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30 Years Later: Remembering Iben Browning’s False New Madrid Earthquake Prediction

A map of earthquakes recorded in the New Madrid Seismic Zone from June 1974 to July 2011.
A map of earthquakes recorded in the New Madrid Seismic Zone from June 1974 to July 2011.

In a 1990 interview, Iben Browning, a self-proclaimed climatologist, predicted that the St. Louis area was in for a major earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone. He forecast that it would happen right around Dec. 3, 1990, sparking a media frenzy in the small town of New Madrid, Missouri, and causing many people across the region to stock up on emergency supplies.

“This earthquake prediction hysteria is actually a rather vivid memory from my childhood!" Twitter user @Larsnarsbars wrote toSt. Louis on the Air. “I was in 1st grade in Florissant and we were supposed to have our holiday concert on the predicted night... and did some drills. My mom made an earthquake kit in a trashcan kept outside our garage (canned food/opener, gallons of water, first aid kit). Adults seemed to know it was a bonkers prediction, but also we live on a faultline and anything is possible.”

Scientists at the time didn’t outright deny Browning’s claim but knew it was likely that Browning was wrong, as his methods for prediction were never published or subjected to peer review.

“We could not predict earthquakes, and we were surprised that anyone would claim that they could predict an earthquake,” said Robert Herrmann, professor emeritus of geophysics at St. Louis University, who spent his career studying earthquakes in the region. He spoke with guest host Jonathan Ahl on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

An earthquake in the fall of 1990, Hermann said, likely is what captured people’s imagination and interest despite the fact that researchers doubted Browning’s earthquake prediction.

“In September of 1990, there was a magnitude 4.7 earthquake very close to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and then all of a sudden, there's a lot of interest in earthquakes again, and then it started building and building and building,” Herrmann said. “Then finally, on December 3, all the interest just crashed to total quiet.”

Since 1990, the area has yet to experience the magnitude of tremor that Browning anticipated.

“The ones that happened a couple hundred years ago — around 7.5 [magnitude], which were huge earthquakes — the chance of something like that happening again, the experts say is between 7 to 10% in a 50-year time period,” said Jeff Briggs, the earthquake program manager for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. “The chance of something smaller, but still very significant — a magnitude 6 or higher — is a larger percentage. That's estimated to be about a 25 to 40% chance in that same 50-year time period.

“The risk is significant enough that we need to keep an eye on it. And we need to prepare for it. Because when another big one does hit, there are millions of people that live in that area that are going to be impacted,” Briggs added. “And it's going to be an enormous natural disaster.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.