The theory suggests that the energy necessary to produce the magnitude 7-7.5 earthquakes came from stored stress built up in the Earth's crust long ago. Rapid erosion from the Mississippi River at the end of the last ice age reduced forces that had kept the New Madrid fault from slipping and triggered the temblors.
Eric Calais, the Purdue professor of earth and atmospheric sciences who led the study, said the theory is the first to explain how a fault could have had large earthquakes in the recent past but today show no signs of accumulating the forces needed to produce another earthquake.
“We understand why earthquakes happen at the contact between tectonic plates, like in California, but it has always been a puzzle as to why earthquakes occur in the middle of the continent as well, and with no visible surface deformation,” Calais said. “Our theory links an external climate-driven process, the melting of the ice sheet, and earthquakes."
Calais and others have analyzed the fault for more than 10 years using global position system measurements to capture movements of the Earth's surface that represent a buildup of energy and have traditionally been used to evaluate the potential for an earthquake. As the data was collected, it became evident that such motion was not occurring along the New Madrid fault.
Andrew Freed, co-author of the paper and an associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue, said with no discernable motions at the surface to explain how the requisite crustal stresses could have built up in this area, these stresses must be left over from past tectonic processes that are no longer active.
"The only way to reconcile the fact that this part of the continent is not deforming but is producing earthquakes is for the stresses to have built up long ago, " Freed said. "Old geologic processes, such as the opening of the Atlantic and the uplift of the Rocky Mountains, may have squeezed the Midwest. The resulting stress remained stored for millions of years until uplift associated with the Mississippi erosion event led to the unclamping of old faults lying beneath."
If this area of the North American continent is preloaded with the stress that can lead to earthquakes, it will be difficult to assess earthquake risk in the region.
The fault segments that ruptured are unlikely to have future earthquakes as there is no current means to reload them, but there remains a risk that other faults in the region could experience large earthquakes in the future, Calais said.
"Unfortunately, this stored stress is invisible to us, and the usual methods of measuring strain and deformation to evaluate a spot's potential for an earthquake may not apply to this region," Calais said. "Under these conditions, once an earthquake occurs on a given fault, it’s done; but this also means that other faults in the region that appear quiet today may still be triggered."
Details of the team's work, which was supported by a grant from the U.S. Geological Survey, appear in a paper in the current issue of Nature.
For a period from 16,000 to 10,000 years ago as the ice sheet melted, it steadily rushed water down the Mississippi River. As the river flowed, it washed away sediments and removed weight pressing down on the Earth’s crust. With this relatively rapid removal of weight, the crust rebounded and bulged slightly up from its previous position. This slight arching caused the top layers of the Earth’s crust to be stretched and the bottom layers to be compacted, exerting forces on the preexisting faults sufficient to trigger the earthquakes that began more than 3,000 years ago in the New Madrid region, culminating with the 1811-1812 events, Calais said.
More data needs to be collected to see whether this mechanism applies to similar seismic zones in the world, he said.
Additional paper co-authors include Roy Van Arsdale of the University of Memphis and Seth Stein of Northwestern University.Writer: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth K. Gardner | EurekAlert!
Predicting unpredictability: Information theory offers new way to read ice cores
07.12.2016 | Santa Fe Institute
Sea ice hit record lows in November
07.12.2016 | University of Colorado at Boulder
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy