INSIGHT: US prepares for the next big earthquake

16 May 2008 17:29  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

The coming US quake will be worse than 1906WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--As the world watches China’s earthquake tragedy unfold, US planners are already working to minimise the impact of an even more devastating quake that is certain to strike the Midwest.

While California and Alaska have been the principal public focus of US earthquake activity in the last century, the Big One yet to come is waiting like a geological time bomb under the farmlands and manufacturing centres of the central US.

Named for a town in Missouri that sits astride it, the New Madrid seismic zone runs from the southern tip of Illinois along a zigzag course of some 200 miles to near Memphis, Tennessee.

Geologists rate it as the most dangerous seismic threat to the US, and while no=one can be sure when the next New Madrid quake will strike, scientists are certain it will happen and they know it will be very, very bad.

“It will be a disaster unlike anything we’ve ever known and unlike anything we’ve ever planned for,” said Gary Paterson, a geologist and information services director at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) at Memphis University.

When it comes, the next major quake along the New Madrid line “will affect ridiculously large areas compared with earthquakes in California and Alaska,” Paterson said.

A major quake of 7.5 to 8 magnitude on the Richter scale in the New Madrid rift would cause significant damage in eight states - Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee - and it will shut down transportation and utility infrastructure that could imperil commerce and daily life as far as the US east coast.

The last time the New Madrid rift produced a major trembler was in the winter of 1811-1812 when at least four quakes struck along the 200-mile region from December through the following February.

According to the US Geological Survey, the 1811 quake was probably of 8 magnitude. Damage from the quake was spread as far as Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. 

The earth moved so much and so violently that it caused church bells to ring in Boston, Massachusetts, nearly 1,000 miles away. 

The Mississippi River was rerouted in several spots, islands in the riverbed sank and others appeared anew. Eyewitnesses said farmland rolled like ocean waves, heaving and sinking as much as six to 10 feet.

An area of the Mississippi Valley 30 miles long by 15 miles wide was raised by as much as 30 feet while other parts of the quake zone subsided nearly 20 feet. Lakes were swallowed by open fissures in the earth.

Paterson said the New Madrid rift area poses a greater risk and has a higher potential for catastrophic damage than quakes in California and Alaska because the geological formations under New Madrid are hard, cold and dense, unlike the San Andreas fault line in California that rides atop the molten rock meeting place of two tectonic plates.

A shift such as the famous 7.8 magnitude earthquake that all but destroyed San Francisco in 1906 was felt as far as 350 miles away in central Nevada.

But, as in 1811, another New Madrid quake of near 8 magnitude would be felt for 1,000 miles in every direction as the trembler radiated more strongly through the hard and deep bedrock under the Midwest.

The loss of human life in the 1811 quake was minimal, chiefly because the area was largely unsettled.

But now that region of the US hosts nearly 11m people, 4m homes and hundreds of thousands of businesses, power plants, factories and communications hubs - and nearly 20% of US chemicals productive capacity.

The Central US Earthquake Consortium, a cooperative entity made up of US federal agencies and the eight states around the New Madrid line, estimates that the next major quake there would kill more than 4,000 people, put 15,000 others in hospitals and leave more than 40,000 residents among the walking wounded. 

Another 63,000 people would be homeless and nearly 4m would be unemployed for more than a year. Property damage would be almost incalculable but certainly would run to the hundreds of billions of dollars. 

The 3.8m homes and other residential or workplace structures in the area have a total replacement value of $590bn (€383bn).  The replacement value of key infrastructure - roads, rail lines, utilities, communications hubs - is estimated at $370bn or more.

The New Madrid rift region contains more than 800 dams that the consortium classifies as high potential for loss, more than 5,000 hazardous materials sites and two nuclear power plants.

The eight-state area that would see the most severe damage from an 8-magnitude New Madrid quake contains key utility systems for natural gas, crude oil, refined products, electric power and communications. Damage to those systems would be felt, directly or indirectly, throughout much of the US east of the Rocky Mountains.

For example, the consortium estimates that the 125,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that criss-cross the eight states would be ruptured in more than 36,000 places.

Some of those pipelines, Paterson noted, are key links in the system that feeds natural gas to the New England states in the far US northeast. 

“If the New Madrid quake hits us in mid-winter, there will be many ramifications across the country,” Paterson said.

To give some idea of the scope of the inevitable New Madrid disaster, Paterson pointed out that the damage done to the four US Gulf coast states by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 covered an area of 90,000 square miles. The projected damage areas in another 8-magnitude New Madrid quake would be up to 230,000 square miles.

Since late the late 1980s state and local governments in the eight-state region have been toughening building codes and strengthening key road and rail bridges.

Preparations are being made as fast as possible, Paterson said. But no matter when the next New Madrid quake comes, those preparations will never be complete.

The US Geological Survey says that the probability of a major quake in the New Madrid seismic zone is 90% within the next 50 years - and for all anyone knows, it could be next week.

($1 = €0.65)

Have you personally or your business been impacted by the earthquake in China? If you have any information or thoughts you would like to share, post your comments or photos on the ICIS China Earthquake forum. You can also send photos and video directly to us at or

By: Joe Kamalick
+1 713 525 2653

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly

Get access to breaking chemical news as it happens.
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX)
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX). Download the free tabular data and a chart of the historical index