On the continental shelves of the northern Mediterranean basin, the late Holocene highstand systems tract (HST) prograded under the influence of major rivers, after the attainment of the present sea-level highstand (about 5.5 cal kyr BP). On the Adriatic shelf, the thickness distribution of the late Holocene HST reflects the location of major deltas on the western side of the basin and the geostrophic circulation, which prevents a more uniform sediment dispersal toward the center of the basin. Very high sediment accumulation rates (1 to 10 cm/year) resulted in the construction of a HST depocenter up to 35 m thick. This shore-parallel depocenter is affected by failure of limited displacement over as much as 40% of its extent. Gas impregnation is common in the topset region and occurs at very shallow levels (a few meters) below the sea floor. Five areas are characterized by a variety of sea-floor and subsurface crenulations. Although locally some of these crenulations have an intriguingly regular geometry, sediment failure is the most plausible mechanism for their formation. Sediment failure better explains the large variety of geometries that characterizes the coastal mud prism of the late Holocene HST. Furthermore, we observe that these crenulations occur only where the downlap surface at the base of the HST is disrupted and affected by geometries that are consistent with fluid escape processes. This relationship suggests that the basal surface acts as a weak layer for sediment failure.
Failure occurred in variable water depths from the northern slope of the modern Po prodelta (10-20 m water depth) to the narrow shelf offshore Bari (40-110 m water depth). In all these areas the proximal part of the HST prodelta wedge is intensely gas-charged. The thickness and age of the sediment sections affected by failure are slightly different from place to place but appear everywhere younger than 5.5 cal kyr BP. Where failure affects the entire HST the detachment occurs on the downlap surface at its base. Failure geometries characterize the head region whereas compressional features, such as pressure ridges and mud diapirs, dominate in the toe region, ranging in depth between 70 and 110 m. Where failure is limited to the upper few meters of the HST, there is a clear lithologic change (decrease in carbonate fraction and grain size) across the basal surface. This lithological change reflects a switch in sediment supply from local Apennine rivers (below) to Po-derived mud; this change occurred at the onset of the Little Ice Age, documenting the indirect control of short-term climate change and human impact on sediment architecture.
The deformations affecting the late Holocene HST in the various areas show differences in internal geometry, but appear everywhere to be characterized by limited downward displacement and can be attributed to shear-dominated retrogressive failure. It is suggested that some degree of consolidation occurred immediately after mobilization, possibly induced by the escape of fluids. Nowhere has failure evolved into disintegration and flow, likely because the type of cyclic loading that triggered it was not prolonged over a long enough interval.
Short-lived radionuclides in the uppermost stratigraphic layers, which postdate the failure in the area offshore Ortona, allowed us to quantify systematic changes in sediment accumulation rates as a function of the underlying deformed sea floor. In areas of wavy sea floor, troughs show sediment accumulation rates of greater than 16 mm/yr, a figure that is fourfold the rate measured on the flanks of the troughs. These values document a complex feedback between sea-floor roughness initially caused by failure and subsequent sedimentation.