An earthquake shakes Kentucky today, a day after the Missouri quake

Today’s earthquake in western Kentucky (epicenter indicated by the red star) is not far from the heart of the New Madrid earthquake zone. Image: USGS

Just the day after an earthquake struck southeastern Missouri in the heart of the New Madrid earthquake zone, a new earthquake struck nearby in western Kentucky, not far from the border with Illinois and Indiana. According to the USGS, today’s relatively weak earthquake was recorded as a magnitude 2.6 event, nearly 4 miles southwest of the town of Dixon, Kentucky. While people have reported feeling shaky at USGS, there have been no widespread reports or damage. The earthquake, which struck at 7:59 a.m. today, had a depth of 18.1 km.

The epicenter of today's earthquake is located at the point of the concentric circles on this map.  Image: USGS
The epicenter of today’s earthquake is located at the point of the concentric circles on this map. Image: USGS

The quake struck not far from where other quakes have struck in recent days. Just yesterday, an earthquake hit the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri. And on Wednesday, a pair of earthquakes also struck nearby; one was in Arkansas and the other was in Tennessee. On August 26, another earthquake struck Tennessee while another earthquake struck the day before on the 25th in neighboring Missouri.

These earthquakes occur in and around an area known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, an area that has an abundance of seismic activity and a catastrophic past. In 1811 and 1812, major earthquakes struck the area surrounding New Madrid County in Missouri.

On December 16, 1812, the first of three major earthquakes to hit the United States during the winter of 1811-1812 happened, a violent moment in the region’s seismological history that scientists believe will repeat itself. again.

While the West Coast of the United States is well known for its seismic faults and powerful earthquakes, many are unaware that one of the largest earthquakes to hit the country occurred near the Mississippi River. . On December 16, 1811, at approximately 2:15 a.m., a powerful 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook northeastern Arkansas in what is now known as the New Madrid Earthquake Zone. The quake was felt across much of the eastern United States, shaking people out of bed in places like New York, Washington, DC and Charleston, SC. The ground shook for an incredibly long duration of 1-3 minutes in areas hard hit by the earthquake, such as Nashville, TN and Louisville, KY. Ground motions were so violent near the epicenter that ground liquefaction was observed, with soil and water being thrown into the air by tens of feet. President James Madison and his wife Dolly felt the quake at the White House as church bells rang in Boston from the tremors.

Comparison of the extent of damage between a moderate earthquake in the New Madrid area (1895, magnitude 6.8) and a similar event in Los Angeles (1994, magnitude 6.7).  Yellow indicates where the tremors were felt;  red indicates at least minor damage to buildings and their contents.  Image: USGS
Comparison of the extent of damage between a moderate earthquake in the New Madrid area (1895, magnitude 6.8) and a similar event in Los Angeles (1994, magnitude 6.7). Yellow indicates where the tremors were felt; red indicates at least minor damage to buildings and their contents. Image: USGS

But the earthquakes did not stop there. From December 16, 1811 to March 1812, more than 2,000 earthquakes were reported in the central Midwest with 6,000 to 10,000 earthquakes located in Missouri’s “Bootheel”, where the New Madid seismic zone is centered .

The second main shock, with a magnitude of 7.8, occurred in Missouri weeks later on January 23, 1812, and the third, an 8.8, struck on February 7, 1812, along the Reelfoot Fault in Missouri and Tennessee.

Major earthquakes and intense aftershocks caused significant damage and loss of life, although the lack of scientific tools and news gathering of that time was unable to capture the full magnitude of what had really happened. Beyond the tremors, the earthquakes were also responsible for triggering unusual natural phenomena in the region: seismic lights, seismic heated water, and seismic smog.

Residents of the Mississippi Valley reported seeing flashing lights from the ground. Scientists believe this phenomenon was “seismoluminescence”; this light is generated when quartz crystals in the ground are pressed. The “seismic lights” were triggered during primary earthquakes and strong aftershocks.

Since 1974, there have been more than 4,000 earthquakes near the New Madrid seismic zone.  Scientists believe that a big earthquake here in the future is not a matter of if but when.  Image: USGS
Since 1974, there have been more than 4,000 earthquakes near the New Madrid seismic zone. Scientists believe that a big earthquake here in the future is not a matter of if but when. Image: USGS

Water thrown into the air from the ground or the nearby Mississippi River was also exceptionally hot. The scientists speculate that intense shaking and the resulting friction caused the water to heat up, the same way a microwave oven stimulates molecules to shake and generate heat. Other scientists believe that when the quartz crystals were squeezed, the light they emitted also helped warm the water.

During strong earthquakes, the sky became so dark that locals claimed that burning lamps did not help illuminate the area; they also said the air smelled bad and it was hard to breathe. Scientists speculate that this “seismic smog” was caused by dust particles rising from the surface, combining with the eruption of hot water molecules into the cold winter air. The result was a wet, dusty cloud that obscured the areas affected by the earthquake.

The February earthquake was so intense that boaters on the Mississippi River reported that the water flow there reversed for several hours.

The area remains seismically active and scientists believe another strong earthquake will affect the area again at some point in the future. Unfortunately, the science is not mature enough to say whether this threat will arrive next week or in 50 years. Either way, with the population of the New Madrid earthquake zone huge compared to the sparsely populated area of ​​the early 1800s, and tens of millions more living in an area that would experience significant shaking in the ground, there could be a very significant loss of life and property. when another major earthquake strikes here again in the future.

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