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1.6: 6. Turbidites and Stratigraphy

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    Turbidites provide a good summary of the ideas we have been talking about, e.g. facies and sedimentary structures related to flows. Turbidites are deposited from slurries of sediment and water in any standing body of water (lakes, oceans). (photos of turbidites)

    1. Turbidity flows start with slope failure in soft sediment. Slopes become oversteepened where sedimentation rates are very high, such at the mouths of rivers. Because flow speeds are very low in standing water, the sediment does not get washed downslope. Rather, it builds up until there is a subaqueous slope failure. Earthquakes can trigger these slides, too.
    2. Sediment and water mix creating a “fluid” that is denser than the surrounding water because of the entrained sediment. Thus, it flows downhill even if the slope is very low (1°).
    3. The base of the flow is commonly erosional on steep slopes, so more sediment is entrained in the flow.
    4. Enough sediment is entrained that erosion stops. Deposition begins as the slope gets shallower or the flow starts to slow down. Initially, the coarsest grains are deposited (remember the Hjulstrom diagram) and then finer grains, so the sediment is “graded”. However, the sediment is usually poorly sorted because the flow is a slurry of water and sediment so hydraulic sorting is reduced. (Facies = Bouma a)
    5. Sediment concentration decreases with deposition, so one gets more hydraulic sorting. The flow is very fast so the sediment has upper planar lamination. (Facies = Bouma b)
    6. As the flow slows more, grain size decreases and ripples start to form. Dunes do not usually form for two reasons: a) often only fine sand and finer grains are left in the flow by this point; and b) dunes do not have time to develop. (Facies = Bouma c)
    7. Eventually, the flow slows to the point that bedload transport stops and deposition is mostly settling of silt and then clay. The progressive settling of coarser and then finer grains produces a faint lamination, but it is not as strong as the planar laminations in Bouma b. (Facies = Bouma d)
    8. Mud settles out producing shale. This can look identical to background settling of clays brought into the lake/ocean as suspended sediment. (Facies = Bouma e)

    Bouma divisions a-d can take hours or a day or so to be deposited. However, division e, which is usually the thinnest, commonly accumulates over months or longer (e.g. hundreds of years) depending on how frequent turbidites are in the area.

    The video above shows a turbidite fortuitously filmed by underwater equipment in Mendocino Canyon off the coast of California (see Sumner and Paull, 2014, for a full description).

    Changes in Character Downslope

    The parts of turbidites that are deposited change downslope and usually only a few of the subdivisions are preserved. In the most proximal (upslope) environments, divisions a and b are most common. In the more distal areas, all of the coarser sediment has already been deposited upstream, so divisions d and e are most common. Generally, there are also channels which fan out producing variations in rock types that change in space and through time.

    Turbidite Facies Models

    Over the decades, sedimentologists have described and interpreted sedimentary rocks and defined generalized facies and facies associations that are characteristic of different depositional environments. These generalized facies and associations are called Facies Models. Each depositional environment or system has its own facies model. This is a VERY powerful tool for interpreting ancient environments. See my video summary:

    A nice, hour long lecture on turbidites in the Monterrey Bay Canyon, CA, is worth listening to for more information. The actual lecture starts about 5 minutes into the video.

    Extra on Turbidites

    Turbidite facies analysis and the resulting facies model led to the discovery of a new process. Sedimentologists had characterized turbidites all over the world. They all had the same flow characteristics consisting of a very strong erosive flow, deposition of a normally graded bed which was massive, followed by upper plane bedding, rippled finer sands, coarsely laminated silts, then shales. Comparisons with known flows showed that this sequence of deposits must come from a fast initial flow that slowed through time to still water. And this repeated again and again. The associated facies and the succession of different facies in these sequences suggested that the deposits had to be in deep water. For example, the fossils were all characteristic of deep water, shales were abundant and are characteristic of still water (shallow or deep), and they were sometimes associated with deep water storm deposits. Thus, the sedimentologists proposed slope failure and turbid currents flowing down slope and called them turbidity currents. A process like this had not been observed in modern depositional environments, so the idea was controversial. Many geologists did not believe that you could generate strong enough currents underwater to get those flow characteristics. Eventually in 1964, two geologists Heezen and Drake realized that an event in 1929 provided strong evidence for turbidity currents. In 1929, which is long before there were satellites, under water telegraph cables were strung from Newfoundland to Europe. In November, about 30 cables broke in order from farthest north and shallowest to farther south and deeper water. At the time, people did not know why they broke, but Heezen and Drake suggested that a turbidity current was triggered by an earthquake and the cables broke as the turbidity current passed over them (they are strong flows!). Because they were continuously used for communication, the time each cable broke was precisely known. Heezen and Drake calculated that the front of the flow traveled at 250 km/h (36,000 cm/s) when the turbidite first formed and then slowed to around 20 km/h (7000 cm/s) by the time the last cables broke 500 km from the source. This was a fast, strong flow and may be typical of turbidites. These flow speeds are very erosive. It is only after the turbidite slows down even more that you get deposition. The characteristics of the flow seen by the breaking cables fit the flow characteristics proposed by the sedimentologists, and now turbidity currents and the facies model developed for turbidites are widely accepted and often treated as a good example of rocks that closely reflect flow characteristics. Turbidites and their interpretation are almost an ideal example of a good Facies Model.

    Extra on Dense Sediment Flows

    Sometimes with slope failures on land or under water, much more sediment can be put into motion than the flow would normally erode. Depending on the amount of water mixed with the sediment, the flow characteristics are different. When abundant water is present, the sediment can form a thick slurry with a higher density (\(\rho\)) than sediment-free water, commonly leading to a higher \(Re\) and more turbulent flow:

    \[Re=\dfrac{u \times l \times \rho}{µ} \label{Re}\]

    Also, collisions between grains become extremely important. Both of these tend to keep the sediment moving. Grain-to-grain collisions also make sorting much less efficient, and the sediment that gets deposited tends to consist of whichever grains make it to the base of the flow and are not kicked back up again. Usually, the largest grains are part of this first deposit because they weigh more, but small grains are also present. As the amount of sediment decreases, the flow becomes more like typical water flows. Turbidites are subaqueous flows that start out with a very high sediment load and decrease in time to more normal flows. They have characteristic sedimentary structures associated with them that reflect these changes.

    If there is very little water associated with a clay-rich sediment flow, the flow can be very viscous due to the charge attraction among clay particles. The high viscosity reduces Re (Equation \ref{Re}). Debris flows with lots of cohesive mud can even be laminar. In laminar flows, there is no mixing of the water or grains (or ice) and there is no sorting of grain sizes. Thus, the sediment remains mixed up with large grains, sometimes boulders, “floating” in mud. They flow down slopes pulled by gravity until the flow seizes up and stops. This can be due to too low a slope or loss of water. Underwater debris flows can also be diluted by water that gets incorporated at the edges of the flow and become less viscous and more turbulent through time.

    There also are dry sediment flows in which air is present between grains. For example, rock avalanches and some pyroclastic flows from volcanoes lack water. For these to move significant distances, large amounts of energy from either gravity or explosions are necessary to keep the sediment in motion.

    Stratigraphy and Time

    Stratigraphy is the study of sedimentary rocks in space and time. It is the basis of interpreting what happened in the past. We use facies to interpret depositional environments from the rocks. Changes in facies both vertically and horizontally allow us to interpret changes in ancient landscapes and processes.

    Example: Beach Facies. Beach environments grade laterally into each other. The offshore areas grade into the swash zone of the foreshore. The foreshore grades into the berm (the highest point of the beach) and backshore (if present). Eolian (wind) dunes, marshes or erosional cliffs can be present landward of the beach. Rock facies similarly grade into each other because they were deposited in different depositional environments. If the depositional environments stay in exactly the same place through time, a stratigraphic column in each place would consist of a uniform facies, but each stratigraphic column would have a different style of rock (facies). However, depositional environments tend to migrate back and forth as sea level rises or falls, basins fill in with sediment, etc. Thus, facies in stratigraphic columns tend to change upward. They also vary laterally. See figure 19.8 on pg. 308 of Nichols.

    Changes in sea level and depositional environment lead to variations in stratigraphic columns both laterally and vertically. If you compare different stratigraphic columns, there are several ways you might "correlate" them. If you correlate different rock types, e.g. lithostratigraphy, you are marking regions with similar characteristics, but the sediments in each unit were not necessarily deposited at the same time. In contrast, if you correlate rocks that were deposited at the same time, e.g. chronostratigraphy, each unit often consists of more than one facies. This is obvious when you look at the distribution of depositional environments now. Different areas are accumulating different types of sediment at the same time.

    Lithostratigraphic correlations are relatively easy because you can directly observe rock type. These correlations are very useful for studies of reservoir properties, where one might want to identify a porous sand that acts as a water or hydrocarbon reservoir. However, these correlations do not help you interpret ancient depositional environments because they do not represent an ancient landscape. Chronostratigraphic correlations tell you the most about depositional environments and their distribution through time, but they can be VERY difficult because you have to have a time marker that tells you which deposits were synchronous. Sometimes volcanic ash beds or other depositional events allow you to directly observe which rocks were deposited at the same time, but these events are rare. Often, chronostratigraphic correlations require detailed facies analysis and an understanding of how depositional environments change through time.

    Walther’s Law

    Walther’s Law is key for understanding the differences between lithostratigraphy and chronostratigraphy. Walther’s Law states that environments that are adjacent to each other are represented as vertical successions of facies in the rock record if there is no break in sedimentation (no unconformity). If sea level is rising relative to the shore line, the different depositional environments are migrating inland. This leads to different facies accumulating progressively inland as well. The most landward deposits are river deposits and alluvial plain deposits, followed by marsh and then marine deposits. Vertically, you see the facies representing those depositional environments in the same order. At any given time, rocks are being deposited in all of the different environments.


    Chronostratigraphy enhances the interpretation of the stratigraphic record in terms of Earth history. Even when one has a detailed map of the distribution of depositional environments, it is difficult to say exactly how to correlate section in terms of time. In real rocks, there are a number of tools that you can use to get correlations of various accuracy. These include: fossils (biostratigraphy); magnetic properties (magnetostratigraphy); absolute ages of interbedded volcanic ash beds and basalt flows; some chemical properties such as elemental isotope ratios in carbonates; geological instantaneous depositional events such as huge storms, meteorite impacts, etc.; and unconformities due to sea level falls and the geometry of sedimentary deposits (sequence stratigraphy). We will get back to all of these in more detail throughout the quarter, particularly near the end.

    Distribution of Rock and Time

    One might think that sections can be correlated based on assuming that the same amount of sediment gets deposited in all places in the same amount of time. This is a BAD assumption, although many researchers are forced to use it. It is important to understand that the preserved rock does not represent all of time. In other words, time is not evenly represented by rock thickness. For example, with turbidites, the sandstones may have been deposited in a couple hours to a day at most, whereas the shales (Bouma E) represent 100’s to 1000’s of years of fine grains settling out. Thus, most of the "time" is represented in the much thinner shales. In addition, there is erosion at the base of some of the turbidites. Thus, there is a significant amount of time that is only represented by an erosional surface which produces a gap in the rock record. Generally, sedimentation is thought of as a continuous processes. This is NOT true. Sedimentation is episodic and there are unconformities in the stratigraphic record spanning all time ranges from minutes to millions of years. Gaps of minutes might occur in a river if there is a burst of strong flow that is erosive rather than depositional. Gaps of hours occur at low tides when the intertidal zone is exposed. Gaps of years to thousands of years can occur in land environments where there is no source of sediment or the topography is too high to collect sediment. Gaps of millions of years also occur in terrestrial environments, especially if there is erosion. The longer time gaps usually represent regional changes in deposition and can be very useful for correlating rocks chronostratigraphically. Also, different depositional environments accumulate sediment at different rates: thickness does not equal time!


    Sumner, E.J. and C.K. Paull, 2014, Swept Away By a Turbidity Current in Mendocino Submarine Canyon, California. Geophysical Research Letters,, v. 41, p. 76117618, doi:10.1002/2014GL061863

    This page titled 1.6: 6. Turbidites and Stratigraphy is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dawn Sumner.