Two major earthquakes in the span of six weeks, plus a tsunami that threatened the entire Pacific Rim.
It’s almost enough to make one believe that we’re getting a preview of the deadly upheaval that will accompany end-date of the 5,125-year Mayan Long Count Calendar in late 2012, not to mention last year's disaster movie based on the event’s presumed cataclysmic outcomes.
While the fears associated with the 2012 phenomenon are largely unfounded, the countdown toward that year should be on our minds for a different reason—the 200th anniversary of the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes.
The sequence of temblors, which occurred between December 1811 and February 1812, were reportedly the most intense seismic events to occur in North America since the arrival of Europeans. Originating in the seismic zone centered near the southeastern “boot” of Missouri, the estimated 7- to 8.1-magnitude quakes sent shock waves through the Mississippi River Valley’s soils that were felt as far away as New England.
Closer to the epicenters, soil liquifaction drastically altered the landscape, the results of which are still visible. But because the region was sparsely populated at the time, structural damage was minimal.
There’s been much speculation about the activity level of the New Madrid seismic zone, and how a comparable quake (plus its equally destructive aftershocks) would affect the a region today. Would Memphis or St. Louis resemble Port-au-Prince, Concepcion, or elements of both?
Thanks to the efforts of the eight-state Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), many important steps have been taken to minimize the risk of damage and death from a major New Madrid encore.
But compared with the more recently active areas on the West Coast, the New Madrid seismic footprint comprises several hundred square miles, plus a historically-proven reach into the East Coast’s major cities. That encompasses a lot of aging buildings and infrastructure that may or may not fare well even if an earthquake less powerful than the 1811-12 versions should occur.
So while 2012 may not bring the end of the world, it should serve as a reminder that seismic sources of the death and destruction experienced in Haiti and Chile are also found in many parts of the U.S., and that reasonable and prudent steps can help make the built environment better able to withstand the effects of an often overlooked, but nevertheless real threat.
For unlike the movie version of 2012, a major U.S. earthquake won’t be preceded with weeks of hype and promotional tie-ins. Just ask anyone in Concepcion who went to bed last Friday night thinking that tomorrow would be just another day.