the country’s biggest air terminal for packages – would close.
Major oil and gas pipelines across Tennessee would rupture, causing shortages in the Northeast.
In Missouri, another 15,000 people would be hurt or dead.
Cities and towns throughout the central U.S. would lose power and water for months.
Losses stack up to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Fortunately, this magnitude 7.7 temblor is not real but rather a scenario imagined by the Mid-America Earthquake Center and the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University.
The goal of their 2009 analysis was to plan for a modern recurrence of quakes that happened along the New Madrid fault more than 200 years ago, in 1811 and 1812.
The New Madrid fault is expected to generate a large-scale earthquake within the next 50 years.
Uncertainty is the maddening aspect of earthquakes. They can’t be predicted, even very big ones.
We know they happen frequently along the earth’s tectonic plates. We also know there are no such plates in the central United States.
Yet that part of the country has had major earthquakes in three zones: the New Madrid fault, which on computer models looks like Harry Potter’s scar slashing across Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee:
the Wabash Valley fault in Illinois and Indiana:
and the East Tennessee Seismic Zone that runs into Alabama:
These are not like the faults in California, which last had a major earthquake in 1994, when the magnitude 6.7 Northridge temblor killed 57 people and caused $20 billion in damages.
The mid-continent faults rupture less often; New Madrid gets the shakes maybe 200 times a year, about a tenth the number in California.
And earthquakes in the central United States tend to be smaller. The New Madrid fault appears to have a big rupture every 300 years or so; the Wabash Valley has one perhaps every 500 years.
But when quakes do hit the central United States, geology means they are felt much farther away, because the Earth’s crust in the region does not absorb the shock waves in the way it does in the Western United States.
The Northridge earthquake was barely felt in Las Vegas, 250 miles away. Here, a large quake would be felt 1,200 miles away in Canada.