Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Controls on submarine canyon head evolution: Monterey Canyon, offshore central California

July 17, 2018

The Monterey submarine canyon, incised across the continental shelf in Monterey Bay, California, provides a record of the link between onshore tectonism, fluvial transport, and deep-marine deposition. High-resolution seismic-reflection imaging in Monterey Bay reveals an extensive paleocanyon unit buried below the seafloor of the continental shelf around Monterey and Soquel canyon heads. Paleocanyons shifted position through numerous phases of cut-and-fill in response to Salinas, Pajaro, and San Lorenzo river extensions and avulsions across the continental shelf during high-frequency Pleistocene sea-level and climatic variations. Five seismic facies within the Monterey paleocanyon unit and below the modern canyon are defined to interpret canyon evolution during the Pleistocene. Repeated sea-level oscillations appear to have switched the main fairway(s) of sediment transport. Large-scale erosion and fill occurred in marine environments. Paleocanyon fill is characterized by paleo-axial channel deposits and mass transport deposits, followed by canyon head abandonment and marine sedimentation. The upper portion of the paleocanyon unit contains relatively small channels that were likely incised by erosion in the paleo-Salinas and Pajaro rivers and filled with a mix of nonmarine and marine deposits. Shifting position of submarine canyons over time is characteristic of Monterey Bay, east of the Monterey Bay Fault Zone, and is likely unidentified in other submarine canyon head regions that lack dense high-resolution seismic-reflection subbottom images. We show that canyon heads can be areas of sediment accumulation linked to sea-level oscillations, providing new insights into submarine canyon evolution and sequence stratigraphy.