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An Earthquake Once Caused The Mississippi River To Flow Backwards

Mississippi Flowing Backwards


An Earthquake Once Caused The Mississippi River To Flow Backwards

One of the most powerful quakes to hit North America occurred in the Midwest in the early 1800s. The earthquake was so powerful, that it caused the Mississippi river to flow backwards and caused exotic ‘Sand Blows‘. Sand blows are essentially sand volcanoes which spew dirt and sand up from the ground. The violent tremors caused the land underneath the sand layers to shift and bulge, which caused the pockets of sand to pop out of the ground, like a zit.

All this chaos happened during the New Madrid earthquakes of Dec. 1811 & Feb. 1812. We don’t know exactly how strong the earthquakes were because unfortunately, there were no seismographs back then. However, by gauging the extent of land changes, researchers can extrapolate that there were at least three, closely related quakes that were a magnitude of 8 or more on the Richter seismograph scale.

Going The Distance

The New Madrid earthquakes were so powerful, that they were felt over nearly 1 million square miles. Not only did the quake reverse the flow of the Mississippi, but it damaged the sidewalks in Washington D.Cand reportedly rang church bells in Boston.

Artist Rendition of the New Madrid EarthquakeThat’s an incredibly powerful quake, especially for the Midwest where strong earthquakes are virtually non-existent. It was more powerful than the deadly San Francisco quake of 1906. While it was one of the strongest North America has seen, it wasn’t the most powerful. That title lies with the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, which was 8.4 on the Richter scale. It was the second most powerful earthquake every recorded on a seismograph. The Alaska earthquake also caused a tsunami which resulted in deaths on a few small islands in the Pacific, and caused damage to the shores of Japan and Hawaii.

The Mississippi river flowed backwards temporarily due the quake shifting around the land. Once the land was settled and the quakes had ceased, the river begun to flow normally again. The river hasn’t flowed backwards since.

A Bleak Future?

Today, New Madrid has tens of thousands of citizens in the region and is a well developed city. In 1811, New Madrid only consisted of roughly 400 log cabins. Regarding speculation of the the New Madrid earthquakes happening today, a USGS spokesman said, “Should a category-8 quake occur there today, those cities would be mostly destroyed and thousands of people killed“.

Regarding future quakes, the USGS gives this warning: “The probability of a magnitude 6 to 7 earthquake occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone within the next 50 years is higher than 90 percent.




  1. Stacey

    March 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Is that even possible? I mean, the physics involved pretty much rule something like that out, does it not? Maybe just the top layer of water was moving in one direction while the cooler, bottom layer was going in the correct direction? That happens in the ocean all the time. The halocline layer or something, I think it’s called.

    I’m glad I don’t live in the area though. That region is overdue for an earthquake. It’s been decades since the last, and I can’t remember the last time the Mississippi flooded.

  2. Frank Delino

    July 3, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Sand volcanoes eh? I’d like to go sand surfing on one of those. Do they occur anywhere else in nature? I’d love to find out more about them.

    I wonder if the modern levies and stuff we now have in place could thwart the Mississippi if it were to flow backwards. I’d really hate to see how it would turn out if it happened today. After hurricane Katrina, our government is pretty ineffective when it comes to a quick response to disasters. I think the damage from that hurricane is STILL not clean up yet. If you look at Japan, they’re almost fully recovered. There is a huge difference.

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