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Journal of the Geological Society

The classification of deep-sea depositional systems by sediment caliber and feeder system


Journal of the Geological Society 1991; v. 148; p. 427-430


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Journal of the Geological Society, London,

Vol. 148, 1991, pp. 427-430, 1 fig. Printed in Northern Ireland


The classification of deep-sea depositional systems by sediment calibre and feeder system

H. G. READING Department of Earth Sciences, University, Oxford OX1 3PR, UK

Twomethodsofportraying a classification of deep-seaelastic depositional systems are shown, based on sediment calibre and thenature ofthe feeder system,whethersingle or multiple sourced. Mud-dominated systems, particularly point-sourced sub- marine fans, are large in area, volume, radius and size of flow, with persistent channel/levee systems that tend to meander and have sheet-lie sands in the associated basin plain. With increasing grain

size, there is an increase in slope, frequency of flow, impersistence of channel system and channels tend to switch more frequently. As the number of sources increases from a single point source through

multiple sources (e.g. submarine ramp) to an

slope apron, so feeder channel stability and organization of the depositional system decreases.

almost linear source

For 15 years after the discovery that graded beds could be deposited by turbidity currents, geologists considered that turbiditesweredeposited on deep, relatively flat, basin floors similar to the abyssal plains of the modern Atlantic ocean. However, towards the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s, submarine fansbecame the model forthe interpretation of turbidite systems, to the virtual exclusion of all others. Thepeak of the fashion for submarine fans was reached at the end of the decade with the all embracing single fan model of Walker (1978) and the subsequent discussion by Nilsen et al. (1980). Most authors of this time were attempting to find a single fan model. Normark (1974) however had suggested that there were two, and during the 1980s consensusa developed that two types could be distinguished (e.g. Mutti 1979; Stow et a1 1985; Shanmugam & Moiola 1985). Although the particular features that each author stressed were not always the same, it was clear that there was (1) an elongate, mud-dominated, high-efficiency, open basin fan that is relatively large and normally fed by a majordelta,and (2) radial,a sand-dominated, low- efficiency, restricted basin fan that is relatively small and fed from a shelf canyon. To these two types a third was added by Stow (1986), butnot by others; a fandelta or short-headed delta front fan that is coarse-grained and usually feeds into shallow water. The fan delta was explicitly eliminated by Shanmugam & Moiola (1988) in their classification of submarine fans onthe grounds that submarinefansweredeposited in deepwater, usually beyond the continental shelf, and fan deltas generally were not. The importance of slope aprons was not fully appreciatedduring the 1970s, althoughthey had been known at least since the work in Pacific basins of Gorsline & Emery (1959). Slope aprons had been considered to be linear margins where sand-carrying turbidity currents were missing and sedimentation was dominated by hemipelagic mud, possibly deposited by diluteturbidity currents or nepheloidlayers,and by mass flows, especially slumps. More recently it has been realized (e.g. Stow 1981) that,


during periods of lower sea level, when the coast reached the shelf edge, sands may have been deposited at the base of slopes, or even part way down the slope, by turbidity currents forming small-scale submarine fans and, perhaps, coalescing sandy systems. Meanwhile the concept of a fan, as a single point-source depositional system, had been challenged. Work on the classic Eocene submarine fan of the Tyee Formation of

Oregon led fan’ fed by

1983) and then to a proposal for a ‘submarine ramp model’

first to an interpretation of it as a ‘line-source multiple channels from a delta (Chan & Dott

(Heller & Dickinson 1985), the ramp being fed by multiple shallow gullies or delta slopetroughsleading tono distinction between channel and overbank or interchannel deposits and hence no lobes. The ramp model differs from the submarine fan model in lacking a single feeder slope channel or canyon.

Problems of classification. In sedimentary systems, differ- ent methods of classification have been used. Schumm

(1981) used a simple spectrum of grain sizes and sedi- ment load along the horizontal axis and channel pattern along the vertical axis. Galloway (1975)classified deltas on a triangular diagram to show the interaction of fluvial and reworking basinal processes (wave or tidal) at the delta front, This triangle was extended in the third dimension by Orton (1988) to take into account the grain size of different delta systems and to emphasize the distinctions between the effectiveness of processes on different types of sediment input, in the same way as Johnson & Baldwin (1986) had done for shallow marine clastic systems. Recently there havebeen two major syntheses of deep-sea depositional systems. Inone, Shanmugam &

on the mega- unsatisfactory

Moiola (1988) set out a classification based tectonic setting of submarine fans. This is

because their ‘immature passive margin’ fans have charac- teristics similar to ‘active’ margin fans and the Bengal, Indus and Orinoco have to be placed in a ‘mixed‘ cate- gory. In the other, by Pickering et al. (1989), no attempt was made to formulate a general model or to classify sub- marine fans. Instead, they took an entirely descriptive ap- proach. There is,however,a consensus that there are

mud-rich and sand-rich submarine fans, and also fan del- tas, and if systems can be compared and contrasted, and models formulated, the relationships between facies and processes and the significance of the controlling factors can be clarified. Although the nature of deep-sea systems is controlled

by sea level, tectonics and sediment supply, and sea-level changes and local tectonics are critical in controlling the growth patterns of deep-sea depositional systems, sea level and mega-tectonics are unsatisfactory as means of class-


because they neither affect the deep-sea system


nor are easily observable in ancient systems. The

input from the feeder system, on the other hand, is the fundamental control on the nature of deep-sea systems. Sediment calibre or grain size, and sediment volume, gov-

ern the type of sediment gravity flow that delivers sedi-


ment, the distance that flows can travel, the size and

dient of the depositionalsystem, andthepattern of valleys, channels, levees and lobes. A secondary control is

the pattern of delivery to the deep-sea system. These are the two essential controls that need to be included in any system of classification.



Alternative classifications of deep-seadepositional systems. In an attempt to link alluvial, shoreline/delta, shelf and deep water environmentsinto largermacro- systems, Reading & Orton (1991) used sediment calibre and sediment volume as the main control and link be- tween systems and therefore the principal feature in class- ification of all depositional systems. For deep-sea systems they adopted a Schumm-like dia- gram putting grain size along the horizontal axis to form a spectrum from mud-dominated through sand-dominated to gravel-dominated systems (Fig. la). The vertical axis can then be used to portray the type of delivery system from a point source, typical of fans, to a multiple source, in- cluding thesubmarineramps o f Heller & Dickinson





















(1985), to the extreme multiple or linear source of the classical slope apron. Whilst it is not possible to differentiate systems with mixed grain sizes in this form of classification, it can be directly linked to the feeder fluvial and deltaic systems that have been classified with grain size on the horizontal axis. Boundaries between systems are eliminated and emphasis is put on the gradations from one category to another. An alternative is to construct a triangular diagram, putting grain size at the apices and then extending the figure along the axis to account for the spectrum of supply systems from a single point source through increasingly multiple point sources to an essen- tially linear slope apron (Fig. lb). This has the advantage o f being able to include a mixed grain size distribution such as gravel and mud or a complete mixture of gravel, sand and mud within the triangle. The disadvantage is that it differs fundamentally from the systems used for other sedimentary systems where grain sue runs along the horizontal axis and processes are either within the triangle or on the vertical axis. In both classifications, the placing of individual systems is qualitative since quantitative data are not available and the positioning of any system is debatable. However the approximate position of any system is correct, and placing it in position focuses attention on the controlling factors and comparison with other systems.

Point source submarine fans

Mud-dominated submarine fans include all the classic elon- gate, high-efficiency fans that form the major submarine

fans at the surface and in the subsurface of the present

They stem from a large source area that funnels

sediment into a feeder system of limited width and have

2 turbidity currents that penetrate far into the basin, build-

ing large stable depositional fan lobes, superimposed on oneanother (e.g.Weimer 1990). Ontheupper and middle fan, largepersistentchannel-levee or channel- overbank systems meander and avulse. The lower fan has large subtlelobes made from sheet-like sands, that penetrate into the associated basin plain.

Sand-dominated submarine fans are represented by the classic Californian continental Borderland submarine fans,

However they may include

any fan forming on a passive margin that is fed by re-





$ $ v : E S * C L O E T : * E L






hcreasmg size of sowce area, size of deposlinal system, radius, sue of Rows. tendency for mabr sbmps. persistence and size of fan charnels, charmelllevee systems, tendency to meander, sheet-like sands in lower fan

hcreasmg wain size, slope. channel systems. tendency


frequency of flows. inpersistence of

for channels to migrate laterally

Delgada, La Jolla and Navy.

Fig. 1. Two alternative classifications of

deep-sea systemsbased on grain-size and feeder system. FM, Formation; GR, Group; LONG, Longitudinal; TRANS, Transverse. (a) is modified from Reading & Orton (1991).

modern and ancient

worked shelf

sands funneled down canyons not directly

connected to

a major delta, for example the Avon and

Calabar fans either side o f the Niger delta (Burke 1972).

The relatively small-scale sandy turbidity currents do not run very far; they are 'inefficient'. On the mid-fan, supra-


tinct lobes. In theory, a radial pattern should develop.

form in active, rifted or

strike-slip basins, local tectonics and synsedimentary tec-

or growth folding within

the basin, may govern the shape of the fan. The basin

plain is filled largely by pelagic sediments.

Gravel-dominated submarine fans are the deep water por- tion of fan deltas where mass flow processes predominate. The Yallahs Fan of Jamaica passes into 2000m of water (Wescott & Ethridge 1980). They havebeenproperly studied only in fjords (Prior & Bornhold 1989) where they have been examined down to 400-500m depth. They have

lobes develop. On the lower fan, the sands form dis-

However, since they frequently

tonics, due either to compaction



steep slopes, flows are frequent but small, and channels or chutes switch and migrate easily.

Slope aprons. These have an almost linear source, with multiple feeders, and are the most laterally extensive ba- sin margin system.

Mud-dominated slope aprons are common at the present day and during periods of relatively high sea level. They are fed by low density turbidity currents and continuous basin currentsthat can both deposit anderode.They build up slowly, but are unstable and subject to slumping. Where sands are interbedded with the mudstones, they occur in gullies and have abundant soft-sediment deforma- tion structuresas in theHareelvFormation transverse marginal facies (Surlyk 1987).



feature at times of lower sea level, when alluvial plains reached to the shelf break and many small rivers could discharge directly to the top of the slope. They are seen on faulted margins as in the present Sardinia-Tyrrhenian Sea (Wezel et al. 1981).

Gravel-dominated slope aprons are apparently rare today. This may be because deep water systems off tectonically active islands have not been extensively studied, and our only information about them comes from studies in fjords. Yet as much riverine sediment enters the sea from the tectonically active western Pacific islands, including Japan, Taiwan,Indonesia,Philippines, New Guineaand New

Zealand, as fromthecontinents of NorthandSouth Americacombined, and Taiwan alone produces only slightly less sediment than the USA without Alaska (Mill- iman & Meade 1983). Much of this sediment is coarse grained and is supplied from linear alluvial braid plains, as

Forland Group (Surlyk

were probably


off western Taiwan. The Wollaston 1984) may be an ancient example.


grain-size is a

unifymg factorbetween

depositional systems, linking the deep-sea system to its feeder system. If the type of deep-sea system is known, the nature of the upcurrent feeding delta, shelf and allu- vial system, its climate, tectonics and processes o f sedi- mentation, can be predicted. If the type of source area is

known, then the nature of the deep-sea system can be predicted. For example, large-scale, low-gradient, elongate fans require a large fluvial deltaic feeder system whether derived from an immense area of stable continent, as the Mississippi and Amazon fans, or a continental collisional mountain belt, as the Indus and Bengal fans. Passive mar- gin fans, such as the Avon and Calabar fans, marginal to the Niger delta, deriving their sediment by longshore drifted shelf sediments via canyons (Burke 1972) are likely to be short-radius, sand-dominated fans similar to those of active, faulted basins. It is also possible that some of thesesand-dominatedfans are more active during sea- level high stands, in contrast to delta-fed mud-dominated fans which are more likely to be active during falling and low stand sea levels (see also Dingus & Galloway 1990). The type of feeder system, ranging from a single point source, typical of submarinefans, through multiple


bility and organization of the

to the linear slope apron, governs the shape, sta-

deep-sea system. A single coherent system with well

point source tends to build a

organized channel-leveesequences that extend parallel with current flow and are clearly broken by the effects of the relatively rare switching or by sea-level changes. Mul- tiple sources give less coherent systems with disorganized sequences thattendtoextend parallel with the basin

margin. Up to now, slope aprons have usually been separated

from deep-sea fans and placed in a separate category. Here

they are differentiated on the

an intermediate division with elements of both fans and slope aprons is created. The existence of this intermediate


o f



Multiplefeeder/intermediatedeep-seasystems. These

both submarine fans and

systems have characteristics of

division raises

the question as

to why present day deltas

seem to feed into deep-sea systems categorized as sub-

source may appear to be multiple rather than single be-

slopeaprons. They were first separated as a group by

marine fans, yet so many ancient systems appear to be

Reading & Orton (1991) to include the ‘line-source fans’

multiple sourced. The answer is perhaps in the scale, both spatial and temporal, at which we look at the system.

of Chan

& Dott (1983) and ‘submarine ramps’ of Heller

& Dickinson (1985), represented by the Tyee and Matilija

Present day mud-dominated submarine fans have radii of

Formations. At the coarser end of the grain-size spectrum

102 to >103 km. A delta source with a width of 200 km

are the many examples of ‘coalescing fans’ such as are found in the North Sea, for example the conglomeratic

may look, on a global scale, like a point source, and, in the short time scale that we have seen it, the feeding delta has probably had only one main position. Yet on

BraeFormation (Turner et al.

Montrose Group (Heritier et al. 1979). At the present

1986) andthe sandy

the scale that we see ancient systems, a 200km wide

day, the almost linear continental margin

of the southern

Natal coast off SE Africa, which is dissected by some 85

cause we can examine it over a longer time scale and therefore more easily recognize multiple, changing

canyons, feeds

Robson 1985).

coalescing continental rise lobes (Dingle &

sources. It is significant that the Mississippi, which is the

only modern fan

that has been studied

in depth, has been

Summaryand discussion. Any form of classification is

shown to be composed

of 17 temporarily stable channel-

bound to oversimplify and this one is no exception. Cer- tain selected parameters are overemphasized and others

levee systems superimposed and overlapping one another, and fed from a source that switched and migrated about

underplayed or even ignored. Comparison is made be-

250 km

along the shelf (Weimer 1990). Each channel-levee

tween complex systems that have scales spread

over seve-


is a point-sourced submarine fan. Yet the whole

ral orders of magnitude, sizes ranging from radii of less than 1 km to more than loo0 km and time periods ranging from a few years to several million years.Comparison between systems with such enormous size ranges is sure to bedangerous, andnatural systems will have many exceptions.

4 km thick Pliocene to Pleistocene Mississippi submarine fan, deposited over a period of3-4 Ma, has the ap- pearance of a multiple source/intermediate deep-sea

system. Whilst an intermediate

derstanding o f some systems, especially submarine ramps,

division certainly enhances un-



it does leadtosome possibly dangerous simplification of the relationships between the grain-size divisions and

addition, the inverse relationship

dependent features. I n

between grain-size and size of source area and sue of depositional system may be true for submarine fans, but not for slope aprons. The absence of a major point source

where a large volume of sediment can accumulate to pro- duce the major flows of a typical fine-grained submarine fan may limit the distance that a flow can traveland

penetrate into a basin. Unfortunately, we know very little aboutthe possiblecoarse-grained systems thatoccur around the islands of the SW Pacific and the volumes of sediment that they can contain.

Throughout this paper, the emphasis

has been on sub-

marine fans and slope aprons. Yet flat basin

locus of turbidite deposition. Although probably confined to the finer-grained half of the spectrum, these areas are important today and clearly were in the past. Basin plains

can occur on all scales(Pilkey et al. 1980) fromthe 660 OOO km2 Sohm Basin Plain in the Atlantic to the small

strike-slip basins such as the 390 km2 Santa Monica of the Californian Borderlands and many smaller ones in lakes,

200 km’). The

depositional pattern, size of flow and penetration into the basin here too is controlled by the supply of sediment, which is a consequence of the relative size of source or drainage area to basinal area (Pilkey et al. 1980), and the frequency of tectonic movement, relatively quiescent bas- ins receiving the larger flows.

slope basins and trenches (e.g. Navidad,

plains are a


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Received 22 October 1990; revised typescript accepted 1 February 1991