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For Expert Comment: University of Missouri Researcher Says Japan Earthquake System Different than New Madrid Earthquake System

March 14th, 2011

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

Mian Liu, professor of geological sciences

Mian Liu, professor of geological sciences

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A University of Missouri geological sciences professor says the large earthquake that took place in Japan is entirely different than the earthquakes that took place along Missouri’s New Madrid fault, and that despite recent technological advances, it’s still impossible for scientists to predict where and when the next earthquake could occur.

Mian Liu, professor of geological sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU, has studied earthquakes in many places including the New Madrid fault in southeastern Missouri. He said the historic earthquake that struck Japan was caused by shifting between tectonic plates, whereas earthquakes in the New Madrid fault region occur on a complicated network of interacting faults within the North American plate.

In a recent study published in the journal Lithosphere, Liu and co-authors Seth Stein, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University, and Hui Wang, a Chinese Earthquake Administration researcher, said that high-precision Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements in the past two decades have found no significant strain in the New Madrid area, which had three to four large earthquake events during 1811-12, and perhaps a few more in the past thousand years.

“As far as the New Madrid fault is concerned, we need to look at the ‘big picture’ of interacting faults, rather than focusing only on the faults where large earthquakes occurred in the recent past,” Liu said. “Earthquake histories in countries like China, where excellent historic records were kept, indicate that large earthquakes in mid-continent tend to migrate among faults.”

However, even the best science and technology cannot predict where and when the next earthquake will strike. Liu said that Japan is a world leader in earthquake research, due to the frequency of earthquakes that occur there and Japan’s advanced monitoring networks. He noted that Japan’s earthquake hazard map indicates the most danger to be along the coast of southern Japan, but the recent earthquake – the largest in Japan’s recorded history – ruptured along Japan’s northern shore.

“This just shows how much uncertainty goes into our assessment of earthquake hazard, because in Japan we have the best information available to earthquake science, yet it was still missed,” said Liu.