An interdisciplinary investigation of a recent submarine mass transport deposit at the continental margin off Uruguay

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Abstract

Assessing frequency and extent of mass movement at continental margins is crucial to evaluate risks for offshore constructions and coastal areas. A multidisciplinary approach including geophysical, sedimentological, geotechnical, and geochemical methods was applied to investigate multistage mass transport deposits (MTDs) off Uruguay, on top of which no surficial hemipelagic drape was detected based on echosounder data. Nonsteady state pore water conditions are evidenced by a distinct gradient change in the sulfate (SO42−) profile at 2.8 m depth. A sharp sedimentological contact at 2.43 m coincides with an abrupt downward increase in shear strength from ∼10 to >20 kPa. This boundary is interpreted as a paleosurface (and top of an older MTD) that has recently been covered by a sediment package during a younger landslide event. This youngest MTD supposedly originated from an upslope position and carried its initial pore water signature downward. The kink in the SO42− profile ∼35 cm below the sedimentological and geotechnical contact indicates that bioirrigation affected the paleosurface before deposition of the youngest MTD. Based on modeling of the diffusive re-equilibration of SO42− the age of the most recent MTD is estimated to be <30 years. The mass movement was possibly related to an earthquake in 1988 (∼70 km southwest of the core location). Probabilistic slope stability back analysis of general landslide structures in the study area reveals that slope failure initiation requires additional ground accelerations. Therefore, we consider the earthquake as a reasonable trigger if additional weakening processes (e.g., erosion by previous retrogressive failure events or excess pore pressures) preconditioned the slope for failure. Our study reveals the necessity of multidisciplinary approaches to accurately recognize and date recent slope failures in complex settings such as the investigated area.

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