Bottom curents, contourites and deep-sea sediment drifts: current state-of-the-art

This paper provides both an introduction to and summary for the Atlas of Contourite Systems that has been compiled as part of the International Geological Correlation Project - IGCP 432. Following the seminal works of George Wust on the physical oceanography of bottom currents, and Charley Hollister on contourite sediments, a series of significant advances have been made over the past few decades. While accepting that ideas and terms must remain flexible as our knowledge base continues to increase, we present a consensus view on terminology and definitions of bottom currents, contourites and drifts. Both thermohaline and wind-driven circulation, influenced by Coriolis Force and molded by topography, contribute to the oceanic system of bottom currents. These semi-permanent currents show significant variability in time and space, marked by periodic benthic storm events in areas of high surface kinetic energy. Six different drift types are recognized in the ocean basins and margins at depths greater than about 300 m: (i) contourite sheet drifts; (ii) elongate mounded drifts; (iii) channel related drifts; (iv) confined drifts; (v) infill drifts; and (vi) modified drift-turbidite systems. In addition to this overall geometry, their chief seismic characteristics include: a uniform reflector pattern that reflects long-term stability, drift-wide erosional discontinuities caused by periodic changes in bottom current regime, and stacked broadly lenticular seismic depositional units showing oblique to downcurrent migration. At a smaller scale, a variety of seismic facies can be recognized that are here related to bottom current intensity. A model for seismic facies cyclicity (alternating transparent/reflector zones) is further elaborated, and linked to bottom current/climate change. Both erosional features and depositional bedforms are diagnostic of bottom current systems and velocities. Many different contourite facies are now known to exist, encompassing all compositional types. We propose here a Cl-5 notation for the standard contourite facies sequence, which can be interpreted in terms of fluctuation in bottom current velocity and/or sediment supply. Several proxies can be utilized to decode contourite successions in terms of current fluctuation. Gravel lag and shale chip contourites, as well as erosional discontinuities are indicative of still greater velocities. There are a small but growing number of land-based examples of fossil contourites, based on careful analysis using the recommended three-stage approach to interpretation. Debate still surrounds the recognition and interpretation of bottom current reworked turbidites.


Publication status:
Authors: Stow, Dorrik A.V., Faugères, Jean-Claude, Howe, John A., Pudsey, Carol J., Viana, Adriano R.

Editors: Stow, D.A.V., Pudsey, C.J., Howe, J.A., Faugères, J.-C., Viana, A.R.

1 January, 2002
In: Stow, D.A.V., Pudsey, C.J., Howe, J.A., Faugères, J.-C., Viana, A.R. (eds.). Deep-water contourite systems: modern drifts and ancient series, seismic and sedimentary characteristics, London, Geological Society of London, 7-20.
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