Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Preconditioning by sediment accumulation can produce powerful turbidity currents without major external triggers

March 3, 2021

Turbidity currents dominate sediment transfer into the deep ocean, and can damage critical seabed infrastructure. It is commonly inferred that powerful turbidity currents are triggered by major external events, such as storms, river floods, or earthquakes. However, basic models for turbidity current triggering remain poorly tested, with few studies accurately recording precise flow timing. Here, we analyse the most detailed series of measurements yet made of powerful (up to 7.2 m s−1) turbidity currents, within Monterey Canyon, offshore California. During 18-months of instrument deployment, fourteen turbidity currents were directly monitored. No consistent triggering mechanism was observed, though flows did cluster around enhanced seasonal sediment supply. We compare turbidity current timing at Monterey Canyon (a sandy canyon-head fed by longshore drift) to the only other systems where numerous (>10-100) flows have been measured precisely via direct monitoring; the Squamish Delta (a sandy fjord-head delta), and the Congo Canyon (connected to the mud-dominated mouth of the Congo River). A common seasonal pattern emerges, leading to a new model for preconditioning and triggering of turbidity currents initiating through slope failure in areas of sediment accumulation, such as canyon heads or river mouths. In this model, rapid or sustained sediment supply alone can produce elevated pore pressures, which may persist, thereby predisposing slopes to fail. Once preconditioned, a range of minor external perturbations, such as moderate storm-waves, result in local pore pressure variation, and thus become effective triggers. Major external triggers are therefore not always a prerequisite for triggering of powerful turbidity currents.

Publication Year 2021
Title Preconditioning by sediment accumulation can produce powerful turbidity currents without major external triggers
DOI 10.1016/j.epsl.2021.116845
Authors Lewis Bailey, Michael Clare, Kurt J. Rosenberger, Matthieu J.B. Cartigny, Peter J. Talling, Charles K. Paull, Roberto Gwiazda, Daniel Parsons, Stephen Simmons, Jingping Xu, Ivan Haigh, Katherine L. Maier, Mary McGann, Eve M. Lundsten
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth and Planetary Science Letters
Index ID 70218768
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center