Ocean basins

Altogether 71% of the area of the globe is occupied by ocean basins that have formed by sea-floor spreading and are floored by basaltic oceanic crust. The midocean ridge spreading centres are typically at 2000 to 2500 m depth in the oceans. Along them the crust is actively forming by the injection of basic magmas from below to form dykes as the molten rock solidifies and the extrusion of basaltic lava at the surface in the form of pillows. This igneous activity within the crust makes it relatively hot. As further injection occurs and new crust is formed, previously formed material gradually moves away from the spreading centre and as it does so it cools, contracts and the density increases. The older, denser oceanic crust sinks relative to the younger, hotter crust at the spreading centre and a profile of increasing water depth away from the mid-ocean ridge results down to around 4000 to 5000 m where the crust is more than a few tens of millions of years old. The ocean basins are bordered by continental margins that are important areas of terrigenous clastic and carbonate deposition. Sediment supplied to the ocean basins may be reworked from the shallow marine shelf areas, or is supplied directly from river and delta systems and bypasses the shelf. There is also intrabasinal material available in ocean basins, comprising mainly the hard part of plants and animals that live in the open oceans, and airborne dust that is blown into the oceans. These sources of sediment all contribute to oceanic deposits. The large clastic depositional systems are mainly found near the margins of the ocean basin, although large systems may extend a thousand kilometres or more out onto the basin plain, and the ocean basin plains provide the largest depositional environments on Earth. The problem with these deep-water depositional systems, however, is the difficulty of observing and measuring processes and products in the present day. The deep seas are profoundly inaccessible places. Our knowledge is largely limited to evidence from remote sensing: detailed bathymetric surveys, side-scan sonar images of the sea floor and seismic reflection surveys of the sediments. There are also extremely localised samples from boreholes, shallow cores and dredge samples. Our database of the modern ocean floors is comparable to that of the surface of the Moon and understanding the sea floor is rather like trying to interpret all processes on land from satellite images and a limited number of hand specimens of rocks collected over a large area. However, our knowledge of deep-water systems is rapidly growing, partly through technical advances, but also because hydrocarbon exploration has been gradually moving into deeper water and looking for reserves in deep-water deposits.

Morphology of ocean basins

Continental slopes typically have slope angles of between 28 and 108 and the continental rise is even less. Nevertheless, they are physiographically significant, as they contrast with the very low gradients of continental shelves and the flat ocean floor. Continental slopes extend from the shelf edge, about 200m below sea level, to the basin floor at 4000 or 5000 m depth and may be up to a hundred kilometres across in a downslope direction. Continental slopes are commonly cut by submarine canyons, which, like their counterparts on land, are steep-sided erosional features. Submarine canyons are deeply incised, sometimes into the bedrock of the shelf, and may stretch all the way back from the shelf edge to the shoreline. They act as conduits for the transfer of water and sediment from the shelf, sometimes feeding material directly from a river mouth. The presence of canyons controls the formation and position of submarine fans. The generally flat surface of the ocean floor is interrupted in places by seamounts, underwater volcanoes located over isolated hotspots. Seamounts may be wholly submarine or may build up above water as volcanic islands, such as the Hawaiian island chain in the central Pacific. As subaerial volcanoes they can be important sources of volcaniclastic sediment to ocean basins. The flanks of the volcanoes are commonly unstable and give rise to very largescale submarine slides and slumps that can involve several cubic kilometres of material. Bathymetric mapping and sonar images of the ocean floor around volcanic islands such as Hawaii in the Pacific and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic have revealed the existence of very large-scale slump features. Mass movements on this scale would generate tsunami around the edges of the ocean, inundating coastal areas. The deepest parts of the oceans are the trenches formed in regions where subduction of an oceanic plate is occurring. Trenches can be up to 10,000 m deep. Where they occur adjacent to continental margins (e.g. the Peru–Chile Trench west of South America) they are filled with sediment supplied from the continent, but mid-ocean trenches, such as the Mariana Trench in the west Pacific, are far from any source of material and are unfilled, starved of sediment.

Depositional processes in deep seas

Deposition of most clastic material in the deep seas is by mass-flow processes. The most common are debris flows and turbidity currents, and these form part of a spectrum within which there can be flows with intermediate characteristics.

Debris-flow deposits

Remobilisation of a mass of poorly sorted, sedimentrich mixture from the edge of the shelf or the top of the slope results in a debris flow, which travels down the slope and out onto the basin plain. Unlike a debris flow on land an underwater flow has the opportunity to mix with water and in doing so it becomes more dilute and this can lead to a change in the flow mechanism and a transition to a turbidity current. The top surface of a submarine debris flow deposit will typically grade up into finer deposits due to dilution of the upper part of the flow. Large debris flows of material are known from the Atlantic off northwest Africa and examples of thick, extensive debris-flow deposits are also known from the stratigraphic record. Debris-flow deposits tens of metres thick and extending for tens of kilometres are often referred to as megabeds.


Dilute mixtures of sediment and water moving as mass flows under gravity are the most important mechanism for moving coarse clastic material in deep marine environments. These turbidity currents carry variable amounts of mud, sand and gravel tens, hundreds and even over a thousand kilometres out onto the basin plain. The turbidites deposited can range in thickness from a few millimetres to tens of metres and are carried by flows with sediment concentrations of a few parts per thousand to 10%. Denser mixtures result in high-density turbidites that have different characteristics to the ‘Bouma Sequences’ seen in low- and medium-density turbidites. Direct observation of turbidity currents on the ocean floor is very difficult but their effects have been monitored on a small number of occasions. In November 1929 an earthquake in the Grand Banks area off the coast of Newfoundland initiated a turbidity current. The passage of the current was recorded by the severing of telegraph cables on the sea floor, which were cut at different times as the flow advanced. Interpretation of the data indicates that the turbidity current travelled at speeds of between 60 and 100 km. Also, the deposits of recent turbidity flows have been mapped out, for example, in the east Atlantic off the Canary Islands a single turbidite deposit has been shown to have a volume of 125 km cube.

High- and low-efficiency systems

A deep marine depositional system is considered to be a low-efficiency system if sandy sediment is carried only short distances (tens of kilometres) out onto the basin plain and a high-efficiency system if the transport distances for sandy material are hundreds of kilometres. High-volume flows are more efficient than small-volume flows and the efficiency is also increased by the presence of fines that tend to increase the density of the flow and hence the density contrast with the seawater. The deposits of low-efficiency systems are therefore concentrated near the edge of the basin, whereas muddier, more efficient flows carry sediment out on to the basin plain. The high-efficiency systems will tend to have an area near the basin margin called a bypass zone where sediment is not deposited, and there may be scouring of the underlying surface, with all the deposition concentrated further out in the basin.

Initiation of mass flows

Turbidity currents and mass flows require some form of trigger to start the mixture of sediment and water moving under gravity. This may be provided by an earthquake as the shaking generated by a seismic shock can temporarily liquefy sediment and cause it to move. The impact of large storm waves on shelf sediments may also act as a trigger. Accumulation of sediment on the edge of the shelf may reach the point where it becomes unstable, for example where a delta front approaches the edge of a continental shelf. High river discharge that results in increased sediment supply can result in prolonged turbidity current flow as sediment-laden water from the river mouth flows as a hyperpycnal flow across the shelf and down onto the basin plain. Such quasi-steady flows may last for much longer periods than the instantaneous triggers that result in flows lasting just a few hours. A fall in sea level exposes shelf sediments to erosion, more storm effects and sediment instability that result in increased frequency of turbidity currents.

Composition of deep marine deposits

The detrital material in deep-water deposits is highly variable and directly reflects the sediment source area. Sand, mud and gravel from a terrigenous source are most common, occurring offshore continental margins that have a high supply from fluvial sources. Material that has had a short residence time on the shelf will be similar to the composition of the river but extensive reworking by wave and tide processes can modify both the texture and the composition of the sediment before it is redeposited as a turbidite. A sandstone deposited by a turbidity current can therefore be anything from a very immature, lithic wacke to a very mature quartz arenite. Turbidites composed wholly or partly of volcaniclastic material occur in seas offshore of volcanic provinces. The deep seas near to carbonate shelves may receive large amounts of reworked shallow-marine carbonate sediment, redeposited by turbidity currents and debris flows into deeper water: recognition of the redeposition process is particularly important in these cases because the sediment will contain bioclastic material that is characteristic of shallow water environments. Because there is this broad spectrum of sandstone compositions in deep-water sediments, the use of the term ‘greywacke’ to describe the character of a deposit is best avoided: it has been used historically as a description of lithic wackes that were deposited as turbidites and the distinction between composition and process became confused as the terms turbidite and greywacke came to be used almost as synonyms. ‘Greywacke’ is not part of the Pettijohn classification of sandstones and it no longer has any widely accepted meaning in sedimentology.
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