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Sedimentology (2001) 48, 13891409

Passage of debris ows and turbidity currents through


a topographic constriction: seaoor erosion and deection
of ow pathways
MARTIN J. R. GEE* 1 , DO UGLAS G. MA SSON*, ANTHONY B. WATTS
and N EIL C. MITCHELL
*Challenger Division for Seaoor Processes, Southampton Oceanography Centre, European Way,
Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PR, UK
Department of Earth Sciences, Cardiff University, PO Box 914, Cardiff CF10 3YE, UK
ABSTRACT

Some of the Earth's largest submarine debris ows are found on the NW African
margin. These debris ows are highly efcient, spreading hundreds of cubic
kilometres of sediment over a wide area of the continental rise where slopes
angles are often <1. However, the processes by which these debris ows
achieve such long run-outs, affecting tens of thousands of square kilometres of
seaoor, are poorly understood. The Saharan debris ow has a run-out of
700 km, making it one of the longest debris ows on Earth. For its distal
450 km, it is underlain by a relatively thin and highly sheared basal
volcaniclastic layer, which may have provided the low-friction conditions
that enabled its extraordinarily long run-out. Between El Hierro Island and the
Hijas Seamount on the continental rise, an 25- to 40-km-wide topographic gap
is present, through which the Saharan debris ow and turbidites from the
continental margin and anks of the Canary Islands passed. Recently, the rst
deep-towed sonar images have been obtained, showing dramatic erosional and
depositional processes operating within this topographic `gap' or `constriction'.
These images show evidence for the passage of the Saharan debris ow and
highly erosive turbidity currents, including the largest comet marks reported
from the deep ocean. Sonar data and a seismic reection prole obtained 70 km
to the east, upslope of the topographic `gap', indicate that seaoor sediments to a
depth of 30 m have been eroded by the Saharan debris ow to form the basal
volcaniclastic layer. Within the topographic `gap', the Saharan debris ow
appears to have been deected by a low (20 m) topographic ridge, whereas
turbidity currents predating the debris ow appear to have overtopped the ridge.
This evidence suggests that, as turbidity currents passed into the topographic
constriction, they experienced ow acceleration and, as a result, became highly
erosive. Such observations have implications for the mechanics of long run-out
debris ows and turbidity currents elsewhere in the deep sea, in particular how
such large-scale ows erode the substrate and interact with seaoor topography.
Keywords Debris ow, sidescan sonar, turbidity current.

Present address: Ocean Mapping Group, Geodesy and


Geomatics Engineering, University of New Brunswick,
PO Box 4400, Fredericton, NB, Canada E3B 5A3
(E-mail: mgee1@.un6.ca).

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists

INTRODUCTION
Submarine debris ows are important sediment
transport mechanisms on continental margins,
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M. J. R. Gee et al.

involving the transfer of signicant volumes (tens


to hundreds of cubic kilometres) of sediment for
hundreds of kilometres across very low slopes
(<1) (Embley, 1976, 1980; Jacobi, 1976; Bugge
et al., 1988; Masson et al., 1992; O'Leary, 1993;
Masson, 1996; Gee et al., 1999). However, despite
the importance of large, submarine debris ows,
their mechanics remain poorly understood, primarily because investigations have depended on
studies of debris ow deposits rather than active
processes, and because such deposits are difcult
to access beneath several thousand metres of
water. The extremely long run-outs of many
submarine debris ows on very small gradients
has been the subject of great controversy. Some of
these issues have been addressed by recent
laboratory ume experiments, which provide
insights into debris ow deposition and the
persistence of elevated pore-uid pressures
(Major & Iverson, 1999; Major, 2000), and the
potential for mobilization/erosion of the substrate
by debris ows (Mohrig et al., 1999). Mohrig et al.
(1999) suggested that long run-outs of debris

ows might result from a thin uid layer ingested


at the debris ow base, a process called hydroplaning. This paper presents results and interpretation of TOBI 30-kHz deep-tow sidescan
sonar and proler data obtained during Charles
Darwin cruise CD108 to the south-west of El
Hierro, over part of the Saharan debris ow
deposit, originally mapped by Embley (1976;
Fig. 1). The new data show the effects of interaction between the debris ow and associated
turbidity currents and the seaoor in an area of
complex topography. These results provide evidence for signicant erosion of the seaoor and
also the deection of a large debris ow by
relatively minor topographic features.
The region immediately to the SW of El Hierro,
between the island and the Hijas Seamount, is
critical in terms of the transfer of sediment down
the NW African continental slope and rise. It
contains the only topographic gap in a volcanic
ridge, comprising the Saharan Seamounts and the
Canary Islands, which extends along the margin
between 29N and 24N, blocking downslope

100 km

Saharan debris flow

CANARY
ISLANDS

Landslide
1

4.5

2
3

28N

El Hierro

Long profile (Fig. 14)

Landslides
4

Hijas Seamount
25W

20W

15W

Saharan
Seamounts

Madeira

26N

Canary Debris Flow


30N

Canary Islands

Saharan Debris
Flow

22W

Africa

25N

20W

18W

16W

Fig. 1. Location map showing the Saharan debris ow, Canary Islands, Saharan Seamounts and the location of
landslides around El Hierro Island. The thick dotted line shows the location of a long prole shown in Fig. 14.
Contours are shown every 100 m and annotated in km.
2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

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ooze, marl and clay interbedded with turbidity


current and debris ow deposits (Young &
Hollister, 1974; Weaver & Rothwell, 1987). Turbidity currents crossing the margin contain sediment from two main sources: volcaniclastic
sediments from the Canary Islands and organicrich sediments from the NW African continental
slope (Weaver et al., 1992). On the continental
slope, turbidites are characterized by sandy/silty
bases, often with well-preserved laminae and
cross-bedding and thin mud caps (Gee et al.,
1999), in marked contrast to the thick (up to 5 m),
ungraded mud layers found in turbidites on the
Madeira abyssal plain immediately to the northwest (Weaver & Kuijpers, 1983; Weaver &
Rothwell, 1987; Weaver et al., 1992). Slide and
debris ow deposits form a major sedimentary
component on the continental rise. In addition to
the Saharan and Canary debris ows (Embley,
1976; Masson et al., 1992; Gee et al., 1999), a
large system of slide/debris ow deposits has
been identied between 17 and 18N in the
region of the Cape Verde Islands (Jacobi, 1976;
Kidd et al., 1987). In total, Quaternary slides/

sediment transport pathways. Numerous sediment ow pathways, originating from the continental margin and island anks, converge on and
pass through this gap (Jacobi & Hayes, 1992;
Wynn et al., 2000). It is probable that the gap has
been a pathway for turbidites and debris ows for
at least a few hundred thousand years (Weaver
et al., 1992). The Saharan debris ow owed
through the gap at 60 ka (Gee et al., 1999),
interacting with and eroding a series of local
highs that form a 7- to 30-m-high, EW-trending
ridge. The Saharan debris ow directly onlaps the
distal part of the El Julan debris avalanche on the
SW ank of El Hierro and is therefore younger
(Fig. 2). The new data (Fig. 2) show that this ridge
deected the Saharan debris ow towards the
west, whereas turbidity currents appear to have
owed directly over the ridge.
GEOLOGICAL SETTING
Sediments on the NW African margin eastwards
of the Canary Islands consist mainly of pelagic

El Golfo landslide
San Andres and
las Playas landslides

Ch
an
ne
la
xis

Fig. 11

4 El Julan landslide

Hierro

Fig. 5C

28 00'N

Fig. 10
Fig. 8(A)
Fig. 8(B)

Area mapped
using TOBI

27 30'N

Fig. 9
?

Limit of basal
volcaniclastic facies
Dividing ridge

Scarps associated with


the El Julan landslide

Fig. 7

Saharan debris flow (margin-derived)

13

20 km

g.

Backscatter lineations

Fi

Fig. 5A

High backscatter (erosional) areas


Fig. 5B
Hijas Seamount

19 30'W

19 00'W

18 30'W

X1

27 00'N
18 00'W

Fig. 2. Data location and general interpretative map, showing locations of 35-kHz proles (Fig. 5AC), TOBI 30-kHz
data (Figs 611) and a single seismic reection prole (Fig. 13). The Saharan debris ow was mapped using EM12
multibeam data and TOBI 30-kHz sonar data. Locations of Figs 711 (TOBI 30-kHz data) are shown by thin dotted
lines. The location of the Hijas Seamount was mapped using GLORIA sidescan sonar data. Contours are drawn at
200-m intervals and annotated every kilometre.
2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

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M. J. R. Gee et al.

debris ow deposits on the NW African margin


cover 130 000 km3.
The Saharan debris ow (Fig. 1) resulted from a
major, late-Quaternary failure event consisting of
debris ows and turbidity currents initiated on
the continental slope to the south of the Canary
Islands (Embley, 1976). A complex slide scar on
the upper continental slope, bounded by 20- to
80-m-high scarps, was the source of 1100 km3 of
ne-grained calcareous sediment, which owed
downslope for 700 km before terminating on the
continental rise (Embley, 1976; Gee et al., 1999).
The ow deposit consists of turbidites and lensshaped bodies of acoustically unstratied sediments extending across the lower continental
slope and continental rise (Embley, 1976, 1982;
Gee et al., 1999). West of 18W, the Saharan
debris ow forms a narrow, elongate deposit
about 25 km across and between 5 and 40 m
thick (Masson et al., 1993; Fig. 2).
In a detailed study of TOBI 30-kHz sidescan
sonar data covering part of the Saharan debris
ow west of 1850W, Masson et al. (1993) interpreted a complex range of acoustic backscatter
patterns as debris ow structures. Many of the
acoustic patterns reported by Masson et al. (1993)
can be recognized in the TOBI data described
here, in particular the `convoluted pattern,
strongly reminiscent of woodgrain, dened by
ne-scale bands of differing backscatter strength'.
Masson et al. (1993) also interpreted debris ow
structures such as pressure ridges, ow-parallel
banding, shear structures and lateral ridges from
TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data.
Piston core and 35-kHz data indicate that the
Saharan debris ow west of 18W was a twophase ow event involving a `raft of relatively
coherent material carried on a highly uid, low
friction, basal layer' (Gee et al., 1999). The raft of
coherent material consists of pelagic sediments
remobilized from the NW African continental
margin. The basal layer consists of poorly sorted
volcaniclastic sand in a ne-grained, nannofossil
clay-grade matrix (the `volcaniclastic' component; Gee et al., 1999). However, east of 19W,
the volcaniclastic debris ow component cannot
be unequivocally distinguished from the general
turbiditic and avalanche sediment from the anks
of El Hierro using sonar images.
The study area is located 40 km south-west of
the island of El Hierro in water depths of between
3500 and 4400 m (Fig. 1). Here, the Saharan
debris ow deposit narrows as it passes through
a topographic constriction formed by the southwestern ank of Hierro and the Hijas Seamount

(Fig. 2 and 3). EM12 multibeam swath bathymetry data show the surface of the Saharan debris
ow deposit to be smooth, compared with the
rougher seaoor directly to the north. TOBI
30-kHz sidescan sonar data show large-scale
erosional features interpreted as erosional scars,
which link with a channel observed on EM12
multibeam data extending to the NW (Fig. 3).
EM12 MULTIBEAM BATHYMETRY
EM12 multibeam bathymetry data allow three
seaoor regions to be recognized on the basis of
their morphology (Fig. 3). The rst region is the
anks of El Hierro where slopes often exceed 30.
These anks are characterized by numerous
pinnacles, irregular ridges and gullies. These
ridges and gullies have an amplitude of a few
hundred metres and a wavelength of a few
kilometres. Pinnacles are typically 24 km across
and 150 m high, sometimes elongated or aligned
downslope in groups of two or three, suggesting
that they could be related to dyke activity
radiating from a central volcanic zone. Large
areas of these anks are affected by landsliding,
resulting in the deposition of debris avalanche
deposits on the submarine island anks and
related volcaniclastic turbidites across the continental slope (Masson, 1996; Gee et al., 2001).
The second region corresponds to seaoor
covered by remobilized pelagic sediment derived
from the NW African margin and transported by
the Saharan debris ow (Gee et al., 1999). The
distribution of this material has been conrmed
using 35-kHz proles, TOBI 300kHz sidescan
sonar images and piston cores (Embley, 1976,
1982; Masson et al., 1993; Gee et al., 1999). It is
characterized by a smooth morphology with low
relief (<5 m), downslope-orientated ridges and
lenticular-shaped features (Fig. 3). These lowrelief features are best observed on TOBI 30-kHz
data, which show them to be surcial debris ow
structures (Masson et al., 1993).
The third region lies to the north of the pelagic,
margin-derived part of the Saharan debris ow
and consists of a channel separated from the debris
ow by a low ridge (Figs 2 and 3). The channel is
30 m deep, up to 8 km wide and over 100 km
long. It extends downslope from the topographic
constriction between El Hierro and the Hijas
Seamount from a point where the seaoor slope
angle increases from 01 to >03 (Fig. 4). The
low ridge to the south of the channel is 10 km
wide and 20 m high and has constrained the

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

1393

Fig. 3. Grey-shaded topography of El Hierro and the surrounding bathymetry. The edge of the Saharan debris ow is
shown by a white thick line, landslides on the anks of El Hierro are shown by a dotted black line and the Hijas
Seamount by a thick grey line. Note the narrowing of the Saharan debris ow deposit SW of El Hierro between a
topographic constriction formed by the anks of El Hierro and the Hijas Seamount. Note also the location of a
relatively wide and shallow channel oriented NWSE. Contours are shown at 200-m intervals and annotated every
kilometre.

Saharan debris ow from spreading northwards.


The slope angle within the channel itself decreases gently downslope from >03 to 016 (prole
CE in Fig. 4). This contrasts with the slope angle
of the margin-derived Saharan debris ow, which
remains relatively constant at 026 over a similar
distance (prole CD in Fig. 4). The low ridge
appears to have deected the debris ow from the
channel (prole CE in Fig. 4). The formation of
the channel (CE in Fig. 4) is interpreted to be the
result of erosion by turbidity currents as they
passed through the topographic constriction and
over the steeper seaoor slope immediately to the
west. In this situation, a turbidite is likely to
experience ignition, such as the Grand Banks
turbidity current (Cochonat & Piper, 1995).
35-KHZ PROFILES
In cross-section, the Saharan debris ow deposit
appears on 35-kHz proles as an irregular lens-

shaped sediment package that lacks internal


reectors (Fig. 5; Embley, 1976). A series of
proles across the Saharan debris ow shows
how the ow deposit thins through the topographic constriction (Fig. 5). Upslope from the
constriction, on a seaoor gradient of about 01,
the debris ow deposit is relatively uniform in
thickness, 30 m thick, and overlies a smooth
seaoor (Fig. 5A). Within the constriction, where
the seaoor gradient increases to about 025, the
debris ow deposit is much thinner (<15 m thick)
and has an irregular cross-sectional geometry
(Fig. 5B). The morphology of the seaoor onto
which the Saharan debris ow was deposited is
also much more irregular within the constriction
(Fig. 5B). This irregular morphology is characterized by two topographic lows separated by a ridge
about 10 m in height. The southern topographic
low is partially lled by the Saharan debris ow
deposit, which is bounded by a dividing ridge
along its northern edge. The topographic low to
the north of the dividing ridge is interpreted as an

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

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M. J. R. Gee et al.

Break-of-slope (start of channel)

Bathymetry km

-3.8

Profile C-D

-4.0

>0.3
-4.2

Profile C-E
-4.4
140

120

100

80

60

40

20

Distance km

B
Channel
Ridge

NE

3.4

3.2

28N

-3.9

-4.0

L
K

Bathymetry km

3.8

-3.8

SW
4

-3.7

-4.1

4.2

-4.2

-4.4
70

60

50

40

30

Distance km

20

10

J
K

km

-4.3

10 20

L
M

27N
19W

18W

Fig. 4. Bathymetric proles sampled from EM12 multibeam bathymetric data. (A) Prole CD illustrates a prole
down the Saharan debris ow, whereas prole CE shows the Saharan debris ow along the major channel that
originates SW of El Hierro. (B) A series of proles sampled at 90 to the downslope direction (proles FM) that show
the geometry of the channel and adjacent ridge. Locations of proles are shown in (C).

area of erosion, because it is an area of negative


topography, has a strong echo with no subbottom
penetration on 35-kHz proles and correlates
with rough, very high-backscatter returns on TOBI
sidescan sonar records (Fig. 6). Swath bathymetry data indicate that the northern topographic
low seen in Fig. 5B represents a crossing of a
channel that can be traced >100 km to the NW
(Fig. 3). A prole crossing the Saharan debris
ow deposit 100 km downslope from the constriction, where the seaoor gradient is 02
(Fig. 5C), shows considerable variation in deposit
thickness (Fig. 5C), but less irregularity than seen
further upslope (Fig. 5B). Thickness varies from
10 to 20 m on the southern part of the prole,
where the debris occurs within, and largely lls, a
topographic low, to <10 m to the north. The
buried topographic low is also seen on proles
between those shown in Fig. 5B and C, suggesting
that it is a buried channel, similar in size and
morphology to the unburied channel to the north.
The buried channel appears to have at least partly
controlled the path of the Saharan debris ow.

TOBI 30- K H Z SIDESCAN SONAR DATA


TOBI 30-kHz deep-tow sidescan sonar is a highresolution mapping device developed by the UK
Institute of Oceanographic Sciences and designed
to operate in depths of up to 6000 m (Murton
et al., 1992). The system is usually towed at
400 m above the sea bed at a velocity of 12 knots,
which, combined with the horizontal beamwidth
of the sidescan (08), gives a seabed footprint that
varies from 8 4 m at 500 m off-track to 40 2 m
at 3000 m range (Masson et al., 1993). A proler
operating at 7 kHz provides high-resolution twodimensional images of the upper few metres or
tens of metres of the subsurface, depending on the
acoustic properties of the substrate.
The principle behind acoustic facies mapping is
that the acoustic backscatter signal from the
seaoor varies systematically with the geology
and the seabed morphology and, therefore, different acoustic facies represent geological features
(Masson et al., 1993). TOBI 30-kHz images represent the interaction of sonar energy with the

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

1395

Fig. 5. Echo sounder proles (35 kHz) showing the Saharan debris ow deposit. Locations of proles are shown in
Fig. 2. Prole A shows a thick debris ow (>20 m) deposit with a relatively smooth base and upper surface. Prole B
shows a more irregular seaoor where a thinner, more irregular debris ow deposit is separated from an erosional
region by a dividing ridge. Prole C shows a broader debris ow deposit upon an irregular subsurface. Note the
buried channel that correlates with the channel shown on the SW part of prole B, located upslope.

seaoor, which will scatter, penetrate and reect


acoustic energy in varying amounts, depending
on the roughness of the seaoor and the acoustic
impedance between the water and substrate.
Scattering is a function of the acoustic impedance,
the seaoor topographic wavelength (roughness)
and the wavelength of the TOBI sidescan sonar
signal. Any interpretation of sidescan sonar data
must take these factors into account, in addition to
the fact that sonar energy can penetrate the
substrate and is therefore not simply a function
of the seaoor (Gardner et al., 1991; Huggett &
Millard, 1992; Mitchell, 1993). At a frequency of
30 kHz, TOBI sidescan sonar energy can penetrate
tens of centimetres into sediments on the seaoor
(Huggett & Millard, 1992; Masson et al., 1993).
The implications of subsurface penetration are
that scattered energy could come, in part, from a
surface (or surfaces) buried by smooth sediments
or from inhomogeneities in subsurface sediments.

The new TOBI sidescan sonar data discussed in


this paper provide images of the seaoor across
the sediment transport pathway where the Saharan debris ow was constricted between the Hijas
Seamount and the lower island slope south-west
of El Hierro. Within the area of the constriction,
four distinct types of seaoor can be dened in
terms of acoustic backscatter (see Fig. 6):
1 ne-scale, straight to sinuous lineations and
banding dened by variable backscatter, corresponding to the Saharan debris ow deposit
(Masson et al., 1993);
2 low, even backscatter, with a superimposed
fabric of downslope-trending lineations in some
places;
3 arcuate to irregular scarps with rough, very
high-backscatter seaoor extending downslope;
4 moderate backscatter seaoor with a pronounced fabric of straight, downslope-trending,
high-backscatter lineations.

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

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M. J. R. Gee et al.

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin


Fig. 6. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data SW of El
Hierro. Locations of Figs 5B and 710 are shown. Note
the high backscatter that characterizes the channel and
eroded seaoor and the very low-backscatter regions in
the centre of the image, which characterize local topographic highs. Location of whole TOBI 30-kHz survey
is shown in Fig. 2.

Fine-scale, straight to sinuous lineations


and banding of variable backscatter
(Saharan debris ow)
The distribution of the margin-derived component of the Saharan debris ow is easily determined from TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data, as
these sediments are characterized by distinctive
patterns of acoustic backscatter interpreted as
ow banding, shear structures and lateral ridges
(see depositional ow lineations, Fig. 7; Masson
et al., 1993). Figure 7 shows the Saharan debris
ow at its narrowest part, where lineations
converge in the direction of ow. The margins
of the ow are marked by a distinctive lateral
facies, characterized by high backscatter, an
irregular small-scale roughness and an onlapping
relationship with the adjacent seaoor; ow
parallel lineations, as observed in the centre of
the debris ow, are lacking (Fig. 7). Along the
southern boundary of the debris ow, the lateral
facies forms a continuous border zone about 1 km
wide (Fig. 6). However, to the north, where the
debris ow boundary is much more irregular, the
lateral facies varies between 05 and about 3 km
in width. The term `lateral facies' is preferred to
that of `lateral ridge or levee' as used by Masson
et al. (1993), because the relief of this feature is
low (<5 m) or non-existent.

Areas of low, even backscatter


In the region of the topographic constriction, the
Saharan debris ow onlaps a relatively lowbackscatter seaoor that is characterized by a
variable smooth, mottled or lineated character
(Fig. 7). Along the southern boundary of the
debris ow, the deposit onlaps a gently rising
seaoor along a simple, straight boundary marked
by a uniform band of lateral facies (Fig. 6). Along
the more complex northern boundary, a variablewidth band of lateral facies onlaps several irregular-shaped patches of low-backscatter seaoor,
up to 5 km across (Fig. 7). These low-backscatter
areas correspond to local topographic highs,
elevated around 20 m above the surface of the
debris ow. These highs together form a dividing

1397

ridge, which appears to have prevented spillover


of the debris ow into the channel to the north
(see Figs 2 and 5B). The backscatter fabric of the
local highs varies from smooth and featureless to
weakly or moderately lineated (Figs 68A). The
lineated fabric is best developed where the local
highs have minimal relief. The lineations trend
NNW to NW and are clearly divergent from the
ow-parallel lineations in the margin-derived
debris ow (Fig. 7). In some cases, the lineations
are truncated (i.e. buried) by the lateral facies at
the edge of the debris ow, indicating that they
must be older than the debris ow (Fig. 7). A 35kHz prole crossing the lineated area shows a
greatly prolonged seaoor echo with 20 m subbottom penetration, interpreted to indicate a thin
layer of sand-rich sediment overlying a stratied
ner grained subseaoor sequence (Fig. 7B). The
linear fabric and the 35-kHz echo character,
taken together, are interpreted as marking the
passage of a turbidity current, possibly resulting
in both seaoor erosion and the deposition of a
thin sandy layer on the seabed. Onlap of the
Saharan debris ow indicates that this occurred
before the emplacement of the Saharan debris
ow deposit.

Arcuate scarps and associated


very high-backscatter areas
Immediately to the north of the dividing ridge,
TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar images are dominated by an area of rough, very high-backscatter
seaoor (Fig. 8). The upslope boundary of this
area is marked by NW-facing, irregular sawtoothed scarps (Fig. 8A) or arcuate scarps with
single or multiple steps up to 70 m (generally
2050 m) in height (Fig. 9). These scarps occur on
the downslope side of local highs. The rough, very
high-backscatter seaoor immediately downslope
of these scarps is interpreted as an area of intense
seaoor erosion. Based on the scarp heights and
area of erosion, it has been calculated that 5 km3
of sediment has been eroded from within the TOBI
survey area. Towards the north, the area characterized by rough, high-backscatter grades into a
lower backscatter area dominated by relatively
straight NW-trending lineations (Fig. 10).

High-backscatter lineations
North and north-west of the high backscatter
region, the seaoor is characterized by more
moderate backscatter levels with a fabric of
high-backscatter lineations trending downslope

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M. J. R. Gee et al.

A
Local high
(low backscatter)
X

Lineations
truncated by
debris flow

Edge of
debris flow

Edge of
debris flow
Lateral
facies

Lateral
facies
Y

Depositional
flow lineations

Debris flow
direction

2 km
Lateral facies

Debris flow

Y
Onlap

1 km

40 m

Base of debris flow


Fig. 7. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data. (A) Northern boundary of the Saharan debris ow showing onlapping of the
debris ow on a local topographic high. Note ow direction, convergent depositional ow lineations and lineations
truncated by the debris ow. (B) A 35-kHz prole; XY shows the debris ow deposit onlapping the topographic
high. Light tones represent high backscatter. See Fig. 6 for location.

(Figs 10 and 11). Individual lineations can be


traced as continuous features for >10 km in a
downslope direction. Many of the lineations can
be traced upslope into areas of seaoor erosion
and appear to originate from within these areas.
The lineated areas are generally smooth at the
resolution of the 7-kHz deep-towed proler (<1 m
vertical resolution), and most individual lineations have no discernible topographic expression.
However, some lineated areas on the TOBI images
are characterized by very small shadows, suggest-

ing a very low amplitude fabric of ridges and


troughs oriented downslope. A slight divergence
in the directions of the ow lineation is apparent
(Fig. 10), which appears to relate to either a slight
convexity in the seaoor or ow spreading
downslope of the topographic constriction. Similar high-backscatter lineations are observed further downslope in close proximity to the Saharan
debris ow (Fig. 11) and are onlapped from the
south-west by the Saharan debris ow (Masson
et al., 1993), which must therefore be older than

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

1399

Fig. 8. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data of a serrated, erosional scarp (A) and very high backscatter and lineations
(B) associated with erosion of the seaoor in the northern part of the TOBI survey region. Light tones represent high
backscatter. See Fig. 6 for location.

the lineations. Possible origins of the lineations


are discussed later in the paper.
In the north of this area, some of the highest
backscatter lineations are clearly associated with
randomly distributed, high-backscatter blocks
measuring 20100 m across and 30 m high
(Fig. 10). The lineations, in the form of slightly
sinuous twin trails, extend downslope for >2 km

from these blocks, fading gradually in intensity.


The blocks are interpreted as large pieces of
volcaniclastic debris, because of their similarity
to blocks seen on the surface of debris avalanche
deposits elsewhere on the anks of El Hierro
(Masson, 1996). The most likely origin of these
blocks is the El Julan landslide deposit (Fig. 2;
Holcomb & Searle, 1991; Gee et al., 2001).

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

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M. J. R. Gee et al.

The area of high-backscatter lineations is


crossed by a NW-trending, higher backscatter
band 2 km wide, within which strong lineations
are largely absent (Fig. 11). Proles indicate that
this high backscatter corresponds to an area of
negative topography corresponding to the upper
reaches of the channel, which can be traced
downslope for >100 km (see Fig. 2). The sidescan
data indicate that this channel originates from the
area of erosion characterized by rough topography
and very high backscatter (Fig. 8B). The channel
thus appears to be the conduit, through which
sediment mobilized from this erosional area was
removed downslope, and is part of a much larger
channel system extending across the continental
rise, NW of the Canary Islands (Masson, 1994).

SUMMARY INTERPRETATION
OF TOBI SIDESCAN DATA
The different types of seaoor outlined above are
summarized in Fig. 12. The depositional part of
the Saharan debris ow is restricted to south of
the dividing ridge, although there is a minor
breach by the lateral facies through a low, central
part of the ridge (Fig. 12). The debris ow can be
mapped from EM12 data over a much wider area,
although it is only possible to differentiate the
detailed ow fabric and lateral facies using TOBI
30-kHz data (Fig. 6). The low-relief topography
(20 m) of the dividing ridge was able to deect
debris ow but not turbidity currents, which were
able to overtop the dividing ridge. The passage of

Fig. 9. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data of arcuate scars on the downslope side of a local topographic high. Light
tones represent high backscatter. The low-backscatter areas to the S and SE are local highs covered by hemipelagic
sediments, and the very high backscatter within the arcuate scars is rough eroded seaoor resulting from the collapse
of the local high. (B) Deep-towed TOBI 75-kHz proler images a series of scarp slopes within the main erosional scar.
(C) A 35-kHz prole show hyperbolae and little subsurface penetration associated with scarp edges. See Fig. 6 for
location.
2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

1401

Fig. 10. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data of strongly lineated fabric showing detail of blocks and comet marks. Note
slight divergence in the lineations towards the NW. Light tones represent high backscatter. See Fig. 6 for location.

Edge of Saharan debris flow


(margin-derived)

High backscatter
within channel
Downslope

Channel axis
Depositional
flow lineations

Lateral facies

High backscatter
lineations

5 km

Fig. 11. TOBI 30-kHz sidescan sonar data of the northern margin of the Saharan debris ow, high-backscatter
lineations and channel. The high-backscatter lineations between the debris ow and the channel are interpreted as
low-relief depositional ridges that predate the debris ow.

one or more turbidity currents through the constriction is interpreted as being responsible for
most of the erosion observed. Erosion on the
downslope side of the dividing ridge was caused
by the passage of turbidity currents accelerating
into the constriction. The area of `turbidite

deposition' downslope of the dividing ridge


(Fig. 12) is interpreted to be a relatively thin
sheet of sand that has been worked into linear
ridges and comet marks. These ow lineations
and comet marks (Figs 811) appear to be formed
from locally eroded sediments, although some

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

1402

M. J. R. Gee et al.

Channel axis
Channel
El

an
ul

landslide boundary

Failure scarps within


El Julan landslide

27 30'N

Blocks
?

Dividing ridge

Pressure ridges
?
?

KEY
?

Pelagic debris flow phase

Isolated high

Debris flow lateral facies


Erosional scar
Turbidite deposition

Flow
Area mapped by TOBI

Local topographic high


Major flow path
Minor flow path

10 km

27 00'N
19 00'W

18 30'W

Fig. 12. Interpretation of TOBI 30-kHz survey data. Thin black dashed line shows the location of the Saharan debris
ow mapped from EM12 multibeam data outside the area mapped using TOBI. Thick grey line shows the location of
the El Julan landslide (Gee et al., 2001).

lineations indicate sediment derived from


upslope. The presence of numerous blocks and
erosional scars (Fig. 12) indicates that erosion of
the distal El Julan landslide deposit has occurred,
although it cannot be established whether these
blocks have been transported or exposed by winnowing of the ner grained landslide material.
EVIDENCE FOR EROSION TO THE EAST
OF THE TOBI SURVEY AREA
A single-channel seismic and 35-kHz prole
shows an erosional scarp up to 30 m in height
along the northern margin of the Saharan debris
ow to the east of the TOBI survey area (Fig. 13;

see Fig. 2 for location). Both the seismic and the


35-kHz prole along the same line image the
pelagic component of the debris ow a few
kilometres to the south-east of the scarp; the area
between the scarp and the pelagic debris ow is
characterized by a strongly attenuated signal
relative to adjacent seaoor, showing only a
distinctive `double' reector in the upper 23 m
(Fig. 13B). This is very similar to the `double'
reector observed on 35-kHz proles underlying
and surrounding the Saharan debris ow west of
19W, where it indicates the presence of a
volcaniclastic debris ow layer (Gee et al.,
1999). Thus, it is interpreted that a similar thin
(2 m) layer surrounds the pelagic debris ow in
the region south of El Hierro. The close associ-

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin


ation between the debris ow and the erosional
scarp along its northern margin in this region,
added to the recognition of both pelagic and
volcaniclastic debris ow components, suggest
that the erosion observed was directly related to
passage of the Saharan debris ow and may be the
source of the volcaniclastic component. However,
further data, particularly sediment cores, which
could help to delineate the area of occurrence of
the volcaniclastic ow, are clearly required before
a denitive statement can be made.

1403

DISCUSSION
Large submarine debris ows and turbidity currents are able to erode and mobilize signicant
quantities of sediment. Turbidity currents that are
sufciently powerful to erode seaoor sediments
can experience an increase in ow volume and
ow velocity, a process described as autosuspension (Parker, 1982). Erosion of the seaoor by the
passage of a large debris ow can increase the
debris ow volume and also create an efcient
shearing layer, upon which the overlying debris

Fig. 13. (A) Seismic reection and (B) interpreted seismic and 35-kHz prole S of El Hierro. Note the 30-m
erosional scarp, irregular lens-shaped Saharan debris ow deposit and the `double reector' between them. See Fig. 2
for location.
2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

1404

M. J. R. Gee et al.

can be transported for long distances over very


low slopes (Gee et al., 1999).

Seaoor erosion SW of El Hierro


The erosion observed within the TOBI 30-kHz
survey area occurs to the north of the dividing
ridge (Fig. 2) and is therefore unlikely to have
been caused directly by the passage of the
Saharan debris ow. This conclusion also applies
to the small, isolated, eroded topographic high
within the limits of the Saharan debris ow
(Fig. 6), although erosion triggered as debris
owed around the downslope ank of this local
high cannot be excluded.
The most plausible explanation for the erosion
observed within the TOBI 30-kHz survey area is
the passage of large, erosive turbidity currents to
the south of El Hierro. Sediments from the
Madeira abyssal plain to the west of the Canary
Islands include thick turbidites with volumes up
to 190 km3, with one event occurring roughly
every 25 000 years during times of climatic
change (Weaver & Kuijpers, 1983; Weaver &
Rothwell, 1987; Simm et al., 1991; Weaver,
1994). These turbidites originate mainly from the
upper continental slope or the anks of the Canary
Islands (Weaver & Rothwell, 1987). Turbidites
passing through the topographic constriction potentially originate from 700 km of continental
slope to the south of the Canary Islands, 500 km
of Canary Island anks and the eastern anks of
the Saharan Seamounts (Fig. 14). When turbidity
currents pass through such constrictions, they
may accelerate or even experience `ignition',
leading to increased erosion and a volume
increase (Parker, 1982; Parker et al., 1983). Turbidity currents funnelled into the topographic
constriction would accelerate further as they
passed over local highs, where the seaoor slope
angle increases from 01 to 03 (e.g. Cochonat &
Piper, 1995; see Figs 4 and 14). Erosion appears to
be particularly intense on the downslope side of
the local highs, which may result from either ow
thinning and the development of local supercritical ow or ow separation as the turbidity
currents pass over the local highs (Kneller &
Buckee, 2000). Erosion may occur in the region
between ow separation and reattachment within
the turbulent separation zone (for a review, see
Allen, 1971). Once erosional scarps are established, they may retrogress upslope by slumping
processes. The large-scale erosional features from
SW El Hierro are much larger and more complex
than the erosional features described by Allen

(1971). At present, there is no realistic constraint


on the thickness of the turbidity currents that
eroded the seaoor, although ows were clearly
able to pass over obstacles tens of metres high.

Origin of the high-backscatter lineations


The variety of high-backscatter lineations
observed gives an initial impression that the
mechanism responsible for their formation may
itself be variable. For example, some lineations
are clearly associated with individual blocks of
volcanic debris, some appear to emanate from
elds of coarse debris, whereas others have no
distinctive source (Figs 8, 10 and 11). However, it
seems more likely that all the lineations are
related to the passage of turbidity currents over
the seabed, and that the variety of lineations
results from the variable topography encountered
by the turbidity currents.
For lineations that develop downslope from
individual blocks, the distinctive twin trails are
interpreted as erosional features related to
paired ow vortices that develop as ows
encounter obstacles, whereas the elongate, lowbackscatter tails directly in the lee of blocks are
interpreted as depositional features (Werner
et al., 1980). Similar `twin trails' (more commonly known as `comet marks') have been
observed in a variety of mainly shallow-water
settings (Kenyon, 1970; Werner & Newton, 1975;
Fleming, 1984; Kuijpers et al., 1993; Todd et al.,
1999). Laboratory ume experiments carried out
by Werner et al. (1980) demonstrated that, when
a thin veneer of mobile sand interacted with an
obstacle, parabolic comet marks formed. Werner
& Newton (1975) observed that the `comet' twin
trails are elongate scour zones of coarser sediment. In some cases, `comet marks' were associated with small sandy accumulations (a sand
tail) directly on the leeside of obstacles. The
`comet marks' or twin trails SW of El Hierro
(Fig. 10) are an order of magnitude larger than
any previously described examples and are
believed to be the largest examples reported to
date. These comet marks provide evidence for
the NW ow direction of turbidity currents SW
of El Hierro.
Most of the high-backscatter lineations are not,
however, associated with individual debris
blocks, and their origin remains uncertain. Masson (1993) compared these lineations with erosional grooves seen within slide scars and on the
basal shear surface of mudslides. However, these
authors also noted that the lineations appeared to

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin

1405

Fig. 14. (A) Prole of the Saharan debris ow from the continental slope to the lower continental rise. The prole
shows the failure and initiation of a turbidity current and debris ow above 3000 m, the generation of a basal debris
ow facies and substrate failure S of El Hierro and the nal run-out of the Saharan debris ow with a fully developed
two-phase ow structure. (B) A three-dimensional, grey-shaded image of the margin shows the debris ow outline
and pathway of turbidity currents through the topographic constriction SW of El Hierro.

be older than, and buried by, the Saharan debris


ow, a detail conrmed by the data presented
here (Fig. 7). The widespread occurrence of the

lineations north of the dividing ridge (Fig. 12), in


an area not reached by the debris ow, would
seem to conrm that the lineations are not related

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

1406

M. J. R. Gee et al.

to debris ow emplacement, but are evidence for


a separate (and older) sediment transport process.
The limited relief, or absence of relief, associated
with the high-backscatter lineations indicates that
they result primarily from differences in sediment
cover on the seaoor. However, it is not clear
whether these differences occur as a result of
erosional or depositional processes. For example,
the `twin trails' associated with obstacles (Fig. 10)
would appear to result from scouring of the
seaoor (see above). On the other hand, the
source of many of the lineations within areas of
seaoor erosion suggests an origin related to the
deposition of the sediment eroded from these
areas. This sediment may have been reworked
into downslope-orientated bands resulting from
interaction of the transporting agent (i.e. turbidity
currents) with local topographic irregularities.
The high backscatter and rough topography seen
on the sidescan images suggest that a large
proportion of coarse debris within the material
was eroded from the scarps. Such coarse-grade
material may have been carried as bedload and
deposited locally to form the distinctive highbackscatter lineations observed on TOBI 30-kHz
data. In reality, it may be that the origin of the
observed lineations contains elements of both
erosional and depositional processes that may
vary in a complex manner, inuenced by both
variations in topography and changes in turbidity
current velocity as a turbidity current `event'
passes through the area. This could conceivably
result in seaoor scouring and erosion under the
high-energy head of the current, but subsequent
sediment deposition on the scoured seaoor as
the current waned. An analogy for such a
complex process may be the close association
between erosional furrows and coarse-grained
longitudinal bedforms found in high-energy,
shallow-water tidal environments (Kenyon &
Belderson, 1973; Belderson et al., 1988). In these
areas, furrowed seaoor can grade into elds of
longitudinal depositional bedforms as the current
regime slowly decreases, and the furrows may
also act to channel sediment to the longitudinal
bedforms downstream.

Interaction of ow types and topography


Within, and to the west of, the topographic
constriction south of El Hierro, the Saharan debris
ow followed a quite different ow path from that
of turbidity currents, as inferred from the direction of the lineated terrain. The evidence for
debris ow is clear, in the form of an easily

recognized debris ow deposit that preserves


primary ow structures. The Saharan debris ow
was deected westwards by a low dividing ridge
of 730 m relief (Figs 5B, 12 and 14). In contrast,
the erosional scars, orientation of lineations and
channel extending from the eroded region south
of El Hierro (Fig. 12) suggest that turbidity currents passing through the region overtopped the
low topographic ridge without experiencing a
signicant change in ow direction. However, the
presence of a second channel buried by the
Saharan debris ow indicates that a more
westward turbidite pathway also once existed,
before burial by the debris ow at 60 ka (Gee
et al., 1999). One possibility is that the largest
turbidity currents, with the greatest erosive power
and strongest capability to leave their mark on the
seaoor, are responsible for the observed erosive
lineations and channel north of the dividing
ridge; these turbidites would be least affected by
minor seaoor topography. Smaller turbidites
would be more susceptible to interaction with
minor topography and might have been wholly or
partly deected westward. Speculatively, future
turbidity currents might re-excavate the more
westward-directed channel, in a manner similar
to the re-excavation of channels by the `b'
turbidite west of La Palma (Masson, 1994).

The origin of the volcaniclastic facies


of the Saharan debris ow
Within the TOBI 30-kHz survey area, erosion
appears to result from turbidity currents that
became erosive as they owed through a topographic constriction. The seismic data (Fig. 13)
suggest that the Saharan debris ow itself was
responsible for signicant seaoor erosion
upslope of the topographic constriction. Previous
studies, based on 35-kHz proles and sediment
cores, mapped the distribution of the basal
volcaniclastic component of the Saharan debris
ow west of 19W, but found that it could not be
followed further upslope because of a lack of
acoustic contrast between the volcaniclastic debris ow and the typical volcaniclastic sediments
of the Canary Island anks (Gee et al., 1999). Gee
et al. (1999) inferred that the volcaniclastic debris
ow component was derived from the southern
or south-western anks of the Canary Islands,
and that remobilization of the distal part of the
El Julan debris avalanche was its most probable
source. Both the El Julan and the Las Playas
landslides on the southern anks of El Hierro
delivered volcaniclastic material near to or into

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409

Debris ows and turbidity currents on the NW African margin


the pathway of the Saharan debris ow (Fig. 2;
Gee et al., 2001), with the possibility that this
material was subsequently incorporated into the
Saharan debris ow as it owed through the
region.
Some of the volcaniclastic component could
possibly have been derived by erosion of the
channel observed buried beneath the debris ow
deposit between 1840 and 1930 W (Fig. 5).
However, the morphology and dimensions of this
channel are comparable with those of the unburied channel to the north, and it probably has a
similar origin, related to turbidity current activity
that predates debris ow emplacement. The
volume of material (4 km3) eroded to form this
channel is an order of magnitude smaller than
the 40-km3 volume calculated for the volcaniclastic debris ow (Gee et al., 1999). The source
of the volcaniclastic material thus appears to lie
further east, more directly to the south of El
Hierro, in an area of limited data. The seismic
data (Fig. 13) indicate that the upper 30 m of the
seaoor have been eroded directly to form the
volcaniclastic basal facies observed downslope.
Figure 14 depicts a schematic representation of
where the debris ow acquired a basal facies in
relation to the TOBI 30-kHz study area shown in
Fig. 6.

1407

the volcaniclastic basal facies observed west of


19W by Gee et al. (1999). The Saharan debris
ow directly onlaps the El Julan landslide. Some
debris avalanche sediments from the distal part of
the El Julan landslide have been remobilized by
the Saharan debris ow and by erosive turbidity
currents. Directly south of El Hierro, the Saharan
debris ow appears to have eroded the seaoor to
a depth of 30 m and deposited a thin (5 m)
layer of sediment on the eroded surface. This
layer is interpreted to be the basal volcaniclastic
facies of the Saharan debris ow, which has
owed far eastwards.
The ability of a large submarine debris ow to
mobilize large volumes of seaoor material has
signicant implications for debris ows in submarine and subaerial settings. The Saharan debris
ow acquired a basal layer of highly sheared
volcaniclastic sediment as it owed over the
continental rise to the south of the Canary Islands.
Mobilization of the substrate adds volume to the
debris ow, increasing its run-out potential by
simply supplying more material into the ow and
also by acting as a highly efcient shear layer
upon which a debris ow can be `rafted'. The
Saharan debris ow may have experienced an
estimated volume increase of approximately onethird as it owed over the continental rise to the
south of the Canary Islands.

Summary
The Saharan debris ow was constricted through
an 7-km topographic gap SW of El Hierro. A 7- to
30-m-high topographic ridge deected the debris
westwards, while turbidity currents appear to
have been able to ow over the ridge without
experiencing any discernible change in ow
direction. The volume, velocity and thus erosive
power of turbidity currents owing over the ridge
are likely to have increased, as a result of ow
constriction, resulting in erosion on the leeside of
the ridge. High-backscatter lineations extending
from these eroded regions represent reworked
local sediments. Flow interacting with blocks
10 m high has formed large comet marks >2 km
long, which indicate the ow direction of the
turbidity current.
Around 5 km3 of sediment has been eroded SW
of El Hierro, associated with the passage of one or
more turbidity currents through the region. Seismic reection data show evidence for erosion
directly related to the passage of the Saharan
debris ow, 70 km upslope from the TOBI
30-kHz survey area. The erosion observed in the
study area SW of El Hierro accounts for <10% of

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We thank the Captain, ofcers and crew of RRS
Charles Darwin cruise CD108. This work was
funded by Southampton Oceanography Centre.
We gratefully acknowledge Tim Le Bas for the
processing of the TOBI 30-kHz data. M. J. R. Gee
gratefully acknowledges Marco Ligi for advice on
seismic data processing, NERC studentship GT4/
95/252 and the research facilities at Earth
Sciences, Oxford University, and the Southampton Oceanography Centre. The gures for this
paper were prepared with GMT (Wessel & Smith,
1991), PROMAX version 60 and ERDAS software.
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Manuscript received 10 October 2000;


revision accepted 2 July 2001.

2001 International Association of Sedimentologists, Sedimentology, 48, 13891409