“Finding fault”: The failed Midwest earthquake prediction, 30 years later

Dr. Donald Stierman: “They closed schools, they closed mines ... losses were probably in the millions of dollars wasted on this.”
Published: Dec. 3, 2020 at 7:04 PM EST
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - On December 3rd, 1990, climatologist Iven Browning gave a 50/50 shot of an earthquake centered in New Madrid, Missouri affecting the entire Midwest.

As University of Toledo’s Dr. Donald Stierman recalls: “[Browning] said that because of the alignment of the planets, and because the moon would be unusually close to the Earth, that the gravitational forces were going to cause an earthquake ... though why he picked Missouri, I have no idea since the entire Earth is under the same gravitational pull.”

Cue the media firestorm drawing in coverage from around the country, and the subdued follow-up when said quake never shook out. The Blade printed the next day, tongue-in-cheek, about wild rumors of -- among other things -- “blackbirds flying backward, fish shooting up out of the river, and angels directing traffic” in that small section of the Show-Me State.

”They closed schools, they closed mines ... losses were probably in the millions of dollars wasted on this,” says Dr. Stierman. “Insurance companies started calling people to sell them earthquake insurance.”

The retired UT associate professor says while Missouri has seen earthquakes in the past that were felt many states over, no seismologist worth their salt bought into the hype.

“There’s nothing seismologists want more than to know there’s a big earthquake coming, so we can surround it with instruments and really see what goes on,” he said. “If we knew the big earthquake was coming, we wouldn’t have to deploy any instruments since there’s your problem already solved. The USGS has a committee that met to assess earthquake predictions, and the seismologists found [Browning’s] arguments completely off base.”

Dr. Stierman compares earthquake prediction to weather prediction, noting the technological leaps in the former and bluntly stating why the latter is still very difficult to pin down.

“Weather forecasting has become remarkably accurate over my lifetime, and that’s because we can make many observations and measurements and keep getting better with all the practice ... whereas the Earth is pretty hard to see into,” he said.

Northwest Ohio is no stranger to seismic activity, however. Dr. Stierman recalls a quake in 1986 that had the bookshelves rocking on UT campus -- and one which set the stage for a potential prank on one of our own reporters: “WSPD, I think the station was, put a reporter next to the seismograph ... and we were tempted to go downstairs and shake it, but we didn’t.”

More recently, a magnitude 3.4 quake -- later downgraded to an M3.2 -- was centered off the Monroe County, Michigan, coast of Lake Erie back in August, which many Toledoans felt, though none reported any damage.

We do have a fault line running from Michigan down to Findlay, cutting through western Lucas County -- which can be partially seen at Farnsworth Metropark when the water levels along the Maumee River are low enough -- though it’s generally inactive. As Dr. Stierman puts it: “The Bowling Green fault is at the wrong angle to the stress fields, so I don’t blame that fault for anything.”

Moral of the story: While we do get minor quakes in the Buckeye State, you can probably hold off on that earthquake insurance for now.

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