The New Madrid Fault Line

In Podcast by Rebecca Phillips1 Comment

In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Rebecca reveals to Caitlin her recent paranoia of the New Madrid fault line and the seriousness of “the big one” for Memphis should it ever occur. But there’s good news! Well… at least for those over 36 years old.

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So what is the New Madrid Fault Line?

Wikipedia says it’s the 150-mile (240 km) long seismic zone, which extends into five states. It stretches southward from Cairo, IL; through Hayti, Caruthersille and New Madrid, MO; through Blytheville into Marked Tree in AR. It also covers a part of West Tennesse, near Reelfoot Lake, extending southeast into Dyersburg.

That’s a pretty big stretch of land. 

The History of New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) Earthquakes

The first known written record of an earthquake felt in the NMSZ was from a French missionary traveling up the Mississippi with a party of explorers. It happened at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day in 1699 at a site near the present-day location of Memphis.

However, the most famous was a series of 3 earthquakes between 1811-12.

The first earthquake was recorded at 2:15 am in Northeast Arkansas. It caused only slight damage to man-made structures, mostly because it wasn’t greatly populated. Memphis (before it was Memphis) was shaken at a Mercalli Intensity scale of level nine. Little Prairie, MO was destroyed by soil liquefaction, trees were knocked down and riverbanks collapsed. Uplifts of the ground on the riverbed and large waves made the Mississippi river look like it was flowing upstream. Sand bars and points of islands gave way. A steamboat crew that was anchored overnight along a Mississippi River island said they awoke to find the island had disappeared below the water. Landslides covered an area of 78,000 – 129,000 square kilometers, extending from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee, and from Crowley’s Ridge in northeastern Arkansas to Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee. This event shook windows and furniture in Washington, D.C., rang bells in Richmond, Virginia, shook houses in Charleston, South Carolina, and knocked plaster off of houses in Columbia, South Carolina. Observers in Herculaneum, Missouri said it had a duration of 10-12 minutes. After all this, only one life was lost in falling buildings.

The first and largest aftershock happened that same morning at around 7:15am. It came to be known as the “Dawn” Aftershock.

The second earthquake, on January 23, is believed to be the smallest of the three main shocks and also believed by some that the epicenter was in southern Illinois. That raises concern because if that is true, then that would mean and extended section of the fault exists.

The third earthquake, on February 7, happened in Missouri and it was the largest of the series. It destroyed the town of New Madrid, it damaged many houses in St. Louis. It caused general ground warping, ejections, fissuring, severe landslides, and caving of stream banks. Uplift along the fault created temporary waterfalls on the Mississippi River and caused the formation of Reelfoot Lake. 

Landslide trench and ridge in the Chickasaw Bluffs east of Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, that resulted from the New Madrid earthquakes (1811–12). U.S. Geological Survey. Via

NMSZ Fun Facts: (because we try to make light of dark topics)

• There’s a New Madrid Historical Museum in the Missouri boot heel. There you can watch a VHS tape they play on loop, called “The Night the Earth went Crazy.”

• In 1990, there was an earthquake hype. A prophecy had just been made by a self-proclaimed climatologist named Iben Browning, who falsely claimed to have predicted the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California the year before. He predicted that a magnitude 7 earthquake would strike New Madrid on December 3, 1990. The prediction had no scientific legitimacy but it was widely reported in the national media, which promoted fear, anxiety, and hysteria among residents of the Mississippi Valley.

• In Memphis, the city recently spent $25 million to prevent the pyramid from being swallowed.

• AutoZone’s corporate headquarters also stands ready for some massive shakes. It’s propped up on top of giant shock absorbers.

• The nearby Memphis VA is another safe spot. The city spent $64 million dollars removing nine floors of the hospital to reduce the risk of collapse in a catastrophic earthquake.

New Madrid, MO via

And if you would like more hope, we talk about Seth Stein, a seismologist and professor at Northwestern who doesn’t think we should be worried about the New Madrid. Rebecca talks about his theory on the episode which sounds pretty solid.

But for all you Eeyores and Debbie Downers, Rebecca also talks about how scientist say Seth’s scenario is a low probability scenario and that the NMSZ is still hazardous. They estimate that over the next 50 years, the probability of a magnitude 6 or larger quake is between 25 to 40 percent.

In short, if you are 36 years old or younger, there is a good chance you will experience an earthquake in the Mid-South that measures higher than a 6.

Links Mentioned:

Little-known U.S. Fault Lines Cause For Seismic Concern About Potential Earthquakes

Loma Prieta: The Earthquake That Stopped the World Series

New Madrid Seismic Zone: A cold, dying fault?

Why are scientists nervous about a Memphis earthquake?

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Rebecca Phillips

I am a female born in the United States though I generally fear the border patrol. Buy me an ice cream cone and maybe I'll paint you something.

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  1. Break out the dart board, the big dart board. Dec 11th of 1811 was the first of a series of 3 large quakes on the New Madrid. The second quake was on January 23rd 1812, and the 3rd and largest struck on February 7th 1812, Dalton Minimum and the solar minimum

    The first major quake on the New Madrid was at 1pm on December 25th of 1699, recorded by a French missionary in a group of explorers, Maunder Minimum and start of the solar minimum.

    Other years were in AD300, AD900 and AD1450. Now take a look at the JG/U 2K temp graph and see what it shows is happening to global temps for each of those 3 quakes. Other moderately strong quakes were in January 4th in 1843, at the solar minimum, and on October 31st 1895. This last one occurs after the maximum of SC 13 and 8 years prior to the solar minimum. More recent was on November 9th 1968 three years after the solar minimum. …

    So commonality with the major quakes is they all strike mainly in the winter, at the solar minimum, and either during a solar grand minimum or during a Gleissberg cycle. Which raises the question is the next New Madrid quake now close at hand and ready to strike in this upcoming winter? If not this winter, then highly likely for the next solar minimum. It is clear to see that this year 2019 will be the heart of the solar minimum. The solar minimum is certainly low and prolonged as the last one was in 2008/09. In 2008 a moderately strong quake hit on the Wabash Fault Zone, close to the New Madrid Zone. Does this warrant issuing a warning to the proper emergency agencies to be on stand by alert, and/or to issue a general alert to the population at risk?

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