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Slope failure and mass transport processes along the Queen Charlotte Fault, southeastern Alaska

May 21, 2018

The Queen Charlotte Fault defines the Pacific–North America transform plate boundary in western Canada and southeastern Alaska for c. 900 km. The entire length of the fault is submerged along a continental margin dominated by Quaternary glacial processes, yet the geomorphology along the margin has never been systematically examined due to the absence of high-resolution seafloor mapping data. Hence the geological processes that influence the distribution, character and timing of mass transport events and their associated hazards remain poorly understood. Here we develop a classification of the first-order shape of the continental shelf, slope and rise to examine potential relationships between form and process dominance. We found that the margin can be split into six geomorphic groups that vary smoothly from north to south between two basic end-members. The northernmost group (west of Chichagof Island, Alaska) is characterized by concave-upwards slope profiles, gentle slope gradients (<6°) and relatively low along-strike variance, all features characteristic of sediment-dominated siliciclastic margins. Dendritic submarine canyon/channel networks and retrogressive failure complexes along relatively gentle slope gradients are observed throughout the region, suggesting that high rates of Quaternary sediment delivery and accumulation played a fundamental part in mass transport processes. Individual failures range in area from 0.02 to 70 km2 and display scarp heights between 10 and 250 m. Transpression along the Queen Charlotte Fault increases southwards and the slope physiography is thus progressively more influenced by regional-scale tectonic deformation. The southernmost group (west of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia) defines the tectonically dominated end-member: the continental slope is characterized by steep gradients (>20°) along the flanks of broad, margin-parallel ridges and valleys. Mass transport features in the tectonically dominated areas are mostly observed along steep escarpments and the larger slides (up to 10 km2) appear to be failures of consolidated material along the flanks of tectonic features. Overall, these observations highlight the role of first-order margin physiography on the distribution and type of submarine landslides expected to occur in particular morphological settings. The sediment-dominated end-member allows for the accumulation of under-consolidated Quaternary sediments and shows larger, more frequent slides; the rugged physiography of the tectonically dominated end-member leads to sediment bypass and the collapse of uplifted tectonic features. The maximum and average dimensions of slides are an order of magnitude smaller than those of slides observed along other (passive) glaciated margins. We propose that the general patterns observed in slide distribution are caused by the interplay between tectonic activity (long- and short-term) and sediment delivery. The recurrence (<100 years) of M > 7 earthquakes along the Queen Charlotte Fault may generate small, but frequent, failures of under-consolidated Quaternary sediments within the sediment-dominated regions. By contrast, the tectonically dominated regions are characterized by the bypass of Quaternary sediments to the continental rise and the less frequent collapse of steep, uplifted and consolidated sediments.

Publication Year 2019
Title Slope failure and mass transport processes along the Queen Charlotte Fault, southeastern Alaska
DOI 10.1144/SP477.30
Authors Daniel Brothers, Brian D. Andrews, Maureen A. L. Walton, H. Gary Greene, J. Vaughn Barrie, Nathaniel C. Miller, Uri S. ten Brink, Amy E. East, Peter J. Haeussler, Jared W. Kluesner, James E. Conrad
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geological Society Special Publication
Index ID 70203771
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center; Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center