Q: Years ago, experts predicted a major earthquake for the area in about 50 years due to the New Madrid fault. The longer the delay, the more severe it will be. What do the seismic experts at St. Louis University think now?
Daniel Stocker, of Belleville
A: The only valid opinion you’ll hear from reputable experts is this: People who say they can predict the next earthquake within a narrow range of dates are standing on the shakiest ground imaginable.
That’s why self-proclaimed climatologist-seismologist Iben Browning looked like such a fool when he predicted a magnitude 7 quake would rock New Madrid on Dec. 3, 1990. It’s why when it comes to earthquakes Alex Jones likely will show he’s an alt-right know-nothing for this inane prophecy last year on his Infowars.com website:
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“One day, I believe that a major seismic event in the (New Madrid) area will literally divide the United States in half,” the article read. “A great shaking is coming to this nation, and the majority of Americans are completely unprepared for it.”
As Dr. Robert Herrmann stressed again to me Thursday, nobody but nobody can predict earthquakes. Based on past and current seismic activity in a region, you might develop a range of probabilities. But just as we have seen with “100-year floods,” the big one might happen tomorrow or it might happen in 2717. That’s why he says no respectable scientist would have predicted a quake “in about 50 years.”
“We cannot predict earthquakes,” said Herrmann, the Otto Nuttli professor of geophysics in St. Louis University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “We expect them to happen in the future, with smaller ones being more common than the rare large ones. (But) there were no direct predictions. Rather, an estimate of likelihood.”
And right now when it comes to that likelihood, if you’d lay all the seismologists end to end you’ll find they point in many directions.
Herrmann certainly understands people’s desire for assurance that they will live out their lives without their houses falling down around them. Students of history know all too well that’s what happened in the early morning of Dec. 16, 1811, when what some estimate was a magnitude-7.7 quake centered in southeastern Missouri shook people awake on the East Coast.
Followed in short order by a 7.5 quake and then another 7.7, all three violent tremors are easily the strongest ever recorded east of the Rocky Mountains. Now try to imagine the terror and destruction such quakes would unleash today. In 2009, the Mid-American Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois did exactly that in a study that tried to simulate an 1811-1812-style temblor striking today.
“All hell will break loose,” lead author Amr Elnashai predicted. More than 700,000 buildings and 3,500 bridges would be damaged in eight states along with 425,000 breaks and leaks in local and interstate pipelines. Nearly 90,000 people would be killed or injured and 2.6 million households would be left without power. Three days later, 7.2 million people still would be displaced with 2 million seeking temporary shelter. Total cost: upwards of $1 trillion.
But is such a catastrophe a possibility in our or even our children’s lifetimes? Maybe — and maybe not, depending on which expert you believe.
Some, like Robert Williams at the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, worries that time may not on our side. By studying remnants of the 1811 quake, scientists say they have determined that this region suffered similar powerful upheavals in about 2350 B.C., 900 A.D. and again in about 1450. To some, this indicates that this area has a history of massive earthquakes and that we’re already 200 years out from the last one.
“We can’t predict earthquakes,” Williams told National Public Radio in 2011. “So the geologic record is really the strongest piece of evidence we have to remain concerned about earthquakes in the New Madrid region.”
Chris Cramer, a professor at the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research, concurred. Last year, he estimated a 7 percent to 10 percent chance of an 1811-magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years.
Relax, replies seismologist Seth Stein at Northwestern University in Evanston, who has been studying the New Madrid fault for 30 years. He and others have been using GPS technology to measure how the ground moves along fault lines around the country. His findings should make you sleep easy.
“Normally, the way earthquakes work is that you store up energy — the ground deforms before a big earthquake, kind of like stretching a spring — and then it snaps,” he told NPR.
This warping of the ground has been seen in California, Alaska and along every fault where a quake is thought to be on the way. But New Madrid?
“To our complete surprise, we see absolutely no motion of the ground.” said Stein, explaining that seismic areas in the middle of a continent may behave differently than places that lie along the edges of the earth’s massive tectonic plates. “The bottom line is we don’t expect anything for hundreds of years at a minimum and quite possibly thousands of years.”
I’m sorry I can’t put your mind on firmer ground.
What was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: For more than a half century, Eon Productions, started by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, has been responsible for 24 James Bond films, from the first — “Dr. No” — in 1962 right up to “Spectre” in 2015. Save for two, the company has produced no other movies. The first was 1963’s “Call Me Bwana” with Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg. Now, 54 years later, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” with Annette Bening and Vanessa Redgrave is slated to open in the United States on Dec. 15.
Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer