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The Ascension-Monterey Canyon system, one of the largest submarine canyon systems in the world, is located offshore central California. The system is composed of two parts which contain a total of six canyons: 1) the Ascension part to the north, which includes Ascension, Año Nuevo and Cabrillo Canyons, and 2) the Monterey part to the south, which includes Monterey Canyon and its distributaries, Soquel and Carmel Canyons. These six canyons have a combined total of 16 heads: one head each for Ascension, Soquel and Monterey Canyons, two heads for Año Nuevo Canyon, three heads for Carmel Canyon, and eight heads for Cabrillo Canyon. Ascension, Año Nuevo and Cabrillo Canyons coalesce in 2,300 m of water to form the Ascension Fan-Valley. Soquel and Carmel Canyons join Monterey Canyon at depths of 915 m and 1,900 m, respectively, to form Monterey Fan-Valley (the main channel of the system). Ascension Fan-Valley joins Monterey Fan-Valley on the proximal part of Monterey Fan in 3,290 m of water.

The Ascension-Monterey Canyon system has a long and varied history. The ancestral Monterey Canyon originated in early Miocene time, cutting east-west into the crystalline basement of the Salinian block (possibly subaerially), somewhere near the present location of the Transverse Range of California. Since that time (~ 21 Ma), the Salinian block, riding on the Pacific Plate, moved northward along the San Andreas fault zone. During this period of transport the Monterey Bay region was subjected to several episodes of submergence (sedimentation) and emergence (erosion) that alternately caused sedimentary infilling and exhumation of Monterey Canyon. The present configuration of the Ascension-Monterey Canyon System is the result of tectonic displacement of a long-lived submarine canyon (Monterey Canyon), with associated canyons representing the faulted offsets of past Monterey Canyon channels. Slivering of the Salinian block along several fault zones trending parallel or sub-parallel to the San Andreas fault zone (the Ascension fault and the Palo Colorado-San Gregorio fault zone, in particular) displaced to the north the westerly parts of Monterey Canyon. In this manner Monterey Canyon “fathered” Cabrillo Canyon, Año Nuevo Canyon, Ascension Canyon and Pioneer Canyon, along with an unnamed canyon located between Ascension and Pioneer Canyons.

Tectonics continue to dictate the morphology and processes active in the system today. The Palo Colorado-San Gregorio fault zone marks the continental shelf boundary in the Monterey Bay region and divides the canyon system into two parts, the Ascension and Monterey parts. The Monterey Canyon part has a youthful, V-shaped profile while the Ascension part, except for the heads that notch the shelf, and both fan-valleys exhibit more mature, U-shaped profiles. Earthquakes stimulate mass-wasting on the continental slope; most of the Ascension part of the system now receives its sediment from this source. The Monterey part, however, intercepts sediments carried by longshore transport and is the main regional conduit for terrestrial sediment transport to the abyssal plain.

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