Abstract

Multibeam bathymetry and high-resolution seismic profiles depict in detail the characteristics of submarine gullies present in the upper continental slope offshore of the mouths of the Tiber and Volturno Rivers in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Simeto River in the Ionian Sea. Upper slope gullies are interpreted as depositional features, growing because of faster aggradation on intergully areas with respect to their axes. The dispersal of river-flood sediment through plunging of hyperpycnal flows has been interpreted to be the limiting factor in sedimentation in gully axes. However, the generation of hyperpycnal flows requires a sediment concentration of several tens of kilograms per cubic meter in the river flows to overcome the higher density of seawater. This threshold is difficult to reach in medium-sized rivers (i.e., catchment basin of 500–5000 km2), such as the Tiber and Volturno. Two alternative scenarios of enhanced sediment availability for these rivers have been proposed. The first scenario is related to sea-level fall and lowstand stages, when the climate conditions may have been different and a huge amount of unconsolidated, fine-grained sediment deposited during the previous highstand stage may have been eroded from the river valleys, coastal plain valleys and shelf delta, as suggested in pioneering work of one of the authors (Chiocci) and Bill Normark. This scenario might explain the formation of some of the gullies offshore of the Tiber River mouth, which developed during the last glacial maximum; however, it is unable to explain the gullies within deposits related to transgressive and highstand system tracts, such as offshore of the Simeto and Volturno River mouths. An alternative scenario is thus proposed on the basis of the relationship observed between the studied rivers and the presence of large volcanic edifices in their catchment basins. Explosive volcanic activity could have drastically modified their catchment basins and caused a sudden and large supply of loose tephras, increasing the sediment load in watercourses and consequently favoring the development of gully-forming hyperpycnal flows. The timing of volcanic activity on the three study areas matches, in fact, the presence or absence of gullies in upper slope depositional sequences.

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