December 16, 1811: A series of disastrous earthquakes shake Midwest

December 16, 2010

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Clever Apes meets a lot of creative and productive scientists.  Turns out some of them also write books, and ones you might want to pick up. Today we’re beginning an occasional series—let’s call it Wordy Apes—sort of a book-club-on-the-blog.

And the subject today: earthquakes.  In particular, the New Madrid earthquake zone that stretches from southeastern Missouri, and includes parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and on up to southern Illinois.

Seth Stein is fascinated with New Madrid.  By day Stein’s a professor of geological sciences at Northwestern University.  He’s been tracking seismic change along the New Madrid zone for decades, including applying space-age GPS technology to measure movement in the area. What he and his colleagues have found: the movement they expected just isn’t happening.  His book, Disaster Deferred: How Science is Changing Our View of Earthquake Hazards in the Midwest, documents their work, and what it means for understanding what Stein calls the “mysterious zone.”  There are all kinds of implications here, from how disaster preparedness money is used to why many people expect—wrongly, in Stein’s view-- new Midwest earthquake disasters. Today’s date figures in.  On December 16, 1811, the first of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid zone shook the Midwest.  Listen to the interview above, as Seth Stein describes those events, and the scientific inquiry that it’s ignited. 

And, below, Professor Stein offers his down-to-earth explanation of friction, resistance and earthquake occurence.