Newly acquired high-resolution bathymetric data (with 5 m and 2 m grid sizes) from the continental shelf off Concepción (Chile), in combination with seismic reflection profiles, reveal a distinctly different evolution for the Biobío submarine canyon compared to that of one of its tributaries. Both canyons are incised into the shelf of the active margin. Whereas the inner shelf appears to be mantled with unconsolidated sediment, the outer shelf shows the influence of strong bottom currents that form drifts of loose sediment and transport material into the Biobío submarine canyon and onto the continental slope.

The main stem of the Biobío Canyon is connected to the mouth of the Biobío River and currently provides a conduit for terrestrial sediment from the continental shelf to the deep seafloor. In contrast, the head of its tributary closest to the coast is located ∼24 km offshore of the present-day coastline at 120 m water depth, and it is subject to passive sedimentation. However, canyon activity within the study area is interpreted to be controlled not only by the direct input of fluvial sediments into the canyon head facilitated by the river-mouth to canyon-head connection, but also by input from southward-directed bottom currents and possibly longshore drift. In addition, about 24 km offshore of the present-day coastline, the main stem of the Biobío Canyon has steep canyon walls next to sites of active tectonic deformation that are prone to wall failure. Mass-failure events may also foster turbidity currents and contribute to canyon feeding. In contrast, the tributary has less steep canyon walls with limited evidence of canyon-wall failure and is located down-system of bottom currents from the Biobío Canyon. It consequently receives neither fluvial nor longshore sediments. Therefore, the canyon’s connectivity to fluvial or longshore sediment delivery pathways is affected by the distance of the canyon head from the coastline and the orientation of the canyon axis relative to the direction of bottom currents.

The ability of a submarine canyon to act as an active conduit for large quantities of terrestrial sediment toward the deep sea during sea-level highstands may be controlled by several different conditions simultaneously. These include bottom current direction, structural deformation of the seafloor affecting canyon location and orientation as well as canyon-wall failure, shelf gradient and associated distance from the canyon head to the coast, and fluvial networks. The complex interplay between these factors may vary even within an individual canyon system, resulting in distinct levels of canyon activity on a regional scale.

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