Arkansas’s Most Powerful Earthquake Ever Was a Real World-Shaker
Although Arkansas isn’t typically thought of when one thinks about earthquakes, the state has had some of the strongest and most catastrophic quakes in North American history. The most well-known of them took place near the New Madrid seismic zone, a fault system that runs from Illinois to Arkansas, in the early 1800s. These were such powerful earthquakes that they changed the entire landscape, forming new lakes and islands, and even temporarily reversing the flow of the Mississippi River.
The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812
The four main shocks that made up the New Madrid earthquakes happened between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812. The first one, on December 16, 1811, was believed to have a magnitude of 7.0 to 8.0, and was felt as far away as New England and Canada.
At 2:15 a.m., it startled the people living in northern Arkansas and severely damaged numerous homes, highways, and bridges. In addition, the earthquake caused fractures, landslides, and liquefaction—a condition in which the soil becomes weaker and acts more like liquid. As a result, there were wide stretches of marshy terrain developed and the ground began to sink, fracture, and bubble.
Despite being somewhat smaller, measuring between 7.0 and 7.5 on January 23, 1812, the second earthquake still caused significant harm and terror. Hundreds of aftershocks occurred following it, some of which were powerful enough to be felt in far-off places. At a magnitude of 7.5 to 8.0, the third and most potent earthquake in the series occurred on February 7, 1812. It happened close to New Madrid, Missouri, and was felt all the way across the east coast.
The most notable changes it brought about were the formation of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, the occurrence of sand blasts and sand boils, and the momentary inversion of the Mississippi River’s flow. The fourth and last earthquake, which occurred on March 27, 1812, was located close to Little Prairie, Missouri, and had a magnitude of 6.5 to 7.0. Even while it wasn’t as catastrophic as the others, the public was nevertheless deeply afraid and anxious.
The Impact and Legacy of the New Madrid Earthquakes
Among the most important natural disasters in American history were the earthquakes that struck New Madrid. They were felt by roughly 10 million people and covered a region of nearly 600,000 square kilometers. They devastated the lives and livelihoods of thousands of settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved people, and severely damaged property and infrastructure.
They also had a tremendous impact on the culture, politics, and religion of the region. The earthquakes were seen by some as a portent of divine wrath or judgment, while others believed they were a sign that the world was about to end. Additionally, some individuals thought that human actions like the Louisiana Purchase, the Tecumseh War, or the War of 1812 had caused the earthquakes.
There were also long-lasting effects on the region’s ecology and geology from the New Madrid earthquakes. They changed the paths of rivers and streams and produced new features including sandbars, lakes, islands, and ridges. They had an impact on the local flora and wildlife as well, giving numerous species new homes and niches.
Scientists and historians can still examine some of the alterations brought forth by the earthquakes. The New Madrid seismic zone remains active, and poses a possible hazard to the current population and infrastructure of the region. Some estimates place the likelihood of another earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or higher occurring within the next 50 years between 7 and 10%.
The most potent and catastrophic earthquakes to ever be recorded in Arkansas and the central United States were the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812. They altered the region’s physical and cultural landscape in addition to causing extensive harm, terror, and turmoil. They also demonstrated the environment’s and people’s susceptibility to and ability to recover from natural calamities. The New Madrid earthquakes serve as a reminder of the dynamic and unpredictable character of our planet and are an intriguing and significant aspect of Arkansas’s history and geology.