Just over 200 years ago in 1811, the largest earthquake in Missouri’s history struck the state’s “boot heel,” just several hours south of Principia College. People felt the quake as far away as New York, and smaller quakes continued for three months after.
But what’s the importance of this today? Why should students at Principia care? Though the quake occurred two centuries ago, it does not mean that similar events could not happen again. Some people are unaware of the high probability of a large quake happening in their own backyards. It is important to understand that Principia College is only three hours north of one of the largest seismic zones in the United States.
For those who don’t know, seismology is the study of earthquakes. A seismic zone is simply an area that is prone to earthquakes, and earthquakes happen when there is a sudden release of energy between two blocks of rock in the earth. These seismic zones are most common in an area where two or more of earth’s tectonic plates meet. They can also be found in areas like the Midwest, where there are faults, a type of fracture in the rock.
Think of the focus of the quake as a person jumping into a swimming pool. The seismic waves are like the ripples that are caused by the jump. The larger the initial jump, the higher and faster the ripples are. In other words, a cannonball will make bigger waves than a pencil dive.
During one of the 1811-12 earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the Reelfoot Fault experienced a significant amount of pressure. This caused uplifts in the land. The uplifts happened on the Mississippi River, resulting in temporary waterfalls and also changing the direction of current.
Seismologists say there is a 10 percent chance today of an earthquake on the scale of those in 1811-12. But this event isn’t as unlikely as it seems. The more time without an earthquake, the more pressure is being put on the fault or plate. This can eventually result in a much larger earthquake. Smaller and more frequent earthquakes are better than large and infrequent ones, because they relieve pressure more steadily from the Earth.
Though less common, quakes in the Midwest can be devastating. According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, “The harder, colder, drier and less fractured nature of the rocks in the earth’s crust in the central United States, earthquakes in this region shake and damage an area approximately 20 times larger than earthquakes in California and most other active seismic areas.”
While these statistics can be terrifying, the odds of getting hit by a massive earthquake here at Principia aren’t great. However, it’s not impossible. And even if the focus of the earthquake is hundreds of miles away from the College, the seismic waves could possibly reach here and still do damage.
Fortunately, the architecture of Principia buildings is quite strong, posing a challenge for any earthquake. It is believed that the Chapel would simply shake off its foundation and fall off the bluffs, but still remain completely intact.