Geology of Seattle, a field trip

Geological Society of America Field Guides 49- 1
By: , and 
Edited by: Ralph A. Haugerud and Harvey M. Kelsey



Seattle’s geologic record begins with Eocene deposition of fluvial arkosic sandstone and associated volcanic rocks of the Puget Group, perhaps during a time of regional strike-slip faulting, followed by late Eocene and Oligocene marine deposition of the Blakeley Formation in the Cascadia forearc. Older Quaternary deposits are locally exposed.

Most of the city is underlain by up to 100 m of glacial drift deposited during the Vashon stade of Fraser glaciation, 18–15 cal k.y. B.P. Vashon Drift includes lacustrine clay and silt of the Lawton Clay, lacustrine and fluvial sand of the Esperance Sand, and concrete-like Vashon till. Mappable till is absent over much of the area of the Vashon Drift. Peak local ice thickness was 900 m. Isostatic response to this brief ice loading was significant. Upon deglaciation, global ice-equivalent sea level was about −100 m and local RSL (relative sea level) was 15–20 m, suggesting a total isostatic depression of ~115–120 m at Seattle. Subsequent rapid rebound outstripped global sea-level rise to result in a newly recognized marine low-stand shoreline at −50 m.

The Seattle fault is a north-verging thrust or reverse fault with ~7.5 km of throw. Conglomeratic Miocene strata may record initiation of shortening. Field relations indicate that fault geometry has evolved through three phases. At present, the north-verging master fault is blind, whereas several surface-rupturing faults above the master fault are south verging. The 900–930 A.D. Restoration Point earthquake raised a 5 km × 35 km (or larger) area as much as 7 m. The marine low-stand shoreline is offset by a similar amount, thus there has been only one such earthquake in the last ~11 k.y.

Geomorphology is largely glacial: an outwash plain decorated with ice-molded flutes and large, anastomosing tunnel valleys carved by water flowing beneath the ice sheet. Euro-Americans initially settled here because of landscape features formed by uplift in the Restoration Point earthquake. But steep slopes and tide flats were not conducive to commerce: starting in the 1890s and ending in the 1920s, extensive regrading removed hills, decreased slopes, and filled low areas.

In steep slopes the glacial stratigraphy is prone to landslides when saturated by unusually wet winters. Seismic hazards comprise moderately large (M 7) earthquakes in the Benioff zone 50 km and more beneath the city, demi-millennial M 9 events on the subduction zone to the west, and infrequent local crustal earthquakes (M 7) that are likely to be devastating because of their proximity. Seismic shaking and consequent liquefaction are of particular concern in Pioneer Square, SoDo, and lower Duwamish neighborhoods, which are largely built on unengineered fill that was placed over estuarine mud. Debris from past Mount Rainier lahars has reached the lower Duwamish valley and a future large lahar could pose a sedimentation hazard.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Geology of Seattle, a field trip
Series title Geological Society of America Field Guides
Series number 49
Chapter 1
ISBN 9780813756493
DOI 10.1130/2017.0049(01)
Volume 49
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Monograph
Larger Work Title From the Puget Lowland to east of the Cascade range: Geologic excursions in the Pacific Northwest (GSA Field Guides, Volume 49)
Country United States
State Washington
City Seattle
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