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Marine Sedimentation
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Transportation of Sediment to the Sea


Twenhofel (1932, 1939) discusses the following agencies which transport material to the sea:

  1. Rivers and streams carrying both particulate and dissolved material.

  2. Rainwash, slumping along river banks and sea coasts, and large scale landslides.

  3. Shoreline erosion by waves.

  4. Glaciers and sea ice carrying rock fragments.

  5. Biological activity which may also increase the transport by other agencies.

  6. Winds, which pick up large amounts of fine-grained debris from barren arid areas.

  7. Volcanic activity, which may discharge large amounts of finegrained dust into the atomosphere.

Materials transported by the first three agencies are brought into the sea near the coast lines and the bulk is deposited near the coast, whereas material transported by the last four agencies may be carried to great distances from land before dropping to the sea bottom, and may therefore contribute significantly to the deep-sea deposits. These latter agencies will be discussed more fully.

Transportation by Ice. The transportation of sedimentary debris by ice has been and still is extremely important in high latitudes. Glaciers carry large amounts of material which they erode from the land surface, and in so doing, modify the general topography. Glaciation during the ice age has left its smark on many areas now below sea level. Certain submarine topographical features, particularly around north-western Europe and northeastern America, are attributed to glaciation. By the time of the ultimate retreat of the ice such quantities of debris had been deposited that the transportation by glaciers has placed its stamp on the character of the sediments in many localities in high latitudes.

Contemporary glacier ice carries large amounts of sediment to the sea. Such material is characterized by a great range in size, varying from enormous boulders to the finest material formed by mechanical abrasion. The character of the debris will depend on the nature of the rock formations over which the glacier passes. Icebergs carry with them the enclosed rock material and, since they may float thousands of miles before melting, this material may be deposited at great distances from its source, and pebbles and boulders may be found in otherwise pelagic deposits far from land (Murray and Hjort, 1912; Bramlette and Bradley, 1940).


Sea ice, that is, ice formed in the sea, also plays a relatively important role in the transportation of sedimentary material. This is particularly true in the Arctic seas, where in large areas of shallow water the ice may freeze to the bottom in winter. When thawing commences, the melting takes place at the surface of the ice, which will tend to rise due to its buoyancy. In this way the enclosed sedimentary material may be lifted off the bottom and, as the ice breaks up, may be transported to other localities where it will be released when the ice melts. The sea ice will tend to carry the unsorted material, including shells or other remains of organisms, from shallow water into deeper water, and will therefore give rise to anomalous accumulations of remains of organisms and organic material (Twenhofel, 1939).

Organic Rafting. A less significant amount of debris may be transported in the sea by the agency of buoyant organic material of both terrigenous and marine origin. Trees and clumps of vegetation eroded during floods or by wave action may float great distances in the sea before decomposition releases the load of imbedded rock material or until the vegetation becomes waterlogged and sinks. Leaves, branches, and even entire terrigenous plant forms are sometimes found in marine deposits far from land. Marine algae with holdfasts may be torn loose and float away, carrying rock fragments which may be deposited in deeper water (Emery and Tschudy, 1941). Benthic animals may contribute to transportation, particularly by loosening and overturning the material on the sea bottom. Man has become an agency of transportation in the sea and the effects of his activities are not uncommon in certain localities. Cinders and ash from coal-burning vessels are sometimes found in samples taken along steamer routes, as well as other refuse of such a character that it may be preserved in the sediments. Near shore, particularly in harbors, material is moved by dredging activities and, indirectly, by the construction of piers and breakwaters.

Transportation by the Atmosphere. In the dispersal of terrigenous material the atmosphere undoubtedly plays an extremely important part. The materials that are carried by the winds over the sea consist mainly of volcanic dust ejected directly into the air and of the particles that are swept up by the wind from the land surface. Wind erosion of the land is most effective in localities where high wind velocities occur and where the ground is not covered by a protective blanket of vegetation. Such areas are found in the high mountains and in desert regions and in semiarid regions where there is large-scale agricultural activity. The activities of man contribute also to the air-borne debris in many other ways which can be readily called to mind. Practically any type of organic or inorganic material may be carried by the winds if it is small enough.


Transportation of solid particles by the air is comparable to that in water, which will be discussed below. In general, the lowest wind velocities are found near the ground and material swept up from the ground must be lifted to considerable altitudes if it is to be carried over long distances. The material ejected by volcanoes is thrown directly to great altitudes where high velocities prevail and will therefore, in general, be transported for greater distances than dust which is picked up from the land surface. Consequently, volcanic material which has been at least partially air-borne is world-wide in its distribution, although in the vicinity of centers of volcanic activity it will be much more abundant and of somewhat coarser texture.

Air-brone terrigenous dust is an important contributor to marine sediments where the prevailing winds are offshore and where they have a suitable source of material. In general there will be a progressive decrease in size of the air-borne material as the distance from the source is increased, because the larger particles drop out first. Extremely fine material which may remain in suspension almost indefinitely is precipitated by rainfall or snow. The actual dispersal of sedimentary material originally air-borne may be extended by transportation in the water itself. Little is known concerning the rate of supply of air-borne terrigenous material to various localities, but data given by Twenhofel (1939) suggest that it may be relatively great.

In certain localities the amount of material transported in the air over the sea is sometimes sufficient to form dust clouds. For one such region off the west coast of Africa, Radczewski (1939) has summarized the existing knowledge of the effects of the aeolian material on the formation of the deep-sea sediments in this area. According to him the following types of grains could be identified in the dust collected from the air west of the African coast: quartz, feldspar, mica, organic siliceous remains, calcite, aggregates of small particles, and other unidentifiable material. In this locality calcite, aggregates, mica, and quartz are the most abundant. All of these materials may fall to the sea bottom, where they will be mixed with the water-borne debris and the remains of marine organisms. In sediment samples it is impossible to discriminate between the air- and water-borne material except in the case of a certain amount of the quartz grains. These are the so-called “desert quartz” grains coated with reddish iron oxides, and are characteristically aeolian material. Although the percentage of desert quartz in the original air-borne dust is not known, Radczewski determined their ratio to the total number of quartz fragments in a number of samples collected by the Meteor. These are referred to as “desert quartz numbers” and are used as indices of the proportions of aeolian material in the different samples. In general, the amount decreases away from the coast and the size of the characteristic quarz grains diminishes with increasing distance from the shore.


The size of the air-borne particles in deep-sea sediments averages less than 15 microns but larger fragments are quite abundant near the coast. Technical difficulties make it impossible to distinguish aeolian material smaller than about 5 microns.

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