"That pulls the surface down a bit," said study co-author Steve Grand of the University of Texas. "These earthquakes are due to the bending stress."
Forte and Grand's research appeared in a recent issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Not everyone is so sure about the findings.
"It's an interesting idea and should be one of the things we include in the possible explanations for New Madrid, but I don't think it's the answer," said Robert Smalley, a seismologist at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
One problem, he said, is the same forces have been active for millions of years, but big earthquakes have probably only been going on for a few thousand years at most. Otherwise, continued activity would have built a giant mountain range, and no such range exists.
Seth Stein, a geophysicist at Northwestern University, was not part of the study.
He noted the mid-continent is actually a patchwork of old seismic zones. Earthquake activity appears to migrate around among them, with one zone becoming active for a while.
The new theory is a "very plausible" explanation of how stress might originate, Stein said. But it doesn't explain why earthquakes have been occurring at New Madrid and not somewhere else.
"This is not arguing against the large-scale forces being due to mantle dynamics," he added.
The Next Big One
The billion-dollar question, of course, is when the next big earthquake might occur.
(Related: Big Earthquake Could Devastate U.S. Midwest, Experts Warn" [April 12, 2006].)
All scientists know for certain is the fault zone has produced five major earthquakes in the past 1,500 years.
Three occurred in rapid succession in the winter of 1811-1812. The others were scattered at intervals of about 500 years.
To put that in context, there's about a ten percent chance a building built today might have to survive a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years, said Gary Patterson of the University of Memphis center, who was not involved in the study.
Grand pointed out his and Forte's new theory does nothing to improve the ability to forecast the next earthquake: It suggests tectonic stresses might not be limited to the New Madrid area. There are also high stress areas about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south and 100 miles to the north.
"Our work may give a reason for earthquakes over a broader region than just the New Madrid fault," Grand said.
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