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Marine Sedimentation
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Samples of sedimentary rocks can be stored for years without altering their properties, but this is not true of samples of recent sediments, in which marked changes may take place after collection, particularly if they are allowed to dry out. These changes are chiefly associated with activity of organisms and the loss of water. Organic processes subsequent to collection of samples will generally not follow the pattern existing on the sea floor because of the changed environment. Increased bacterial activity will tend to modify the organic-matter content, the oxidation-reduction conditions, and the pH. The loss of water by evaportation may change the textural characteristics of the sediment, since sediments which have been dried do not disperse as completely as fresh samples (Correns, et al, 1937). Furthermore, the changing salt concentration of the interstitial water which will accompany evaporation may result in base-exchange and precipitation of salts.

The temperature prevailing in marine sediments can be closely estimated from that of the water immediately adjacent to the bottom and depends upon depth, latitude, season, and circulation, and in basins upon the surrounding topography. The temperature probably has its greatest effect through its influence upon the character and activities of the organisms living in or on the sediment. Hydrostatic pressure, which is a function of depth, is of no significance and has no effect either upon the organisms or upon the water content or porosity of the sediment. The water content can be considered an important characteristic that is part of the environment of the sediments on the sea floor. The water content, which must be determined on carefully preserved samples, is commonly reported as the weight per cent of the sediment. However, if reported as volume per cent (assuming a mean grain density of 2.6), it is an expression of the porosity. Trask (1932) discussed the water content of sediments and Krumbein and Pettijohn (1938) have given many references to studies of the porosity of sedimentary rocks. The porosity, hence the water content, depends upon the texture, shape, and sorting of the particles in the sediment. Furthermore, the compaction must be taken into account. Recently deposited material has a greater pore space and water content than that which has “aged” or which has had additional material deposited on top, that is, has been subjected to pressure. In fine-grained material, particularly the clays and the so-called colloid fraction, the effect of surface adsorption must be considered. Trask fractionated a marine sediment into a number of size grades and determined the water content of the freshly settled material (table 112). He found that the water content increases rapidly in materials smaller than about 20 microns in diameter. After standing or after the superposition of additional material the water content decreases

somewhat. Cores from marine sediments generally show a decrease in water content with depth in the core (fig. 257, also Moore, 1931), and when textural stratification exists there is commonly an inverse relationship between the water content and the median diameter. In fig. 257 are shown data for three representative cores obtained off the California coast. The heavy vertical lines indicate the portions of the cores whose water content and median diameter were determined. The relatively uniform fine-grained material (A), with median diameters between 1.7 and 2.7 microns, had a water content decreasing from 81 per cent in the superficial layer to 75 per cent at a depth of 2 m in the core. The coarser silty sediment (B) (M2 between 16 and 20.4 microns) showed a water content decreasing from 65 per cent to 56 per cent. A core with marked textural stratification (C) showed a close inverse relationship between texture and water content.


Water content and median diameter in core samples of terrigenous sediments obtained off the California coast. Heavy vertical lines indicate portions of the cores examined.

[Full Size]
(From Trask, 1932)>
Size group, microns Water content, volume per cent
250–500 45.0
125–250 45.4
  64–125 46.9
  16- 64 51.6
    4- 16 66.2
    1- 4 85.8
      <1 98.2

The permeability of a sediment, which is a measure of the ability of water to circulate through it, is related to the porosity. Although of undoubted importance in determining the chemical conditions and hence

the biological environment, no permeability studies have yet been made on recent marine sediments.

Many chemical and biological processes are dependent upon the water content and the permeability, that is, upon the amount of interstitial water present and upon the rate at which water circulates through the sediment and exchanges with the overlying water. Where very little exchange with the overlying water takes place, depletion of the oxygen and the establishment of reducing conditions may occur. These conditions are inimical to the persistence of animal life, hence below the superficial layers there may be virtual exclusion of all living organisms except bacteria. The thickness of the superficial layer within which there is some exchange of water will depend upon the texture of the sediment, the rate of sedimentation, water movements, the oxygen content of the overlying water, and the activities of burrowing organisms.

The salinity of the interstitial water, which is determined by that of the overlying water, is probably not very important, although it may influence such processes as the solution or precipitation of calcium carbonate. Changes in the chemical composition of the dissolved materials are chiefly related to biological processes, although base-exchange with clay minerals, the formation of authigenic minerals, and the adsorption of ions on colloidal particles may play some part. Organic activity will lead to the consumption of dissolved oxygen and the formation of carbon dioxide which will tend to lower the pH of the interstitial water and favor the solution of calcium carbonate. If the oxygen is completely removed, anaerobic decomposition will lead to the formation of hydrogen sulphide from organic matter. Marine anaerobic bacteria are also capable of attacking the sulphate present in the water and of using the oxygen in the sulphate ion in their metabolic processes. This process also leads to the formation of hydrogen sulphide. The extent to which organic and inorganic processes within marine sediments may modify the composition of the interstitial water is not yet established, although scattered evidence indicates that they may be quite appreciable. The destruction of organic matter on the sea bottom also involves the nitrogen, and it is possible that a considerable amount of inorganic forms of this element are produced on the sea bottom. Under reducing conditions this must be ammonia, but within the superficial layers the ammonia may be further oxidized to nitrite or nitrate.

Many general statements have been made concerning the depletion of dissolved oxygen and the establishment of reducing conditions in marine sediments, but relatively little is known concerning the oxidation-reduction potentials prevailing in marine deposits (ZoBell, 1939). Although the state of oxidation of the iron and such other elements as manganese, sulphur, and nitrogen may be determined by the prevailing potential, it should be remembered that the reducing conditions are

brought about by the activities of microorganisms acting upon the organic matter in the deposit. The possibility that precursors of petroleum are formed under these conditions has stimulated interest in the problems related to the bacteriology of marine sediments (ZoBell, 1939, Trask, 1939).

In the overlying water in the presence of free oxygen, Eh potentials (p. 211) slightly higher than 0.0 volt are found (ZoBell, 1939). The Eh of sediments of the California coast has been found to range in general between —0.12 and —0.58 volt, but in certain areas of slow deposition slightly positive values may prevail. In general, the oxidation-reduction potential decreases (the negative values increase) with increasing depth in the sediment. The zone of most rapid change is within the topmost few centimeters. According to Hewitt (1937), aerobes tolerate an Eh between +0.4 and —0.2 volt; therefore the conditions beneath the uppermost few centimeters are not favorable for aerobic forms. The presence of “aerobes” at lower potentials indicates that they are either facultative anaerobes or that they are in a more or less dormant condition. The rapid decrease in numbers with depth in the cores is shown in table 113. Anaerobes are therefore responsible for the extremely low potentials found in marine sediments. These potentials sometimes exceed that of the hydrogen electrode, which, in neutral solution (pH = 7), has an Eh —0.421 volt. It will be seen from table 113 that the anaerobes also decrease in number with depth in the core, although the relative change is not as great as for the aerobes.

(From ZoBell and Anderson, 1936)
Depth of strata (cm) Anaerobes per gram Aerobes per gram Ratio of anaerobes to aerobes Oxygen absorbed (mg/g) Oxidation-reduction potential, Eh, volts
  0- 3 1,160,000 74,000,000 1:64 2.8 -0.12
  4- 6       14,000       314,000 1:21 1.3 -0.29
14–16         8,900         56,000 1:6   0.6 -0.37
24–26         3,100         10,400 1:3   0.7 -0.32
44–46         5,700         28,100 1:5   0.3 -0.37
66–68         2,300         4,200 1:2   0.4 -0.34

Although the Eh decreases with depth in the sediment, the reducing capacity usually decreases. The reducing capacity can be determined on freshly collected samples by measuring the oxygen absorbed after the addition of mercuric chloride to kill living organisms and to inactivate

enzymes. The oxygen deficit existing in certain freshly collected terrigenous sediments is believed to be associated with the reduced state of the iron, manganese, and so forth, and auto-oxidizable organic substances (ZoBell, 1939). The decrease in reducing capacity with depth is explained as a result of transformation of organic matter into compounds that are not readily oxidized or reduced. Sediments in which bacteria and enzymes are not destroyed show a rapid increase in bacterial population when suspended in aerated water, utilizing from a fraction of one milliliter to three or four milliliters per gram of sediment over a period of several weeks (ZoBell, 1939). The respiratory consumption is related to the organic-matter content and indicates that, when the environment is changed from reducing conditions to those prevailing in the presence of free oxygen, a considerable portion of the organic matter is quickly destroyed.

Benthic organisms, with or without skeletal structures, are involved in a number of sedimentation processes. Besides destroying organic matter, the larger benthic forms may ingest the sediment, causing mechanical abrasion of the solid particles and acceleration of the solution of such material as calcium carbonate. The turning over of the superficial layers by mud-eating and burrowing organisms tends to destroy laminations and to aid in the interchange of the water in the sediment with the overlying water. Characteristic constituents of many terrigenous deposits are faecal pellets of benthic animals (Moore, 1939). Faecal pellets have been considered as important in the formation of glauconite (Takahashi, 1939). The characteristic distribution of different forms of benthic organisms has received considerable attention both from marine biologists and from paleontologists, and their findings cannot be discussed here. In the sections on marine biology many references to this problem will be found.

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Marine Sedimentation
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