Reprocessing of seismic-reflection data reveals new images of upper- to middle-crustal structures beneath the Wabash Valley seismic zone, located north of the New Madrid seismic zone within the seismically active southern Illinois basin. Four intersecting deep seismic profiles (243 km total) indicate an anomalous, 5–10-km-wide zone of dipping reflections and diffractions below the western flank of the Wabash Valley fault system (WVFS). The zone corresponds in places to gently arched regions of Paleozoic strata. The reflector zone can be interpreted as a result of either (or a combination of) magmatic intrusion or structural deformation. The area encompassing the reflection profiles has experienced several moderate magnitude (3.0 ≤ mbLg ≤ 5.5) earthquakes during the past 50 years, defining the central part of the Wabash Valley seismic zone. The hypocenter of the largest 20th-century earthquake in the central USA midcontinent (9 November 1968, mbLg 5.5) corresponds to the most prominent zone of dipping middle-crustal reflections, just west of the WVFS. Both the focal mechanism (moderately dipping reverse fault) and the expected rupture zone size (∼2.9 km fault length) of this earthquake are consistent with the orientation and size of observed reflectors. Dipping reflector patterns in the Precambrian crust are not collinear with fault surfaces updip in the Paleozoic sedimentary section. This indicates that shallow Paleozoic structures are effectively “decoupled” from deeper, possibly seismogenic structure, which suggests that understanding Paleozoic structure is not the key to understanding the earthquake source. The complex dipping crustal reflectivity beneath the WVFS is typical of Paleozoic continental convergent zones observed elsewhere (e.g., Appalachian orogen) and thus may suggest a preserved Proterozoic suture, possibly associated with the distal Grenville orogeny or an older event.

Although magnetic intensity, Bouguer gravity, and seismic-reflection data present different means of understanding the deep geology of the area, their integration aids in limiting the number of admissible interpretations. The reflection profiles indicate a variable zone of anomalous crustal structure, including the dipping reflector zone, along a trend of northeast-trending gravity and magnetic highs locally defining the Commerce geophysical lineament (CGL), which is a suspected source of seismic hazard in the central USA midcontinent. Three-dimensional inverse modeling of the residual isostatic gravity anomaly values indicates that the upper part of the dipping reflector zone beneath the CGL lies near an important density boundary in the upper Precambrian crust. The results of our study suggest that the seismogenic source just north of the New Madrid seismic zone consists, in part, of a pre-existing fabric of blind thrusts localized along pre-existing igneous intrusions, locally coincident with the CGL. This suggests that the CGL may be seismogenic in places and thus a potential seismic hazard. The variation in the expression of the CGL using reflection and potential-field data sets is probably partly related to the differing geologic features by which it is expressed, but would be also consistent with its reactivation numerous times under varying stress regimes.

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