The applicability of the horizontal-to-vertical (H/V) ambient-noise spectral ratio for characterizing earthquake site effects caused by nearsurface topography and velocity structures was evaluated at sites underlain by thick (i.e. >100 m) sediment deposits near the southern-end of the New Madrid seismic zone in the central United States. Three-component ambient-noise and velocity models derived from seismic (shearwave) refraction/reflection surveys showed that a relatively horizontal, sharp shear-wave velocity interface in the soil column resulted in an H/V spectral ratio with a single well-defined peak. Observations at sites with more than one sharp shear-wave velocity contrast and horizontally arranged soil layers resulted in at least two well-defined H/V spectral ratio peaks. Furthermore, at sites where there were sharp shear-wave velocity contrasts in nonhorizontal, near-surface soil layers, the H/V spectra exhibited a broad-bandwidth, relatively low amplitude signal instead of a single well-defined peak. ?? 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.