USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1991
Late Quaternary Faulting Along the Death Valley-Furnace Creek Fault System, California and Nevada


Faults were mapped using stereoscopic pairs of low-sun-angle aerial photographs (approximate scale 1:12,000) and concentrated on interpreting geomorphic features and surfaces. Maps were compiled at scale 1:24,000, then recompiled for publication at a scale of 1:62,500. The low-sun-angle aerial photographs are most useful for interpreting scarp morphology in alluvial terrain where surfaces are of low relief. Consequently, faults in high-relief bedrock areas were not studied extensively. Fault scarps and other fault-related features subsequently were identified and studied in the field.

Fault scarps were studied for evidence of recurrent displacement by means of fault-scarp morphologic techniques. The methods utilized for this fault-scarp study were developed and described by many workers (for example, Slemmons, 1977; Wallace, 1977, 1978; Bucknam and Anderson, 1979; and Pease, 1979). The geomorphic and structural nomenclature used herein also follows these sources, as well as some previous studies of a similar nature in other regions (for example, Clark, 1973; Brown and Wolfe, 1972; Ross, 1969; Vedder and Wallace, 1970; and Brown, 1970). Faults and fault-related features were classified according to a scheme originally compiled by Slemmons (1977) (table 1). Clark (1973) also described some of the features useful in identifying recent faulting.

Table 1. Geomorphic features associated with active faults, ranked approximately by frequency of occurrence
[From Slemmons, 1977, and oral commun., 1979]

RankGeomorphic feature

Strike-slip faults

1Scarp, eroded scarp.
3Linear canyon, gully, gulch, swale, trench, trough, stream, or valley.
4Pond, depression, swampy depression, sag, playa, sag pond, swampy trench, rhomb depression.
5Lateral stream- or drainage-channel offset.
6Fault gap, notch, or saddle.
7Trench, wedge- or rhomb-shaped depression, elongate depression.
8Offset ridgeline or hill.
9Riedel shears, en echelon fissures.
10Deflected or diverted drainage channel, valley axis, or stream line.
11Linear or elongate ridge (pressure ridge), bulge or buckle, termination bulge.
13Ponded alluvium.
14Aligned notch.
17Aligned vegetation or linear boundary.
18Spring, elongate spring, marsh, ground-water barrier.
19Lineament (lithologic, topographic, vegetation, mineralized, soil-contrast, and so forth).
20Fault valley or graben (rift).
21Fault trace.
22Fault path or pebbly path.
23Open crack or fissure.
24Faceted ridge or spur, triangular facets.
25Alignment of springs or very elongate springs.

Normal-slip faults

1Scarps (simple, fissure, trench or graben, longitudinal or step, subsidence).
2Faceted spurs and ridges.
3Over-steepened base of mountain fronts.
4Rejuvenated valley floors with terraces upstream from fault scarp.
5Zig-zag faults on conjugate sets of orthogonal fractures.
6Arcuate scarps or sets of concentric scarps.
7Wineglass-shaped canyons (as viewed from valley opposite canyon).

Reverse-slip faults

2Over-steepened base of mountain fronts.
3Faceted spurs or ridges.
4Mole-track or bulldozed scarps or traces.
5Grabens or fissure swarms above main fault trace.

Two methods were used to estimate the ages of faulting along the Death Valley—Furnace Creek fault system. One method involves the interpretation of fault-scarp morphology using the techniques of Slemmons (1977) and refined by Wallace (1977), who showed that slopes along fault scarps in alluvium are controlled successively by gravity-, debris-, and wash-related processes. The original surface of the fault scarp is replaced by an erosion surface and a debris slope; the slope of the erosion surface and debris slope gradually decline through time (fig. 3). The rate of slope decline depends on the process that controls the steepest slope on the scarp. By estimating the duration that each process controls the maximum slope angle, Wallace (1978, fig. 12) estimated the age of faulting that produced scarps (fig. 4). The estimated age appears to depend on climate, character and consolidation of the faulted material, orientation of the fault, and the height and slope of the original fault scarp (Wallace, 1978; Pease, 1979; and Pierce and Coleman, 1987). Low scarps decline in slope more rapidly than high scarps; thus, the original type and amount of dip slip are also important (Bucknam and Anderson, 1979).

Figure 3. Profiles of successively older fault-scarp morphology. From Wallace (1977). Erosional slopes along fault scarps in alluvium are controlled successively by gravity-, debris-, and wash-related processes. Dashed line represents outline of previous profile.

Figure 4. Slope angle versus age for fault scarps in bedrock and fanglomerate determined from north-central Nevada. Modified from Wallace (1978).

The second method used to estimate the age of faulting events in the Death Valley area is based on interpreting the relative ages of fault-related features and successive geomorphic features. For example, at some localities a fault cuts an older alluvial surface or surfaces, whereas a younger surface remains undisturbed across the fault trace. At many localities, scarps in progressively older stratigraphic units and (or) geomorphic surfaces have progressively larger offsets, indicating that recurrent faulting occurred along the same trace.

We employed a four-fold classification for geomorphic surfaces along the Death Valley—Furnace Creek fault system (table 2), incorporating sparse age control from the Death Valley area; this classification is derived from similar classifications developed by Denny (1965), Hunt and Mabey (1966), Hooke (1972), and W.B. Bull (written commun., 1974). We consider the general chronology shown on table 2 to be a reasonable geomorphic tool useful for estimating the relative ages of surfaces in a small area; however, correlations from one area to another may not be accurate, and correlations between distant areas may be misleading. The correlation problem is paramount between Fish Lake Valley and Death Valley where the climates of the valleys and adjacent mountains differ widely. Consequently, the estimated ages for geomorphic surfaces cited in table 2 should be viewed as approximations requiring much refinement. Some refinement has occurred in Fish Lake Valley (Reheis, 1988; Sawyer and Slemmons, 1988).

Table 2. General characteristics of geomorphic surfaces, Death Valley—Furnace Creek Fault system, California and Nevada [in, meter; >, more than; —, not applicable]

Surface Desert varnish Death Valley
Fish Lake Valley
relief above
Q1A surface

Q1ANone Active bars and channels Active channel 0-200 years; historic.
Q1B None to light Inactive bar and channel. Abandoned channels and surfaces 0—3 m 200-2,000 years; late Holocene2.
Q1C Medium to dark Subdued bar and swales. Subdued lobes and swales. 0—12 m 2,000-10,000 years; Holocene.
Q2 Heavy Smooth, with pavement; eroded by Lake Manly shorelines. Rounded steps 0—60 m >10,000 years; Pleistocene (predates Lake Manly).

1Ages estimated on the basis of the 2,000-year-old shoreline of Hunt (1960) and Hunt and Mabey (1966) and an inferred high stand of Lake Manly 10,000 years B.P. (Hooke, 1972).

214C dates on "Q1B-type surfaces" from Fish Lake Valley range from about 650 to 2,170 years B.P. (Sawyer and Slemmons, 1988).

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 24-Jul-2009