Abstract

The northeast-striking New Madrid fault system of central North America has been described as a right-lateral strike-slip system with a left-stepping restraining-bend thrust. The fault system has one of the highest rates of seismic energy release in an intraplate setting, and it has been regarded as a zone of significant earthquake hazard. The New Madrid fault system is the central part of the wider Reelfoot rift fault system, a northeast- striking basement fault zone. Although component faults of the New Madrid system are well defined by microseismicity, recent geodetic surveys suggest that little if any strain is accumulating on the principal (southern) strike-slip arm of the fault system. Seismicity and geologic data show that the “restraining-bend” thrust continues past the southern strike-slip arm to the southeastern Reelfoot rift margin. Thus, we suggest that earthquakes defining the southern arm of the New Madrid fault system are primarily aftershocks of an earthquake on that arm during the last sequence of great earthquakes (A.D. 1811– 1812), and it is the southeastern rift-margin fault system that is currently accommodating right-lateral strain along the boundary of the thrust block. This interpretation is consistent with recent geodetic results. The southeastern rift margin coincides with a 150-km-long linear topographic scarp from near Memphis to the Tennessee-Kentucky line, and S-wave reflection profiles, auger data, and a trench excavation reveal late Wisconsin–early Holocene surface faulting and late Holocene liquefaction associated with this fault-line scarp. Variation in sense of throw along strike and flower-structure geometry suggest that this is a strike-slip fault. Recognition of this rift margin as an important element of active tectonism in the Mississippi embayment has broad implications for assessment of the seismic hazard of this and similar intraplate settings. Temporal shifts in strain accommodation may give rise to short-term seismicity patterns and/or geodetic velocities that do not reveal long-term tectonic patterns.

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