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Patterns of deposition from experimental turbidity currents with reversing buoyancy



Turbidity currents are turbulent, sediment-laden gravity currents which can be generated in relatively shallow shelf settings and travel downslope before spreading out across deep-water abyssal plains. Because of the natural stratification of the oceans and/or fresh water river inputs to the source area, the interstitial fluid within which the particles are suspended will often be less dense than the deep-water ambient fluid. Consequently, a turbidity current may initially be denser than the ambient sea water and propagate as a ground-hugging flow, but later reverse in buoyancy as its bulk density decreases through sedimentation to become lower than that of the ambient sea water. When this occurs, all or part of the turbidity current lofts to form a buoyant sediment-laden cloud from which further deposition occurs. Deposition from such lofting turbidity currents, containing a mixture of fine and coarse sediment suspended in light interstitial fluid, is explored through analogue laboratory experiments complemented by theoretical analysis using a ‘box and cloud’ model. Particular attention is paid to the overall deposit geometry and to the distributions of fine and coarse material within the deposit. A range of beds can be deposited by bimodal lofting turbidity currents. Lofting may encourage the formation of tabular beds with a rapid pinch-out rather than the gradually tapering beds more typical of waning turbidity currents. Lofting may also decouple the fates of the finer and coarser sediment: depending on the initial flow composition, the coarse fraction can be deposited prior to or during buoyancy reversal, while the fine fraction can be swept upwards and away by the lofting cloud. An important feature of the results is the non-uniqueness of the deposit architecture: different initial current compositions can generate deposits with very similar bed profiles and grading characteristics, highlighting the difficulty of reconstructing the nature of the parent flow from field data. It is proposed that deposit emplacement by lofting turbidity currents is common in the geological record and may explain a range of features observed in deep-water massive sands, thinly bedded turbidite sequences and linked debrites, depending on the parent flow and its subsequent development. For example, a lofting flow may lead to a well sorted, largely ungraded or weakly graded bed if the fines are transported away by the cloud. However, a poorly sorted, largely ungraded region may form if, during buoyancy reversal, high local concentrations and associated hindered settling effects develop at the base of the cloud.