Geological evidence for sudden coastal subsidence along the west coast of southern Vancouver Island points to the occurrence of great prehistorical subduction earthquakes. Contemporary uplift and crustal shortening patterns in southern Vancouver Island appear to indicate that the subduction megathrust fault is currently locked. To understand better the dynamics of the observed surface deformation, we develop a finite element model of earthquake cycles for the northern Cascadia subduction zone across southern Vancouver Island, using a linear viscoelastic rheology. The model consists of the continental and oceanic lithospheres, the asthenospheric mantle with a viscosity of 5 × 1019 Pa∙s, and a low-viscosity (1018 Pa∙s) mantle wedge between the subducted oceanic plate and the overlying continental plate. The shallow geometry of the subducted Juan de Fuca plate is well defined by the results of various geophysical surveys, and the deep geometry is constrained by the results of seismic tomography. The model megathrust fault has a stick-slip zone near the surface, a viscoelastically weakly coupled zone (viscosity 7 × 1017 Pa∙s) at depth, and a narrow free-slip zone in between. Earthquakes are allowed to occur every 500 years. Varying the recurrence time does not greatly affect the surface deformation in the later part of the interseismic period. Experiments varying the width of the stick-slip zone lead to the conclusion that a width of about 70 km satisfies both the observed coseismic coastal subsidence and the contemporary surface deformation pattern. The results of a simple elastic dislocation model for thrust earthquakes that had been previously applied to the region are compared with the solutions of the viscoelastic model. Despite its simplicity, the elastic model approximates well the surface deformation of the viscoelastic model in the second half of the interseismic period, although it predicts a slightly narrower stick-slip zone of the fault. The present viscoelastic model is limited principally by the two-dimensional approach, the assumptions of purely stick-slip behaviour of the thrust fault, and the uncertainties in rock rheology.

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