The New Madrid Fault Zone and Memphis Earthquakes

A red push pin in a map showing the city of Memphis
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Memphis sits squarely in the damage range of the New Madrid Fault Zone, the most active fault east of the Rockies. The fault's most devastating quake occurred almost 200 years ago, leaving seismologists to speculate that the next "big one" could be just around the corner.


The New Madrid Seismic zone lies within the central Mississippi Valley, is 150 miles long, and touches five states. Its northernmost point is in southern Illinois and extends southward into eastern Arkansas and west Tennessee.

Any earthquakes that happen in this Seismic Zone could possibly affect parts of eight states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and of course, Tennessee.


From 1811 to 1812, the New Madrid Fault Zone saw some of the largest earthquakes in North America's history. During a four-month period, five earthquakes with magnitude estimates of 8.0 or greater were recorded in the zone. These quakes were responsible for causing the Mississippi River to briefly flow backward, leading to the formation of Reelfoot Lake.


The New Madrid Fault Zone boasts at least one earthquake a day, though most of these quakes are too weak for us to feel. Longtime residents of Memphis may remember the 5.0 that occurred in March of 1976 or the 4.8 in September of 1990. Scientists say that the probability of a magnitude 6.0 or larger quake occurring on the New Madrid Fault in the next 50 years is between 25 and 40 percent.

In 2012, the United States Geological Survey reported a 4.0 magnitude earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic zone with an epicenter of Parkin, Arkansas, that could reportedly be felt by some Memphis residents.

The University of Memphis hosts the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERTI), an organization established in 1977 to monitor seismic activity in the Mid-South using cutting edge technology. They provide updates and information on the possibility of earthquakes and best practices, as well as educating graduate students in the field.

Earthquake Preparedness

There are several ways to stay prepared for the possibility of an earthquake in Memphis. First, you can keep an earthquake survival kit in your home and in your car. It’s a good idea to then learn how to turn off gas, water, and electricity in your home. If you have any heavy objects hanging on the walls of your home, be sure that they’re tightly secured. Next, make a plan with family for meeting up after an earthquake (or any catastrophe). Finally, you can add earthquake coverage to your homeowner's insurance policy.

In the Event of an Earthquake

During an earthquake, take cover under a heavy piece of furniture or brace yourself in a doorway. You should stay away from buildings, trees, power lines, and overpasses. Be sure to listen to the radio or television for any instructions from emergency officials. When the quake has stopped, check for injuries on yourself and others. After that, check for safety concerns: unstable buildings, gas leaks, downed power lines, etc.

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