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How are sediments transported to, and deposited in, deepwater environments? This question has been the subject of discussion and debate since the 1870s and researched since the 1950s (see Shanmugam, 2000, for a comprehensive review). Collectively, the primary processes that transport sediment into deep water environments are called “sediment gravity flows” (Middleton and Hampton, 1973). Sediment gravity flows range from mass movements (rock falls) and cohesive debris flows at one end of the spectrum to fully turbulent flows at the other end of the spectrum (Fig. 4-1). Although the term “turbidity current” is often used to describe deep water transport processes, it is only one of several types of flows that transport sediment into deep water, and rework them once deposited.

Unfortunately, transport and depositional processes are only rarely observed or measured in deep marine and lacustrine environments. Thus, to understand sediment gravity flows, we must combine data sets from outcrops, subsurface well logs and cores, seismic reflection profiles, modern sea floor images and samples, laboratory flume experiments, and mathematical models. Fortunately, rapidly evolving imaging, measurement, and computing technologies— mainly driven by petroleum exploration and development—are providing new data and insights that are leading to improved understanding of the complexities of sediment gravity flows and their deposits.

This chapter summarizes our current state of knowledge by combining key historical concepts with more recent observations and analyses. The chapter is organized to discuss the initiation of sediment gravity flows, followed by the spectrum of processes

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