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Geology of Seattle and the Seattle area, Washington

By
Kathy Goetz Troost
Kathy Goetz Troost
Pacific Northwest Center for Geologic Mapping Studies, University of Washington, Box 351310, Seattle, Washington 98195-1310, USA
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Derek B. Booth
Derek B. Booth
Stillwater Sciences, 1314 NE 43rd Street, Suite 210, Seattle, Washington 98105, USA, and University of Washington, Box 351310, Seattle, Washington 98195-1310, USA
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Published:
January 2008

Abstract

The city of Seattle, Washington State, lies within the Puget Sound Lowland, an elongate structural and topographic basin between the Cascade Range and Olympic Mountains. The area has been impacted by repeated glaciation in the past 2.4 m.y. and crustal deformation related to the Cascadia subduction zone. The present landscape largely results from those repeated cycles of glacial scouring and deposition and tectonic activity, subsequently modified by landsliding, stream erosion and deposition, and human activity. The last glacier to override the area, the Vashon-age glacier of the Fraser glaciation, reached the Seattle area ca. 14,500 14C yr B.P. (17,400 cal yr B.P.) and had retreated from the area by ca. 13,650 14C yr B.P. (16,400 cal yr B.P.).

The Seattle area sits atop a complex and incomplete succession of glacial and nonglacial deposits that extends below sea level and overlies an irregular bedrock surface. These subsurface materials show spatial lithologic variability, are truncated by many unconformities, and are deformed by gentle folds and faults. Sediments that predate the last glacial–interglacial cycle are exposed where erosion has sliced into the upland, notably along the shorelines of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, along the Duwamish River valley, and along Holocene streams.

The city of Seattle straddles the Seattle uplift, the Seattle fault zone, and the Seattle basin, three major bedrock structures that reflect north-south crustal shortening in the Puget Lowland. Tertiary bedrock is exposed in isolated locations in south Seattle on the Seattle uplift, and then it drops to 550 m below ground under the north half of the city in the Seattle basin. The 6-km-wide Seattle fault zone runs west to east across the south part of the city. A young strand of the Seattle fault last moved ~1100 yr ago. Seattle has also been shaken by subduction-zone earthquakes on the Cascadia subduction zone and deep earthquakes within the subducting plate. Certain postglacial deposits in Seattle are prone to liquefaction from earthquakes of sufficient size and duration.

The landforms and near-surface deposits that cover much of the Seattle area record a brief period in the geologic history of the region. Upland till plains in many areas are cut by recessional meltwater channels and modern river channels. Till plains display north-south drumlins with long axes oriented in the ice-flow direction. Glacially overridden deposits underlie the drumlins and most of the uplands, whereas loosely consolidated postglacial deposits fill deep valleys and recessional meltwater channels. Ice-contact deposits are found in isolated locations across the uplands and along the margins of the uplands, and outwash deposits line upland recessional channels. Soft organic-rich deposits fill former lakes and bogs.

A preliminary geologic map of Seattle was published in 1962 that is only now being replaced by a detailed geologic map. The new map utilizes a data set of 35,000 geotechnical boreholes, geomorphic analyses of light detection and ranging (LIDAR), new field mapping, excavation observations, geochronology, and integration with other geologic and geophysical information. Findings of the new mapping and recent research include recognition of Possession- and Whidbey-age deposits in Seattle, recognition that ~50% of the large drumlins are cored with pre-Vashon deposits and 50% with Vashon deposits, and that numerous unconformities are present in the subsurface. Paleotopographic surfaces display 500 m (1600 feet) of relief. The surficial deposits of Seattle can be grouped into the following categories to exemplify the distribution of geologic materials across the city: postglacial deposits 16%, late glacial deposits 12%, Vashon glacial deposits 60%, pre-Vashon deposits 9%, and bedrock 3%. of these, 49% are considered fine-grained deposits, 19% are considered intermediate or interbedded deposits, and 32% are considered coarse-grained deposits. These percentages include only the primary geologic units and not the overlying fill and colluvial deposits.

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Contents

GSA Reviews in Engineering Geology

Landslides and Engineering Geology of the Seattle, Washington, Area

Edited by
Rex L. Baum
Rex L. Baum
U.S. Geological Survey Box 25046, Mail Stop 966 Denver, Colorado 80225 USA
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Jonathan W. Godt
Jonathan W. Godt
U.S. Geological Survey Box 25046, Mail Stop 966 Denver, Colorado 80225 USA
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Lynn M. Highland
Lynn M. Highland
U.S. Geological Survey Box 25046, Mail Stop 966 Denver, Colorado 80225 USA
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Geological Society of America
Volume
20
ISBN electronic:
9780813758206
Publication date:
2008

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