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Marine Sedimentation
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Quantity and Character of Organic Matter in Marine Sediments

The term organic matter is used to designate that portion of a sediment which has arisen through organic activity and which contains carbon in any form other than carbonate. Because it is somewhat analogous to the humus fraction found in soils it may be termed “marine humus.” Sometimes the expression decomposable organic matter is used to indicate that the material may be destroyed by organisms, particularly by bacteria.


The quantity and character of organic matter in marine sediments has been studied by a number of workers whose findings have been reviewed by Trask (1932, 1939). Although the organic matter rarely forms more than a small percentage of the sediments, it has received considerable attention for the following reasons:

  1. The organic matter settling to the sea bottom in deep water is the only source of food for benthic animals and bacteria. Hence the quantity in the sediment and, particularly, the rate of supply in any locality will have a profound effect upon the population of bottom-living organisms.

  2. The presence of organic matter and the changes brought about by organic activity, principally bacterial, influence the physical and chemical conditions which prevail in the sediment. These in turn may affect the character of the bottom fauna and the nature of the deposit.

  3. The burial of the organic matter implies the removal from the water of carbon, nitrogen, and possibly other elements originally in solution.

  4. Organic matter in sedimentary formations is considered to have been the source of petroleum. This theory has stimulated most of the investigations on the organic-matter content of recent sediments, as it has been thought that they would yield results which could be applied to the study of the source beds of petroleum and in the search for new oil fields.

The organic-matter content of pelagic sediments is approximately 1 per cent. Nearshore sediments generally contain somewhat larger amounts and average about 2.5 per cent. The extreme range is from less than 0.5 to more than 10 per cent. According to Trask (1939) the sediments of the North Pacific contain from 1 to 1.5 per cent, those of the South Pacific from 0.4 to 1.0 per cent, and those of the Atlantic from 0.3 to 1.5 per cent. The high values are found in bays and estuaries, in isolated basins near shore, in fjords, and in such landlocked regions as the Black Sea, Trask (1932) summarized the data available at that time concerning the distribution of organic matter in different areas and in different types of environments. Since then Gripenberg (1934) has investigated the Baltic Sea, Ström (1936) has made detailed studies of the Norwegian fjords, and Revelle and Shepard (1939) have reported on the conditions off the coast of California. The Meteor samples from the equatorial Atlantic have been discussed by Correns (1937, 1939) and the Carnegie samples of the Pacific were studied by Revelle (1936). Wiseman and Bennett (1940) have reported on the conditions in the Arabian Sea. Trask (1939) has again summarized the existing knowledge and given many references to detailed studies.

The quantity of organic matter may be estimated in various ways. The determination of the noncalcareous carbon by either wet or dry

combustion is difficult and time-consuming. Instead, the nitrogen, which is a good index of the organic content of the samples, is commonly measured by some form of Kjeldahl analysis. Trask has described various indirect methods which can be used to estimate the approximate organic-matter content of marine sediments. These are loss of weight upon ignition under controlled conditions, the amount of material which can be volatilized when heated under nitrogen, and the texture. In the southern California area Trask showed that there is an inverse relationship between the organic-matter content and the median diameter of the sediments.

Little is known concerning the chemical composition of the organic matter in marine sediments. Carbon forms from 50 to 60 per cent of the material, hence the ratio of organic matter to carbon varies between 1.67 and 2.0. Trask recommends the ratio of 1.8, which corresponds to a carbon content of 56 per cent. Various factors have been shown to influence the ratio. Plant material has a somewhat higher ratio than organic matter of animal origin and under stagnant conditions the ratio is lower than average. The nitrogen content of the organic matter is also affected somewhat by the source of the material and the conditions prevailing in the sediment. The carbon: nitrogen ratio varies between 8 and 12 and averages about 10, with the extreme values found by Trask as 5.5 and 20. Wiseman and Bennett (1940) found an even greater spread in the ratios, and for this reason do not consider nitrogen as an adequate measure of the organic matter. The average recommended by Trask is 10, which implies that the organic matter contains 56 per cent carbon and 5.6 per cent nitrogen. The organic matter which accumulates on the sea bottom represents the more or less resistant fraction of plant and animal origin. Although no specific compounds have been isolated it is possible to obtain some idea as to the character of the compounds by making selective extractions and analyses. The protein content is estimated by multiplying the organic nitrogen by the conventional factor of 6.25. Extraction with a fat solvent, such as ether or carbon tetrachloride, is made to determine the fatty materials present. By subtracting the protein and ether-soluble material from the total amount of organic matter the carbohydrate fraction is determined. Tables 115 and 116 (from Trask, 1939) show the character of the organic matter in various types of organisms and in marine sediments.

(From Trask, 1939)
Organic-matter source Crude protein Ether extract Carbohydrates Crude fiber
Peridineans 14 1.5 85? ?
Diatoms 29 8 63 0
Copepods 65 8 22 0
Higher invertebrates 70 10 20 0
Organic matter in marine sediments 40 1 47 0


The ultimate source of the organic matter is within the euphotic zone, either in the sea or on land. The original plant material may find its way to the sea bottom or it may have undergone transformation into animal remains or their waste products or it may have been converted into bacterial cell structure before it is deposited. Organic matter produced on land may play a relatively important role in bays and estuaries and in areas of excessive runoff and low plankton production, such as the Baltic Sea (Gripenberg, 1934). Rafts of land vegetation may be carried away from the coast and fragments of these may settle to the sea bottom. In shallow water, particularly in relativley isolated environments, such attached aquatic plants as eel grasses have been shown to be important sources of organic matter (p. 303). However, for the ocean as a whole, the supply of organic material from land and from the attached plants is relatively insignificant and of local importance only, and it is the planktonic photosynthetic organisms which are the chief source of organic matter for marine sediments.

(From Trask, 1939)
Organic-matter source Percentage by weight Ratio of organic matter to carbon
Carbon Nitrogen Hydrogen Oxygen
Peridineans 45   3 7 45 2.2
Diatoms 50   6 8 36 2.0
Copepods 50 10 8 32 2.0
Marine sediments 56   6 8 30 1.8
Lithified sediments 64   4 9 23 1.6

Since the potential supply to the bottom depends upon the production within the upper layers, there must be regional differences in the amount of organic matter in sediments related to the variations in the production. The organic material is light and sinks slowly, and it behaves in a manner similar to the finer fractions of the solid material. This resemblance is shown by the inverse relationship between the organic-matter content and the median diameter of the sediments in nearshore areas (Trask, 1932, 1939, Revelle and Shepard, 1939).


The cycle of regeneration of the elements involved in organic processes, that is, of decomposition of organic matter, has been described. It was shown that regeneration is relatively complete and that probably the greater part of the organic matter produced by the plants is mineralized before reaching the sea bottom. The amount of decomposition that will take place within the water depends upon a number of factors, such as the relation between plant production and consumption by the animals, the number and type of bacteria, and such other characteristics as the temperature of the water. The destruction of organic matter is a time-consuming process and will depend not only upon the organic activity but also upon the period during which such action can take place. For this reason the depth of water through which the organic matter may sink must be considered. The deeper the water, the longer the interval required to reach the bottom and the more likely the organic matter is to be destroyed. The presence or absence of dissolved oxygen in the water may have a profound effect upon the fate of the organic matter produced in the surface layers. In stagnant waters the destruction of organic material is not as complete as under oxidizing conditions and, hence, will tend to favor the deposition of organic matter on the sea floor. The factors that contribute to the development of stagnation are discussed elsewhere (p. 1026). One of these is the abudnant supply of organic material to the sea bottom in the absence of an adequate supply of oxygen; hence an abundant supply of organic matter tends to favor its own preservation.

Thus far, we have considered only the agencies operating within the water column. After reaching the sea bottom and even after burial, the transformation and destruction of organic matter by the bottom fauna and microorganisms is continued. The character and extent of these changes is again largely dependent upon the presence or absence of dissolved oxygen. The amount of organic matter reaching the bottom will tend to determine the number of benthic animals and microorganisms. In the absence of free oxygen only anaerobic organisms can thrive, hence the processes operative will be of a character dependent on this situation.

The relative rate of deposition of organic matter when compared with the nondecomposable material contributed to the sediment is an important factor. Although the supply of organic matter may be identical in two areas, the concentration and character of the material in the sediments may be profoundly different if there are different rates of deposition of the nondecomposable material. The latter will tend to dilute the organic matter and, furthermore, in areas of rapid deposition, burial soon after reaching the sea floor reduces the destruction by benthic animals. As emphasized elsewhere, the physical-chemical environment immediately at the surface of the sediment may be quite different from that only a few centimeters beneath. Where deposition is relatively rapid and,

particularly, where the relative supply of organic matter is large, the oxygen may be completely lacking immediately beneath the surface. Therefore, once buried, there is greater likelihood of preservation of the organic matter. The effect of texture also enters in this connection; since coarse-grained sediments are more permeable than fine-grained material, there is a greater possibility of preservation in deposits which are of small median diameter.

From the foregoing discussion it is obvious that the environment of deposition, that is, the biological and physical-chemical conditions on and in the sediment, are probably the most important factors in determining the distribution of the organic matter. If conditions are established which are favorable to the preservation of organic matter, these will tend to be maintained.

To summarize the above generalizations, the following conditions will favor the formation of sediments rich in organic matter:

  1. An abundant supply of organic matter.

  2. A relatively rapid rate of accumulation of inorganic material, particulary if fine-grained.

  3. A small supply of oxygen to the waters in contact with the sediments. The most extreme development of such conditions may be found in basins and landlocked regions where stagnation exists with the resulting exclusion of animal life.

The following factors will tend to favor the destruction of the organic matter and the formation of sediments low in organic material:

  1. A small supply of organic matter.

  2. Relatively slow rate of accumulation of nondecomposable material.

  3. An abundant supply of oxygen.

With the above-mentioned points in mind, some of the differences in distribution of organic matter in oceanic sediments can be explained. The slow deposition under oxidizing conditions, characteristic of the pelagic sediments, leads to a relatively complete destruction of the organic matter, whereas in nearshore areas where deposition is rapid and in basins where stagnant conditions prevail, a much larger percentage of the organic matter may escape destruction. Furthermore, the absolute supply is probably smaller in oceanic areas than in the coastal regions where the organic production is generally greater.

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