Cutoffs in submarine channels

A paper on sinuous submarine channels that is based on work I have done with Jake Covault (at the Quantitative Clastics Laboratory, Bureau of Economic Geology, UT Austin) has been recently published in the journal Geology (officially it will be published in the October issue, but it has been online for a few weeks now).

The main idea of the paper is simple: many submarine channels become highly sinuous and cutoff bends, similar to those observed in the case of rivers, must be fairly common. The more high-quality data becomes available from these systems, the more evidence there is that this is indeed the case. I think this observation is fairly interesting in itself, as cutoffs will add significant complexity to the three-dimensional structure of the preserved deposits. We have addressed that complexity to some degree in another paper. However, previous work on submarine channels has not dealt with the implications of how the along-channel slope changes as cutoff bends form.

So, inspired by a model of incising subaerial bedrock rivers, we have put together a numerical model that not only mimics the plan-view evolution of meandering channels, by keeping track of the x and y coordinates of the channel centerline, but it also records the elevations (z-values) at each control point along this line. The plan-view evolution is based on the simplest possible model of meandering, described in a fantastic paper by Alan Howard and Thomas Knutson published in 1984 and titled “Sufficient conditions for river meandering: A simulation approach“. The key idea is that the rate of channel migration is not only a function of local curvature (in the sense of larger curvatures resulting in larger rates of outer bank erosion and channel migration), but it also depends on the channel curvature upstream from the point of interest; and the strength of this dependence declines exponentially as you move upstream. Without this ‘trick’ there is no stable meandering. The model starts out with an (almost) straight line that has some added noise; meanders develop through time as a dominant wavelength gets established. The z-coordinates are assigned initially so that they describe a constant along-channel slope; as the sinuosity increases, the overall slope decreases and local variability appears as well, depending of the local sinuosity of the channel. More discrete changes take place at the time and location of a cutoff: this is essentially a shortcut that introduces a much steeper segment into the centerline. The animations below (same as two of the supplementary files that were published with the paper) show how the cutoffs form and how the along-channel slope profiles change through time.


Animation of incising submarine channels with early meander cutoffs.



Evolution of along-channel gradient (top) and elevation profile (bottom) through time.

Meandering lowland rivers (like the Mississippi) have very low slopes to start with, so cutoff-related elevation drops are not as impressive as in the case of steep (with up to 40-50 m/km gradients) submarine channels (see diagram below). As a result, knickpoints that form this way in submarine channels are likely to be the locations of erosion and contribute to the stratigraphic complexity of the channel deposits. Previous work has shown that avulsion- and deformation-driven knickpoints are important in submarine channels; our results suggest that the meandering process itself can generate significant morphologic and stratigraphic along-channel variability.


Knickpoint gradient plotted against the overall slope. Dashed lines show trends for different cutoff distances (beta is the ratio between cutoff distance and channel width).

Finally I should mention that, apart from the seismic interpretation itself, we have done all the modeling, analysis, visualization, and plotting with Jupyter notebooks and Mayavi (for 3D visualization), using the Anaconda Python distribution. I cannot say enough good things about – and enough thanks for – these tools.

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