18-22 September 2017

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Concept of the Week: Variations in Marine Sediment Thickness

Sediments are particles of organic or inorganic origin that accumulate in loose form in depositional environments such as lake or ocean bottoms. Marine sediments, the central focus of this week's investigations, have a variety of sources and exhibit a wide range of composition, size, and shape. Marine sediments settle to the ocean floor as unconsolidated accumulations but ultimately may be converted to solid sedimentary rock via compaction and cementation. The pattern of variations in marine sediment thickness on the ocean floor confirms some basic understandings regarding marine geological processes.

Go to the RealTime Ocean Portal and under "Geological," click on "Sediment Thickness." This map of marine sediment thickness in the ocean basins was compiled by the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC), Marine Geology and Geophysics Division primarily based on existing maps, ocean drilling, and seismic reflection profiles. Sediment thickness is color-coded in meters from violet (thinnest) to red (thickest). Many factors account for the variation in the thickness of marine sediment deposits including type and location of sediment sources, sediment transport mechanisms, and the age of the underlying crust.

According to the map, sediment thickness generally increases with distance from near the central portion of an ocean basin to the continental margin. This pattern may be explained by the principal sediment source and/or the age of the underlying crust. Rivers and streams that empty into the ocean slow and diverge, releasing the bulk of their suspended sediment load in coastal environments (e.g., bays, estuaries, deltas) and onto the continental shelf. Ocean currents transport sediment along the coast. In some areas of the continental shelf, massive amounts of sediment accumulate, become unstable, and flow down the continental slope to the base of the continental rise and beyond. However, only the finer fraction of river-borne sediment is swept into the deep ocean waters. Thickening of marine sediments in the direction of the continental margin may also reflect the aging of oceanic crust with distance away from divergent (spreading) plate boundaries where new oceanic crust forms. The older the crust the longer is the period that sediment rains down on the ocean bottom and the thicker is the blanket of accumulated sediment.

The map indicates that the thickness of marine sediment deposits is greater in the continental margin along the Atlantic coast of North America than along the Pacific coast. The Atlantic coast of North America is a passive margin; that is, the continental margin is not affected significantly by tectonic processes (no plate boundary) and the principal geological processes consist of sedimentation along with erosion by ocean waves and currents. In fact, passive margins and relatively thick marine sediment deposits occur on both sides of the Atlantic. (Passive margins also occur around the Arctic Ocean and surrounding Antarctica.) On the other hand, the Pacific coast of North America is an active margin; that is, the continental margin is associated with plate boundaries and is subject to deformation by tectonic stresses. Active continental margins are relatively narrow so that sediment delivered to the coast by rivers and streams flows directly into deeper water or trenches--preventing thick accumulations of marine sediments from building in the continental margin.

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Prepared by Ocean Studies Central Staff and Edward J. Hopkins, Ph.D.,
© Copyright, 2017, The American Meteorological Society.