Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Investigating the landscape of Arroyo Seco—Decoding the past—A teaching guide to climate-controlled landscape evolution in a tectonically active region

September 15, 2017


Arroyo Seco is a river that flows eastward out of the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County, California. The Santa Lucia Range is considered part of the central California Coast Range. Arroyo Seco flows out of the Santa Lucia Range into the Salinas River valley, near the town of Greenfield, where it joins the Salinas River. The Salinas River flows north into Monterey Bay about 40 miles from where it merges with Arroyo Seco. In the mountain range, Arroyo Seco has cut or eroded a broad and deep valley. This valley preserves a geologic story in the landscape that is influenced by both fault-controlled mountain building (tectonics) and sea level fluctuations (regional climate).

Broad flat surfaces called river terraces, once eroded by Arroyo Seco, can be observed along the modern drainage. In the valley, terraces are also preserved like climbing stairs up to 1,800 feet above Arroyo Seco today. These terraces mark where Arroyo Seco once flowed.The terraces were formed by the river because no matter how high they are, the terraces are covered by gravel deposits exactly like those that can be observed in the river today. The Santa Lucia Range, Arroyo Seco, and the Salinas River valley must have looked very different when the highest and oldest terraces were forming. The Santa Lucia Range may have been lower, the Arroyo Seco may have been steeper and wider, and the Salinas River valley may have been much smaller.

Arroyo Seco, like all rivers, is always changing. Some-times rivers flow very straight, and sometimes they are curvy. Sometimes rivers are cutting down or eroding the landscape, and sometimes they are not eroding but depositing material. Sometimes rivers are neither eroding nor transporting material. The influences that change the behavior of Arroyo Seco are mountain uplift caused by fault moment and sea level changes driven by regional climate change. When a stream is affected by one or both of these influences, the stream accommodates the change by eroding, depositing, and (or) changing its shape.

In the vicinity of Arroyo Seco, the geologically young faulting history is relatively well understood. Geologists have some sense of the most recent faulting event and of the faulting in the recent geologic past. The timing of regional climate changes is also well accepted. In this area, warm climate cycles tend to cause the sea level to rise, and cool climate cycles tend to cause the sea level to fall. If we understand the way the terraces form and their ages in Arroyo Seco, we can draw conclusions about whether faulting and (or) climate contributed to their formation.

This publication serves as a descriptive companion to the formal geologic map of Arroyo Seco (Taylor and Sweetkind, 2014) and is intended for use by nonscientists and students. Included is a discussion of the processes that controlled the evolution of the drainage and the formation of the terraces in Arroyo Seco. The reader is guided to well-exposed landscape features in an easily accessible environment that will help nonscientists gain an understanding of how features on a geologic map are interpreted in terms of earth processes.

Publication Year 2017
Title Investigating the landscape of Arroyo Seco—Decoding the past—A teaching guide to climate-controlled landscape evolution in a tectonically active region
DOI 10.3133/cir1425
Authors Emily M. Taylor, Donald S. Sweetkind, Jeremy C. Havens
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 1425
Index ID cir1425
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center