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Western Earth Surface Processes Team

Geologic History of the San Andreas Fault System

Series of block diagrams shows how the subduction zone along the west coast of North America transformed into the San Andreas Fault from 30 million years ago to the present.   EVOLUTION OF THE SAN ANDREAS FAULT.

This series of block diagrams shows how the subduction zone along the west coast of North America transformed into the San Andreas Fault from 30 million years ago to the present. Starting at 30 million years ago, the westward- moving North American Plate began to override the spreading ridge between the Farallon Plate and the Pacific Plate. This action divided the Farallon Plate into two smaller plates, the northern Juan de Fuca Plate (JdFP) and the southern Cocos Plate (CP). By 20 million years ago, two triple junctions began to migrate north and south along the western margin of the West Coast. (Triple junctions are intersections between three tectonic plates; shown as red triangles in the diagrams.) The change in plate configuration as the North American Plate began to encounter the Pacific Plate resulted in the formation of the San Andreas Fault. The northern Mendicino Triple Junction (M) migrated through the San Francisco Bay region roughly 12 to 5 million years ago and is presently located off the coast of northern California, roughly midway between San Francisco (SF) and Seattle (S). The Mendicino Triple Junction represents the intersection of the North American, Pacific, and Juan de Fuca Plates. The southern Rivera Triple Junction (R) is presently located in the Pacific Ocean between Baja California (BC) and Manzanillo, Mexico (MZ). Evidence of the migration of the Mendicino Triple Junction northward through the San Francisco Bay region is preserved as a series of volcanic centers that grow progressively younger toward the north. Volcanic rocks in the Hollister region are roughly 12 million years old whereas the volcanic rocks in the Sonoma-Clear Lake region north of San Francisco Bay range from only few million to as little as 10,000 years old. Both of these volcanic areas and older volcanic rocks in the region are offset by the modern regional fault system. (Image modified after original illustration by Irwin, 1990 and Stoffer, 2006.)

Map of the modern San Andreas Fault in relation to the greater plate-tectonic setting of western North America and the northeastern Pacific Ocean basin   Map of the modern San Andreas Fault in relation to the greater plate-tectonic setting of western North America and the northeastern Pacific Ocean basin. The San Andreas Fault represents a great transform-fault boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate. The San Andreas Fault system connects between spreading centers in the East Pacific Rise (to the south) and the Juan de Fuca Ridge and Mendicino fracture zone system (to the north). The San Andreas Fault system has gradually evolved since middle Tertiary time (beginning about 28 million years ago). The right-lateral offset that has occurred on the fault system since that time is about 282 miles (470 km); however, the fault system consists of many strands that have experienced different amounts of offset. Image modified from This Dynamic Earth by Stoffer, 2006.
Irwin, W.P., 1990. Quaternary deformation, in Wallace, R.E. (ed.), 1990, The San Andreas Fault system, California: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1515, online at: http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1990/1515/.

Stoffer, P.W., 2006, Where's the San Andreas Fault? A guidebook to tracing the fault on public lands in the San Francisco Bay region: U.S. Geological Survey General Interest Publication 16, 123 p., online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2006/16/.

U.S. Geological Survey, 2003, This Dynamic Earth: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/dynamic.html.

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