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Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

U.S. West Coast and Alaska Marine Geohazards

Map of study region along the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault offshore southeastern Alaska.

Study region along the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault offshore southeastern Alaska. Rectangles show locations of the two USGS-led marine geophysical surveys in May and August 2015. The third cruise was offshore Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, and southern Alaska in September 2015 (see inset map). CSF, Chatham Strait fault; CSZ, Coastal shear zone; LIPSF, Lisianski Inlet-Peril Strait fault; QCFF, Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault.
[Click to expand “Survey Area 1”, to see more detail]

Earthquake Hazards in Southeastern Alaska

While working at sea above the 825-mile-long Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault, where the Pacific plate slides northwest past the North American plate, USGS geophysicist Danny Brothers could only guess how the new high-resolution imagery would look as USGS instruments beamed it back to the boat; it was the first time anyone had mapped this area with modern technology. What Brothers saw was the most “stunning morphological expression of a strike-slip fault that I had ever seen”—a quintessential fault cutting straight across the seafloor, offsetting seabed channels and submerged glacial valleys, the evidence all perfectly preserved since the last ice age. He remarked on the unusual opportunity to observe how a fault has evolved in the last 20,000 years, because, on land, the rivers and glaciers obliterate much of the record. Brothers believed that working offshore would be instrumental in fully understanding the undersea hazards facing southeastern Alaska. Discovering this beautiful trace of a fault beneath the seabed confirmed just that.

Issue

The Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault in southeastern Alaska is analogous to California’s San Andreas fault, both in length and type (strike-slip). Both faults form a boundary where two blocks of Earth’s crust—the North American and Pacific tectonic plates—slide horizontally past each other in opposite directions. The Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault moves about 50 millimeters each year.

The Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault extends 1,200 kilometers along southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia, of which 900 kilometers lies offshore. During the past 120 years, the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault has generated six earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater, including a magnitude 8.1 in 1949—Canada’s largest recorded earthquake. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake in 1958 triggered a landslide in Lituya Bay, leading to the largest tsunami run up ever recorded (1,720 feet up a mountainside). The populations of Juneau, Sitka, and other communities throughout southeastern Alaska continue to expand, and more than 1 million tourists visit each year to view and explore the region’s natural wonders, leaving many people vulnerable to its earthquake and tsunami hazards.

In 2012 and 2013, two large earthquakes and associated aftershocks occurred along the southern section of the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault, which lies beneath the seafloor. The first, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake near Haida Gwaii, British Columbia (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), led to tsunami warnings and evacuations in Canada, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaiʻi. The second, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, was centered off southeastern Alaska near the town of Craig. These two earthquakes triggered significant concern from the Earth scientists, who realized that relatively little is known about the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault and its associated geohazards, largely because it runs offshore. Aside from obtaining critical details about the fault’s structure, it’s also crucial to determine if motion across this major plate boundary is distributed across one, two, or several faults.

What the USGS is doing

Photo of R/V Solstice in May 2015, by Danny Brothers.

The R/V Solstice carried USGS scientists for three weeks in May 2015 while they mapped 650 square kilometers of seafloor and features beneath the seafloor in fine detail. Photo by Danny Brothers, USGS [Larger version]

Photograph of the science and boat crew aboard R/V Solstice in 2015.

Survey team on the fantail of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) R/V Solstice posing between the multichannel seismic streamer (green coil) and the multibeam sonar (out of view, attached to pole on left side of photo). Standing, left to right: James Weise (ADFG), Pete Dartnell (USGS), Dave Anderson (ADFG), Rob Wyland (USGS), John Crowfts (ADFG), Peter Haeussler (USGS); kneeling, left to right: Danny Brothers (USGS) and Gerry Hatcher (USGS) [Larger version]

In 2015, USGS scientists from the Pacific Coast Marine Science Center and the Alaska Science Center began collaborating with scientists from other institutions to study the offshore portion of the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault in U.S. waters—the first systematic effort in more than three decades. The primary goal of these studies was to gain a better understanding of the earthquake, tsunami, and underwater-landslide hazards throughout southeastern Alaska, and also to gather data to develop geologic models that can be applied to other similar plate boundaries around the globe, such as the San Andreas fault system in southern California, the Alpine fault in New Zealand, and Turkey’s North Anatolian fault.

The first phase of these new studies began in May 2015 with a three-week marine geophysical cruise on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game research vessel (R/V) Solstice. A team from the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center and the Alaska Science Center collected high-resolution bathymetry (seafloor depth data) using multibeam sonar across approximately 650 square kilometers of seafloor. Along the northern tip of the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault near Cross Sound, they also gathered detailed seismic information hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor by towing a cable of hydrophones, or “streamer,” to pick up sound waves that reflect off features beneath the seafloor.

Photo of the multichannel seismic streamer (green) on the fantail deck of R/V Solstice.

Multichannel seismic streamer (green) on the fantail deck of the R/V Solstice. The streamer contains dozens of hydrophones (underwater microphones) that record sound transmitted by an acoustic source bounced off features beneath the seafloor. The tan cable is part of the sound source called a minisparker. Photo by Danny Brothers, USGS [Larger version]

Photograph of scientists recovering a core aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John P. Tully.

Recovering a core aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John P. Tully. Gary Greene (left, Sitka Sound Science Center), Kim Conway (middle, Geological Survey of Canada), and Katie Maier (right, USGS) remove the core liner full of seabed sediment from the core barrel (orange, in background). This core was sampled near the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault off southern Alaska.  Photo by Jamie Conrad, USGS [Larger version]

A second cruise in August 2015 aboard the USGS research vessel (R/V) Alaskan Gyre collected additional data in the vicinity of Cross Sound with a chirp sub-bottom profiler, which returns a highly detailed image of features down to 50 meters beneath the seafloor. The scientists subsequently surveyed an area close to Alaska’s capital, Juneau, to identify geologic evidence for recent earthquakes on the nearby Chatham Strait fault and the Coastal shear zone, whose earthquake potential had not yet been investigated with modern mapping systems.

USGS funded and participated in a third cruise in September 2015 led by colleagues at the Geological Survey of Canada and the Sitka Sound Science Center. The Canadian Coast Guard research vessel John P. Tully surveyed several areas along the southern part of the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault off Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, and southern Alaska. The scientists deployed a chirp sub-bottom profiler and a deep-water camera system to identify where best to collect sediment near the fault. Then they pushed a 20-foot-long piston corer into the seafloor to retrieve tubes of sediment, the longest of which measured 14 feet. Verifying the age of sediment will help scientists calculate dates of past earthquakes and the rate of movement on the fault. In addition, the team investigated an area off Cape Felix, Alaska, for potential fault branches that extend north into the southeastern Alaskan archipelago.

What the USGS has learned

Bathymetric images show, for example, the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather fault trace as a nearly straight cut in the seafloor extending for approximately 75 kilometers. Details reveal subtle bends and extensions as the fault evolved, which manifest as small basins or uplifts, including a seafloor ridge that has shifted about 925 meters over the past 19,000 years—a rare, but obvious landmark that helps establish the origin and rate of fault movement. Other details reveal the interplay between fault motion and sedimentation where the fault is most active at the mouth of Cross Sound, just offshore Glacier Bay National Park. The sediment acts as a tape recorder of earthquake history and motion on the fault. For example, movement of the fault over thousands of years may create an opening or basin on the seafloor, which is subsequently filled by sediment. Sampling and imaging sediment in that basin not only provides an age for when the basin formed, but also reveals when earthquakes occurred based on sediment wedges that sloughed off the basin’s sides.

Photo of the multichannel seismic streamer (green) on the fantail deck of R/V Solstice.

Profile of newly discovered volcano-like cone in sonar record collected off southern Alaska. The cone’s summit is at about 1,000 meters water depth. Note fluid plume (blue) rising more than 700 meters upward from the summit. [Larger version]

Photo of the multichannel seismic streamer (green) on the fantail deck of R/V Solstice.

Further evidence of fluid venting from the cone includes these clams (Calyptogena spp.), which live on nutrients produced by chemosynthetic bacteria that use components of the fluid, such as hydrogen sulfide or methane, as primary energy sources. [Larger version]

One surprising result from these new studies near the southern tip of Alaska was the discovery of a 250-meter-high cone rising from the seafloor about 10 kilometers west of the fault, near the southern tip of Alaska. On its top was an active fluid plume, which could be seen on sonar records as rising 700 meters into the water column. The deep-water camera system revealed evidence of fluids emanating from the mound, including possible vents, calcium carbonate formations, and chemosynthetic biological communities, which use components of the fluids (such as hydrogen sulfide or methane) as primary energy sources rather than light. The mound was sampled with a grab sampler to collect pieces of the carbonate and unusual biota for further study.

News

Investigating earthquake hazards posed by a large fault offshore of southeast Alaska and western Canada
USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center News, September 2017

A Closer Look at an Undersea Source of Alaskan Earthquakes
Eos, August 2017

Investigating the Offshore Queen Charlotte-Fairweather Fault System
Sound Waves, January 2016

Scientists stumble over active underwater volcano in Southeast
Alaska Public Media, October 2015

Active Mud Volcano Field Discovered off Southeast Alaska
Eos, November 2015

 

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