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Analysing the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes with recent instrumentally recorded aftershocks

Abstract

Although dynamic stress changes associated with the passage of seismic waves are thought to trigger earthquakes at great distances, more than 60 per cent of all aftershocks appear to be triggered by static stress changes within two rupture lengths of a mainshock1,2,3,4,5. The observed distribution of aftershocks may thus be used to infer details of mainshock rupture geometry6. Aftershocks following large mid-continental earthquakes, where background stressing rates are low, are known to persist for centuries7,8, and models based on rate-and-state friction laws provide theoretical support for this inference9. Most past studies of the New Madrid earthquake sequence have indeed assumed ongoing microseismicity to be a continuing aftershock sequence10,11,12. Here we use instrumentally recorded aftershock locations and models of elastic stress change to develop a kinematically consistent rupture scenario for three of the four largest earthquakes of the 1811–1812 New Madrid sequence. Our results suggest that these three events occurred on two contiguous faults, producing lobes of increased stress near fault intersections and end points, in areas where present-day microearthquakes have been hitherto interpreted as evidence of primary mainshock rupture. We infer that the remaining New Madrid mainshock may have occurred more than 200 km north of this region in the Wabash Valley of southern Indiana and Illinois—an area that contains abundant modern microseismicity, and where substantial liquefaction was documented by historic accounts. Our results suggest that future large mid-plate earthquake sequences may extend over a much broader region than previously suspected.

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Figure 1: Map of the New Madrid seismic zone as illustrated by microseismicity between 1974 and 1996.
Figure 2: Sequential Coulomb failure stress associated with hypothesized ruptures.
Figure 3: Elastic stress field at 12 km depth produced by NM1, NM1A and NM3 in 1811––1812.
Figure 4: Mercalli intensities inferred for NM2, 23 January 1812, with symbols centred on towns.

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Acknowledgements

Support for this work was provided to R.B. by the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Karl Mueller.

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Mueller, K., Hough, S. & Bilham, R. Analysing the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes with recent instrumentally recorded aftershocks. Nature 429, 284–288 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02557

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