The width of the Cascadia subduction zone fault varies along its length, depending on the temperature of the subducted oceanic plate, which heats up as it is pushed deeper beneath the continent. As it becomes hotter and more molten, it eventually loses the ability to store mechanical stress and generates earthquakes.
The Cascadia subduction zone presents a challenge to current tectonic theory which generally holds that subduction occurs as a plate becomes older, denser and thicker with distance from the ridge which contributes new material to it. In the case of Cascadia, its associated ridge is just a few hundred miles (and in places less) distant from the subduction zone. This puzzle is a matter of ongoing research and discussion. The current hypothesis which attempts to explain it is that once subduction begins, it continues by the process of slab-pull, i.e. the weight of the previously subducted segment exerts a force behind it on the remaining slab above the subduction zone, regardless of its density, pulling it downward.
The Cascadia subduction zone runs from triple junctions at its north and south ends. On the north just south of Queen Charlotte Island, it intersects the Queen Charlotte Fault and the Explorer Ridge. On the south, just off of Cape Mendocino in California, it intersects the San Andreas Fault and the Mendocino fault zone at the Mendocino Triple Junction.
The Cascadia subduction zone can produce very large earthquakes, magnitude 9.0 or greater, if rupture occurs over its whole area. When the "locked" zone stores up energy for an earthquake, the "transition" zone, although somewhat plastic, can rupture. Thermal and deformation studies indicate that the locked zone is fully locked for 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) downdip from the deformation front. Further downdip, there is a transition from fully locked to aseismic sliding.
In 1999, a group of Continuous Global Positioning System sites registered a brief reversal of motion of approximately 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) over a 50 kilometer by 300 kilometer (about 30 mile by 200 mile) area. The movement was the equivalent of a 6.7 magnitude earthquake. The motion did not trigger an earthquake and was only detectable as silent, non-earthquake seismic signatures.
The last known great earthquake in the northwest was in January of 1700, the Cascadia Earthquake. Geological evidence indicates that great earthquakes may have occurred at least seven times in the last 3,500 years, suggesting a return time of 300 to 600 years. There is also evidence of accompanying tsunamis with every earthquake, and one line of evidence for these earthquakes is tsunami damage, and through Japanese records of tsunamis.
A future rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone would cause widespread destruction throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Other similar subduction zones in the world usually have such earthquakes every 100–200 years; the longer interval here may indicate unusually large stress buildup and subsequent unusually large earthquake slip.
The volcanoes within the subduction zone include: