Delivery of Terrigenous Material to Submarine Fans: Biological Evidence of Local, Staged, and Possibly Full Canyon Sediment Transport Down the Ascension-Monterey Canyon System Off Central California, USA

Monday, 15 December 2014
Mary McGann, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center Menlo Park, Menlo Park, CA, United States
Submarine canyons are instrumental in transporting sediment from coastal regions to deep-sea fans. Mean grain size, distribution, and sorting have been used to characterize these deposits, but they provide little information on where sediment transport was initiated or the delivery processes involved. Fortunately, the entrained biological constituents have unique environmental signatures that are more precise proxies for source areas than are mineral grains alone. They may identify a single biofacies deposit (SBD) resulting from local sediment transport such as storm waves, peak river discharge, breaking of internal waves, canyon wall sloughing, or hemipelagic deposition, or a displaced, multiple biofacies deposit (MBD) containing several biofacies where sediment is transported from one biofacies to another, is caught behind a slump that acts as a dam, remains there long enough for the local fauna to become established, and then this combined assemblage is transported further downslope when the dam breaks. Multiple episodes of this “staged” storage-and-release process occur sequentially so as to move the sediment progressively down the canyon. Rarely, exceptionally large triggers such as earthquakes, intense storm disturbances, and catastrophic failure of canyon walls result in full canyon flushing events, entraining numerous biofacies during a single rapid descent. These events can be differentiated in recent deposits by the presence of living specimens representing distinct biofacies or in historic records by dating individual biofacies within a turbidite.

A 19,000 year record from the Ascension-Monterey Canyon system (core S3-15G, 36°23.53'N, 123°20.52'W; 3491 m) captured hemipelagic mud interspersed with turbiditic sand and silt transported to lower bathyal depths. The relative abundance of displaced benthic foraminifera was found to correlate positively with grain size (75% in cross-bedded turbiditic sands, 39% in laminated turbiditic sands, and 15% in turbiditic muds) and the 65 MBDs recovered originated from the estuarine/inner shelf to the upper middle slope. Sediment bypassing was evident and possibly full canyon flushing as well. Identifying allochthonous biological sediment constituents is a powerful tool in the investigation of sediment transport in submarine canyons.