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The vertical turbulence structure of experimental turbidity currents encountering basal obstructions: implications for vertical suspended sediment distribution in non-equilibrium currents



Large roughness features, caused by erosion of the sea floor, are commonly observed on the modern sea floor and beneath turbidite sandstone beds in outcrop. This paper aims to investigate the effect of such roughness elements on the turbulent velocity field and its consequences for the sediment carrying capacity of the flows. Experimental turbidity currents were run through a rectangular channel, with a single roughness element fixed to the bottom in some runs. The effect of this roughness element on the turbulent velocity field was determined by measuring vertical profiles of the vertical velocity component in the region downstream of the basal obstruction with the Ultrasonic Doppler Velocity Profiling technique. The experiments were set up to answer two research questions. (i) How does a single roughness element alter the distribution of vertical turbulence intensity? (ii) How does the altered profile evolve in the downstream direction? The results for runs over a plane substrate are similar to data presented previously and show a lower turbulence maximum near the channel floor, a turbulence minimum associated with the velocity maximum, and a turbulence maximum associated with the upper flow interface. In the runs in which the flows were perturbed by the single roughness element, the intensity of the lower turbulence maximum was increased between 41% to 81%. This excess turbulence dissipated upwards in the flow while it travelled further downstream, but was still observable at the most distal measurement location (at a distance ca 39 times the roughness height downstream of the element). All results point towards a similarity between the near bed turbulence structure of turbidity currents and free surface shear flows that has been proposed by previous authors, and this proposition is supported further by the apparent success of a shear velocity estimation method that is based on this similarity. Theory of turbulent dispersal of suspended sediment is used to discuss how the observed turbulent effects of a single large roughness element may impact on the suspended sediment distribution in real world turbidity currents. It is concluded that this impact may consist of a non-equilibrium net-upwards transport of suspended sediment, counteracting density stratification. Thus, erosive substrate topography created by frontal parts of natural turbidity flows may super-elevate sediment concentrations in upper regions above equilibrium values in following flow stages, delay depletion of the flow via sedimentation and increase their run-out distance.