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The AAPG/Datapages Combined Publications Database

Journal of Sedimentary Research (SEPM)


Journal of Sedimentary Petrology
Vol. 42 (1972)No. 4. (December), Pages 775-793

The Role of Subaqueous Debris Flow in Generating Turbidity Currents

Monty A. Hampton


Turbidity currents may be generated in the oceans as part of the sequence from landsliding through debris flow to turbidity current flow. Three aspects of this sequence examined here are 1) the transition from landsliding to debris flow, 2) the mechanics of subaqueous debris flow, and 3) the transition from subaqueous debris flow to turbidity-current flow.

The transition from landsliding to debris flow, as observed in the subaerial environment, occurs readily if water is incorporated into the landslide debris as it is jostled and remoulded during downslope movement. Remoulding and incorporation of water reduce the strength and increase the fluid behavior of the debris, thereby causing it to flow rather than slide. Incorporation of only a few percent water typically decreases the strength of landslide debris by a factor of two or more; therefore, landslide debris commonly becomes very fluid with incorporation of a small amount of water. The ready availability of water in the marine environment suggests that conditions are favorable for the development of subaqueous debris flows from subaqueous landslides.

Debris flow has been modeled as flow of a plastico-viscous substance, which has a yield strength and deforms viscously at stresses greater than the yield strength. The conditions required for movement of a subaqueous debris flow are described in terms of a critical thickness of debris, which varies directly with strength and inversely with submerged trait weight and slope angle. Within a debris flow, viscous shear occurs where shear stress exceeds the shear strength of the debris, but where shear stress is less than shear strength the material is rafted along as a nondeforming plug. Distinct zones of viscous shear and nondeformation exist in a subaqueous debris flow.

Transition from subaqueous debris flow to turbidity-current flow involves extensive dilution of debris-flow material, reducing the density from about 2.0 gm/cm3 to about 1.1 gm/cm3. In experiments, subaqueous debris-flow material was mixed with the surrounding water by erosion of material from the front of the flow and ejection of the material into the overlying water to form a dilute turbulent cloud (turbidity current). The amount of mixing, and hence the size of the turbidity current, varied inversely with the strength of the debris. Conditions that cause mixing at the front of a subaqueous debris flow are illustrated by analyzing flow around a half-body, with boundary-Previous HitlayerNext Hit separation.

Turbidity, currents also may be generated from subaqueous debris flows by mixing water directly into the body of the flow, behind the front, although this type of mixing was not observed in experiments. Mixing into the body of the flow can result from flow instability, either by breaking interface Previous HitwavesTop or by momentum transfer associated with turbulence, but available information suggests that mixing due to instability is inhibited by the presence of clay and coarse granular solids in debris. Mixing by erosion from the front of a debris flow is favored as being a more typical process of generating turbidity currents because this mixing is a natural consequence of debris flowing through water; it requires no special conditions to operate.

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