Fossil diatoms from four stratigraphic sections along the tidal Niawiakum River, southwestern Washington, provide an independent paleoecological test of a relative sea-level rise that has been attributed to subsidence during an inferred earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone about 300 yr ago. Diatom assemblages in a buried soil and overlying mud indicate a sudden and lasting shift from marshes and forests near or above highest tides to mud flats and incipient tidal marshes, with a progressive return to high-level tidal marshes by sediment aggradation and, perhaps, gradual tectonic uplift. The amount of coseismic submergence required to generate the paleoecological changes observed at these sites could have ranged from a minimum of 0.8–1.0 m to a maximum of ∼3.0 m.
Fossil diatoms also provide an independent test of previous inferences that the subsidence was shortly followed by a tsunami. The inferred tsunami deposit is a distinct sandy interval that widely overlies the buried marsh and forest soil. Diatoms from this interval consist of species observed on modern sand flats of the open bay, identifying a bayward source for the sand. Occurrences of the same sand-flat species above the buried soil in the farthest up-valley outcrop where a sandy interval is not recognizable suggest that the tsunami extended farther landward than was previously inferred from the stratigraphy.
These data rule out proposed alternatives to the coseismic subsidence model—that is, climatically induced sea-level rise, temporary submergence caused by storms—and support the hypothesis that a great earthquake struck southwestern Washington 300 yr ago.