Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 15, 2023

The hidden fault

Between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812, a series of four earthquakes -- each estimated to be above magnitude 7 -- hit what you might think is one of the most unlikely places on Earth; southeastern Missouri.

The fault (named the New Madrid Seismic Zone for the county right in the center of it) is located in the middle of the North American craton, an enormous block of what should be old, stable, geologically inactive rock.  But even so, the biggest (and final) earthquake of the four was powerful enough that it was felt thousands of kilometers away, and allegedly rang church bells in Charleston, South Carolina.  The shift in terrain changed the course of the Mississippi River, cutting off a meander and creating horseshoe-shaped Reelfoot Lake.

It's well known that most of the world's earthquakes take place along the "Ring of Fire" and other junctions between tectonic plates, but it's not always so.  The New Madrid Fault is thought to be either a failed rift zone -- when a convection current in the mantle tried, but failed, to split the continent, but created a weakness in the middle of the plate -- or else the rebound of the crust from the passage of the Bermuda Hotspot, which is also one possible explanation for the process that created the Ozark Mountains.

The point is, earthquakes don't always occur where you might expect, and sometimes fault lines can stay hidden until suddenly they slip and catch everyone off-guard.  This is the situation much closer to where I live; the Saint Lawrence Rift System, aligned (as you'd expect) with the Saint Lawrence River, is an active seismic zone in northern New York and southern Canada, and like New Madrid, is very far away from any plate margins.  Here, the weakness is very old -- geologists believe the fault actually dates to the early Paleozoic, and may be related to the Charlevoix Asteroid Impact 450 million years ago -- and has been reactivated by something that is causing super slow convergence on opposite sides of the fault (on the order of 0.5 millimeters a year).

What that something might be, no one is certain.

The reason the topic comes up is a paper in the journal Tectonics this week that I found out about because of my friend, the wonderful author Andrew Butters, who is an avid science buff and a frequent contributor of topics for Skeptophilia.  It describes a newly-discovered 72-kilometer-long fault that runs right down the middle of Vancouver Island -- passing just northeast of the city of Victoria.

To be fair, British Columbia isn't exactly seismically inactive; as I described last month, it's in the bullseye (along with the rest of the coastal Pacific Northwest) of the horrifyingly huge Cascadia Subduction Zone.  But even so, the discovery of a hitherto-unknown fault right near a major city is a little alarming, especially since the southeast corner of Vancouver Island is actually pretty far away from Cascadia.  The authors write:

Subduction forearcs are subject to seismic hazard from upper plate faults that are often invisible to instrumental monitoring networks.  Identifying active faults in forearcs therefore requires integration of geomorphic, geologic, and paleoseismic data.  We demonstrate the utility of a combined approach in a densely populated region of Vancouver Island, Canada, by combining remote sensing, historical imagery, field investigations, and shallow geophysical surveys to identify a previously unrecognized active fault, the XEOLXELEK-Elk Lake fault, in the northern Cascadia forearc, ∼10 km north of the city of Victoria...  Fault scaling relations suggest a M 6.1–7.6 earthquake with a 13 to 73-km-long surface rupture and 2.3–3.2 m of dip slip may be responsible for the deformation observed in the paleoseismic trench.  An earthquake near this magnitude in Greater Victoria could result in major damage, and our results highlight the importance of augmenting instrumental monitoring networks with remote sensing and field studies to identify and characterize active faults in similarly challenging environments.

So that's a little alarming.  Another thing to file under "You Think You're Safe, But..."  I've frequently given thanks for the fact that I live in a relatively calm part of the world.  Upstate New York gets snowstorms sometimes, but nothing like the howling blizzards of the upper Midwest; and we're very far away from the target areas for hurricanes, mudslides, wildfires, and volcanoes.

But the scary truth is that nowhere is natural-disaster-proof.  As New Madrid, the Saint Lawrence Rift System, and -- now -- Victoria, British Columbia show, we live on an active, turbulent planet that is constantly in motion.  And sometimes that motion makes it a little dangerous for us fragile humans.

The Earth is awe-inspiring and beautiful, but also has little regard for our day-to-day affairs.  You can do what is possible to minimize your risk; forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying goes.  But the reality is that the natural world is full of surprises -- and some of those surprises can be downright dangerous.


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