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Marine Sedimentation
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The differences between sediments found in marginal and nearshore regions and those of the open ocean can be largely attributed to the great intensity of transporting agencies in shallow water. In addition to the currents which are generally relatively strong in shallow water, the surface waves create strong disturbances and play an important role in the nearshore environment. Many of the transporting agencies effective in shallow water are subject to intermittent fluctuations that may produce stratification of the sediments. Such vertical variations in the character of the sediments as are transitory and may be destroyed by the rising tide or the next storm are lacking in deep-sea deposits, where variations in the properties of the sediments represent environmental changes with time over periods of a year to thousands of years.

Because of the stronger currents, sediments in shallow water are generally coarser and better sorted than those of the open sea. The form of the coast line and the topographic irregularities of the sea bottom have marked effects upon the supply and transportation of the sedimentary debris, leading to great local variations in the character of the sediments found in shallow water. The following discussion will apply to the sediments upon the shelf and also to those on the beach, unless specifically excepted.

Water movements associated with surface waves probably do not extend below about 100 m and it is only in very shallow water and on the beach that their motion is violent. Waves breaking on the shore are capable of transporting large amounts of sediment. During storms the coarser material is thrown high on the beach above the normal high-tide level, while at the same time the lower part of the beach is eroded and a certain amount of material carried out below low-tide level. During periods of very large waves the whole beach may undergo temporary erosion. Between storms the smaller waves return sediment from shallow water to the beach (Shepard and La Fond, 1940). Rip currents that are associated with the waves contribute to the removal of sediment from the beach (Shepard, Emery, and La Fond, 1941). In the absence of currents, waves are not effective in transporting sediment parallel to the shore unless they strike the beach obliquely or unless there is a gradient in the sediment placed in suspension by the waves.

The rise and fall of the tide once or twice each day changes the level of attack of the waves on the beach. The upper part of the beach is exposed for longer or shorter periods, depending on the elevation above mean-tide level. The beach profile and the character of the sediments are undoubtedly associated with the range in tide, but no study of this

relationship has yet been made. The effect of the rise and fall of the tide extends all the way across the shelf, because the lowering of the sea level will increase the water motion at the bottom caused by waves and because of the currents associated with the tides, which may be relatively strong, particularly near the edge of the shelf (p. 567).

The motion associated with semipermanent currents, internal waves, eddies, and tsunamis has been discussed elsewhere and the roles of various types of water movements in sediment transportation described (p. 959). As most currents have their greatest velocity parallel to the coast they tend to produce movement of sediment alongshore. Transportation away from shore can be produced by waves and rip currents, and can take place where there is a gradient normal to the coast in the concentration of suspended material or where the slope of the bottom is such that the gravitational component facilitates movement down the slope and away from the coast.


Relation between texture of sediments and slope of beaches on the east and west coasts of the United States. Median diameter in millimeters. (After data in U. S. Beach Erosion Board, 1933.)

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Supply of Sedimentary Material. Beach and shelf deposits are predominantly of inorganic origin, and only in low latitudes along coasts of small runoff and around oceanic islands are the deposits high in organic calcareous debris. The nearshore zone is favorably located to receive terrigenous and volcanic material, both water-borne and carried by the atmosphere. In addition to these sources of terrigenous and volcanic material, sedimentary material is supplied by erosion of the exposed coast

and shallow bottom. The wind may have a direct effect upon the beach, since the finer grains can be moved by wind action alone. Depending upon the strength of the winds and their prevailing direction, there may be a net motion of material along the beach, into the water or back onto the land. In the latter case traveling dunes may be produced.

The profile of the beach, the texture of the sediments, and hence, indirectly, the composition, are all closely related and are determined by such factors as the range in tide, exposure to waves and storms, and the character of the material forming the coast. The relationship between the slope of the beach and the median diameters of beach sediments on the east and west coasts of the United States is shown in fig. 261.

It is commonly stated that the inner part of the shelf represents a wave-cut terrace and that the outer extension is a wave-built platform composed of the materials carried out from the land and eroded from the shallower depths. Although wave-built terraces may be accumulating in certain localities, they are not a common feature of the continental shelf because (1) rock exposures are commonly found on the seaward edge of the shelf; (2) submarine canyons cutting across the shelf have steep and often rocky walls, even at the outer edge of the shelf; (3) the continental slope is commonly too irregular to have been produced by the accumulation of a large amount of unconsolidated material. As only the fine material is transported far out to sea, the bulk of the sediment carried away from continental coasts must accumulate either on the shelf or on the continental slope. Considerable evidence has been gathered which indicates that little or no deposition occurs on the shelf. In any coastal area in which this is true there can be no selective sorting of the material while in transit across the shelf. If there is a net accumulation, sorting may take place, leaving the coarser grains in the shallower or more exposed localities. In general, the bulk of the inorganic debris must accumulate in depressions on the shelf or immediately beyond the continental slope.

Beach and Shelf Sediments. Sediments of the beach and shelf show large vertical and lateral variations in texture. In terms of median diameters the range is from greater than 256 mm to less than 0.1 mm, namely, from boulders to fine silt. Numerous references to studies can be obtained in the symposium on Recent Marine Sediments (Trask, ed., 1939). Martens (1939) has summarized data on the textural characteristics of beach deposits from the eastern United States (table 117). These data show that the extreme range in median diameters is from 1.25 mm to 0.13 mm, but that the averages for different localities show a relatively small spread, namely, from 0.21 to 0.35 mm. The small coefficients of sorting emphasize the often stated fact that beach deposits are well sorted. The skewness values greater than unity show the predominance of the larger grades. Beach sediments on the California coast show

comparable values. Except near mouths of rivers shortly after floods, beach deposits are characteristically well sorted.


Average of median diameters of sediments from different depth zones in Santa Monica Bay, California. (From Shepard and Macdonald, 1938.)

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(From Martens, 1939)
Region No. of samples Median diameter (mm) Coefficient of sorting Coefficient of skewness
Max. Min. Average Max. Min. Average Max. Min. Average
South shore of Long Island 22 0.48 0.23 0.35 1.41 1.16 1.32 1.15 0.91 1.01
New Jersey 37 0.70 0.15 0.33 1.53 1.14 1.27 1.47 0.88 1.03
Del., Md., and Va. north of Chesapeake Bay 18 0.54 0.15 0.30 1.60 1.13 1.29 1.08 0.92 1.01
North Carolina, and Virginia south of Chesapeake Bay 40 1.25 0.16 0.32 3.18 1.14 1.41 1.71 0.38 1.14
South Carolina and Georgia   9 0.30 0.16 0.21 1.54 1.10 1.31 1.19 0.96 1.10
Florida 19 0.69 0.13 0.34 1.76 1.17 1.42 1.33 0.86 1.04

Sediments found upon the shallower parts of the continental shelves and upon ridges and banks near shore do not differ appreciably from those found on the beach. In many localities there is a decrease in median diameter on leaving the beach, but such changes are by no means regular. This has been emphasized by Shepard and McDonald (1938) and by Revelle and Shepard (1939) for sediments on the Pacific coast, and by Stetson (1938) for sediments on the Atlantic coast of the United States. In Santa Monica Bay, California, Shepard and McDonald found a marked decrease in median diameter in shallow water within a few hundred feet of shore but no correlation between particle size and depth for the bay as a whole (fig. 262). Stetson's data from the shelf on

the Atlantic coast of the United States (fig. 263) show essentially similar types of sediments which do not differ appreciably from those found on beaches. It is only in basins and depressions and sometimes on the outer part of the shelf that markedly different bottom is encountered. In such environments poorly sorted sediments of finer texture may be present.


Median diameters in millimeters and sorting coefficients along representative sections off the east coast of the United States in relation to the bottom profile. (Data from Stetson, 1938.)

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According to Stetson (1938, 1939) the past geological history and the supply of materials, as well as depth, are important factors in determining the character of the shelf sediments. Off the northern part of the Atlantic seaboard, where glaciation extended out beyond the present coast line, the sediments near shore are relatively fine and well-sorted sands; outside of these are coarser well-sorted sands and gravels; and succeeding these, poorly sorted silts and clays. At the edge of the shelf there is again an increase in the size of the particles. Off Maryland and New Jersey the sediments are well-sorted sands out to the break in slope, and there are no silts and clays. This is ascribed to the lack of a local supply of the finer grades. South of Cape Hatteras the relatively fine, well-sorted inorganic deposits grade into well-sorted calcareous sands

which extend to the break in slope. The slope in this region lies beneath the Gulf Stream and is swept free of unconsolidated material. Data for representative sections are shown in figure 263.

Hough (1940) has emphasized the lack of correlation between median diameter and depth for sediments in Buzzards Bay. However, he found reasonably good correlation between the median diameter and the sorting. Sediments with median diameters greater than 0.15 mm generally had sorting coefficients between 1.25 and 2.0, whereas the coefficients for the finer sediments varied between 2.0 and 3.0

The relatively coarse-grained texture of beach and shelf deposits has an indirect effect upon the composition, since only those materials occurring in relatively hard form and of sufficient size are present as “permanent” constituents of the sediments. Furthermore, as the particles are larger they are not subject to wide dispersal and, hence, are generally found relatively near their site of origin or entrance to the sea. Along irregular indented coasts where there are different types of source materials there may be marked differences in the composition of the beach sediments in adjacent bays. Where it has been possible to trace the dispersal of certain characteristic minerals (Martens, 1939) it has been found that they may travel 200 km or more along an uninterrupted coast. In the absence of relatively large supplies of inorganic material, the skeletal remains of planktonic or benthic plants and animals form a greater or less fraction of the deposit. Organic siliceous remains are never abundant, although they are cosmopolitan in distribution. In general, benthic remains are more abundant than planktonic, although on the outer part of the shelf and on isolated highs, planktonic foraminifera may form an important part of the sediment. The most common remains of benthic organisms are those of calcareous algae, mollusks, foraminifera, corals, bryozoa, annelids, echinoderms, and sponges. Siliceous diatom frustules are abundant in the sediments in some localities. The character of the inorganic fraction is influenced by the nature of the supply. Quartz is the most characteristic material with feldspar and the ferromagnesian minerals common in higher latitudes, particularly off glaciated coasts. Around volcanic islands fragments of andesitic and basaltic lavas with little or no quartz may be most common. The heavy minerals are frequently concentrated on the beaches by sorting action of the waves. The common heavy minerals are ilmenite, magnetite, garnet, zircon, monazite, and olivine (Martens, 1939).

Decomposable organic matter is generally low in the coarser deposits (p. 1016), but in the finer sediments, particularly those in basins, exceptionally high amounts are found. The low content of the sands and silts is ascribed to the fact that the organic matter is more readily attacked in such sediments and also that as the organic matter is light it is readily transported away by currents and deposited in depressions.


Beach and shallow-water sediments range from white to black with the addition of green, red, or blue. The coarser deposits are generally light in color unless in reducing environments. The finer deposits are commonly green, brown, or “blue.” Fine deposits in stagnant environments are black.

Character of the Deposits. In the foregoing discussion, emphasis has been placed on the composition of individual samples although frequent reference has been made to the variability in vertical and horizontal distribution. In fig. 263 were shown examples of the variability in the sediments off the Atlantic coast of the United States. Such differences are mostly in texture and composition, although color as related to either of these or to the environment may be very conspicuous.

Many studies of variability in the properties of beach deposits have been made in order to determine the relative importance of the numerous processes which may influence the character of such deposits. Longshore studies, such as those summarized by Martens (1939) and the detailed investigations of Schalk (1938), show marked differences in the character of the sediments. Thompson (1937) has made careful studies of the laminations which are characteristic of the coarser deposits, and Häntzschel (1939) has discussed similar features in the finer tide-flat deposits. The lateral variability can generally be related to the source localities of the constituent materials, and the relative intensity of wave and current action. The vertical laminations due to differences in texture, composition, and color are to be related to fluctuations in intensity of wave and current action associated with such periodic or random phenomena as the tides, the occurrence of storms or changing currents. Such laminations are transitory as the sediments are subject to reworking by the original causative agents. Häntzschel (1939) has pointed out that in tide flats such laminations are common although there is generally a large population of burrowing and mud-eating animals whose activities tend to destroy them. Temporary erosion and changing slopes may result in complicated internal structures in beaches. Whether or not such features exist on the shelf below tide level has not yet been determined, but as waves and currents are effective to considerable depths it is reasonable to assume that these temporary features, characteristic of the instability of the shallow-water zone, are present.

Students of sedimentary rocks lay considerable emphasis on features formed at the surface between the sediment and the overlying water or air. Such surface features are ripple marks, swash marks, rain and bubble marks, cracks, and so forth. Although common on beaches and in shallow water, it should be remembered that surface features are generally transitory and subject to erasure or changes by the next wave, high tide, or storm. It is only when exposed to the air so that the sediment is dried and thus partly consolidated that there is much likelihood

of their preservation in the fossil record. Johnson (1919) and Twenhofel (1932, 1939) have discussed the conditions under which various types of surface features may be found. From the geological point of view structural and surface characteristics of sediments are of importance only in regions where sediments are actually accumulating. Where the sediments are continually being reworked or where erosion is in progress such features will soon be destroyed.

Special Nearshore Environments. The discussion thus far has been largely restricted to the character of the sediments found on the beach and shelf of the exposed coast. There are, of course, many modifications in the processes and, hence, in the character of the sediments which are associated with special local conditions. Such special localities may be placed in two major groups, (1) those environments which are transitional between marine on the one hand and fresh water, concentrated brine, or terrestrial, on the other hand, and (2) those which are more or less typically marine but where the topography introduces peculiar conditions. Of the latter group, isolated basins are the most important.

Where rivers enter the sea there is a transition from the fresh-water to the marine environment that will be reflected in the character of the fauna and the flora. Within the lower part of a river the tidal effect may be felt and certain parts of the bottom may be alternately exposed to fresh and salt water. This imposes limitations on the nature of the organisms which can develop there. In estuaries and off the mouths of large rivers there may be rapid deposition of the inorganic material carried by the rivers. Russell and Russell (1939) have reviewed the character of the sedimentation processes in the delta of the Mississippi River. The peculiar properties of these and other transitional environments, such as lagoons, have been discussed by Twenhofel (1939). Partially enclosed bays and seas will have beach and shallow-water deposits that may have properties differing to a greater or less degree from those of the open coast depending upon their size, tidal range, strength of waves, frequency of storms, and the character of the materials supplied.

Topographic features of the shelf play an important part in determining the distribution of sediments. The sediments in submarine canyons are of particular interest because of the fact that these channels may be the routes followed by large amounts of sediments which cross the shelves. Cutting as they do far into the shelf, the canyons must entrap large amounts of material in transit along the coast. In the canyon there are no known agencies of sufficient strength to raise the material again to the shelf proper. Near the canyon heads there are rapid and extensive changes in depth, indicating fill and removal. The texture of the sediments in the bottom of the canyons has been studied by Stetson (1939) and by Cohee (1938). Near the canyon heads the materials are commonly slightly finer than those on the adjacent slopes. On the other hand, pebbles and rock fragments have been found on the canyon bottoms. The coarser material may represent the more or less permanent deposit, whereas the fine materials are those being by-passed to the open sea.


Generalized map of the distribution of rock bottom and sediments off the coast of southern California. Depth contours in fathoms. (From Revelle and Shepard, 1939, in Recent Marine Sediments, P. D. Trask, ed. American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa.)

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Topographically isolated basins are of particular interest because they are one of the environments in which sediments must be accumulating. Basins may be classified hydrographically, depending upon whether the inflow from the open ocean occurs at the surface or at sill depth, or conversely, whether the outflow is at the sill depth or the surface (chapter IV). Biologically and geologically the greatest distinction is between those basins which contain dissolved oxygen in the waters overlying the bottom and those which are stagnant and contain hydrogen sulphide. The latter condition may exclude animals which might otherwise inhabit the water and the bottom and which would contribute to or modify the character of the sediment.


Characteristic features of stagnant and nonstagnant basins. (From Fleming and Revelle, 1939, in Recent Marine Sediments, edited by Parker D. Trask and published by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

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The texture of basin sediments is generally fine but they are poorly sorted. Studies by Revelle and Shepard (1939) in basins off the southern

California coast revealed that the sediments have median diameters between 1.4 and 5 microns, with the basins farthest from shore having the finest deposits (fig. 264). Core samples 60 cm long showed little variation with depth in the sediment, although samples from basins near shore sometimes contained layers of fine sand. The calcium carbonate content of basins deposits is generally not very high because of the relatively rapid rate of accumulation of the fine noncalcareous material. However, the slow exchange of water favors the development of saturation in the water and, hence, tends to preserve the calcium carbonate. The content may therefore be greater than at comparable depths in the open sea. The organic matter content of the sediments is always high.

Fleming and Revelle (1939) summarized Ström's data for stagnant and nonstagnant fjords (see table 118) and showed the characteristic properties of the water and the sediments in such environments (fig. 265).

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