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Columns

Reflections: There’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on…

Our near neighbors out in Oklahoma have a problem. They’ve become the nation’s most seismically active state, thanks to the production of oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking.

How active is active? In 2001, Oklahoma reported no quakes of 3.0 or greater magnitude on the Moment Magnitude (formerly the Richter) Scale. In 2014, there were 562 magnitude 3.0 or higher quakes in the once tranquil state.

Some of those quakes have been fairly serious, and a substantial amount of damage has been caused. These days, Oklahoma far outpaces California (where they’re still waiting for The Big One) in the number of 3.0 or greater quakes.

Here in Illinois, we’re not just the Prairie State, we are also, down south at least, the Quaking State. Thanks to what is known as the New Madrid Fault, named for the Missouri town on the west bank of the Mississippi River, southern Illinois gets the shakes pretty regularly. And, apparently, that’s been going on for thousands of years, no fracking required.

The first major quake down that way in historic times was recorded in 1795 between the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The ground shook and rolled for a minute and a half at Kaskaskia and the trembler also was felt in Kentucky.

The granddaddy of all Illinois quakes, however, occurred a few years later, with shocks starting in 1811 and extending into 1812. Tremors from a succession of quakes pounded the area not once but four times. Fortunately, at the time, few people were living in what was then called the Illinois Territory, but even with so few residents (scattered settlements in the south, a few French traders at Peoria, and a few soldiers at Fort Dearborn) deaths did occur.

The first quake, which scientists now measure at an estimated 8.2 on the MMS, struck about 2 a.m. Dec. 16, 1811. The second rumbled through the area about six hours later, and measured the same 8.2 on the MMS. A third quake, with an MMS rating of 8.1, struck Jan. 23, 1812.

The fourth, and most powerful of the four tremblers, estimated by some seismologists to have registered as high as 8.3 on the MMS, hit the already well-shaken residents of the Mississippi Valley on Feb. 7. In comparison, the hugely destructive 1906 San Francisco earthquake measured 7.7 on the logarithmic MMS scale, meaning the Illinois quake was about six times as powerful as the quake that leveled that city.

Future Illinois Gov. John Reynolds, a young man in his early 20s when the quake hit, said in his 1879 history of Illinois that the quake caused so much noise and shaking of the family’s log cabin that his father thought Indians were attacking. The series of quakes was felt as far away as Washington, D.C., and residents of Richmond, Va., out walking when the quake struck found it difficult to stand as the shock passed.

That final and most powerful of the series of disturbances had its epicenter near New Madrid, Mo., then a small frontier hamlet, which was completely destroyed. Several houses and other buildings were destroyed or damaged at St. Louis. The power of the uplift quake created temporary waterfalls on the Mississippi River, and changed the course of the river itself, creating the great looping Kentucky Bend.

Temporary dams of fallen and uprooted trees and subsidence of sections of riverbank which suddenly tumbled into the stream, along with the sudden uplift, caused the great river to flow backwards for a period of minutes. One flatboat crew reported their craft was carried upstream by the surge faster than a man could walk.

As it happened, one of the very first steamboats on the Mississippi was steaming downstream when the quake hit, and its crew, when they finally reached New Orleans after a harrowing voyage on a river that had suddenly become foreign to even the most experienced pilots, left a valuable account of what had happened.

Boatmen up and down the river frantically tried to cope with the vast changes in the landscape that took place as they watched. No one knows how many of them perished during the series of quakes.

A request sent to Washington, D.C., dated Jan. 13, 1814, by William Clark, he of Lewis and Clark fame, then the governor of Missouri Territory, asked for federal relief for the “inhabitants of New Madrid County.” Historians say this was quite possibly the first example of a request for disaster relief from the U.S. federal government.

Much smaller quakes are common in far southern Illinois due to the New Madrid Fault, but northern Illinois isn’t immune, either. We have the Sandwich Fault, along with a couple others up this way. The most startling quake in the Fox Valley shook the area in late May 1909. According to recent studies, the quake’s epicenter was at Morris in Grundy County, and was felt in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana as well as here in Illinois. Seismologists estimate it measured 5.1 on the MMS scale.

In its May 26, 1909 edition, the Kendall County Record, under the headline “Earthquake In Kendall,” reported: “Yorkville and vicinity was visited by an earthquake shock this morning about 9 o’clock that brought everyone to their doors with a start. The feeling was as of an immense explosion and the buildings were rocked throughout the village. The quake visited all the country surrounding, Chicago, Aurora, Joliet, Oswego, Newark, in fact all of Kendall county and surrounding country was shocked. No one was hurt, so far as can be learned, but it is said that glass was broken and chimneys shaken down in some localities.”

Added the Record’s Oswego correspondent in the next week’s paper: “The earthquakes of last Wednesday and Friday mornings furnished the topic for conversation this past week. No damage was reported on either day.”

And all that without fracking. Which leads one to wonder, what would happen should Illinois allow fracking?

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