Abstract UCSB 2009


Hyperpycnal flows and the generation of continental shelf-traversing turbidity currents

James P.M. Syvitski, Eric W.H. Hutton, Albert Kettner

CSDMS Integration Facility, INSTAAR, University of Colorado, Boulder CO

and John D. Milliman

Virginia Inst of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA


Hyperpycnal discharge into the world’s ocean is limited to small and medium-sized rivers that drain mountainous terrain capable of generating hyper-elevated sediment concentrations during high-energy floods. The paper will explore the frequency of occurrence of “hyperpycnal sensitive” active continental margins:

  1. Taiwan and New Zealand, where the generating conditions include rain-intense cyclones, set up by their earthquake sensitive landscape, and in the New Zealand case major deforestation;
  2. California, where ENSO + PDO conditions align to produce high intensity frontal rainfall, again in a tectonically active setting set up with deforestation activities; and
  3. mountainous Mediterranean and Black Sea rivers where high intensity convective rainfall produces extremely short lived yet turbid flood events.

In all of these site examples, the critical threshold to overcome the buoyancy set up of coastal-ocean salinity has either been documented through in-situ observations, or with established hydrological rating curves, or hydrological modeling.

When these flows enter the ocean, the immediate slope of the seafloor becomes the controlling factor. If the slope is gentle, model simulations suggest that the flow enters a depositional state immediately. Modeled deposit characteristics are very similar to a deposit from deposition under a surface plume. If the seafloor slope is steep enough, erosion of a near shore channel may take place. The transit across the continental shelf is then controlled by the strength of along-shelf currents in competition with the slope of the shelf. Hyperpycnal flows, at least in models, may sometimes not complete their transit across the continental shelf, where the rate of deposition is high, and the transit length is long, and flows dilute through entrainment. Here the role of wave support of the deposition rate becomes important, and thus the coherency of an ocean storm with the river flood. Flows may move down a continental slope, at least in models, as a line source, if along shelf-currents are strong.