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U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1661–F

Earthquake Hazards of the Pacific Northwest Coastal and Marine Regions

Robert Kayen, Editor

Turbidite Event History—Methods and Implications for Holocene Paleoseismicity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone

By Chris Goldfinger, C. Hans Nelson, Ann E. Morey, Joel E. Johnson, Jason R. Patton, Eugene Karabanov, Julia Gutiérrez-Pastor, Andrew T. Eriksson, Eulàlia Gràcia, Gita Dunhill, Randolph J. Enkin, Audrey Dallimore, and Tracy Vallier

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (27 MB)Abstract

Turbidite systems along the continental margin of Cascadia Basin from Vancouver Island, Canada, to Cape Mendocino, California, United States, have been investigated with swath bathymetry; newly collected and archive piston, gravity, kasten, and box cores; and accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dates. The purpose of this study is to test the applicability of the Holocene turbidite record as a paleoseismic record for the Cascadia subduction zone. The Cascadia Basin is an ideal place to develop a turbidite paleoseismologic method and to record paleoearthquakes because (1) a single subduction-zone fault underlies the Cascadia submarine-canyon systems; (2) multiple tributary canyons and a variety of turbidite systems and sedimentary sources exist to use in tests of synchronous turbidite triggering; (3) the Cascadia trench is completely sediment filled, allowing channel systems to trend seaward across the abyssal plain, rather than merging in the trench; (4) the continental shelf is wide, favoring disconnection of Holocene river systems from their largely Pleistocene canyons; and (5) excellent stratigraphic datums, including the Mazama ash and distinguishable sedimentological and faunal changes near the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, are present for correlating events and anchoring the temporal framework.

Multiple tributaries to Cascadia Channel with 50- to 150-km spacing, and a wide variety of other turbidite systems with different sedimentary sources contain 13 post-Mazama-ash and 19 Holocene turbidites. Likely correlative sequences are found in Cascadia Channel, Juan de Fuca Channel off Washington, and Hydrate Ridge slope basin and Astoria Fan off northern and central Oregon. A probable correlative sequence of turbidites is also found in cores on Rogue Apron off southern Oregon. The Hydrate Ridge and Rogue Apron cores also include 12–22 interspersed thinner turbidite beds respectively.

We use 14C dates, relative-dating tests at channel confluences, and stratigraphic correlation of turbidites to determine whether turbidites deposited in separate channel systems are correlative—triggered by a common event. In most cases, these tests can separate earthquake-triggered turbidity currents from other possible sources. The 10,000-year turbidite record along the Cascadia margin passes several tests for synchronous triggering and correlates well with the shorter onshore paleoseismic record. The synchroneity of a 10,000-year turbidite-event record for 500 km along the northern half of the Cascadia subduction zone is best explained by paleoseismic triggering by great earthquakes. Similarly, we find a likely synchronous record in southern Cascadia, including correlated additional events along the southern margin. We examine the applicability of other regional triggers, such as storm waves, storm surges, hyperpycnal flows, and teletsunami, specifically for the Cascadia margin.

The average age of the oldest turbidite emplacement event in the 10–0-ka series is 9,800±~210 cal yr B.P. and the youngest is 270±~120 cal yr B.P., indistinguishable from the A.D. 1700 (250 cal yr B.P.) Cascadia earthquake. The northern events define a great earthquake recurrence of ~500–530 years. The recurrence times and averages are supported by the thickness of hemipelagic sediment deposited between turbidite beds. The southern Oregon and northern California margins represent at least three segments that include all of the northern ruptures, as well as ~22 thinner turbidites of restricted latitude range that are correlated between multiple sites. At least two northern California sites, Trinidad and Eel Canyon/pools, record additional turbidites, which may be a mix of earthquake and sedimentologically or storm-triggered events, particularly during the early Holocene when a close connection existed between these canyons and associated river systems.

The combined stratigraphic correlations, hemipelagic analysis, and 14C framework suggest that the Cascadia margin has three rupture modes: (1) 19–20 full-length or nearly full length ruptures; (2) three or four ruptures comprising the southern 50–70 percent of the margin; and (3) 18–20 smaller southern-margin ruptures during the past 10 k.y., with the possibility of additional southern-margin events that are presently uncorrelated. The shorter rupture extents and thinner turbidites of the southern margin correspond well with spatial extents interpreted from the limited onshore paleoseismic record, supporting margin segmentation of southern Cascadia. The sequence of 41 events defines an average recurrence period for the southern Cascadia margin of ~240 years during the past 10 k.y.

Time-independent probabilities for segmented ruptures range from 7–12 percent in 50 years for full or nearly full margin ruptures to ~21 percent in 50 years for a southern-margin rupture. Time-dependent probabilities are similar for northern margin events at ~7–12 percent and 37–42 percent in 50 years for the southern margin. Failure analysis suggests that by the year 2060, Cascadia will have exceeded ~27 percent of Holocene recurrence intervals for the northern margin and 85 percent of recurrence intervals for the southern margin.

The long earthquake record established in Cascadia allows tests of recurrence models rarely possible elsewhere. Turbidite mass per event along the Cascadia margin reveals a consistent record for many of the Cascadia turbidites. We infer that larger turbidites likely represent larger earthquakes. Mass per event and magnitude estimates also correlate modestly with following time intervals for each event, suggesting that Cascadia full or nearly full margin ruptures weakly support a time-predictable model of recurrence. The long paleoseismic record also suggests a pattern of clustered earthquakes that includes four or five cycles of two to five earthquakes during the past 10 k.y., separated by unusually long intervals.

We suggest that the pattern of long time intervals and longer ruptures for the northern and central margins may be a function of high sediment supply on the incoming plate, smoothing asperities, and potential barriers. The smaller southern Cascadia segments correspond to thinner incoming sediment sections and potentially greater interaction between lower-plate and upper-plate heterogeneities.

The Cascadia Basin turbidite record establishes new paleoseismic techniques utilizing marine turbidite-event stratigraphy during sea-level highstands. These techniques can be applied in other specific settings worldwide, where an extensive fault traverses a continental margin that has several active turbidite systems.

This is one of a series of chapters in Earthquake Hazards of the Pacific Northwest Coastal and Marine Regions, USGS Professional Paper 1661, edited by Robert Kayen. The others consist of:

  • Crustal Deformation at the Leading Edge of the Oregon Coast Range Block, Offshore Washington (Columbia River to Hoh River), USGS Professional Paper 1661-A, by Patricia A. McCrory, David S. Foster, William W. Danforth, and Michael R. Hamer

  • Local Tsunami Hazards in the Pacific Northwest from Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes, USGS Professional Paper 1661-B, by Eric L. Geist

  • Crustal Structure and Earthquake Hazards of the Subduction Zone in Southwestern British Columbia and Western Washington, USGS Professional Paper 1661-C, by Michael A. Fisher, Roy D. Hyndman, Samuel Y. Johnson, Thomas M. Brocher, Robert S. Crosson, Ray E. Wells, Andrew J. Calvert, and Uri S. ten Brink

  • Crustal Structure of the Cascadia Fore Arc of Washington, USGS Professional Paper 1661-D, by Tom Parsons, Richard J. Blakely, Thomas M. Brocher, Nikolas I. Christensen, Michael A. Fisher, Ernst Flueh, Fiona Kilbride, James H. Luetgert, Kate Miller, Uri S. ten Brink, Anne M. Trehu, and Ray E. Wells

  • Seismic Stability of the Duwamish River Delta, Seattle, Washington, USGS Professional Paper 1661-E, by Robert E. Kayen and Walter A. Barnhardt

  • Report PDF (27 MB)
  • Appendixes folder. This folder contains files for Appendixes 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11 (spreadsheet files in several formats); and 9 (OxCal file) (86 MB total)
  • This report is available only on the Web.

For additional information:
Contacts, Active Tectonics and Seafloor Mapping Lab
Oregon State University
College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences
Burt 130, Corvallis OR 97331

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Suggested citation:

Goldfinger, C., Nelson, C.H., Morey, A.E., Johnson, J.E., Patton, J.R., Karabanov, E., Gutiérrez-Pastor, J., Eriksson, A.T., Gràcia, E., Dunhill, G., Enkin, R.J., Dallimore, A., and Vallier, T., 2012, Turbidite event history—Methods and implications for Holocene paleoseismicity of the Cascadia subduction zone: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1661–F, 170 p. (Available at




Significance of Turbidite Paleoseismology

Cascadia Subduction Zone and Great Earthquake Potential




Implications for Earthquake Hazards in Cascadia Basin and the Northern San Andreas Fault


Lessons Learned



References Cited

Appendixes 1–11

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