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Mapping, exploration, and characterization of the California continental margin and associated features from the California-Oregon border to Ensenada, Mexico

March 31, 2020

Priority Geographic Area: Both within and outside US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). California continental margin. This area includes and continues south of the geographic area captured in the Watt et al. white paper.

Description of Priority Area: The California continental margin, from the narrow shelf to abyssal depths, contains diverse seafloor features that influence benthic community types, biological connectivity, and is associated with significant seafloor geohazards. These complex features include marginal basins, depositional slopes, submarine canyons, ridges, and seamounts, and seep environments as a result of fluid seeps along active faults. Water column characteristics are variable, with steep gradients in current velocities, which influence sediment transport, from depositional fans (slow flow, muddy) to submarine canyons and seamounts (high currents, rocky, rugged terrain). These features and associated environments can influence the distribution of deep-sea habitats, including coral and sponge communities. South of the region described in the Watt et al. and Demopoulos et al. white papers, plentiful seeps occur from northern California down to the southern California Borderland. However, the underlying foundational geology associated with these seeps varies along the margin, changing with contrasting tectonic settings, from convergent tectonics to regions dominated by strike-slip faulting (Barry et al. 1996; Paull et al. 2008; Bernardo and Smith 2010; Maloney et al. 2015). For seeps located off southern California, the relationship to strike-slip fault systems may influence the distribution of seep fluid expulsion sites and associated seep habitats (Maloney et al. 2015; Grupe et al. 2015; Conrad et al., 2017), where transpression plays a key role in formation and localization of fluid seeps. Further exploration is required in order to understand these connections. Several submarine canyons intersect the shelf within this region, serving as important channels of energy and transport of sediment from shelf to slope depths. Canyons are typically associated with high currents, turbidity flows, steep and rugged terrain, and high food availability, all of which structures canyon communities and supports hotspots of biodiversity. Specific canyons along the California margin that have been well studied include Scripps and La Jolla Canyons off San Diego, and Monterey Canyon off Monterey, but many more remain relatively unexplored. Commercially important species of fish and invertebrates have been found associated with canyons, as well as deep-sea corals and sponges (e.g., Barry et al. 1996). However, in contrast to their Atlantic counterparts (e.g., through ACUMEN and ASPIRE campaigns) there has been a dearth of exploration and characterization of canyons along the California margin. A number of questions remain regarding canyon and slope wall stability and associated geohazards, plus, how the canyons connect and influence the broader regional biogeography of benthic communities is unknown. Due to their topography, seamounts along the California margin are characterized by steep slopes, large areas of rocky substrate, and high currents. Hydrological complexity is associated with seamounts given they impinge different watermasses, depending on depth range. This heterogeneity yields complex and diverse benthic communities, including commercially important fishes (e.g., Tracey et al., 2012). The geology of Davidson, Pioneer, San Juan, and Rodriquez Seamounts has received considerable study (e.g., Davis et al., 2010) but other seamounts are less known, including how they are biologically and ecologically connected. For example, research comparing the benthic communities associated with Rodriguez and San Juan Seamounts, located outside of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and within the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, to communities found within the sanctuary is critical for managing and protecting resources within the sanctuary and modifying sanctuary boundaries. Exploration would yield the data needed to delineate and characterize essential fish habitats, and deep-sea coral and sponge communities, thus directly connecting the utility of exploration and discovery to decision making. The southern California Borderland is a geomorphologically heterogeneous area created by a complex network of faults, containing deep basins separated by shallow ridges and islands. Persistent fault-related deformation has created complex features, such as exposure of scarps and uplift rocks/ridges, seeps, erosional terraces, hydrate mounds, and mud volcanoes that provide support for thriving benthic communities. That said, significant oxygen minimum zones and low aragonite saturation states persist within several of the basin environments, influencing energy flow, community ecology, and calcification. For example, the combined effects of hypoxia and acidification pose serious threats to marine organisms and biological resources along the California margin. Mapping and exploration of the extensive faults and fault scarps can help constrain historical earthquake activity. But many questions remain regarding how the underlying geology and geological processes have shaped the biological communities.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Mapping, exploration, and characterization of the California continental margin and associated features from the California-Oregon border to Ensenada, Mexico
Authors Amanda Demopoulos, Nancy G. Prouty, Daniel S. Brothers, Janet Watt, James E. Conrad, Jason Chaytor, Chris Caldow
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70229999
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center