Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

How do deep-ocean turbidity currents behave that form the largest sediment accumulations on Earth?

People Involved

Daniel Parsons

Project Description

Seafloor flows called turbidity currents form the largest sediment accumulations on Earth (submarine fans). They flushglobally significant amounts of sediment, organic carbon, nutrients and fresher-water into the deep ocean, and affect itsoxygen levels. Only rivers transport comparable volumes of sediment across such large expanses of our planet, although asingle turbidity current can transport more sediment than the combined annual flux from all of the World's rivers combined.Here we will make a step change in understanding of turbidity currents, and their wider impacts, by making the first detailedmeasurements of turbidity current that runout into the deep (2-5 km) ocean. Such direct monitoring of turbidity currents thatform major submarine fan systems has been a 'holy grail' for sedimentology, oceanography, and marine geology fordecades. It would be broadly comparable to the first detailed measurements of major river systems or other first-orderprocesses for moving sediment across the planet. This project is especially timely due to recent successful tests of newmethods and technology for measuring turbidity currents in shallower (less than 2 km) water, which can now be used fordeep-water, large-scale submarine fan settings.We choose to study the Congo Canyon off West Africa due to an exceptional set of initial measurements collected in 2010and 2013. These measurements at 2 km water depth are the deepest yet for turbidity currents. Surprisingly, they showedthat individual turbidity currents lasted for almost a week, and occupied 20% of the time. This was surprising because allpreviously measured oceanic turbidity currents lasted for just a few hours or minutes, and occurred for < 0.1% of the totaltime. It suggests that turbidity currents that runout into the deep ocean to form major submarine fans may differ from theirshallow water cousins in key regards. These preliminary measurements show how monitoring is feasible for the CongoCanyon. They help us to design a project that will now show how these flows runout into the deeper ocean.We will deploy 8 moorings along the Congo Canyon at water depths of 2 to 5 km that will measure frequency, duration, andrun-out distance of multiple flows; together with their velocity, turbulence and sediment concentration structures; as well aschanges in water, sediment and organic carbon discharge.Our overall aim is to show how deep-sea turbidity current behave using the first direct measurements, and understandcauses and wider implications of this behaviour. We will answer the following key questions about flow behaviour:(1) What controls flow duration, and does flow stretching cause near-continuous canyon flushing? We will test a newhypothesis that predicts flows will stretch dramatically as a 'hot spot' of faster moving fluid runs away from the rest of theevent, thereby producing near-continuous flushing of submarine canyons.(2) What controls runout and whether flows become more powerful? We will test whether turbidity currents tend towardsone of two distinct modes of behaviour, in which they erode and accelerate (a process termed ignition), or deposit sedimentand dissipate.(3) How is flow behaviour and character recorded by deposits? This is important because deposits are the only record ofmost turbidity currents.(4) How does flow behaviour affect the transfer and burial of terrestrial organic carbon in the deep-sea? It was proposedrecently that burial of terrestrial organic carbon in the deep sea is very efficient, and an important control on long-termatmospheric CO2 levels. This hypothesis implies little fractionation of terrestrial organic carbon occurs during submarinetransport. Composition of organic carbon buried by the offshore flows is similar to that supplied by the river. We will test thishypothesis by analysing amounts and types of organic carbon along the offshore pathway in both flows and deposits

Type of Project Project
Project Acronym CONGO
Status Project Live
Funder(s) Natural Environment Research Council
Value £350,710.00
Project Dates Apr 1, 2019 - Mar 31, 2023

You might also like