Great earthquakes along the Western United States continental margin: implications for hazards, stratigraphy and turbidite lithology

Nelson, C. H.; Gutiérrez Pastor, J.; Goldfinger, C.; Escutia, C.

We summarize the importance of great earthquakes ( Mw ≳ 8) for hazards, stratigraphy of basin floors, and turbidite lithology along the active tectonic continental margins of the Cascadia subduction zone and the northern San Andreas Transform Fault by utilizing studies of swath bathymetry visual core descriptions, grain size analysis, X-ray radiographs and physical properties. Recurrence times of Holocene turbidites as proxies for earthquakes on the Cascadia and northern California margins are analyzed using two methods: (1) radiometric dating ( 14C method), and (2) relative dating, using hemipelagic sediment thickness and sedimentation rates (H method). The H method provides (1) the best estimate of minimum recurrence times, which are the most important for seismic hazards risk analysis, and (2) the most complete dataset of recurrence times, which shows a normal distribution pattern for paleoseismic turbidite frequencies. We observe that, on these tectonically active continental margins, during the sea-level highstand of Holocene time, triggering of turbidity currents is controlled dominantly by earthquakes, and paleoseismic turbidites have an average recurrence time of ~550 yr in northern Cascadia Basin and ~200 yr along northern California margin. The minimum recurrence times for great earthquakes are approximately 300 yr for the Cascadia subduction zone and 130 yr for the northern San Andreas Fault, which indicates both fault systems are in (Cascadia) or very close (San Andreas) to the early window for another great earthquake.

On active tectonic margins with great earthquakes, the volumes of mass transport deposits (MTDs) are limited on basin floors along the margins. The maximum run-out distances of MTD sheets across abyssal-basin floors along active margins are an order of magnitude less (~100 km) than on passive margins (~1000 km). The great earthquakes along the Cascadia and northern California margins cause seismic strengthening of the sediment, which results in a margin stratigraphy of minor MTDs compared to the turbidite-system deposits. In contrast, the MTDs and turbidites are equally intermixed on basin floors along passive margins with a mud-rich continental slope, such as the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Great earthquakes also result in characteristic seismo-turbidite lithology. Along the Cascadia margin, the number and character of multiple coarse pulses for correlative individual turbidites generally remain constant both upstream and downstream in different channel systems for 600 km along the margin. This suggests that the earthquake shaking or aftershock signature is normally preserved, for the stronger ( Mw ≥ 9) Cascadia earthquakes. In contrast, the generally weaker ( Mw = or <8) California earthquakes result in upstream simple fining-up turbidites in single tributary canyons and channels; however, downstream mainly stacked turbidites result from synchronously triggered multiple turbidity currents that deposit in channels below confluences of the tributaries. Consequently, both downstream channel confluences and the strongest ( Mw ≥ 9) great earthquakes contribute to multi-pulsed and stacked turbidites that are typical for seismo-turbidites generated by a single great earthquake. Earthquake triggering and multi-pulsed or stacked turbidites also become an alternative explanation for amalgamated turbidite beds in active tectonic margins, in addition to other classic explanations. The sedimentologic characteristics of turbidites triggered by great earthquakes along the Cascadia and northern California margins provide criteria to help distinguish seismo-turbidites in other active tectonic margins.

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Nelson, C. H. / Gutiérrez Pastor, J. / Goldfinger, C. / et al: Great earthquakes along the Western United States continental margin: implications for hazards, stratigraphy and turbidite lithology. 2012. Copernicus Publications.

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