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Keywords:

  • Debris flows;
  • sedimentary density currents;
  • turbidites;
  • turbidity currents

The complexity of flow and wide variety of depositional processes operating in subaqueous density flows, combined with post-depositional consolidation and soft-sediment deformation, often make it difficult to interpret the characteristics of the original flow from the sedimentary record. This has led to considerable confusion of nomenclature in the literature. This paper attempts to clarify this situation by presenting a simple classification of sedimentary density flows, based on physical flow properties and grain-support mechanisms, and briefly discusses the likely characteristics of the deposited sediments. Cohesive flows are commonly referred to as debris flows and mud flows and defined on the basis of sediment characteristics. The boundary between cohesive and non-cohesive density flows (frictional flows) is poorly constrained, but dimensionless numbers may be of use to define flow thresholds. Frictional flows include a continuous series from sediment slides to turbidity currents. Subdivision of these flows is made on the basis of the dominant particle-support mechanisms, which include matrix strength (in cohesive flows), buoyancy, pore pressure, grain-to-grain interaction (causing dispersive pressure), Reynolds stresses (turbulence) and bed support (particles moved on the stationary bed). The dominant particle-support mechanism depends upon flow conditions, particle concentration, grain-size distribution and particle type. In hyperconcentrated density flows, very high sediment concentrations (>25 volume%) make particle interactions of major importance. The difference between hyperconcentrated density flows and cohesive flows is that the former are friction dominated. With decreasing sediment concentration, vertical particle sorting can result from differential settling, and flows in which this can occur are termed concentrated density flows. The boundary between hyperconcentrated and concentrated density flows is defined by a change in particle behaviour, such that denser or larger grains are no longer fully supported by grain interaction, thus allowing coarse-grain tail (or dense-grain tail) normal grading. The concentration at which this change occurs depends on particle size, sorting, composition and relative density, so that a single threshold concentration cannot be defined. Concentrated density flows may be highly erosive and subsequently deposit complete or incomplete Lowe and Bouma sequences. Conversely, hydroplaning at the base of debris flows, and possibly also in some hyperconcentrated flows, may reduce the fluid drag, thus allowing high flow velocities while preventing large-scale erosion. Flows with concentrations <9% by volume are true turbidity flows (sensuBagnold, 1962), in which fluid turbulence is the main particle-support mechanism. Turbidity flows and concentrated density flows can be subdivided on the basis of flow duration into instantaneous surges, longer duration surge-like flows and quasi-steady currents. Flow duration is shown to control the nature of the resulting deposits. Surge-like turbidity currents tend to produce classical Bouma sequences, whose nature at any one site depends on factors such as flow size, sediment type and proximity to source. In contrast, quasi-steady turbidity currents, generated by hyperpycnal river effluent, can deposit coarsening-up units capped by fining-up units (because of waxing and waning conditions respectively) and may also include thick units of uniform character (resulting from prolonged periods of near-steady conditions). Any flow type may progressively change character along the transport path, with transformation primarily resulting from reductions in sediment concentration through progressive entrainment of surrounding fluid and/or sediment deposition. The rate of fluid entrainment, and consequently flow transformation, is dependent on factors including slope gradient, lateral confinement, bed roughness, flow thickness and water depth. Flows with high and low sediment concentrations may co-exist in one transport event because of downflow transformations, flow stratification or shear layer development of the mixing interface with the overlying water (mixing cloud formation). Deposits of an individual flow event at one site may therefore form from a succession of different flow types, and this introduces considerable complexity into classifying the flow event or component flow types from the deposits.