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Recognition of the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes in Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee sediments using pollen data

Abstract

Reelfoot Lake is located within the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a region characterized by ongoing seismic activity and the locus of a series of large earthquakes (m b >7) during 1811–1812. Coseismic uplift and subsidence from the 1811–1812 events formed the lake basin from a partially inundated alluvial bottomland forest. Lithologic, chronologic, and palynologic data from a vibracore are used here to characterize the 1811–1812 earthquake record in lacustrine sediments. The stratigraphic record consists of a poorly consolidated upper silt, an intervening 10-cm sand layer, overlying a compact lower silt. Calibrated radiocarbon age estimates on wood samples from both silt units indicate deposition during historical time (1490–1890 AD).

Better age estimates were obtained by correlating pollen assemblage data from the upper and lower silt with the historical record of land-use change in the Reelfoot Lake region. Two factors resulted in changing plant distributions (and hence pollen assemblages) in Reelfoot Lake sediments: 1) altered drainage patterns of Reelfoot Creek and Bayou de Chien resulting from 1811–1812 uplift and subsidence, and 2) deforestation and subsequent cultivation beginning approximately 1850 AD. The upper silt is characterized by a oak/cedar arboreal pollen (AP) assemblage, showing a mixture of upland and alluvial bottomland AP influx from the region to the open lake basin. Non-arboreal pollen (NAP) in the upper silt shows increasing abundance of Composites, particularly ragweed pollen indicating cultivation. This unit was deposited after the 1811–1812 earthquakes. The intervening sand layer was apparently emplaced by earthquake activity, or represents colluvium derived from most recent (1811–1812) coseismic uplift of Reelfoot scarp, which forms the western margin of the lake. The lower silt is characterized by a baldcypress/cedar AP assemblage with minor percentages of other flood-tolerant AP genera, interpreted as a baldcypress-dominated bottomland forest. Pollen influx in this environment is dominated by gravity-component deposition from local sources. The NAP in the lower silt shows that ragweed is rare or absent, suggesting pre-settlement conditions and deposition prior to 1811–1812.

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Mirecki, J.E. Recognition of the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes in Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee sediments using pollen data. J Paleolimnol 15, 183–191 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00196780

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00196780

Key words

  • earthquakes
  • Mississippi Valley
  • land-use change
  • pollen