Turbidity current

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A turbidity current is a current of rapidly moving, sediment-laden water moving down a slope through water, or another fluid. The current moves because it has a higher density than the fluid through which it flows—the driving force of a turbidity current derives from its sediment, which renders the turbid water denser than the clear water above. The deposit of a turbidity current is called a turbidite.

Turbidity currents are an example of density or gravity currents, which include: oceanic fronts, avalanches, lahars, pyroclastic flows and lava flows. Seafloor turbidity currents are commonly used to describe underwater currents in lakes and oceans, which are usually triggered by earthquakes, slumping and sediment-laden rivers. They are characterized by a well-defined front, also known as head, followed by a layer known as the body of the current.

Turbidity currents are characteristic of areas where there is seismic instability and an underwater slope, especially submarine trench slopes of convergent plate margins, continental slopes and submarine canyons of passive margins.

With increasing continental shelf slope, current velocity increases, as the velocity of the flow increases, turbulence increases, and the current draws up more sediment. The increase in sediment increases the density of the current, and thus its velocity, even further. Turbidity currents can reach speeds up to half the speed of sound[citation needed][clarification needed].

Turbidity currents are traditionally defined as those sediment gravity flows in which sediment is suspended by fluid turbulence.[1][2] However, the term 'turbidity current' was adopted to describe a natural phenomenon whose exact nature is often unclear. The turbulence within a turbidity current isn’t always the support mechanism that keeps the sediment in suspension; however it is probable that turbulence is the primary or sole grain support mechanism in dilute currents (<3%).[3] Definitions are further complicated by an incomplete understanding of the turbulence structure within turbidity currents, and the confusion between the terms turbulent (i.e. disturbed by eddies) and turbid (i.e. opaque with sediment).[4] Kneller & Buckee, 2000 define a suspension current as 'flow induced by the action of gravity upon a turbid mixture of fluid and (suspended) sediment, by virtue of the density difference between the mixture and the ambient fluid'. A turbidity current is a suspension current in which the interstitial fluid is a liquid (generally water); a pyroclastic current is one in which the interstitial fluid is gas.[3]


Hyperpycnal plume[edit]

When the concentration of suspended sediment at the mouth of a river is so large that the density of river water is greater than the density of sea water a particular kind of turbidity current can form called a hyperpycnal plume.[5] The average concentration of suspended sediment for most river water that enters the ocean is much lower than the sediment concentration needed for entry as a hyperpycnal plume. Although some rivers can often have continuously high sediment load that can create a continuous hyperpycnal plume, such as the Haile River (China), which has an average suspended concentration of 40.5 kg/m³.[5] The sediment concentration needed to produce a hyperpycnal plume in marine water is 35 to 45 kg/m³, depending on the water properties within the coastal zone.[5] Most rivers produce hyperpycnal flows only during exceptional events, such as storms, floods, glacier outbursts, dam breaks, and lahar flows. In fresh water environments, such as lakes, the suspended sediment concentration needed to produce a hyperpycnal plume is quite low (1 kg/m³).[5]

Sedimentation in reservoirs[edit]

The transport and deposition of the sediments in narrow alpine reservoirs is often caused by turbidity currents. They follow the thalweg of the lake to the deepest area near the dam, where the sediments can affect the operation of the bottom outlet and the intake structures.[6] Controlling this sedimentation within the reservoir can be achieved by using solid and permeable obstacles with the right design.[6]

Earthquake triggering[edit]

Turbidity currents are most commonly triggered by tectonic disturbances of the sea floor. The displacement of continental crust in the form of fluidization and physical shaking both contribute to their formation. Earthquakes have been linked to turbidity current deposition in many settings, particularly where physiography favors preservation of the deposits and limits the other sources of turbidity current deposition.[7][8] Since the famous case of breakage of submarine cables by a turbidity current following the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake,[9] earthquake triggered turbidites have been investigated and verified along the Cascadia subduction Zone,[10] the Northern San Andreas Fault,[11] a number of European, Chilean and North American lakes,[12][13][14] Japanese lacustrine and offshore regions[15][16] and a variety of other settings.[17][18]


An example of steep submarine canyons carved out by turbidity currents, located along California's central Coast.

When large turbidity currents flow into canyons they may become self-sustaining,[19] and may entrain sediment that has previously been introduced into the canyon by littoral drift, storms or smaller turbidity currents. Canyon-flushing associated with surge-type currents initiated by slope failures may produce currents whose final volume may be several times that of the portion of the slope that has failed (e.g. Grand Banks).[20]


Sediment that has piled up at the top of the continental slope, particularly at the heads of submarine canyons can create turbidity current due to overloading, thus consequent slumping and sliding.

Effect on ocean floor[edit]

Large and fast-moving turbidity currents can incise and erode continental margins and cause damage to artificial structures such as telecommunication cables on the seafloor. Understanding where turbidity currents flow on the ocean floor can help to decrease the amount of damage to telecommunication cables by avoiding these areas or reinforcing the cables in vulnerable areas.

When turbidity currents interact with other currents, such as contour currents, they can change their direction. This ultimately shifts submarine canyons and sediment deposition locations. One example of this is located in the western part of the Gulf of Cadiz, where the Mediterranean outflow water (MOW) current strongly influences turbidity currents, ultimately causing shifting of valleys and canyons in the direction of the MOW flow.[21] This changes the erosion and depositional zones, ultimately changing the ocean floor topography.


Turbidite interbedded with finegrained dusky-yellow sandstone and gray clay shale that occur in graded beds, Point Loma Formation, California.

When the energy of a turbidity current lowers, its ability to keep suspended sediment decreases, thus sediment deposition occurs. These deposits are called turbidites. Turbidity currents are rarely seen in nature, thus turbidites can be used to determine turbidity current characteristics. Some examples: grain size can give indication of current velocity, grain lithology and the use of foraminifera for determining origins, grain distribution shows flow dynamics over time and sediment thickness indicates sediment load and longevity.

Turbidites are commonly used in the understanding of past turbidity currents, for example, the Peru-Chile Trench off Southern Central Chile (36°S-39°S) contains numerous turbidite layers that were cored and analysed.[22] From these turbidites the predicted history of turbidity currents in this area was determined, increasing the overall understanding of these currents.[22]

Antidune deposits[edit]

Some of the largest antidunes on Earth are formed by turbidity currents. One observed sediment-wave field is located on the lower continental slope off Guyana, South America.[23] This sediment-wave field covers an area of at least 29 000 km2 at a water depth of 4400–4825 meters.[23] These antidunes have wavelengths of 110-2600 m and wave heights of 1-15 m.[23] Turbidity currents responsible for wave generation are interpreted as originating from slope failures on the adjacent Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname continental margins.[23] Simple numerical modelling has been enabled to determine turbidity current flow characteristics across the sediment waves to be estimated: internal Froude number = 0.7-1.1, flow thickness = 24–645 m, and flow velocity = 31–82 cm·s-1.[23] Generally, on lower gradients beyond minor breaks of slope, flow thickness increases and flow velocity decreases, leading to an increase in wavelength and a decrease in height.[23]

Reversing buoyancy[edit]

The behaviour of turbidity currents with buoyant fluid (such as currents with warm, fresh or brackish interstitial water entering the sea) has been investigated to find that the front speed decreases more rapidly than that of currents with the same density as the ambient fluid.[24] These turbidity currents ultimately come to a halt as sedimentation results in a reversal of buoyancy, and the current lifts off, the point of lift-off remaining constant for a constant discharge.[24] The lofted fluid carries fine sediment with it, forming a plume that rises to a level of neutral buoyancy (if in a stratified environment) or to the water surface, and spreads out.[24] Sediment falling from the plume produces a widespread fall-out deposit, termed hemiturbidite.[25]


Prediction of erosion by turbidity currents, and of the distribution of turbidite deposits, such as their extent, thickness and grain size distribution, requires an understanding of the mechanisms of sediment transport and deposition, which in turn depends on the fluid dynamics of the currents.

The extreme complexity of most turbidite systems and beds has promoted the development of quantitative models of turbidity current behaviour inferred solely from their deposits. Small-scale laboratory experiments therefore offer one of the best means of studying their dynamics. Mathematical models can also provide significant insights into current dynamics. In the long term numerical techniques are most likely the best hope of understanding and predicting three-dimensional turbidity current processes and deposits. In most cases there are more variables than governing equations and the models rely upon simplifying assumptions in order to achieve a result.[3] The accuracy of the individual models thus depends upon the validity and choice of the assumptions made. Experimental results provide a means of constraining some of these variables as well as providing a test for such models.[3] Physical data from field observations, or more practical from experiments, are still required in order to test the simplifying assumptions necessary in mathematical models. Most of what is known about large natural turbidity currents (i.e. those significant in terms of sediment transfer to the deep sea) is inferred from indirect sources, such as submarine cable breaks and heights of deposits above submarine valley floors. Although during the 2003 Tokachi-oki earthquake a large turbidity current was observed by the cabled observatory which provided direct observations, which is rarely achieved.[26]

Oil exploration[edit]

Oil and gas companies are also interested in turbidity currents because the currents deposit organic matter that over geologic time gets buried, compressed and transformed into hydrocarbons. The use of numerical modelling and flumes are commonly used to help understand these questions.[27] Much of the modelling is used to reproduce the physical processes which govern turbidity current behaviour and deposits.[27]

Modeling approaches[edit]

Shallow-water models[edit]

The so-called depth-averaged or shallow-water models are initially introduced for compositional gravity currents [28] and then later extended to turbidity currents. [29] [30] The typical assumptions used along with the shallow-water models are: hydrostatic pressure field, clear fluid is not entrained (or detrained), and particle concentration does not depend on the vertical location. Considering the ease of implementation, these models can typically predict flow characteristic such as front location or front speed in simplified geometries, e.g. rectangular channels, fairly accurately.

Depth-resolved models[edit]

With the increase in computational power, depth-resolved models have become a powerful tool to study gravity and turbidity currents. These models, in general, are mainly focused on the solution of the Navier-Stokes equations for the fluid phase. With dilute suspension of particles, a Eulerian approach proved to be accurate to describe the evolution of particles in terms of a continuum particle concentration field. Under these models, no such assumptions as shallow-water models are needed and, therefore, accurate calculations and measurements are performed to study these currents. Measurements such as, pressure field, energy budgets, vertical particle concentration and accurate deposit heights are a few to mention. Both Direct numerical simulation (DNS) [31] and Turbulence modeling [32] are used to model these currents.

Examples of turbidity currents[edit]

  • Within minutes after the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake occurred off the coast of Newfoundland, transatlantic telephone cables began breaking sequentially, farther and farther downslope, away from the epicenter. Twelve cables were snapped in a total of 28 places. Exact times and locations were recorded for each break. Investigators suggested that a 60-mile-per-hour (100 km/h) submarine landslide or turbidity current of water saturated sediments swept 400 miles (600 km) down the continental slope from the earthquake’s epicenter, snapping the cables as it passed.[33] Subsequent research of this event have shown that continental slope sediment failures mostly occurred below 650 meter water depth.[34] The slumping that occurred in shallow waters (5–25 meters) passed down slope into turbidity currents that evolved ignitively.[34] The turbidity currents had sustained flow for many hours due to the delayed retrogressive failure and transformation of debris flows into turbidity currents through hydraulic jumps.[34]
  • The Cascadia subduction zone, off the northwestern coast of North America, has a record of earthquake triggered turbidites[35][36][37] that is well-correlated to other evidence of earthquakes recorded in coastal bays and lakes during the Holocene.[38][39][40][41][42] Forty–one Holocene turbidity currents have been correlated along all or part of the approximately 1000 km long plate boundary stretching from northern California to mid-Vancouver island. The correlations are based on radiocarbon ages and subsurface stratigraphic methods. The inferred recurrence interval of Cascadia great earthquakes is approximately 500 years along the northern margin, and approximately 240 years along the southern margin.[43]
  • Taiwan is a hot spot for submarine turbidity currents as there are large amounts of sediment suspended in rivers, and it is seismically active, thus large accumulation of seafloor sediments and earthquake triggering.[44] During the 2006 Pingtung earthquake off SW Taiwan, eleven submarine cables across the Kaoping canyon and Manila Trench were broken in sequence from 1500 to 4000 m deep, as a consequence of the associated turbidity currents.[44] From the timing of each cable break the velocity of the current was determined to have a positive relationship with bathymetric slope. Current velocities were 20 m·s-1 on the steepest slopes and 3.7 m·s-1 on the shallowest slopes.[44]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Meiburg, E. & Kneller, B. 2010, "Turbidity currents and their deposits", Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, vol. 42, pp. 135-156.
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  6. ^ a b Oehy, C.D. & Schleiss, A.J. 2007, "Control of turbidity currents in reservoirs by solid and permeable obstacles", Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, vol. 133, no. 6, pp. 637-648.
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  8. ^ Goldfinger, C., 2011, Submarine Paleoseismology Based on Turbidite Records: Annual Reviews of Marine Science, v. 3, p. 35-66.
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  11. ^ Goldfinger, C., Grijalva, K., Burgmann, R., Morey, A.E., Johnson, J.E., Nelson, C.H., Gutierrez-Pastor, J., Ericsson, A., Karabanov, E., Chaytor, J.D., Patton, J., and Gracia, E., 2008, Late Holocene Rupture of the Northern San Andreas Fault and Possible Stress Linkage to the Cascadia Subduction Zone Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, v. 98, p. 861-889.
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  21. ^ Mulder, T., Lecroart, P., Hanquiez, V., Marches, E., Gonthier, E., Guedes, J.-., Thiébot, E., Jaaidi, B., Kenyon, N., Voisset, M., Perez, C., Sayago, M., Fuchey, Y. & Bujan, S. 2006, "The western part of the Gulf of Cadiz: Contour currents and turbidity currents interactions", Geo-Marine Letters, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 31-41.
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  35. ^ Goldfinger, C., Nelson, C.H., and Johnson, J.E., 2003, Holocene Earthquake Records From the Cascadia Subduction Zone and Northern San Andreas Fault Based on Precise Dating of Offshore Turbidites: Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, v. 31, p. 555-577.
  36. ^ Goldfinger, C., Nelson, C.H., Morey, A., Johnson, J.E., Gutierrez-Pastor, J., Eriksson, A.T., Karabanov, E., Patton, J., Gracia, E., Enkin, R., Dallimore, A., Dunhill, G., and Vallier, T., 2011, Turbidite Event History: Methods and Implications for Holocene Paleoseismicity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, USGS Professional Paper 1661-F, Reston, VA, U.S. Geological Survey, 332 p, 64 Figures.
  37. ^ Adams, J., 1990, Paleoseismicity of the Cascadia subduction zone: Evidence from turbidites off the Oregon-Washington Margin: Tectonics, v. 9, p. 569-584.
  38. ^ Atwater, B.F., 1987, Evidence for great Holocene earthquakes along the outer coast of Washington State: Science, v. 236, p. 942-944.
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  43. ^ Goldfinger, C., Nelson, C.H., Morey, A., Johnson, J.E., Gutierrez-Pastor, J., Eriksson, A.T., Karabanov, E., Patton, J., Gracia, E., Enkin, R., Dallimore, A., Dunhill, G., and Vallier, T., 2011, Turbidite Event History: Methods and Implications for Holocene Paleoseismicity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, USGS Professional Paper 1661-F, Reston, VA, U.S. Geological Survey, 332 p, 64 Figures.
  44. ^ a b c Hsu, S.-., Kuo, J., Lo, C.-., Tsai, C.-., Doo, W.-., Ku, C.-. & Sibuet, J.-. 2008, "Turbidity currents, submarine landslides and the 2006 Pingtung earthquake off SW Taiwan", Terrestrial, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 767-772.

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