US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



GSA Bulletin; March/April 2020; v. 132; no. 3/4; p. 863–883


© 2019 Geological Society of America. Used by permission.


In 1979, S. Uyeda and H. Kanamori proposed a tectonic model with two end members of a subduction-boundary continuum: the “Chilean” type (shallow dip of the subducting plate, great thrust events, compression, and uplift of the overriding plate) and a “Mariana” type (steep dip of the subducting plate, no great thrust events, tension, and no uplift). This concept has been used to explain variable rates of Quaternary uplift around the Pacific Rim, yet no uplift rates have been determined for the Mariana Islands themselves, one of the end members in this model. We studied the late Quaternary Tanapag Limestone, which rims much of the eastern and southern coasts of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, with elevations of ∼13 m to ∼30 m. Samples from 12 well-preserved corals (Acropora, Porites, and Goniastrea) yielded U-series ages ranging from ca. 134 ka to ca. 126 ka. These ages correlate the emergent reef of the Tanapag Limestone with the last interglacial period, when sea level was several meters above present. Ages and measured reef elevations from the Tanapag Limestone, along with paleo–sea-level data, yield relatively low late Quaternary uplift rates of 0.002–0.19 m/k.y., consistent with the Uyeda-Kanamori model. A review of data from other localities near subduction zones around the Pacific Basin, however, indicates that many coastlines do not fit the model. Uplift rates along the Chilean coast are predicted to be relatively high, but field studies indicate they are low. On some coastlines, relatively high uplift rates are better explained by subduction of seamounts or submarine ridges rather than subduction zone geometry. Despite the low long-term uplift rate on Saipan, the island also hosts an emergent, low-elevation (+3.9–4.0 m) reef with corals in growth position below a notch (+4.2 m). The corals are dated to 3.9–3.1 ka. The occurrence of this young, emergent reef is likely not due to tectonic uplift; instead, it is interpreted to be the result of glacial isostatic adjustment processes after the end of the last glacial period. Our findings are consistent with similar observations on tectonically stable or slowly uplifting islands elsewhere in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and agree with numerical models of a higher-than-present Holocene sea level in this region due to glacial isostatic adjustment processes.