The Oklahoma Earthquake: Is A Catastrophic Midwest Earthquake Possible?

The Midwest earthquake that struck early this morning probably came as a shock to many people. Most of us tend to think of earthquakes as something only coastal areas in places like California and Alaska need to worry about. According to CNN, the earthquake measured 5.6 on the Richter scale and its epicenter was near Pawnee, Oklahoma. While the damage from this particular event was relatively minor, it raises the question of whether a truly catastrophic earthquake in the Midwest is a possibility.

Even though this recent earthquake was fairly small by California standards, because of the nature of the ground and geology in the Midwest, it was felt over seven states. While there are no reported deaths or serious injuries, there was minor damage to some buildings and personal or business property. While many experts are attributing this earthquake in Oklahoma to the effects of fracking in the area, some others are not so sure.

Conspiracy fanatics, apocalypse predictors, and other “end is nigh” types often point to the New Madrid fault line running under the Midwest as clear evidence that a disaster of epic proportions in the region is inevitable. While this view has gained some traction with the fringe element, for the most part, people dismiss this idea as being about as likely as getting flattened by a meteor or struck by lightning.

But as it turns out, a number of government agencies are extremely concerned about the possibility of a massive – almost unprecedented – earthquake in the Midwest. More than this, they have for some years been taking active steps to study the problem. It’s not as if this kind of earthquake in the Midwest hasn’t happened before.

As a matter of fact, in the winter of 1811-12, a series of massive earthquakes – believed to have been well over 7.0 on the Richter scale – devastated the region with an upheaval on a scale that hadn’t been seen there in thousands of years. The reverberations of this earthquake were felt as far away as Washington DC and Toronto Canada.

To deal with the possibility of something like this happening again, FEMA created the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium or CUSEC. As some of its critics have pointed out, this group is operated primarily by engineers. Instead of exclusively looking at the science behind earthquakes, they’re looking at its possible effects on things like buildings and the flow of the Mississippi.

As The Atlantic points out, one of CUSEC’s major critics is seismologist Seth Stein. Stein feels that the organization is planning for a disaster that will never happen. According to Stein, it is the release of stresses in the ground that cause earthquakes. He believes that the stresses in the Midwest were largely relieved by the 1811-12 quakes.

If this is true, then the earthquake experienced today in Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest probably was a result of fracking and not a natural quake at all. Of course, while this might be a relief for those worried about the possibility of a massive catastrophe in the Midwest, it also suggests that future small earthquakes may continue happening as long as fracking is going on.

This image shows the USGS forecast for damage from natural and induced earthquakes in the U.S. in 2016.
This image shows the USGS forecast for damage from natural and induced earthquakes in the U.S. in 2016. [Photo by U.S. Geological Survey/AP Images]
Unfortunately, the sciences, in general, are extremely complicated and the details can be hard for the average person to follow. Because of this, most of us are forced to simply accept the word of the experts in matters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and asteroid strikes. While this might not normally be a problem, in the case of a Midwest earthquake and the New Madrid fault, the disagreement between these experts about the potential for a massive earthquake in the future is hardly comforting.

[Image via YouTube]

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