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Marine Sedimentation
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Methods of Determining Rates of Sedimentation. Knowledge of the rates of accumulation of sediments in the ocean is essential to an understanding of many problems both of past geological history and present sedimentation processes, but unfortunately very little is yet known about these rates. In the following discussion various indirect methods of estimation will be listed, all of which lead to values of approximately the same magnitude. The development of new means of determining the time scale, such as those based on radioactivity and magnetic measurements, may ultimately produce more reliable values. The rates of deposition are extremely small, in the open ocean of the order of less than 1 cm per 1000 years, yet, as pointed out by Kuenen (1937) and others, it is difficult to account for the supply of the tremendous mass of material which must have accumulated in the deep sea since the beginning of geological time. Questions concerning the total quantity of marine sediments, not entered upon here, have been discussed by Clarke (1924), Kuenen (1937, 1941), and Goldschmidt (1933).

Because of the extremely slow rate of deposition of deep sea sediments no adequate direct method of measurement has yet been devised. We are therefore forced to rely upon indirect methods which fall in two general groups. The stratigraphic method, widely used in the study of sedimentary, rocks, may be applied when it is possible to determine the thickness of the deposit which has accumulated in a given time interval. The supply method for estimating the rate of deposition is applicable when

the amount of material supplied in a given time interval and the area of deposition are known. It should be noted that the first method gives values for individual localities, whereas the supply method yields averages for large areas. Great care must be exercised if estimates obtained by either method are extrapolated either in time or space. Even if it is assumed that there have been no material changes in the general area and from of the oceans, the supply of materials, which is influenced by numerous factors, has undoubtedly changed during past ages (Schuchert, 1931). Furthermore, the local rate of accumulation, particularly of clastic terrigenous material, must be much greater near the sources of material, that is, near land, than in the great ocean basins. Although it is generally assumed that an average rate may be given for pelagic deposits, or for one type of such deposits, Twenhofel (1939) has emphasized that such figures have little or no meaning for the terrigenous deposits where the magnitude of the supply of materials and transporting agencies are far more variable. At one extreme, the deposition off the mouths of large rivers may be of the order of several meters per year, while at the other extreme there are localities where no deposition is taking place and where there is actually erosion.

The difficulty of obtaining adequate cores represents the greatest obstacle to the wide application of the stratigraphic method to recent marine sediments. Not only is it a question of obtaining cores of sufficient length but also of avoiding as far as possible the effects of what is known as “compaction” due to unsatisfactory sampling methods. Also it is often impossible to establish the time scale. To make the figures comparable to those obtained by other methods the length of core must be computed for a constant pore space (water content) or the values may be given in terms of solid material. This is important because superficial layers of sediments consist of about two thirds by volume of water. In the following discussion values are given for a “solid” layer of density 2.5, that is on a pore-free basis.

The supply method is based upon the rate of supply of sedimentary material to the sea. Such material may arise from submarine or subaerial volcanism, from erosion and transport, either in solution or in suspension, of terrestrial material, and contributions from outer space. The latter source is negligible but the magnitude of submarine volcanism is unknown. Furthermore the amount of air-borne materials, both of volcanic and terrestrial origin, has commonly been neglected, although, as shown elsewhere (p. 949 to p. 955), these may form appreciable fractions of pelagic deposits. Indirect estimates of the rate of sedimentation can best be based on the supply of river-borne dissolved material, since the amount of solid undissolved material carried to the sea by rivers is not known (Twenhofel, 1939). Rates based on the supply of dissolved material must be fairly accurate because the bulk of the elements are probably

precipitated either chemically or by organic activity. Furthermore they are fairly evenly distributed. The latter is certainly not true for the clastic material, which must largely accumulate near shore.

Estimates Based on Stratigraphic Methods. The stratigraphic method has been widely applied to the study of fossil sediments, but the results obtained are very variable. Average values for sediments deposited since the Cambrian (500,000,000 years) have been derived by a study of the thickness of the column of sediments using a time scale based on radioactivity measurements. These values are (Schuchert, 1931):

Sandstone 68 cm/1000 years
Shale 34 cm/1000 years
Limestone 14 cm/1000 years

These are for shallow water deposits where the rates of accumulation must be much greater than in the open sea.

The stratigraphic method was first applied to recent deep-sea sediments in 1913 by Braun, whose data have been re-examined by Schott (1939a). For many years it has been recognized that sediments from various parts of the deep sea are stratified. The development of more adequate coring instruments, capable of obtaining cores up to 3 m in length, has opened a new field in the study of these deposits. The interpretation of textural and other differences in these sedimentary columns in deep-sea core samples was expanded by Schott (in Correns, 1937), who examined the systematic series of samples collected by the Meteor in the Equatorial Atlantic. He found that there were characteristic differences in the pelagic foraminiferal fauna at different depths in the cores. Specifically, various warm-water forms were not found in certain zones in the column. The absence of these species was attributed to the cooler climatic conditions and possibly the modified circulation during the glacial periods. The thickness of the superficial layer, containing warm-water forms, was considered to represent the deposition during the time interval since the last glacial period, which Schott assumed to be 20,000 years. On this basis he calculated the rate of accumulation of globigerina ooze, blue mud, and red clay in the Equatorial Atlantic. Schott's values computed from the observed length in the core sample and not corrected for water content or for any distortion or compaction in sampling, are given in table 121. The average values for “blue” mud, globigerina ooze, and red clay, namely 1.78, 1.2, and 0.86 cm per 1000 years become 0.59, 0.4, and 0.29 cm per 1000 years if reduced to 1/3 to place them on a pore-free basis. The figures for globigerina ooze and diatom ooze in the southern Indian Ocean based on Braun's data are somewhat smaller. Uncorrected, the averages are 0.59 and 0.54, respectively, and if reduced to 1/3, 0.20 and 0.18 cm per 1000 years. The rate of deposition of globigerina ooze in the southern Indian Ocean is apparently about one half that in the Equatorial Atlantic.


A series of cores, obtained by means of the Piggot coring tube across the North Atlantic between the Newfoundland Banks and Ireland, have been examined (Bramlette and Bradley, 1940). In certain of these cores, ranging up to 3 m long, systematic variations in the character of the material with depth in the cores were found; that is, strata were found that contained coarse-grained material that could only have been transported to the site of deposition by floating ice. These strata were laid down during the glacial periods. Bramlette and Bradley (1940) state that in cores from the western North Atlantic the postglacial sediments are approximately 34 cm thick, which is within the range found for the Meteor samples.

(From W. Schott, 1939a)
“Blue” mud Globigerina ooze Red clay
Average thickness (cm) 35.5 24.06 17.14
Greatest observed thickness (cm) 66.0 42.5 26.5
Smallest observed thickness (cm) 18.0 10.5 <10.0
Average rate of sedimentation (cm) per 1000 years 1.78 1.2 <0.86
Greatest observed rate of sedimentation (cm) per 1000 years 3.3 2.13 1.33
Smallest observed rate of sedimentation (cm) per 1000 years 0.9 0.53 <0.5
Samples used (number) 6 48 7

From the foregoing it might be concluded that present-day coring techniques would show all pelagic samples to be stratified, but this is not necessarily the case. The absence of stratification within the upper few meters, the present limit of core length, may be due to a number of factors such as: more rapid local accumulation than indicated by the values given above; extensive mixing and churning of the deposit by current action, or the activities of burrowing and mud-eating benthic animals, or the absence of agencies of sufficient magnitude to modify the character of the material being deposited. The latter condition may prevail for such deposits as red clay.

The stratigraphic method has not yet been widely applied to the study of recent shallow water sediments. Moore (1931) estimated the rate of deposition in the deeper portions of the Clyde Sea from laminations which he interpreted as due to the deposition of large amounts of organic matter each spring. The laminations were between 6 and 4 mm thick, the thicker layers occurring in the upper portion of the core. The water

content was approximately 75 per cent, hence these values correspond to a rate of about 100 cm/1000 years. Observations by Ström (1936) in the stagnant Drammensfjord in southeastern Norway showed varved deposits 70 cm thick with approximately 639 laminations. If we assume that the laminations represent annual accumulations and that the water content is 75 per cent, the rate of deposition would be 27 cm/1000 years. Both localities are in environments where rapid rates of accumulation would be expected. Moore (1931) cites studies in the Black Sea by Schokalsky who found laminated sediments which indicated that between 20 and 25 cm of unconsolidated material accumulated in 1000 years. If these contain 75 per cent of water the corresponding rate of deposition of solid material would be 5 to 6 cm per 1000 years. In the Gulf of California Revelle (Sverdrup and Staff, 1941) found laminated deposits of diatom frustules which, if the lamina represent annual layers and if the water content is 75 per cent, indicated a deposition of 19 cm/1000 years.

Estimates Based on Supply Methods. Clarke (1924) used his figures for the annual contribution of dissolved materials by rivers (p. 214) to estimate the rate of “chemical” sedimentation. He assumed that only sodium and chlorine escaped deposition by either inorganic or biological processes, and in this way found that the annual rate of chemical deposition was between 22 X 108 and 24 X 108 metric tons. If evenly spread over the entire sea floor this would form a layer of 0.25 cm/1000 years. To this must be added the particulate material of terrigenous and volcanic origin. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that nearshore deposits accumulate more rapidly than those in the open sea; therefore the value given above is too small for terrigenous deposits and too large for the deep sea sediments.

Kuenen (1937), from a consideration of the extent of erosion since the Cambrian (500,000,000 years) and the supply from terrestrial volcanoes, has estimated that the combined chemical and detrital deposition in the deep sea has been at a rate of about 0.33 cm/1000 years, a value approximately the same as those given above. Since then, Kuenen (1941) has revised his figures and reduced them to 0.1 cm/1000 years for red clay and to 0.2 cm/1000 years for globigerina ooze.

Two estimates have been made on the basis of organic deposition. Murray (Murray and Hjort, 1912) estimated the rate of deposition of globigerina ooze as 2.5 cm/10 years. This highly erroneous value was based on the study of the Atlantic submarine telegraph cables which were found to be “covered” in a period of 10 years. Actually they undoutedly settled into the ooze when laid. Computed in the units given above, this would be about 100 cm of solid material per 1000 years. Lohman estimated the rate at which coccoliths might accumulate on the sea floor from his studies of the production of the planktonic calcareous

algae and arrived at a figure of 0.1 to 0.2 cm per 1000 years (Schott, 1939b). This is at least of the probable correct order of magnitude.

Revelle and Shepard (1939) have used the supply method for estimating the rate of deposition in the basins of the southern California region. Their value, based on the rate of erosion of the local watersheds and the relative areas of erosion and deposition, is approximately 25 cm/1000 years.

The further development of the methods outlined above and the introduction of new techniques will undoubtedly tend to modify the values for the rates of deposition, but it does not seem probable that they will affect the order of magnitude of those for the deep sea. Large local variations in the rate of deposition of terrigenous depositions must be expected but the scattered evidence indicates that they accumulate at a rate of the order of 10 cm of solid material per 1000 years.

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