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Chapter 1
Threshold
The prize is the pleasure of nding the thing out. Physicist Richard Feynman, 19181988

Stretched out on a sun-warmed rock, I admired the hawks circling lazily in the bright-blue sky. It was a perfect October day in 1997 in Petit Jean State Park, high in Arkansass Ozark Mountains. About 50 yards away, I could see a ve-foot yellow-and-orange wooden tripod topped by a shiny metal disk that looked like a large Frisbee. The disk was an antenna receiving radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the earth (g. 1.1). An expensive, high-precision GPS receiver about the size of a personal computer recorded the signals and used them to nd the antennas latitude and longitude to incredible accuracy. In the early morning chill, Id carefully set up the tripod over a metal marker drilled into solid rock. Doing this involved sighting through a lens to position the tripod over the marker and adjusting the tripod legs to make sure the antenna was level. This complicated sequence felt like an intelligence test that Id slowly and only barely passed. The GPS receiver was doing a very simple thingmeasuring its location using incredibly complicated space technology. Fellow geologists and I had installed 24 markers like this one over a large area in the central U.S. Wed measured their positions in 1991 and 1993 and were now doing it again. Our goal was to learn more about the mysterious zone of earthquakes called the New Madrid seismic zone. Its named after the town of New Madrid, pronounced MAD-red, in the area of southeastern Missouri known as the Bootheel. The zone includes parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. In 1811 and 1812, large earthquakes here shook the central U.S., and small earthquakes continue in the zone today. A map of

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FIGURE 1.1 GPS antenna at Petit Jean State Park.


the recent small earthquakes shows some major patches, which we think are mostly aftershocks of the past large earthquakes, surrounded by a diuse cloud (g. 1.2). These earthquakes are interesting because theyre in a strange place. Most big earthquakes happen at the boundaries between the great rock plates that slide around on the earths surface. For example, the San Andreas fault in California is part of the boundary between the Pacic and North American plates. In contrast, the New Madrid seismic zone is a less active earthquake zone in the middle of the continent, within the North American plate. Geologists know surprisingly little about whats going on here. We dont know why the earthquakes occur; when they started; if, when, and where future large earthquakes will occur; how serious a danger they pose; or how

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Magnitude 5 Magnitude 4 Magnitude 3 Indiana

Illinois Mississippi River

St. Louis Missouri

Ohio River

Kentucky

New Madrid

Tennessee Arkansas Memphis Mississippi Alabama

FIGURE 1.2 Locations of earthquakes between 1975 and 2008 in and around the New Madrid seismic zone. (After University of Memphis)

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society should confront them. A big part of the problem is that because large earthquakes here are much rarer than in many other seismic zones, we dont yet have the data to answer these questions. This situation made New Madrid a perfect place to use the new GPS method that was quickly becoming a powerful tool for earthquake studies around the world. Because we were recording GPS data at each site for 10 hours a day over three days, I had a lot of time in a beautiful place to think about what we were learning. Already, it looked like we were on the threshold of something big. Earthquakes happen when slow motions stored up in the earth over hundreds or thousands of years are suddenly released. We had expected to see the sites moving. Surprisingly, we werent seeing that, but our rst two surveys werent enough to be sure. This survey would settle the question. A few months later, graduate student Andy Newman, who was analyzing the survey data for his doctoral thesis, brought his ndings to my oce at Northwestern University. The result was clear. To the accuracy of the GPS measurements, the ground across the earthquake zone wasnt moving. To tell if a monument in the ground is moving, geologists measure its position at dierent times and see if it changes. Because every measurement has some uncertainty, we look to see whether the position has changed by more than that uncertainty. Its like the way you tell if a diet is working. You know that theres some uncertainty in the scale because weighing yourself several times gives slightly dierent answers. The question is whether over time your weight changes by more than that uncertainty. The GPS systems used in geology are so incredibly precise that we measure the motions of markers in the ground in millimeters1/1000 of a meter per year. Because a meter is 39.37 inches, a millimeter is about 1/25 of an inch. As gure 1.3 shows, thats about the size of the bigger letters on a dime. If the ground moves that much in a year, GPS can detect it. This precision lets geologists measure the slow movements of the earth. That makes GPS the most important new tool weve gotten in the past 20 years for earthquake studies. For example, GPS shows that the motion across Californias San Andreas fault is about 36 millimeters per year. Most of the time, the fault is locked by the friction between the rocks on either side, so the motion is stored up in the rock. Eventually, the stored motion overcomes the friction, and the fault moves in a big earthquake. This happens about every hundred years, so in seconds the fault moves about 3,600 millimeters, or about 12 feet!

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1 millimeter

1 inch

FIGURE 1.3 GPS measurements can tell if a point on the earth moves by more than a millimeterabout 1/25 of an inchin a year. Thats the height of a capital letter on a dime.
Our GPS data for New Madrid didnt show any motion. Specically, they showed that the ground was moving less than 2 millimeters per year. Thats at least 18 times more slowly than the San Andreas. We were also pretty sure that the number would get much smaller if we kept measuring for a longer time. Already it was a lot slower than wed expect if a big earthquake were coming any time soon. I thought of the joke in which a tourist asks a Maine farmer Does this road go to Bangor? and is told Nope, stays right where it is. During the next few months, all of us in the project talked at length about what the lack of motion might mean. Conventional wisdom was that the New Madrid area faced a major earthquake risk. The U.S. government claimed that this risk was as high as in California and was pressuring communities to make expensive preparations. The GPS data showed that these common ideas about the New Madrid seismic zone needed serious rethinking. All of us in the project were excited. Although as scientists were trying to solve the earths mysteries, much of our eort actually goes into day-to-day chores like trying to x computer programs. Most of the time we do routine studies and nd answers that arent too surprising. The most exciting times are when a project gives an unexpected answer that leads to new insight. Sometimes thats due to clever planning, but often, as in this case, its just unplanned dumb luck. We have only a few of these moments in our careers, so we treasure them. Because a scientists most exciting moment of discovery is often his rst, I was especially pleased for Andy. During many years of advising students, Id learned that those who make major discoveries while in school generally go on to make others later. I think thats because they learn to spot things that

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dont t into the accepted picture. Instead of forcing new data to t into their preconceptions, they learn to think outside of conventional wisdom. We all try to do this but usually fail. Hence, most of our contributions come from the few aha moments when we break free. It feels like a door has just opened, and theres so much new to explore. To working scientists like me, real science is very dierent from the ideal scientic method taught in elementary school. That ideal scientist is like a lone explorer who examines the possible paths to a clearly visible mountain, chooses the best, and presses on. Real scientists are like a mob of hikers trying to nd the way to an unseen lake through dense woods full of swamps, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. We argue about which routes look best, try different ones, follow them when they seem to be working, and try others when they arent. Its exciting and fun but also confusing and frustrating. Eventually, mostly through luck, we reach the lake, often by dierent routes that get there about the same time. Once were at the lake, we argue about whether its the right lake. The moral is that while searching for the lake, we were all confused and going in the wrong directions about half the time. We nally got there as a group by combining many peoples eorts. Its hard to say who contributed what because were all sure that we played a key role. Its also not that important, because after relaxing in satisfaction for a while, we realize that theres a bigger lake somewhere higher up on the mountain, and its time to get to work looking for it. Because scientists are human, science is a very human endeavor. Scientists choose problems to study and methods to study them that reect their interests, skills, and sense of where their eorts will yield useful new knowledge. Typically, others are exploring dierent aspects of similar or related problems, using dierent methods, and sometimes nding dierent results and drawing dierent inferences. Even starting with the same set of observations, how individual scientists interpret them depends in large part on their preconceptions. Although wed like to be totally objective, we cant be. Its like watching a sports event when its unclear what happened in a tricky play; fans see the result thats good for their team. Sometimes instant replay convincingly settles the question, and sometimes it doesnt. Eventually, as scientic knowledge increases, a clear result emerges that combines many peoples work over many years. Until then, scientists grappling with a problem often have diering views. Theres spirited debate about the

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meaning of our incomplete results. Th is debate is crucial for progress, as described by the ancient Jewish sages adage the rivalry of scholars increases wisdom. This messy process has been going on since the large earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 brought the New Madrid seismic zone to scientists attention. At the time, geology had just begun as a science, and seismology, the branch of geology that studies earthquakes, didnt exist. As seismology evolved and knowledge about the New Madrid earthquakes increased, it became clear how unusual they are and how challenging it is to understand them. Hence, many researchers have been exploring scientic and policy issues for the area. Many of the results Ill be talking about come from work that graduate students, friendsmostly from other midwestern universities and I have done in the past 20 years. This isnt a formal, structured project. Geologists in general are individualists who like messy problems that dont have simple, clean solutions. Most of us view ourselves correctly or not as generalists with broad ranges of skills rather than as narrow specialists. Thus, instead of working in large organizations with clear hierarchies and assigned tasks, we typically work as loose groups of friends with overlapping interests. Were very informal, so faculty and graduate students work pretty much as equals. We share ideas, but all involved have their own take on whats going on. The results well discuss also show how empirical geology is. The earth is too complicated to have fundamental laws that predict whats going on, the way physics does. Instead, geologists observe whats happening and try to make sense of it. What we nd often surprises us and forces us to change our ideas. The earth regularly teaches us humility in the face of the complexities of nature. Thus, although we take our science seriously, we generally dont take ourselves too seriously. This geologists outlook makes it easier to communicate our science to the public. Many of us do a lot of education and outreach and enjoy it. Whether through class and public lectures, the media, or just talking to people, I nd wide interest in how our planet works and how its workings aect humanity. This book grew out of that interest. Its an overview of studies of the science and hazards of the New Madrid earthquakes. These studies involve many people, each of whom views the subject dierently. The book is written from my perspective, developed through 35 years of studying earthquakes around the world and 20 years of thinking about New Madrid.

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Ill show how scientists study the questions surrounding the New Madrid earthquakes, how far weve gotten, and what we still have to do. Ill explain what we know and what we dont, what we suspect, and which is which. Discussing these questions involves going into some concepts that can seem a little complicated, because the earth is complicated. Understanding these concepts lets us look at issues that scientists, engineers, policy makers, and the public are struggling with. These issues are interesting scientically and have practical signicance because billions of dollars are involved. Moreover, if you live in the Midwest, understanding what were learning will reduce your fear of earthquakes. Weve learned a lot about the New Madrid earthquakes in the past 20 years, so the picture coming out is very dierent from older ideas. Still, theres a lot we dont yet know. Thats typical in studying the earth. A college student can take years of classes in many other sciences before encountering topics that the instructor admits arent understood. In the earth sciences, the rst courses present many unsolved fundamental questions about our planet. An earth science instructor is like the apocryphal medical school dean who tells incoming students: Half of what we will teach you in the next four years is wrong. The problem is that we dont know which half. I hope readersespecially students considering possible careerstake away a sense of the excitement, fun, and opportunities in science. Earth science, in particular, oers the challenge of working on interesting and important problems like earthquakes in the middle of continents, where what we learn will help us live better with a complicated and active planet.