Experts agree that the New Madrid earthquake zone in the Midwest is a ticking time bomb. It’s due to the fact that the New Madrid faults aren’t embedded in hard rock, but soft sediment.
“The geology here makes it very susceptible to a large area of impact and that adds to the catastrophic nature of the hazard itself,” James Wilkinson said. Wilkinson is the executive director for the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC).
“It’s very unique to other seismic zones in the country. The West Coast primarily. A similar size earthquake you would see in California, which can affect a very small area. These earthquakes here can have a twenty-times larger area of impact,” Wilkinson added.
Brenna MacDonald with the Missouri Geological Survey said the mysteries and unknowns of the New Madrid zone is why it’s considered so dangerous.
“We don’t know exactly where the trace of the faults are because they are buried so deeply underneath the sediments. In some areas, they are more than a thousand feet deep,” MacDonald said.
The last large earthquake in this zone happened back in 1895. But in 2011, a 5.8 earthquake hit Mineral, Virginia. It was the largest, most widely felt earthquake the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has ever recorded, with damage reaching as far as Washington D.C.
“It might be decades or 100 years before we get another magnitude 6 or 7. But it also could happen tomorrow. We really just have no way of predicting that,” USGS Geophysicist Thomas Pratt said.