Braiding of submarine channels controlled by aspect ratio similar to rivers

Abstract

The great majority of submarine channels formed by turbidity and density currents are meandering in planform; they consist of a single, sinuous channel that transports a turbid, dense flow of sediment from submarine canyons to ocean floor environments1,2. Braided turbidite systems consisting of multiple, interconnected channel threads are conspicuously rare1. Furthermore, such systems may not represent the spontaneous planform instability of true braiding, but instead result from erosive processes or bathymetric variability3,4,5. In marked contrast to submarine environments, both meandering and braided planforms are common in fluvial systems6,7. Here we present experiments of subaqueous channel formation conducted at two laboratory facilities. We find that density currents readily produce a braided planform for flow aspect ratios of depth to width that are similar to those that produce river braiding. Moreover, we find that stability model theory for river planform morphology8 successfully describes submarine channels in both experiments and the field. On the basis of these observations, we propose that the rarity of braided submarine channels is explained by the generally greater flow depths in submarine systems, which necessitate commensurately greater widths to achieve the required aspect ratio, along with feedbacks9,10 among flow thickness, suspended sediment concentration and channel relief that induce greater levee deposition rates and limit channel widening.

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Figure 1: Images and topography of braided density current deposits.
Figure 2: Theoretical stability fields of fluvial channel planforms with supporting field and experimental river examples8, and comparison to submarine examples.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory Industry Consortium, which includes Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, and BHP Billiton, as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology from Taiwan (MOST 103-2221-E-006-215) for funding of this research. S. S. C. Hung, D. Baldus, R. Rosario, A. Sorenson and B. Erickson are acknowledged for assistance in conducting experiments.

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B.Z.F., S.Y.J.L., Y.K. and C.P. co-wrote manuscript. B.Z.F. and S.Y.J.L. designed the experimental set-up and ran experiments. C.P. and Y.K. conceived of the project. All authors contributed to data analysis.

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Correspondence to Brady Z. Foreman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Foreman, B., Lai, S., Komatsu, Y. et al. Braiding of submarine channels controlled by aspect ratio similar to rivers. Nature Geosci 8, 700–703 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2505

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