Sediment-laden gravity currents with reversing buoyancy

RSJ Sparks, T Bonnecase, HE Huppert, JR Lister, HM Mader, JC Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

164 Citations (Scopus)


There are many natural occurrences of sediment-laden gravity currents in which the density of the interstitial fluid is less than that of the ambient fluid, although the bulk density of the current is greater. Such currents are driven by the excess density of suspended particles. However, after sufficient particles have sedimented, the current will become buoyant, cease its lateral motion and ascend to form a plume. Examples of such currents include brackish underflows in deltas, turbidity currents and pyroclastic flows. Experimental studies are described which show that, due to sedimentation, sediment-laden gravity currents decelerate more rapidly than saline currents of the same density. There is little difference in the experiments between a sediment-laden current with neutrally buoyant interstitial fluid and one with buoyant interstial fluid until sufficient sediment has been lost to cause the latter kind of current to lift-off. A marked deceleration is then observed and a plume is generated, with lift-off occurring along the length of the current. The resulting buoyant plume then generates a gravity current below the upper surface of the fluid in the tank. The deposit from a current with buoyant fluid shows a fairly abrupt decrease in thickness beyond the lift-off distance and has a flatter profile than that from a simple sediment current. A theoretical model is presented, which is based on the two-layer shallow-water equations and incorporates a model of the sedimentation in which particles are assumed to be uniformly suspended by the turbulence of the current. The model shows good agreement with the observed lengths of the experimental currents as a function of time and predicts the lift-off distance reasonably well. These processes have implications for the behaviour of turbidity currents, the interpretation of turbidites, mixing processes in the oceans and the lift-off of pyroclastic flows.

Translated title of the contributionSediment-laden gravity currents with reversing buoyancy
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-257
Number of pages15
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1993


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