Seafloor sediment flows, called turbidity currents, form the largest sediment accumulations, deepest canyons and longest channels on Earth. It was once thought that turbidity currents were impractical to measure in action, especially given their ability to damage sensors in their path, but direct monitoring since the mid-2010s has measured them in detail. In this Review, we summarize knowledge of turbidity currents gleaned from this direct monitoring. Monitoring identifies triggering mechanisms from dilute river plumes, and shows how rapid sediment accumulation can precondition slope failure, but the final triggers can be delayed and subtle. Turbidity currents are consistently more frequent than predicted by past sequence-stratigraphic models, including at sites >300 km from any coast. Faster flows (more than ~1.5 m s–1) are driven by a dense near-bed layer at their front, whereas slower flows are entirely dilute. This frontal layer sometimes erodes large (>2.5 km3) volumes of sediment, yet maintains a near-uniform speed, leading to a travelling-wave model. Monitoring shows that flows sculpt canyons and channels through fast-moving knickpoints, and shows how deposits originate. Emerging technologies with reduced cost and risk can lead to widespread monitoring of turbidity currents, so their sediment and carbon fluxes can be compared with other major global transport processes.
Previously, submarine turbidity currents were thought to be impractical to monitor in action, mainly owing to their ability to damage sensors in their path, but detailed monitoring is now possible and is revealing major new insights.
Direct monitoring is identifying triggers for flows, such as very dilute river plumes, and consistently shows that turbidity currents occur much more frequently than predicted by past models such as sequence-stratigraphic models.
Owing to turbidity currents, the global burial efficiency of terrestrial organic carbon (28–45%) in marine sediments is substantially higher than previous estimates of 10–30%, and even higher (>60–80%) during glacial low-stands.
Fast (>1.5 m s–1) turbidity currents are driven by a dense (10–30% concentration) near-bed layer at their front, which must be included in flow models, whereas slower flows are entirely dilute.
This dense frontal layer sometimes erodes large sediment volumes (as for ignition), yet maintains a near-uniform speed (as for autosuspension), leading to a new, travelling-wave model for flow behaviour.
Direct monitoring reveals how flows sculpt canyons and channels, such as through supercritical bedforms and internally generated fast-moving knickpoints, and how deposits record flow processes.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$99.00 per year
only $8.25 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Similar content being viewed by others
Kuenen, P. H. & Migliorini, C. I. Turbidity currents as a cause of graded bedding. J. Geol. 58, 91–127 (1950).
Heezen, B. C. & Ewing, M. Turbidity currents and submarine slumps, and the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake. Am. J. Sci. 250, 849–873 (1952).
Piper, D. J. W., Cochonat, P. & Morrison, M. L. The sequence of events around the epicenter of the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake: initiation of the debris flows and turbidity current inferred from side scan sonar. Sedimentology 46, 79–97 (1999).
Talling, P. J. et al. Longest sediment flows yet measured show how major rivers connect efficiently to deep-sea. Nat. Commun. 13, 4193 (2022).
Talling, P. J. et al. Novel sensor array helps to understand submarine cable faults off West Africa. Preprint at https://doi.org/10.31223/X5W328 (2022).
Carter, L., Milliman, J., Talling, P. J., Gavey, R. & Wynn, R. B. Near-synchronous and delayed initiation of long run-out submarine sediment flows from a record breaking river-flood, offshore Taiwan. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L12063 (2012).
Carter, L., Gavey, R., Talling, P. & Liu, J. Insights into submarine geohazards from breaks in subsea telecommunication cables. Oceanography 27, 58–67 (2014).
Galy, V. et al. Efficient organic carbon burial in the Bengal fan sustained by the Himalayan erosional system. Nature 450, 407–410 (2007).
Kao, S.-J. et al. Preservation of terrestrial organic carbon in marine sediments offshore Taiwan: mountain building and atmospheric carbon dioxide sequestration. Earth Surf. Dynam. 2, 127–139 (2014).
Hilton, R. G. & West, A. J. Mountains, erosion and the carbon cycle. Nat. Rev. Earth Environ. 1, 284–299 (2020).
Berner, R. A. Biogeochemical cycles of carbon and sulfur and their effect on atmospheric oxygen over Phanerozoic time. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 73, 97–122 (1989).
Burdige, D. J. Burial of terrestrial organic matter in marine sediments: a reassessment. Glob. Biog. Cycles 19, GB4011 (2005).
Blair, N. L. & Aller, R. C. The fate of terrestrial organic carbon in the marine environment. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 4, 401–423 (2012).
Talling, P. J. et al. The global turbidity current pump and its implications for organic carbon cycling. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-marine-032223-103626 (2023).
Amaro, T. et al. The Whittard Canyon — a case study of submarine canyon processes. Prog. Oceanogr. 146, 38–57 (2016).
Rabouille, C., Baudin, F., Dennielou, B. & Olu, K. Organic carbon transfer and ecosystem functioning in the terminal lobes of the Congo deep-sea fan: outcomes of the Congolobe project. Deep Sea Res. Part II 142, 1–6 (2017).
Mountjoy, J. J. et al. Earthquakes drive large-scale submarine canyon development and sediment supply to deep-ocean basins. Sci. Adv. 4, eaar3748 (2018).
Puig, P. et al. Ploughing the deep-sea floor. Nature 489, 286–289 (2012).
Kane, I. A. & Clare, M. A. Dispersion, accumulation, and the ultimate fate of microplastics in deep-marine environments: a review and future directions. Front. Earth Sci. 7, 00080 (2019).
Goldfinger, C. Submarine paleoseismology based on turbidite records. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 3, 35–66 (2011).
Howarth, J. D. et al. Calibrating the marine turbidite paleoseismometer using the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake. Nat. Geosci. 14, 161–167 (2021).
Talling, P. J. Fidelity of turbidites as earthquake records. Nat. Geosci. 14, 113–116 (2021).
Pettingill, H. S. & Weimer, P. Worldwide deepwater exploration and production: past, present, and future. Lead. Edge 21, 371 (2002).
Peakall, J. & Sumner, E. J. Submarine channel flow processes and deposits: a process-product perspective. Geomorphology 244, 95–120 (2015).
Parker, G., Fukushima, Y. & Pantin, H. M. Self-accelerating turbidity currents. J. Fluid Mech. 171, 145–181 (1986).
Lowe, D. R. Sediment gravity flows. 2. Depositional models with special reference to high density turbidity currents. J. Sedim. Petrol. 52, 279–298 (1982).
Inman, D. L., Nordstrom, C. E. & Reinhard, E. F. Currents in submarine canyons: an air–sea–land interaction. Annu. Rev. Fluid Mech. 8, 275–310 (1976).
Dill, R. F. Earthquake effects on fill of Scripps submarine canyon. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 80, 321–328 (1969).
Hay, A. E., Burling, E. W. & Murray, J. W. Remote acoustic detection of a turbidity current surge. Science 217, 833–845 (1982).
Bornhold, B. D., Ren, P. & Prior, D. B. High-frequency turbidity currents in British Columbia fjords. Geo-Mar. Lett. 14, 238–243 (1994).
Khripounoff, A. et al. Direct observation of intense turbidity current activity in the Zaire submarine valley at 4000 m water depth. Mar. Geol. 194, 151–158 (2003).
Talling, P. J. et al. Key future directions for research on turbidity currents and their deposits. J. Sedim. Res. 85, 153–169 (2015).
Kneller, B. & Buckee, C. The structure and fluid mechanics of turbidity currents: a review of some recent studies and their geological implications. Sedimentology 47, 62–94 (2002).
Xu, J. P., Noble, M. A. & Rosenfeld, L. K. In-situ measurements of velocity structure within turbidity currents. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L09311 (2004).
Paull, C. K. et al. Powerful turbidity currents driven by dense basal layers. Nat. Commun. 9, 4114 (2018).
Azpiroz-Zabala, M. et al. Newly recognized turbidity current structure can explain prolonged flushing of submarine canyons. Sci. Adv. 3, e1700200 (2017).
Simmons, S. M. et al. Novel acoustic method provides first detailed measurements of sediment concentration structure within submarine turbidity currents. J. Geophy. Res. 125, e2019JC015904 (2020).
Hughes Clarke, J. E. First wide-angle view of channelized turbidity currents links migrating cyclic steps to flow characteristics. Nat. Commun. 7, 11896 (2016).
Hage, S. et al. Direct monitoring reveals initiation of turbidity currents from extremely dilute river plumes. Geophy. Res. Lett. 46, 11310–11320 (2019).
Pope, E. L. et al. First source-to-sink monitoring shows dense head determines sediment gravity flow runout. Sci. Adv. 8, eabj3220 (2022).
Liu, J. T., Kao, S.-J., Huh, C.-A. & Hung, C.-C. Gravity flows associated with flood events and carbon burial: Taiwan as instructional source area. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 5, 47–68 (2013).
Liu, J. T. et al. Cyclone induced hyperpycnal turbidity currents in a submarine canyon. J. Geophys. Res. 117, C04033 (2012).
Normandeau, A. et al. Storm-induced turbidity currents on a sediment-starved shelf: insight from direct monitoring and repeat seabed mapping of upslope migrating bedforms. Sedimentology 67, 1045–1068 (2020).
Xu, J. P., Swarzenski, P. W., Noble, M. & Li, A.-C. Event-driven sediment flux in Hueneme and Mugu submarine canyons, southern California. Mar. Geol. 269, 74–88 (2010).
Khripounoff, A., Crassous, P., Lo Bue, N., Dennielou, B. & Silva Jacinto, R. Different types of sediment gravity flows detected in the Var submarine canyon (northwestern Mediterranean Sea). Prog. Oceanogr. 106, 138–153 (2012).
Heerema, K. et al. How distinctive are flood-triggered turbidity currents? J. Sedim. Res. 92, 1–11 (2022).
Lintern, D. G., Hill, P. R. & Stacey, C. Powerful unconfined turbidity current captured by cabled observatory on the Fraser River delta slope, British Columbia, Canada. Sedimentology 63, 1041–1064 (2016).
Hill, P. R. & Lintern, D. G. Turbidity currents on the open slope of the Fraser delta. Mar. Geol. 445, 106738 (2022).
Wang, Z. et al. Direct evidence of a high-concentration basal layer in a submarine turbidity current. Deep Sea Res. Part I 161, 103300 (2020).
Hage, S. et al. How to recognize crescentic bedforms formed by supercritical turbidity currents in the rock record: insights from active submarine channels. Geology 6, 563–566 (2018).
Maier, K. L. et al. Linking direct measurements of turbidity currents to submarine canyon-floor deposits. Front. Earth Sci. https://doi.org/10.3389/feart.2019.00144 (2019).
Meng, L., Wang, Z. & Xu, J. Two distinct types of turbidity currents observed in the Manila Trench, South China Sea. Commun. Earth Env. 4, 108 (2023).
Gwiazda, R. et al. Near-bed structure of sediment gravity flows measured by motion-sensing ‘boulder-like’ benthic event detectors (BEDs) in Monterey Canyon. J. Geophys. Res. 127, JF006437 (2022).
Hill, P. Changes in submarine channel morphology and slope sedimentation patterns from repeat multibeam surveys in the Fraser River delta, western Canada. Int. Assoc. Sedimentol. Spec. Pub. 44, 47–70 (2012).
Talling, P. J., Paull, C. K. & Piper, D. J. W. How are subaqueous sediment density flows triggered, what is their internal structure and how does it evolve? Direct observations from monitoring of active flows. Earth Sci. Rev. 125, 244–287 (2014).
Piper, D. J. W. & Normark, W. R. Processes that initiate turbidity currents and their influence on turbidites: a marine geology perspective. J. Sedim. Res. 79, 347–362 (2009).
Clare, M. A. et al. Direct monitoring of active geohazards: emerging geophysical tools for deep-water assessments. Surf. Geophys. 15, 427–444 (2017).
Mulder, T., Syvitski, J. P. M., Migneon, S., Faugeres, J. C. & Savoye, B. Marine hyperpycnal flows: initiation, behaviour, and related deposits. A review. Mar. Petrol. Geol. 20, 861–882 (2003).
Hizzett, J. L. et al. Which triggers produce the most erosive, frequent and longest runout turbidity currents on deltas? Geophys. Res. Lett. 45, 855–863 (2017).
Clare, M. A., Hughes Clarke, J. E., Talling, P. J., Cartigny, M. J. & Pratomo, D. G. Preconditioning and triggering of offshore slope failures and turbidity currents revealed by most detailed monitoring yet at a fjord-head delta. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 450, 208–220 (2016).
Bailey, L. P. et al. Preconditioning by sediment accumulation can produce powerful turbidity currents without major external triggers. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 562, 116845 (2021).
Sawyer, D. & DeVore, J. Evidence for seismic strengthening from undrained shear strength measurements. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 10216–10221 (2016).
McHugh, C. M. et al. Remobilization of surficial slope sediment triggered by the A.D. 2011 Mw9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake and tsunami along the Japan Trench. Geology 44, 391–394 (2016).
Moernaut, J. et al. Lacustrine turbidites as a tool for quantitative earthquake reconstruction: new evidence for a variable rupture mode in south central Chile. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1607–1633 (2014).
Hunt, J. E., Wynn, R. B., Masson, D. G., Talling, P. J. & Teagle, D. A. Sedimentological and geochemical evidence for multistage failure of volcanic island landslides: a case study from Icod landslide on north Tenerife, Canary Islands. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, GC003740 (2011).
Posamentier, H. W., Erskine, R. D. & Mitchum, R. M. Jr. in Seismic Facies and Sedimentary Processes of Submarine Fans and Turbidite Systems (eds Welmer, B. & Link, M. H.) 127–136 (Springer, 1991).
Harris, P. T. & Whiteway, T. Global distribution of large submarine canyons: geomorphic differences between active and passive continental margins. Mar. Geol. 285, 69–86 (2011).
Bernhardt, A. & Schwanghart, W. Where and why do submarine canyons remain connected to the shore during sea‐level rise? Insights from global topographic analysis and bayesian regression. Geophys. Res. Lett. 48, e2020GL092234 (2021).
Heijnen, M. S. et al. Challenging the highstand-dormant paradigm for land-detached submarine canyons. Nat. Commun. 13, 3448 (2022).
Covault, J. A. & Graham, S. A. Submarine fans at all sea-level stands: tectono-morphologic and climatic controls on terrigenous sediment delivery to the deep-sea. Geology 38, 939–942 (2010).
Milliman, J. D. & Farnsworth, K. L. River Discharge to the Coastal Ocean: A Global Synthesis (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
Rogers, K. G., Goodbred, S. L. Jr. & Khan, S. R. Shelf-to-canyon connections: transport-related morphology and mass balance at the shallow-headed, rapidly aggrading Swatch of No Ground (Bay of Bengal). Mar. Geol. 369, 288–299 (2015).
Wright, L. D., Friedrichs, C. T., Kim, S. C. & Scully, M. E. Effects of ambient currents and waves on gravity-driven sediment transport on continental shelves. Mar. Geol. 175, 25–45 (2001).
Wheatcroft, R. A. & Sommerfield, C. K. River sediment flux and shelf sediment accumulation rates on the Pacific Northwest margin. Cont. Shelf Res. 25, 311–332 (2005).
Aller, R. C. & Blair, N. E. Carbon remineralization in the Amazon–Guianas mobile mudbelt: a sedimentary incinerator. Cont. Shelf Res. 26, 2241–2259 (2006).
Smith, R., Bianchi, T., Allison, M. & Savage, C. High rates of organic carbon burial in fjord sediments globally. Nat. Geosci. 8, 450–453 (2015).
Dunne, J. P., Darmiento, J. L. & Gnanadesikan, A. Synthesis of global particle export from the surface ocean and cycling through ocean interior and on the seafloor. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 21, GB4006 (2007).
Sundquist, E. T. The global carbon-dioxide budget. Science 259, 934–941 (1993).
Cartapanis, O., Galbraith, E. D., Bianchi, D. & Jacard, S. L. Carbon burial in deep-sea sediment and implications for oceanic inventories of carbon and alkalinity over the last glacial cycle. Clim. Past 14, 1819–1850 (2018).
Li, Z., Zhang, Y. G., Torres, M. & Mills, B. J. W. Neogene burial of organic carbon in the global ocean. Nature 613, 90–95 (2023).
Maier, K. L. et al. Sediment and organic carbon transport and deposition driven by internal tides along Monterey Canyon, offshore California. Deep Sea Res. 153, 103108 (2019).
Karine, O. et al. Cold-seep-like macrofaunal communities in organic- and sulfide-rich sediments of the Congo deep-sea fan. Deep. Sea Res. 142, 180–196 (2017).
Canals, M. et al. Flushing submarine canyons. Nature 444, 354–357 (2006).
Kao, S. J. et al. Cyclone driven deep-sea injection of freshwater and heat by hyperpycnal flow in the subtropics. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L21702 (2010).
Shanmugam, G. & Moiola, R. J. Reinterpretation of depositional processes in a classic flysch sequence (Pennsylvanian Jackfork Group), Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas and Oklahoma. AAPG Bull. 79, 672–695 (1995).
Talling, P. J., Sumner, E. J., Masson, D. G. & Malgesini, G. Subaqueous sediment density flows: depositional processes and deposit types. Sedimentology 59, 1937–2003 (2012).
Heerema, C. J. et al. What determines the downstream evolution of turbidity currents? Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 532, 116023 (2020).
Talling, P. J. et al. Onset of submarine debris flow deposition far from original giant landslide. Nature 450, 541–544 (2007).
McCave, I. N. & Jones, K. P. N. Deposition of ungraded muds from high-density non-turbulent turbidity currents. Nature 133, 250–252 (1988).
Gavey, R. et al. Frequent sediment density flows during 2006 to 2015 triggered by competing seismic and weather cycles: observations from subsea cable breaks off southern Taiwan. Mar. Geol. 384, 147–158 (2017).
Traer, M. M., Hilley, G. E., Fildani, A. & McHargue, T. The sensitivity of turbidity currents to mass and momentum exchanges between these underflows and their surroundings. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F01009 (2012).
Kostic, S. & Parker, G. The response of turbidity currents to a canyon-fan transition: hydraulic jumps and depositional signatures. J. Hydraul. Res. 44, 631–653 (2006).
Covault, J. A., Kostic, S., Paull, C. K., Ryan, H. F. & Fildani, A. Submarine channel initiation, filling and maintenance from sea-floor geomorphology and morphodynamic modelling of cyclic steps. Sedimentology 61, 1031–1054 (2014).
Cartigny, M. J. B., Ventra, D., Postma, G. & Van den Berg, J. H. Morphodynamics and sedimentary structures of bedforms under supercritical-flow conditions: new insights from flume experiments. Sedimentology 61, 712–748 (2014).
Slootman, A. & Cartigny, M. J. B. Cyclic steps: review and aggradation-based classification. Earth Sci. Rev. 201, 102949 (2020).
Symons, W. O., Sumner, E. J., Talling, P. J., Cartigny, M. J. B. & Clare, M. A. Large-scale sediment waves and scours on the modern seafloor and their implications for the prevalence of supercritical flows. Mar. Geol. 371, 140–178 (2016).
Pope, E. L. et al. Origin of spectacular fields of submarine sediment waves around volcanic islands. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 493, 12–24 (2018).
Heijnen et al. Rapidly-migrating and internally-generated knickpoints can control submarine channel evolution. Nat. Commun. 11, 3129 (2020).
Chen, Y. et al. Knickpoints and crescentic bedform interactions in submarine channels. Sedimentology 69, 1358–1377 (2021).
Heijnen, M. S. et al. Fill, flush or shuffle: how is sediment carried through submarine channels to build lobes? Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 584, 117481 (2022).
Corney, R. K. T. et al. The orientation of helical flow in curved channels. Sedimentology 53, 249–257 (2006).
Imran, J. et al. Helical flow couplets in submarine gravity under-flows. Geology 35, 659–662 (2007).
Azpiroz-Zabala, M. et al. A general model for the helical structure of geophysical flows in channel bends. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 56721 (2017).
Daly, R. A. Origin of submarine ‘canyons’. Am. J. Sci. 31, 401–420 (1936).
Forel, F.-A. Les ravins sous-lacustres des fleuves glaciaires. C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris 11, 1–3 (1885).
Pope, E. L. et al. Landslide-dams affect sediment and carbon fluxes in deep-sea submarine canyons. Nat. Geosci. 15, 845–853 (2022).
Maier, K. L. et al. Submarine fan development revealed by integrated high-resolution datasets from La Jolla Fan, offshore California. J. Sedim. Res. 90, 468–479 (2020).
Paull, C. K. et al. Anatomy of the La Jolla submarine canyon system: offshore Southern California. Mar. Geol. 335, 16–34 (2013).
Hodgson, D. M., Peakall, J. & Maier, K. L. Submarine channel mouth settings: processes, geomorphology, and deposits. Front. Earth Sci. 10, 790320 (2022).
Wolfson-Schwehr, M. et al. Time-lapse seafloor surveys reveal how turbidity currents and internal tides in Monterey Canyon interact with the seabed at centimeter-scale. J. Geophys. Res. 128, e2022JF006705 (2023).
Mutti, E., Bernoulli, D., Ricci-Lucchi, F. & Tinterri, R. Turbidites and turbidity currents from alpine ‘flysch’ to the exploration of continental margins. Sedimentology 56, 267–318 (2009).
Baas, J. H., Van Kesteren, W. & Postma, G. Deposits of depletive high-density turbidity currents: a flume analogue of bed geometry, structure and texture. Sedimentology 51, 1053–1088 (2004).
Nielsen T., Shew, R. D., Steffens, G. S. & Studlick, J. R. J. Atlas of Deepwater Outcrops: Studies in Geology 56 (Shell Exploration and Production/AAPG, 2007).
Englert, R. G. et al. Quantifying the three-dimensional stratigraphic expression of cyclic steps by integrating seafloor and deep-water outcrop observations. Sedimentology 68, 1465–1501 (2021).
Vendettuoli, D. et al. Daily bathymetric surveys document how stratigraphy is built and its extreme incompleteness: one summer offshore Squamish Delta, British Columbia. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 515, 231–247 (2019).
Talling, P. J. On the frequency distribution of turbidite thickness. Sedimentology 48, 1297–1329 (2001).
Malgesini, G. et al. Quantitative analysis of submarine-flow deposit shape in the Marnoso-Arenacea formation: what is the signature of hindered settling from dense near-bed layers? J. Sedim. Res. 85, 170–191 (2015).
Iverson, R. M., Logan, M., LaHusen, R. G. & Berti, M. The perfect debris flow? Aggregated results from 28 large‐scale experiments. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F03005 (2010).
Clare, M. et al. Lessons learned from monitoring of turbidity currents and guidance for future platform designs. Geol. Soc. Lond. Spec. Pub. 500, 605–634 (2020).
Baker, M. et al. Seabed seismometers reveal duration and structure of longest runout sediment flows on Earth. Abstract EGU23-7549 https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-7549 (2023).
Hay, A. E., Hatcher, M. G. & Hughes Clarke, J. E. Underwater noise from submarine turbidity currents. JASA Express Lett. 1, 070801 (2021).
Fan, W., McGuire, J. J. & Shearer, P. M. Abundant spontaneous and dynamically triggered submarine landslides in the Gulf of Mexico. Geophys. Res. Lett. 47, e2020GL087213 (2020).
Covault, J. A. Submarine fans and canyon-channel systems: a review of processes, products, and models. Nat. Educ. Knowl. 3, 4 (2011).
Martin, J., Palanques, A., Vitorino, J., Oliveira, A. & de Stigter, H. C. Near-bottom particulate matter dynamics in the Nazaré submarine canyon under calm and stormy conditions. Deep Sea Res. II 58, 2388–2400 (2011).
Lambert, A. & Giovanoli, F. Records of riverborne turbidity currents and indications of slope failures in the Rhone delta of Lake Geneva. Limnol. Oceanog. 33, 458–468 (1988).
Baudin, F., Rabouille, C. & Dennielou, B. Routing of terrestrial organic matter from the Congo River to the ultimate sink in the abyss: a mass balance approach. Geol. Belg. 23/1-2, 41–52 (2020).
P.J.T. discloses support for this work from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) (grant numbers NE/S010068/1, NE/R001952/1 and NE/K011480/1). K.L.M. acknowledges funding from NIWA Marine Geological Resources Programme and Marsden Grant 21-NIW-014). S.H. has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 899546. M.A.C. acknowledges funding from NERC including National Capability Programme (NE/R015953/1) Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (CLASS), Environmental Risks to Infrastructure: Identifying and Filling the Gaps (NE/P005780/1) and New Field-scale Calibration of Turbidity Current Impact Modelling (NE/P009190/1).
The authors have no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Reviews Earth and Environment thanks Chengliang Gong, Michele Rebesco and David Piper for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
- Acoustic Doppler current profiler
Sensor emitting a sound-pulse that is scattered from sand and mud particles within a turbidity current, which measures the speed of those particles at different heights above the seabed to produce a velocity profile.
A near-equilibrium state that occurs when the settling of sand and mud from a turbidity current is balanced by seafloor erosion, leading to near-uniform flow velocity.
A negative feedback loop leading to the deceleration of a turbidity current, as the settling of sand and mud causes the flow to become less dense and slower, causing further settling.
- Frontal cell
The frontal part of faster-moving (more than ~1.5 m s–1) turbidity current that is faster than the rest of the flow, and contains a near-bed layer with high sediment concentrations.
Positive feedback leading to the acceleration of a turbidity current owing to seafloor erosion that causes the flow to become even faster and denser, leading to more erosion.
The process by which organic carbon is turned into CO2.
- Submarine canyon
A valley that is deeply incised into the seafloor through which turbidity currents flow, which is much deeper than a submarine channel.
- Submarine channel
A channel incised into the seafloor (less deeply than a canyon) through which turbidity currents flow. Its upraised flanks (called levees) can lie above the surrounding seabed.
- Submarine fan
A large-scale accumulation of sediment formed by turbidity currents that comprises a canyon, channel with levees (upraised flanks of a submarine channel that lie above the surrounding seafloor, formed by the overspill of turbidity currents from the channel), and a lobe (a region that lies beyond the end of a submarine channel, where turbidity currents expand, often characterized by unusually rapid sediment deposition and scours).
- Supercritical flow
Flows can exist in two basic states: either thin and fast (‘supercritical’) flow or thick and slow (‘subcritical’) flow, which are separated by a hydraulic jump.
Layer of sand and mud that has settled out from a turbidity current to form a deposit on the ocean or lake floor.
- Turbidity currents
Underwater avalanches of sediment and water that are denser than the surrounding water and thus move down-slope along the ocean or lake floor.
A varve is a thin layer of fine sediment that represents the deposit of a single year within a lake.
About this article
Cite this article
Talling, P.J., Cartigny, M.J.B., Pope, E. et al. Detailed monitoring reveals the nature of submarine turbidity currents. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 642–658 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-023-00458-1