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New Madrid 1811-1812 Earthquakes

A Sequence of Three Main Shocks in 1811-1812
This sequence of three very large earthquakes is usually referred to as the New Madrid earthquakes, after the Missouri town that was the largest settlement on the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi. On the basis of the large area of damage (600,000 square kilometers), the widespread area of perceptibility (5,000,000 square kilometers), and the complex physiographic changes that occurred, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 rank as some of the largest in the United States since its settlement by Europeans. They were by far the largest east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks is two to three times as large as that of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times as large as that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Because there were no seismographs in North America at that time, and very few people in the New Madrid region, the estimated magnitudes of this series of earthquakes vary considerably and depend on modern researchers' interpretations of journals, newspaper reports, and other accounts of the ground shaking and damage.

A Robust Aftershock Sequence for each Main Shock
The first principal earthquake, M7.7, occurred at about 2:15 am (local time) in northeast Arkansas on December 16, 1811. The second principal shock, M7.5, occurred in Missouri on January 23, 1812, and the third, M7.7, on February 7, 1812, along the Reelfoot fault in Missouri and Tennessee. The earthquake ground shaking was not limited to these principal main shocks, as there is evidence for a fairly robust aftershock sequence. The first and largest aftershock occurred on December 16, 1811 at about 7:15 am. At least three other large aftershocks are inferred from historical accounts on December 16 and 17. These three events are believed to range between M6.0 and 6.5 in size and to be located in Arkansas and Missouri. This would make a total of seven earthquakes of magnitude M6.0-7.7 occurring in the period December 16, 1811 through February 7, 1812. In total, Otto Nuttli reported more than 200 moderate to large aftershocks in the New Madrid region between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812: ten of these were greater than about 6.0; about one hundred were between M5.0 and 5.9; and eighty-nine were in the magnitude 4 range. Nuttli also noted that about eighteen hundred earthquakes of about M3.0 to 4.0 during the same period.

Large Area of Damaging Shaking
The first earthquake of December 16, 1811 caused only slight damage to man-made structures, mainly because of the sparse population in the epicentral area. The extent of the area that experienced damaging earth motion, which produced Modified Mercalli Intensity greater than or equal to VII, is estimated to be 600,000 square kilometers. However, shaking strong enough to alarm the general population (intensity greater than or equal to V) occurred over an area of 2.5 million square kilometers.


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