Man-made turbidity currents in Lake Superior



The discharge of taconite tailings into Lake Superior at Silver Bay, Minnesota, produces turbidity current flow. The silty fine-sand tailings fraction transported to the deepest part of the lake has formed a small fan with valleys similar in gross morphology to a submarine fan. Current meters anchored 5 m above the lake floor over the wall and over the levee of a distributary valley on the fan recorded intermittent turbidity current flows during 30 weeks in 1972–73. At least twenty-five discrete periods of observation of turbidity current flow were obtained; single episodes lasted 4−328+ h. Only flows thick enough to overflow the eastern levee of the valley could be observed, and this accounts for the intermittent nature of our observations, as flow within the valleys is expected to be continuous as long as tailings are discharged. Flow velocities were higher near the valley axis where the flow is thicker. Velocities measured over the valley wall averaged 10.8 cm/s for eleven episodes; velocities measured over the levee, more than 1/2 km from the valley axis, only 3.3 cm/s. The maximum velocity during 1300 h of observation did not exceed 31 cm/s. This agrees reasonably well with velocities calculated from channel properties, as commonly done for turbidity currents on deep-sea fans. Current meters tethered above the bottom meters indicate that lake currents normally parallel the shore throughout the water column. With the onset of a turbidity current, currents higher in the water column remain unchanged but velocities near the bottom go to zero, currents then change azimuth by 90° to parallel the downslope (down-valley) direction of the fan, then increase in velocity. During a turbidity current episode, the direction of bottom flow stays relatively constant (± 20° of the down-valley trend) but the velocity oscillates (commonly with 10 cm/s amplitude), periods being of 1/2 h or less to several hours. Turbidity currents generated on Reserve Mining Company's delta are effective in carrying essentially all tailings discharged into the lake into deeper water, where they are deposited.