Scientists study cause of earthquakes in New Madrid Seismic Zone

Published: Jul. 17, 2013 at 9:08 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2013 at 10:40 PM CDT
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Geophysicist Dr. Richard Blakely
Geophysicist Dr. Richard Blakely

BLYTHEVILLE, AR (KFVS) - A large chunk of the Heartland is in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is responsible for some of the biggest earthquakes in history.

Now, scientists are studying the magnetic field of the area to better understand the earthquake hazards in our area.

And these scientists are actually taking to the sky to learn what's underground.

The plane is equipped with a magnetometer, which helps look at the rock formations under the earth's surface, and will hopefully give them a better understanding of what could happen when the big one hits.

"Geologists use the principle that you can predict the future by trying to understand the past," said geophysicist Dr. Richard Blakely. "Based on the past, the obvious conclusion is that we should be prepared for large earthquakes in the future."

Blakely says it's not a matter of if, but when another massive earthquake will hit the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

And while he says there's no reason to think the next big quake is imminent, he says the U.S. Geological Survey does have concerns that the potential exists for a 7 or 8 magnitude quake, something that hasn't happened in the area since 1812.

"There are reports of the Mississippi having waterfalls form briefly and so on. So if this were to happen now with all of the development, the consequences would be dire," Blakely said.

The plane and magnetometer will be looking for hidden geological features, such as changes in rock types, that can help people better prepare for future quakes.

"I'm not looking for earthquakes with this study. I'm looking for the structure that may be causing the earthquakes," Blakely said.

The plane is flying a couple of times a day, and over a month period, will cover an 1,800 square mile area including parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri.

"About 8,000 miles on survey, so about two and a half times back and forth across the U.S. is what this plane will do in just in this small area," said aviation expert Michael Hobbs.

Hobbs says this is the first high resolution magnetic survey that's ever been done in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and it could spawn more studies.

"The USGS is going to look at these results and see if they want to add on some additional survey areas in other parts of the New Madrid zone," he said.

The flights will continue for about another three weeks, but the study won't be ready for publication until early next year.

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