Evidence for large earthquakes at the Cascadia Subduction Zone


  • John J. Clague


Large, historically unprecedented earthquakes at the Cascadia subduction zone in western North America have left signs of sudden land level change, tsunamis, and strong shaking in coastal sediments. The coastal geological evidence suggests that many of the earthquakes occurred at the boundary between the overriding North American plate and the subducting Juan de Fuca plate. This hypothesis is consistent with geodetic measurements and the results of geophysical modeling, which indicate that part of the plate boundary is locked and accumulating elastic strain that will be released during a future large earthquake. Arguments based on potential amounts of seismic slip and likely rupture areas suggest that most or all of the plate boundary earthquakes were magnitude 8 or larger events. The last earthquake or series of earthquakes, about 300 years ago, ruptured the entire 1000-km length of the subduction zone; if it was a single quake, it probably exceeded magnitude 9. Other earthquakes may have ruptured one or more segments of the subduction zone or may have occurred on faults in the North American plate. Recurrence intervals are uncertain because of difficulties in identifying and dating earthquakes. In southwestern Washington state, intervals for the seven most recent earthquakes average about 500 years but range from less than 200 years to 700–1300 years. Future research on Cascadian plate boundary earthquakes will probably focus on (1) the relation between plate boundary and crustal earthquakes, (2) earthquake magnitude, (3) the areal extent and severity of seismic ground motions, (4) ages and number of past plate boundary earthquakes, and (5) land level changes preceding earthquakes.