The spatiotemporal behaviour of earthquakes within continental plate interiors is different from that at plate boundaries. At plate margins, tectonic motions quickly reload earthquake ruptures, making the location of recent earthquakes and the average time between them consistent with the faults’ geological, palaeoseismic and seismic histories. In contrast, what determines the activation of a particular mid-continental fault and controls the duration of its seismic activity remains poorly understood1. Here we argue that the concentration of magnitude-7 or larger earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone of the central United States2,3 since the end of the last ice age results from the recent, climate-controlled, erosional history of the northern Mississippi embayment. We show that the upward flexure of the lithosphere caused by unloading from river incision between 16,000 and 10,000 years ago caused a reduction of normal stresses in the upper crust sufficient to unclamp pre-existing faults close to failure equilibrium. Models indicate that fault segments that have already ruptured are unlikely to fail again soon, but stress changes from sediment unloading and previous earthquakes may eventually be sufficient to bring to failure other nearby segments that have not yet ruptured.
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This work was partly supported by the US Geological Survey through the Department of the Interior, under USGS award number 07HQGR0049. We thank M. Zoback for his comments.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Calais, E., Freed, A., Van Arsdale, R. et al. Triggering of New Madrid seismicity by late-Pleistocene erosion. Nature 466, 608–611 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09258
Airborne geophysical surveys of the lower Mississippi Valley demonstrate system-scale mapping of subsurface architecture
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