Paleoliquefaction Field Reconnaissance in Eastern North Carolina—Is There Evidence for Large Magnitude Earthquakes Between the Central Virginia Seismic Zone and Charleston Seismic Zone?

Scientific Investigations Report 2019-5057
By:  and 



In June 2016, approximately 64 kilometers (km) of riverbank were examined along the Tar and Neuse Rivers near Tarboro and Kinston, North Carolina, for evidence of liquefaction-forming earthquakes. The study area is in the vicinity of the Grainger’s fault zone in eastern North Carolina. The Grainger’s fault zone is a fault zone in the inner Coastal Plain Province that has well-documented Paleogene and younger deformation of Cretaceous to Eocene strata. Low-magnitude earthquakes near the fault zone (for example, magnitude [M] 2.1 in 2013, 13 km south-southwest of Kinston) suggest larger earthquakes may have struck this region in the past. The study area is about equidistant from newly documented Holocene paleoliquefaction sites in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone (CVSZ) and liquefaction sites formed during the 1886 M7.1 Charleston, South Carolina earthquake. The northernmost Holocene paleoliquefaction features associated with the Charleston Seismic Zone (CSZ) are in Southport, North Carolina.

Conditions suitable for liquefaction were identified at 38 sites on both rivers, but only one site was classified as highly susceptible. Stratigraphy consists of Paleozoic gneiss; Cretaceous sandstone/shale; Paleocene mudstone/claystone to Eocene fossiliferous limestone; Quaternary unconsolidated, crossbedded sand and gravel; and Holocene alluvium. Three sets of stratigraphic conditions suitable for liquefaction—unconsolidated source sand beneath capping strata—were identified in detailed examinations at 105 sites: (1) Holocene alluvial sand beneath alluvial silt and clay beds; (2) Quaternary terrace sand beneath beds of silt and clay; and (3) Holocene alluvial sand or Quaternary terrace sand capped by clay-rich Bt soil horizons. Weathered and unconsolidated Cretaceous sand capped by a Bt soil horizon was identified at one site, but the weathered sand is likely too compacted to liquefy readily. One outcrop containing three small sand dikes, and four outcrops of soft-sediment deformation features—mostly load casts—were observed, but none of these features could be conclusively established as seismogenic. A few examples of pseudo-sand-dikes were also identified: sand-filled cypress root casts and pedogenic weathering fronts created the appearance of sand dikes and sills.

A comparable survey in 2015 of 119 km of riverbank exposures in the CVSZ yielded 19 paleoliquefaction sites of probable earthquake origin; these features formed from at least one M~6 earthquake in the past 6,000 years (6 ka). This survey in eastern North Carolina revealed no definitive paleoliquefaction features; earthquakes of sufficient magnitude to produce liquefaction likely have not affected this region during the Holocene.

Suggested Citation

Carter, M.W., and McLaurin, B.T., 2019, Paleoliquefaction field reconnaissance in eastern North Carolina—Is there evidence for large magnitude earthquakes between the Central Virginia Seismic Zone and Charleston Seismic Zone?: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2019–5057, 54 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Geographic and Geologic Setting
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Data for paleoliquefaction survey along the Tar and Neuse Rivers in central-eastern North Carolina, June 21–25, 2016
  • Appendix 2. Radiocarbon data for a sample of organic matter from an alluvial bar deposit at the mouth of an abandoned river meander bend on the Neuse River, central-eastern North Carolina
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Paleoliquefaction field reconnaissance in eastern North Carolina—Is there evidence for large magnitude earthquakes between the central Virginia seismic zone and Charleston seismic zone?
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2019-5057
DOI 10.3133/sir20195057
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center, Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center
Description vi, 54 p.
Country United States
State North Carolina
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details