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What happened in 1886?
IMage of the southeastern United States showing the intensity of the earthquake of 1886 and the fact that it was felt up to New York, down to Cuba and over to the Mississippi River.On August 31, 1886, announced around 9:50 PM, Charleston, South Carolina, experienced the most damaging earthquake in the eastern United States. The initial shock lasted nearly one minute. The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.3 (Johnson, 1996) and was felt over 2.5 million square miles, from Cuba to New York, and Bermuda to the Mississippi. Structural damage extended several hundreds of miles to cities in Alabama, Ohio, and Kentucky. At the time of the earthquake, many of the residents of Charleston thought it was a calamity that struck the entire world. Many residents were surprised when they discovered it was principally their area where the majority of severe damage occurred.

Geologically, Charleston lies in one of the most seismically active areas in the Eastern United States. The seismicity in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina clusters around the cities of Summerville and Bowman, SC, known as the Middleton Place— Summerville Seismic Zone (MPSSZ). Woodstock Fault located in Charleston county near SummervilleThe MSSZ seismicity appears to be occurring in two steeply dipping faults. The first fault is the deeper, northeast-trending Woodstock Fault and the second is the shallower, northwest-trending Ashley River Fault. Although usually not felt, 10 to 30 earthquakes are recorded annually in the MSSZ. Recent seismic activity (November 2002; M=4.2 & 3.5) has also included a felt earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.

Currently the MSSZ experiences between 10 to 15 magnitude 3 or less events every year. Large events like the 1886 earthquake have been recorded in the oral history of the area (~1600 and 13-1400's AD). Additionally, paleoseismic investigations have shown evidence for several pre-historic, liquefaction-inducing earthquakes in coastal SOuth Carolina in the last 6000 years (Talwani and Schaeffer, 2001). If the present is the key to the past, and the past is an analog for the future, then the Charleston region can expect to experience another 1886 magnitude event in the future.
 
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Last Updated: October 24, 2011
Curator: hallcr@cofc.edu

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