The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages, and a few new episodes were posted. Now, the blog/podcast is on a weekly schedule with diverse topics, and the Facebook Page showcases photos on Mineral Monday and Fossil Friday. Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Episode 396 Turbidity currents

As near as I can tell in the original daily series in 2014, I never addressed the topic of turbidity currents and their sedimentary product, turbidites. But they account for the distribution of vast quantities of sediment on continental shelves and slopes and elsewhere.

You know what turbid water is: water with a lot of suspended sediment, usually fine mud particles. In natural submarine environments, unconsolidated sediment contains a lot of water, and when a slurry-like package of sediment liquifies, it can flow down slopes under gravity, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers.

It isn’t correct to think of these streams of water and sediment as like rivers on the sea floor. Rivers transport sediment, whether boulders or sand or silt or mud, through the traction, the friction of the moving water. Turbidity flows are density flows, moving because the density of the water-sediment package is greater than the surrounding water. That means they can carry larger particles than usual.

Turbidite formation. Image by Oggmus, used under Creative Commons license - source

Sometimes a turbidity flow is triggered by something like an earthquake, but they can also start simply because the material reaches a threshold above which gravity takes over and the material flows down slope. The amount and size of sediment the flow can carry depends on its speed, so as the flow diminishes and wanes, first the coarse, heavier particles settle out, followed by finer and finer sediments. This results in a sediment package characterized by graded bedding – the grain size grades from coarse, with grains measuring several centimeters or more, to sand, 2 millimeters and smaller, to silt and finally to mud in the upper part of the package. Repeated turbidity flows create repeated sequences of graded bedding, and they can add up to many thousands of meters of total sedimentary rock, called turbidites.

Other sedimentary structures in turbidites can include ripple marks, the result of the flow over an earlier sediment surface, as well as sole marks, which are essentially gouges in the older finer-grained top of a turbidite package by the newest, coarser grains and pebbles moving across it.

There are variations, of course, but the standard package of sediment sizes and structures, dominated by the graded bedding, is called a Bauma Sequence for Arnold Bouma, the sedimentologist who described them in the 1960s.

Turbidity currents are pretty common on the edges of continental shelves where the sea floor begins to steepen into the continental slope, and repeated turbidity flows can carve steep canyons in the shelf and slope. Where the flow bursts out onto the flatter abyssal sea floor, huge volumes of sediment can accumulate, especially beyond the mouths of the great rivers of the world which carry lots of sediment.

When the flow is no longer constrained by a canyon or even a more gentle flow surface, the slurry tends to fan out – and the deposits are called deep abyssal ocean fans. They are often even shaped like a wide fan, with various branching channels distributing the sediment around the arms of the fan. The largest on earth today is the Bengal Fan, offshore from the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers in India and Bangladesh. It’s about 3,000 km long, 1400 km wide, and more than 16 km, more than 10 miles, thick at its thickest. It’s the consequence of the collision between India and Eurasia and the uplift and erosion of the Himalaya.

The scientific value of turbidites includes a record of tectonic uplift, and even seismicity given that often turbidity currents are triggered by earthquakes. They also have economic value. Within the sequence of fining-upward sediments, some portions are typically very well-sorted, clean sandstones. That means they have grains of uniform size and shape and not much other stuff to gum up the pores between the sand grains – so that makes them potentially very good reservoirs for oil and natural gas. You need the proper arrangements of source rocks, trapping mechanisms, and burial history too, but deep-water turbidites are explored for specifically, and with success, in the Gulf of Mexico, North Sea, offshore Brazil and West Africa, and elsewhere. The Marlim fields offshore Brazil contained more than 4 billion barrels of producible oil reserves when they were discovered in the 1980s.

Ancient turbidites sometimes serve as the host rocks for major gold deposits, such as those at Bendigo and Ballarat Australia, which are among the top ten gold producers on earth.

—Richard I. Gibson


  1. another good one, but mainly I wanted to mention that until a few episodes ago, I only read your posts. Finally tried the podcasts and really like them (in part because of the Weather Reports :)