Arkansas Shakes: Unprecedented Earthquake Rattles the State’s History


It may come as a surprise, but Arkansas has experienced some of the most intense and fatal seismic events in North American history, despite not being commonly associated with earthquakes. 

One of the most well-known incidents took place in the early 1800s in the New Madrid seismic zone, a fault system stretching from Illinois to Arkansas.

The seismic activity was of such magnitude that it resulted in significant alterations to the landscape, including the formation of new bodies of water and land masses. 

Additionally, there was a brief occurrence where the flow of the Mississippi River temporarily reversed.

1811-1812: The New Madrid Earthquake

Four significant shocks occurred between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812, known as the New Madrid earthquakes. On December 16, 1811, the first earthquake occurred with a magnitude ranging from 7.0 to 8.0. 

Its impact was felt as far away as New England and Canada. The incident at around 2:15 a.m. left northeastern Arkansas citizens startled, with significant damage to buildings, highways, and bridges.

The earthquake resulted in landslides, cracks, and liquefaction, where the soil loses its firmness and behaves like a liquid. The ground sank, fractured, and bubbled, leading to the formation of vast marshlands.

The second earthquake, which occurred on January 23, 1812, had a slightly lower magnitude of 7.0 to 7.5. However, it still managed to inflict significant damage and instill fear among the affected population. 

It was accompanied by numerous aftershocks, including some that had enough intensity to be felt in distant locations. 

The third earthquake, which occurred on February 7, 1812, was the most intense and devastating of the series, with a magnitude ranging from 7.5 to 8.0. 

The earthquake occurred in New Madrid, Missouri, and its effects were felt across the eastern part of the United States.

The environment underwent significant changes, resulting in the formation of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, sandblasts and sand boils, and a temporary reversal of the Mississippi River’s flow. 

The final earthquake took place on March 27, 1812, measuring between 6.5 to 7.0 in magnitude and centered in Little Prairie, Missouri. 

The recent event, although not as severe as previous occurrences, has still caused a significant amount of fear and worry among the general population.

Examining the Impact and Legacy of the New Madrid Earthquake

It may come as a surprise, but Arkansas has experienced some of the most intense and fatal seismic events in North American history, despite not being commonly associated with earthquakes.

The New Madrid earthquakes were incredibly devastating events that left a lasting impact on the United States. 

Their impact spanned across an area of about 600,000 square kilometers, affecting an estimated 10 million people. 

Considerable property and infrastructural destruction occurred, along with disruptions in the lives and livelihoods of thousands of settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved people.

They also had a profound impact on the culture, politics, and religious beliefs of the region. 

Opinions on the earthquakes varied greatly, with some interpreting them as a manifestation of divine anger or judgment, while others viewed them as a forewarning of the apocalypse. 

There were suspicions among certain individuals that the earthquakes may have been influenced by human activity, specifically events like the War of 1812, the Louisiana Purchase, or Tecumseh’s War.

The earthquakes in New Madrid also had lasting effects on the region’s geology and ecosystem. New features such as lakes, islands, sandbars, and hills were formed, while the path of rivers and streams underwent changes. 

They also had a significant influence on the local flora and fauna, leading to the creation of new habitats and niches for various species.

Scientists and historians can analyze the lasting effects of the earthquakes that are still visible today. 

The New Madrid seismic zone continues to be active, presenting a potential danger to the current population and infrastructure of the region. Based on certain calculations, there is a possibility, estimated at 7-10%, of another earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or higher happening in the next 50 years.

In summary

The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 in Arkansas were incredibly powerful, causing significant changes to the landscape and even altering the course of the Mississippi River for a short period of time. 

The seismic occurrences have had a profound and lasting impact on the region’s culture, geology, and environment, shaping its history and providing valuable insights to scientists. 

The New Madrid seismic zone continues to experience activity, underscoring the ongoing vulnerability to earthquakes in the region.


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