Turbidity currents

When water contains a large quantity of suspended particles its overall density is increased. On occasions the excess density of highly turbid water above the continental shelf may cause it to flow as a coherent fluid down the continental slope. This downslope motion due to turbidity is termed a turbidity current. It is a major mechanism of transport of material from the shelf to the deep-sea floor. Strong onshore winds, wave action or earthquakes can cause large amounts of sediment to become suspended in the water, thus initiating a turbidity current.

The current mainly follows the course of valleys in the slope, and may be powerful and fast enough to cut its own submarine canyon down the slope, or to deepen existing canyons further. As the current emerges from its canyon, it deposits huge fan-shaped areas of sediment, sometimes reaching the abyssal plain. Following the earthquake near the Grand Banks in 1929, a turbidity current of such power was generated that material was deposited at least 500 km from its original location (see Masson et al., 1996).

It is possible that turbidity currents may at times cause changes in fertility of shelf water and in distribution of organisms comparable with the effects of cascading.

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