Studies of recent destructive megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis along subduction margins in Japan, Sumatra, and Chile have linked forearc morphology and structure to megathrust behavior. This connection is based on the idea that spatial variations in the frictional behavior of the megathrust influence the tectono-morphological evolution of the upper plate. Here we present a comprehensive examination of the tectonic geomorphology, outer wedge taper, and structural vergence along the marine forearc of the Cascadia subduction zone (offshore northwestern North America). The goal is to better understand geologic controls on outer wedge strength and segmentation at spatial scales equivalent to rupture lengths of large earthquakes (≥M 6.7), and to examine potential linkages with shallow megathrust behavior.
We use cross-margin profiles, spaced 25 km apart, to characterize along-strike variation in outer wedge width, steepness, and structural vergence (measured between the toe and the outer arc high). The width of the outer wedge varies between 17 and 93 km, and the steepness ranges from 0.9° to 6.5°. Hierarchical cluster analysis of outer wedge width and steepness reveals four distinct regions that also display unique patterns of structural vergence and shape of the wedge: Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (average width, linear wedge, seaward and mixed vergence); Washington, USA (higher width, concave wedge, landward and mixed vergence); northern and central Oregon, USA (average width, linear and convex wedge, mixed and seaward vergence); and southern Oregon and northern California, USA (lower width, convex wedge, seaward and mixed vergence). Variability in outer wedge morphology and structure is broadly associated with along-strike megathrust segmentation inferred from differences in oceanic asthenospheric velocities, patterns of episodic tremor and slow slip, GPS models of plate locking, and the distribution of seismicity near the plate interface. In more detail, our results appear to delineate the extent, geometry, and lithology of dynamic and static backstops along the margin. Varying backstop configurations along the Cascadia margin are interpreted to represent material-strength contrasts within the wedge that appear to regulate the along- and across-strike taper and structural vergence in the outer wedge. We argue that the morphotectonic variability in the outer wedge may reflect spatial variations in shallow megathrust behavior occurring over roughly the last few million years. Comparing outer wedge taper along the Cascadia margin to a global compilation suggests that observations in the global catalog are not accurately representing the range of heterogeneity within individual margins and highlights the need for detailed margin-wide morphotectonic analyses of subduction zones worldwide.