Tidal-wetland stratigraphy reveals that great plate boundary earthquakes have caused hundreds of kilometers of coast to subside at the Cascadia subduction zone. However, determining earthquake recurrence intervals and mapping the coastal extent of past great earthquake ruptures in this region are complicated by the effects of many sedimentologic, hydrographic, and oceanographic processes that occur on the coasts of tectonically passive as well as active continental margins. Tidal-wetland stratigraphy at many Cascadia estuaries differs little from that at similar sites on passive-margin coasts where stratigraphic sequences form through nonseismic processes unrelated to coseismic land level changes. Methods developed through study of similar stratigraphic sequences in Europe provide a framework for investigating the Cascadia estuarine record. Five kinds of criteria must be evaluated when inferring regional coastal subsidence due to great plate boundary earthquakes: the suddenness and amount of submergence, the lateral extent of submerged tidal-wetland soils, the coincidence of submergence with tsunami deposits, and the degree of synchroneity of submergence events at widely spaced sites. Evaluation of such criteria at the Cascadia subduction zone indicates regional coastal subsidence during at least two great earthquakes. Evidence for a coseismic origin remains equivocal, however, for the many peat-mud contacts in Cascadia stratigraphic sequences that lack (1) contrasts in lithology or fossils indicative of more than half a meter of submergence, (2) well-studied tsunami deposits, or (3) precise ages needed for regional correlation. Paleoecologic studies of fossil assemblages are particularly important in estimating the size of sudden sea level changes recorded by abrupt peat-mud contacts and in helping to distinguish erosional and gradually formed contacts from coseismic contacts. Reconstruction of a history of great earthquakes for the Cascadia subduction zone will require rigorous application of the above criteria and many detailed investigations.
Additional publication details
Identifying coseismic subsidence in tidal-wetland stratigraphic sequences at the Cascadia subduction zone of western North America