Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Sediment classification and the characterization, identification, and mapping of geologic substrates for the glaciated Gulf of Maine seabed and other terrains, providing a physical framework for ecological research and seabed management

October 24, 2019

A geologic substrate is a surface (or volume) of sediment or rock where physical, chemical, and biological processes occur, such as the movement and deposition of sediment, the formation of bedforms, and the attachment, burrowing, feeding, reproduction, and sheltering of organisms. Seabed mapping surveys in the Stellwagen Bank region off Boston, Massachusetts, from 1993 to 2004 have led to the development of a methodology for characterizing, identifying, and mapping geologic substrates. The resulting high-resolution interpretive maps (1:25,000) show the distribution of substrates in a glaciated terrain of banks and basins in water depths of 30 to 185 meters. Data sources used to characterize substrates are multibeam sonar bathymetric and backscatter imagery to document seabed topography and patterns of sediment and rock distribution, grain-size analyses of sediment samples to determine substrate composition, and video and photographic imagery of the seabed to aid in the interpretation of multibeam sonar imagery and to provide information on substrate layering and mobility, seabed structures, and sediments and nonsediment materials that cannot be physically sampled.

Sediment composition is a major property of many seabed substrates. Sediment grains belong to a continuum of grain-diameter sizes previously classified into grades (for example, fine sand, medium sand) and into aggregates (mud, sand, gravel). The definition of grade and aggregate boundaries in a classification is arbitrary, and a useful classification is limited to as few classes as are needed to effectively organize and apply information. For the purpose of mapping substrates, sediment grades and aggregates were simplified and re-classified into eight composite grades based on grain-size content, mode of transport, and ecological role. Five composite grades are identified using grain-size analysis and three are identified using video and photographic imagery of the seabed.

Naturally occurring sediments contain various amounts of the aggregates mud, sand, and gravel. The separation of naturally occurring sediments into sediment classes, based on grain-size analysis, requires that limits be set on the amount of mud, sand, and gravel each class contains. Fifteen previously identified basic sediment classes provided interpretive information on sediment transport by emphasizing gravel content (a low 0.01-weight-percent threshold) and on winnowing processes based on the sand-to-mud ratio. The present study recognizes 20 basic sediment classes that are combinations of aggregates in which the lower limits for recognition of mud and sand are 10 weight percent and of gravel, 25 weight percent. These sediment classes can be made more specific by listing their content of the composite grades fine-grained sand (3 and 4 phi), which is transported in suspension, and coarse-grained sand (0, 1, and 2 phi), which is transported as bedload. Additional sediment classes and nonsediment classes that cannot be sampled are recognized on the basis of visual analysis of seabed video and photographic imagery and include pebble, cobble, and boulder gravel, rock outcrops, and shell beds, among others.

Substrates are not classified because their properties are too varied for a classification to be concise and useful. Rather, substrates are characterized and identified by sediment grain-size composition (the sediment class); the distribution, in millimeters, of grain diameters in the sediment; the presence of nonsediments (for example, rock outcrops); substrate mobility based on the presence of sediment ripples; substrate layering (for example, a partial veneer of sand on gravel); and seabed structures. These properties have interpretive value by providing information about sedimentary processes acting on a substrate and about its ecological function. A geologic substrate, when it is associated with one or more species, is an important element of a habitat.

This methodology was developed to map a glaciated terrain characterized by geologic substrates that typify a wide range of erosional and depositional sedimentary environments, and it likely will be useful for mapping substrates in other terrains. Substrate maps provide the physical framework required for identifying sediment transport processes, validating sediment transport models, studying the ecology of species and communities, and managing marine resources and seabed usage.

Publication Year 2019
Title Sediment classification and the characterization, identification, and mapping of geologic substrates for the glaciated Gulf of Maine seabed and other terrains, providing a physical framework for ecological research and seabed management
DOI 10.3133/sir20195073
Authors Page C. Valentine
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5073
Index ID sir20195073
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center