The width and depth of submarine channels change progressively as the channels evolve. This is inferred to act as an important control on the rate of sediment loss due overbank and in-channel deposition. Understanding the downstream extraction of sediment from turbidity currents is important for the prediction of grain-size trends and volume distribution in the stratigraphy. However, the partitioning of sediment by individual turbidity currents as a function of channel dimensions has not been investigated previously. We present a series of physical experiments studying the link between channel dimensions and the resulting partitioning of sediment volume and grain size between sub-environments. The experimental set-up consists of a slope (11°) with a straight pre-formed channel and a horizontal basin floor. An identical flow was released repeatedly into channels with different dimensions, resulting in various styles of overspill, erosion, and deposition under varying degrees of channel confinement. The fraction of sediment that was bypassed through the channel to the basin floor varied between 67% and 89%, depending on the amount of levee and in-channel deposition. The volume of levee deposition correlates well with channel depth. A large channel depth relative to flow thickness limits the amount of overspill. The amount of in-channel deposition correlates well with channel width/depth (W/D) ratio, where low-W/D-ratio channels have less deposition.
We compare the experiments to natural system to show that the same patterns of volume and grain-size partitioning are present at different scales. The experiments provide snapshots of different phases of evolution of natural submarine channels. Natural submarine channels in an early evolution phase are inferred to be shallow and the experiments demonstrate that this results in significant sediment loss to levee deposition along the channel. The process of levee deposition preferentially extracts the fine-grained sediment fraction, which overspills from the channel. Therefore, we predict that the initial sediment pulse that reaches the basin floor is coarse grained and volumetrically small. As the channel matures and deepens, it will bypass more sediment with a mix of grain sizes to the basin floor.