Laboratory sustained turbidity currents form elongate ridges at channel mouths



The turbulent flow structure, suspended sediment dynamics and deposits of experimental sustained turbidity currents exiting a channel across a break in slope into a wide tank are documented. The data shed light on the flow evolution and deposit geometry of analogous natural channel-fed submarine fans. Flows generated in a 0·3 m wide, sloping (0°, 6°, 9° or 20°) channel crossed an angular slope break and spread onto a horizontal tank floor. Flow development comprised: (i) channelized phase (unsteady channel flow developing into steady channel flow); (ii) initial lateral expansion phase (unsteady-spreading wall jet phase); (iii) constant lateral expansion phase (steady-spreading wall jet phase); and (iv) rapid waning phase. Phases (i) and (iv) are similar to laterally constrained turbidity currents, but phases (ii) and (iii) are considerably different from such two-dimensional currents. Steeper channel slopes produced greater flow velocities and turbulence intensities, but these effects diminished markedly with distance from the channel mouth. Flow velocity vectors in the tank had similar patterns for all channel slopes, with a central core of faster velocity and narrow vector dispersion and slower flow with larger dispersion at the jet margins. Suspended sediment concentrations were higher within flow heads and dense basal layers in flow bodies. Time-averaged acoustic backscatter data showed vertical concentration gradients, confirmed by siphon samples. The deposits comprised a thick central ridge, of similar order width to the channel mouth, with abrupt margins and a surrounding, very thin, fan-like sheet. The ridge was coarser grained and better sorted than the original sediment, with grain-size fining downstream, particularly over the fan-like sheet. The formation of a central ridge suggests that, in the tank, vertical turbulent momentum exchange is more significant for sediment dynamics than spanwise momentum exchange due to lateral expansion. The streamwise elongate geometry of the ridge contrasts with conventional fan-like geometry found with surge-type turbidity flows, a result that has widespread stratigraphic and economic implications.