Mass Flow

What is Mass flow?

Mixtures of detritus and fluid that move under gravity are known collectively as mass flows, gravity flows or density currents. A number of different mechanisms are involved and all require a slope to provide the potential energy to drive the flow. This slope may be the surface over which the flow occurs, but a gravity flow will also move on a horizontal surface if it thins downflow, in which case the potential energy is provided by the difference in height between the tops of the upstream and the downstream parts of the flow.

Debris flows

Debris flows are dense, viscous mixtures of sediment and water in which the volume and mass of sediment exceeds that of water. A dense, viscous mixture of this sort will typically have a low Reynolds number so the flow is likely to be laminar. In the absence of turbulence no dynamic sorting of material into different sizes occurs during flow and the resulting deposit is very poorly sorted. Some sorting may develop by slow settling and locally there may be reverse grading produced by shear at the bed boundary. Material of any size from clay to large boulders may be present. Debris flows occur on land, principally in arid environments where water supply is sparse (such as some alluvial fans) and in submarine environments where they transport material down continental slopes and locally on some coarse-grained delta slopes. Deposition occurs when internal friction becomes too great and the flow ‘freezes’. There may be little change in the thickness of the deposit in a proximal to distal direction and the clast size distribution may be the same throughout the deposit. The deposits of debris flows on land are typically matrix-supported conglomerates although clast-supported deposits also occur if the relative proportion of large clasts is high in the sediment mixture. They are poorly sorted and show a chaotic fabric, i.e. there is usually no preferred orientation to the clasts, except within zones of shearing that may form at the base of the flow. When a debris flow travels through water it may partly mix with it and the top part of the flow may become dilute. The tops of subaqueous debris flows are therefore characterised by a gradation up into better sorted, graded sediment, which may have the characteristics of a turbidite.

Turbidity currents

Turbidity currents are gravity-driven turbid mixtures of sediment temporarily suspended in water. They are less dense mixtures than debris flows and with a relatively high Reynolds number are usually turbulent flows. The name is derived from their characteristics of being opaque mixtures of sediment and water (turbid) and not the turbulent flow. They flow down slopes or over a horizontal surface provided that the thickness of the flow is greater upflow than it is downflow. The deposit of a turbidity current is a turbidite. The sediment mixture may contain gravel, sand and mud in concentrations as little as a few parts per thousand or up to 10% by weight: at the high concentrations the flows may not be turbulent and are not always referred to as turbidity currents. The volumes of material involved in a single flow event can be anything up to tens of cubic kilometres, which is spread out by the flow and deposited as a layer a few millimetres to tens of metres thick. Turbidity currents, and hence turbidites, can occur in water anywhere that there is a supply of sediment and a slope. They are common in deep lakes, and may occur on continental shelves, but are most abundant in deep marine environments, where turbidites are the dominant clastic deposit. The association with deep marine environments may lead to the assumption that all turbidites are deep marine deposits, but they are not an indicator of depth as turbidity currents are a process that can occur in shallow water as well. Sediment that is initially in suspension in the turbidity current starts to come into contact with the underlying surface where it may come to a halt or move by rolling and suspension. In doing so it comes out of suspension and the density of the flow is reduced. Flow in a turbidity current is maintained by the density contrast between the sediment-water mix and the water, and if this contrast is reduced, the flow slows down. At the head of the flow turbulent mixing of the current with the water dilutes the turbidity current and also reduces the density contrast. As more sediment is deposited from the decelerating flow a deposit accumulates and the flow eventually comes to a halt when the flow has spread out as a thin, even sheet.

Low- and medium-density turbidity currents

The first material to be deposited from a turbidity current will be the coarsest as this will fall out of suspension first. Therefore a turbidite is characteristically normally graded. Other sedimentary structures within the graded bed reflect the changing processes that occur during the flow and these vary according to the density of the initial mixture. Low- to medium-density turbidity currents will ideally form a succession known as a Bouma sequence, named after the geologist who first described them. Five divisions are recognised within the Bouma sequence, referred to as ‘a’ to ‘e’ divisions and annotated Ta, Tb and so on. 
  • Ta: This lowest part consists of poorly sorted, structureless sand: on the scoured base deposition occurs rapidly from suspension with reduced turbulence inhibiting the formation of bedforms. 
  • Tb: Laminated sand characterises this layer, the grain size is normally finer than in ‘a’ and the material is better sorted: the parallel laminae are generated by the separation of grains in upper flow regime transport.
  • Tc: Cross-laminated medium to fine sand, sometimes with climbing ripple lamination, form the middle division of the Bouma sequence: these characteristics indicate moderate flow velocities within the ripple bedform stability field and high sedimentation rates. Convolute lamination can also occur in this division. 
  • Td: Fine sand and silt in this layer are the products of waning flow in the turbidity current: horizontal laminae may occur but the lamination is commonly less well defined than in the ‘b’ layer. 
  • Te: The top part of the turbidite consists of finegrained sediment of silt and clay grade: it is deposited from suspension after the turbidity current has come to rest and is therefore a hemipelagic deposit. 
Turbidity currents are waning flows, that is, they decrease velocity through time as they deposit material, but this means that they also decrease velocity with distance from the source. There is therefore a decrease in the grain size deposited with distance. The lower parts of the Bouma sequence are only present in the more proximal parts of the flow. With distance the lower divisions are progressively lost as the flow carries only finer sediment and only the ‘c’ to ‘e’ or perhaps just ‘d’ and ‘e’ parts of the Bouma sequence are deposited. In the more proximal regions the flow turbulence may be strong enough to cause scouring and completely remove the upper parts of a previously deposited bed. The ‘d’ and ‘e’ divisions may therefore be absent due to this erosion and the eroded sediment may be incorporated into the overlying deposit as mud clasts. The complete Ta to Te sequence is therefore only likely to occur in certain parts of the deposit, and even there intermediate divisions may be absent due, for example, to rapid deposition preventing ripple formation in Tc. Complete Ta-e Bouma sequences are in fact rather rare.

High-density turbidity currents

Under conditions where there is a higher density of material in the mixture the processes in the flow and hence of the characteristics of the deposit are different from those described above. High-density turbidity currents have a bulk density of at least 1.1 g/cm 3. The turbidites deposited by these flows have a thicker coarse unit at their base, which can be divided into three divisions. Divisions S1 and S2 are traction deposits of coarse material, with the upper part, S2, representing the ‘freezing’ of the traction flow. Overlying this is a unit, S3, that is characterised by fluid-escape structures indicating rapid deposition of sediment. The upper part of the succession is more similar to the Bouma Sequence, with Tt equivalent to Tb and Tc and overlain by Td and Te: this upper part therefore reflects deposition from a lower density flow once most of the sediment had already been deposited in the ‘S’ division. The characteristics of high-density turbidites were described by Lowe, after whom the succession is sometimes named.

Grain flows

Avalanches are mechanisms of mass transport down a steep slope, which are also known as grain flows. Particles in a grain flow are kept apart in the fluid medium by repeated grain to grain collisions and grain flows rapidly ‘freeze’ as soon as the kinetic energy of the particles falls below a critical value. This mechanism is most effective in well-sorted material falling under gravity down a steep slope such as the slip face of an aeolian dune. When the particles in the flow are in temporary suspension there is a tendency for the finer grains to fall between the coarser ones, a process known as kinetic sieving, which results in a slight reverse grading in the layer once it is deposited. Although most common on a small scale in sands, grain flows may also occur in coarser, gravelly material in a steep subaqueous setting such as the foreset of a Gilbert-type delta.
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