Study on the critical sediment concentration determining the optimal transport capability of submarine sediment flows with different particle size composition

Yupeng Ren abc, Huiguang Zhou cd, Houjie Wang ab, Xiao Wu ab, Guohui Xu cd, Qingsheng Meng cd


해저 퇴적물 흐름은 퇴적물을 심해로 운반하는 주요 수단 중 하나이며, 종종 장거리를 이동하고 수십 또는 수백 킬로미터에 걸쳐 상당한 양의 퇴적물을 운반합니다. 그것의 강력한 파괴력은 종종 이동 과정에서 잠수함 유틸리티에 심각한 손상을 초래합니다.

퇴적물 흐름의 퇴적물 농도는 주변 해수와의 밀도차를 결정하며, 이 밀도 차이는 퇴적물 흐름의 흐름 능력을 결정하여 이송된 퇴적물의 최종 퇴적 위치에 영향을 미칩니다. 본 논문에서는 다양한 미사 및 점토 중량비(미사/점토 비율이라고 함)를 갖는 다양한 퇴적물 농도의 퇴적물 흐름을 수로 테스트를 통해 연구합니다.

우리의 테스트 결과는 특정 퇴적물 구성에 대해 퇴적물 흐름이 가장 빠르게 이동하는 임계 퇴적물 농도가 있음을 나타냅니다. 4가지 미사/점토 비율 각각에 대한 임계 퇴적물 농도와 이에 상응하는 최대 속도가 구해집니다. 결과는 점토 함량이 임계 퇴적물 농도와 선형적으로 음의 상관 관계가 있음을 나타냅니다.

퇴적물 농도가 증가함에 따라 퇴적물의 흐름 거동은 흐름 상태에서 붕괴된 상태로 변환되고 흐름 거동이 변화하는 두 탁한 현탁액의 유체 특성은 모두 Bingham 유체입니다.

또한 본 논문에서는 퇴적물 흐름 내 입자 배열을 분석하여 위에서 언급한 결과에 대한 미시적 설명도 제공합니다.

Submarine sediment flows is one of the main means for transporting sediment to the deep sea, often traveling long-distance and transporting significant volumes of sediment for tens or even hundreds of kilometers. Its strong destructive force often causes serious damage to submarine utilities on its course of movement. The sediment concentration of the sediment flow determines its density difference with the ambient seawater, and this density difference determines the flow ability of the sediment flow, and thus affects the final deposition locations of the transported sediment. In this paper, sediment flows of different sediment concentration with various silt and clay weight ratios (referred to as silt/clay ratio) are studied using flume tests. Our test results indicate that there is a critical sediment concentration at which sediment flows travel the fastest for a specific sediment composition. The critical sediment concentrations and their corresponding maximum velocities for each of the four silt/clay ratios are obtained. The results further indicate that the clay content is linearly negatively correlated with the critical sediment concentration. As the sediment concentration increases, the flow behaviors of sediment flows transform from the flow state to the collapsed state, and the fluid properties of the two turbid suspensions with changing flow behaviors are both Bingham fluids. Additionally, this paper also provides a microscopic explanation of the above-mentioned results by analyzing the arrangement of particles within the sediment flow.


Submarine sediment flows are important carriers for sea floor sediment movement and may carry and transport significant volumes of sediment for tens or even hundreds of kilometers (Prior et al., 1987; Pirmez and Imran, 2003; Zhang et al., 2018). Earthquakes, storms, and floods may all trigger submarine sediment flow events (Hsu et al., 2008; Piper and Normark, 2009; Pope et al., 2017b; Gavey et al., 2017). Sediment flows have strong forces during the movement, which will cause great harm to submarine structures such as cables and pipelines (Pope et al., 2017a). It was first confirmed that the cable breaking event caused by the sediment flow occurred in 1929. The sediment flow triggered by the Grand Banks earthquake damaged 12 cables. According to the time sequence of the cable breaking, the maximum velocity of the sediment flow is as high as 28 m/s (Heezen and Ewing, 1952; Kuenen, 1952; Heezen et al., 1954). Subsequent research shows that the lowest turbidity velocity that can break the cable also needs to reach 19 m/s (Piper et al., 1988). Since then, there have been many damage events of submarine cables and oil and gas pipelines caused by sediment flows in the world (Hsu et al., 2008; Carter et al., 2012; Cattaneo et al., 2012; Carter et al., 2014). During its movement, the sediment flow will gradually deposit a large amount of sediment carried by it along the way, that is, the deposition process of the sediment flow. On the one hand, this process brings a large amount of terrestrial nutrients and other materials to the ocean, while on the other hand, it causes damage and burial to benthic organisms, thus forming the largest sedimentary accumulation on Earth – submarine fans, which are highly likely to become good reservoirs for oil and gas resources (Daly, 1936; Yuan et al., 2010; Wu et al., 2022). The study on sediment flows (such as, the study of flow velocity and the forces acting on seabed structures) can provide important references for the safe design of seabed structures, the protection of submarine ecosystems, and exploration of turbidity sediments related oil and gas deposits. Therefore, it is of great significance to study the movement of sediment flows.

The sediment flow, as a highly sediment-concentrated fluid flowing on the sea floor, has a dense bottom layer and a dilute turbulent cloud. Observations at the Monterey Canyon indicated that the sediment flow can maintain its movement over long distances if its bottom has a relatively high sediment concentration. This dense bottom layer can be very destructive along its movement path to any facilities on the sea floor (Paull et al., 2018; Heerema et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). The sediment flow mentioned in this research paper is the general term of sediment density flow.

The sediment flow, which occurs on the seafloor, has the potential to cause erosion along its path. In this process, the suspended sediment is replenished, allowing the sediment flow to maintain its continuous flow capacity (Zhao et al., 2018). The dynamic force of sediment flow movement stem from its own gravity and density difference with surrounding water. In cases that the gravity drive of the slope is absent (on a flat sea floor), the flow velocity and distance of sediment flows are essentially determined by the sediment composition and concentration of the sediment flows as previous studies have demonstrated. Ilstad et al. (2004) conducted underwater flow tests in a sloped tank and employed high speed video camera to perform particle tracking. The results indicated that the premixed sand-rich and clay-rich slurries demonstrated different flow velocity and flow behavior. Using mixed kaolinite(d50 = 6 μm) and silica flour(d50 = 9 μm) in three compositions with total volumetric concentration ranged 22% or 28%, Felix and Peakall (2006) carried out underwater flow tests in a 5° slope Perspex channel and found that the flow ability of sediment flows is different depending on sediment compositions and concentrations. Sumner et al. (2009) used annular flume experiments to investigate the depositional dynamics and deposits of waning sediment-laden flows, finding that decelerating fast flows with fixed sand content and variable mud content resulted in four different deposit types. Chowdhury and Testik (2011) used lock-exchange tank, and experimented the kaolin clay sediment flows in the concentration range of 25–350 g/L, and predicted the fluid mud sediment flows propagation characteristics, but this study focused on giving sediment flows propagate phase transition time parameters, and is limited to clay. Lv et al. (2017) found through experiments that the rheological properties and flow behavior of kaolin clay (d50 = 3.7 μm) sediment flows were correlated to clay concentrations. In the field monitoring conducted by Liu et al. (2023) at the Manila Trench in the South China Sea in 2021, significant differences in the velocity, movement distance, and flow morphology of turbidity currents were observed. These differences may be attributed to variations in the particle composition of the turbidity currents.

On low and gentle slopes, although sediment flow with sand as the main sediment composition moves faster, it is difficult to propagate over long distances because sand has greater settling velocity and subaqueous angle of repose. Whereas the sediment flows with silt and clay as main composition may maintain relatively stable currents. Although its movement speed is slow, it has the ability to propagate over long distances because of the low settling rate of the fine particles (Ilstad et al., 2004; Liu et al., 2023). In a field observation at the Gaoping submarine canyon, the sediments collected from the sediment flows exhibited grain size gradation and the sediment was mostly composed of silt and clay (Liu et al., 2012). At the largest deltas in the world, for instance, the Mississippi River Delta, the sediments are mainly composed of silt and clay, which generally distributed along the coast in a wide range and provided the sediment sources for further distribution. The sediment flows originated and transported sediment from the coast to the deep sea are therefore share the same sediment compositions as delta sediments. To study the sediment flows composed of silt and clay is of great importance.

The sediment concentration of the sediment flows determines the density difference between the sediment flows and the ambient water and plays a key role in its flow ability. For the sediment flow with sediment composed of silt and clay, low sediment concentration means low density and therefore leads to low flow ability; however, although high sediment concentration results in high density, since there is cohesion between fine particles, it changes fluid properties and leads to low flow ability as well. Therefore, there should be a critical sediment concentration with mixed composition of silt and clay, at which the sediment flow maintains its strongest flow capacity and have the highest movement speed. In other words, the two characteristics of particle diameter and concentration of the sediment flow determine its own motion ability, which, if occurs, may become the most destructive force to submarine structures.

The objectives of this work was to study how the sediment composition (measured in relative weight of silt and clay, and referred as silt/clay ratio) and sediment concentration affect flow ability and behavior of the sediment flows, and to quantify the critical sediment concentration at which the sediment flows reached the greatest flow velocity under the experiment setting. We used straight flume without slope and conducted a series of flume tests with varying sediment compositions (silt-rich or clay-rich) and concentrations (96 to 1212 g/L). Each sediment flow sample was tested and analyzed for rheological properties using a rheometer, in order to characterize the relationship between flow behavior and rheological properties. Combined with the particle diameter, density and viscosity characteristics of the sediment flows measured in the experiment, a numerical modeling study is conducted, which are mutually validated with the experimental results.

The sediment concentration determines the arrangements of the sediment particles in the turbid suspension, and the arrangement impacts the fluid properties of the turbid suspension. The microscopic mode of particle arrangement in the turbid suspension can be constructed to further analyze the relationship between the fluid properties of turbid suspension and the flow behaviors of the sediment flow, and then characterize the critical sediment concentration at which the sediment flow runs the fastest. A simplified microscopic model of particle arrangement in turbid suspension was constructed to analyze the microscopic arrangement characteristics of sediment particles in turbid suspension with the fastest velocity.

Section snippets

Equipment and materials

The sediment flows flow experiments were performed in a Perspex channel with smooth transparent walls. The layout and dimensions of the experimental set-up were shown in Fig. 1. The bottom of the channel was flat and straight, and a gate was arranged to separate the two tanks. In order to study the flow capacity of turbidity currents from the perspective of their own composition (particle size distribution and concentration), we used a straight channel instead of an inclined one, to avoid any

Relationship between sediment flow flow velocity and sediment concentration

After the sediment flow is generated, its movement in the first half (50 cm) of the channel is relatively stable, and there is obvious shock diffusion in the second half. The reason is that the excitation wave (similar to the surge) will be formed during the sediment flow movement, and its speed is much faster than the speed of the sediment flow head. When the excitation wave reaches the tail of the channel, it will be reflected, thus affecting the subsequent flow of the sediment flow.

Sediment flows motion simulation based on FLOW-3D

As a relatively mature 3D fluid simulation software, FLOW-3D can accurately predict the free surface flow, and has been used to simulate the movement process of sediment flows for many times (Heimsund, 2007). The model adopted in this paper is RNG turbulence model, which can better deal with the flow with high strain rate and is suitable for the simulation of sediment flows with variable shape during movement. The governing equations of the numerical model involved include continuity equation,


In this study, we conducted a series of sediment flow flume tests with mixed silt and clay sediment samples in four silt/clay ratios on a flat slope. Rheological measurements were carried out on turbid suspension samples and microstructure analysis of the sediment particle arrangements was conducted, we concluded that:

  • (1)The flow velocity of the sediment flow is controlled by the sediment concentration and its own particle diameter composition, the flow velocity increased with the increase of the

Declaration of Competing Interest

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China [Grant no. 42206055]; the National Natural Science Foundation of China [Grant no. 41976049]; and the National Natural Science Foundation of China [Grant no. 42272327].

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