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Abstract

Submarine slides and debris flows are common and effective mechanisms of sediment transfer from continental shelves to deeper parts of ocean basins. They are particularly common along glaciated margins that have experienced high sediment flux to the shelf break during and after glacial maxima. During one single event, typically lasting for a few hours or less, enormous sediment volumes can be transported over distances of hundreds of kilometres, even on very gentle slopes. In order to understand the physics of these mass flows, the process is divided into a release phase, followed by break-up, flow and final deposition. Little is presently known regarding release and break-up, although some plausible explanations can be inferred from basic mechanics of granular materials. Once initiated, the flow of clay-rich or muddy sediments may be assumed to behave as a (non-Newtonian) Herschel-Bulkley fluid. Fluid dynamic concepts can then be applied to describe the flow provided the rheological properties of the material are known. Numerical modelling supports our assertion that the long runout distances observed for large volumes of sediments moving down gentle slopes can be explained by partial hydroplaning of the flowing mass. Hydroplaning might also explain the sharp decrease of the friction coefficient for submarine mass flows as a function of the released volume. The paper emphasizes the need for a better understanding of the physics of mass wasting in the submarine environment.

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