Monday, July 9, 2012

The Day the Mississippi River Ran Backward

The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is part of the largest and most powerful river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, it runs southward for 2,530 miles. It drains 31 different states and is the fourth longest and tenth biggest river in the world. But in 1811 and 1812, a series of powerful earthquakes struck so hard that for one day, the mighty Mississippi ran backward.

On the early morning of December 16, 1811, the tiny town of New Madrid, Mississippi, was struck by an earthquake. With less than a thousand residents in the area, there was little damage and no deaths. Then, a few hours later, between 7:15 and 8:15 am, another quake struck, only much larger in magnitude. This second quake registered an 8.6, knocked people off of their feet, snapped trees in half, and destroyed buildings in the area. The quake caused fissures to open in the ground, and sulphur pockets erupted. Thousands of acres of forest were flooded by the rise in the Mississippi river.

A third earthquake struck the same region on January 23, 1812. This one was slightly smaller, registering an 8.4, but causing the same type and amount of damage. Thankfully the death toll was lower, since the area was still recovering from the last great quake.

But the earth wasn't done with New Madrid just yet.

The destruction of New Madrid, Mississippi
On Februrary 7, 1812, at 4:45 am, the fourth and largest earthquake struck. It registered an 8.8 and the town of New Madrid was destroyed in seconds. The quake caused depressions in the waterbed of the river, creating massive whirlpools. The movement of the ground under the New Madrid area also created a thrust fault, where ground on one side of a fault moves up and over the other side of the fault. This thrust fault caused large sections of the Mississippi to rise up, creating huge waterfalls, throwing at least 30 ships around like paper, and forcing the waters of the river to flow north!

The quake was felt thousands of miles away: In Boston and Toronto, church bells rang with the swaying of the ground; walls in Cincinnati, Ohio crumbled; sidewalks spilt and cracked like eggs in Washington D.C. In and around the New Madrid area, large islands in the middle of the Mississippi, once used by pirates, disappeared forever. Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake in Arkansas were created in one night, as the river flowed into newly created depressions.

Damage comparison between New Madrid, MS in 1812
and Northridge, CA in 1994
It took several hours for the Mississippi River to correct itself and begin flowing south once again.

Aftershocks continued for several years after the series of earthquakes officially ended in March, 1812.

What was once the New Madrid area is still an active fault line. Experts predict that in the next 50 years, there is a 40 percent chance of 6.0 earthquake or greater on the New Madrid fault line, and a 10 percent chance of an earthquake between 7.5 and 8.0. An earthquake of 7.5 or greater in this area today would result in the largest natural disaster in United States history.


  1. Wow! I enjoy stopping by and reading your blog. I'll be back!

    1. Thanks Julie! I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Feel free to suggest possible stories for future posts. The only requirement is that they are 100 percent true!

  2. Cool story. California is not the only spot in the US with earthquakes.

    1. Right you are, Quackster! Thanks for reading!