Evidence of rapid relative sea level changes preserved in sediment of coastal estuaries along the north coast segment of the San Andreas fault provides information on the dates of past earthquakes. This approach, although successfully used to document large subduction zone earthquakes, has not been used previously to constrain the dates of San Andreas fault or other strike-slip fault earthquakes. Data on prehistoric San Andreas fault earthquakes is needed for development of robust probabilistic hazard assessments in northern California and the San Francisco Bay area.
Evidence of earthquake-induced subsidence is preserved in marshes at the northern margin of Bolinas Lagoon and the southeastern margin of Bodega Harbor. These sites occupy structural basins or troughs along the northern San Andreas fault. Radiocarbon dating and identification of the first occurrence of nonnative pollen near abrupt sedimentological changes in cores are used to constrain the dates of San Andreas fault earthquakes over about the last 800 years. Estuarine sediment from northern Bolinas Lagoon preserves evidence of an earthquake that occurred about 750 years ago. Evidence for this earthquake includes a marsh soil that was abruptly buried by tidal flat mud or coarse, poorly sorted deltaic deposits containing a mixture of terrestrial sediment and marine mud. Evaluation of diatom assemblages from above and below the buried soil horizon provides evidence of at least several decimeters of sustained relative sea level rise. Three buried soils in a marsh at the southern end of Bodega Harbor are likely a result of coseismic subsidence. All three buried marsh soils have abrupt upper contacts, although diatom evidence for decimeters of sustained subsidence is not as strong as it is for the buried soil in Bolinas Lagoon.
Existing paleoseismic data on the northern San Andreas fault is compared with results of this study in order to evaluate the dates of prehistoric large earthquakes and length of past ruptures. These data indicate that an earthquake occurred about 400 years ago and another earthquake occurred about 700 years ago. The data allow for 1906-type ruptures of the fault from the Santa Cruz Mountains to at least Point Arena. However, a sequence of closely timed, smaller earthquakes would produce a similar set of paleoseismic data.