Wisconsin’s shaky history with earthquakes

Credit: Milwaukee Magazine

By Christina Lorey
October 18, 2023

It’s still hurricane season down south–a time of year we’re reminded how lucky we are to live in Wisconsin. Or are we?

While a hurricane has never, and will most likely never, hit Wisconsin, that doesn’t mean we can’t feel the effects. According to WTMJ meteorologist Brian Nizansky, hurricanes that make landfall along the Gulf Coast often race towards the Midwest, and some have almost maintained tropical storm status by the time they near Wisconsin.

Earthquakes, however, are a different story. We can, and do, feel them–even though there has been only one documented earthquake in Wisconsin proper.

On May 6, 1947, a 4-magnitude earthquake shook downtown Milwaukee. That quake was strong enough to break the windows of dozens of buildings. But most of the earthquakes felt in southeastern Wisconsin originate in northern Illinois, which is home to a few active faults.

What does this mean for the future?

Seismologists say it’s very possible, and even probable, Wisconsin will experience a major earthquake in the next century. The New Madrid Zone, which stretches from western Tennessee to Missouri, has been known to produce a series of quakes that have registered an 8 magnitude or greater.

If this were to happen again, the waves would easily travel through the Midwest’s bedrock, and we’d not only feel them here, but likely, sustain some damage.

But seismic experts are split on whether, and when, this could happen. The US Geological Survey estimates there is a 28% to 47% chance a magnitude 6 earthquake (or greater) will hit the New Madrid Zone in the next 40 years.

MORE: The World’s Most Earthquake-Prone Cities

DID YOU KNOW? Now and Then Falls at Amnicon Falls State Park in South Range was created by the Douglas Fault, a 500-million-year-old crack that extends from Ashland to the Twin Cities.

“It doesn’t get as much hype as the other falls there, but it’s unique,” photographer Andrew Jerry explained. “I like how the water drops and then flows 90 degrees down stream.”

Waterfalls and rapids are the main draws for Amnicon Falls State Park, located seven miles east of the Superior city limits in Douglas County. You can view them from a covered foot bridge, trails along the river, or, if you’re feeling brave, from the rocky shoreline. The park is open year-round.

MORE: 7 must-see Wisconsin waterfalls


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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