Sediment dynamics driven by contour currents and mesoscale eddies along continental slope: A case study of the northern South China Sea


Based upon 3-D seismic reflection data, published drill core studies, oceanographic observations and numerical modelling, this study identifies a small scale contourite depositional system that is locally confined by canyons, slope failures, erosional terraces and erosional slopes on the Jianfeng slope, northern South China Sea (~1500 to ~2300 m water depth). Possible oceanic driving mechanisms for the spatial heterogeneity in sedimentation and erosion within the Quaternary deposits in this complex slope system are investigated. Numerical simulations show that the quasi-steady South China Sea deep water circulation, which affects the study area, is characterised by low velocities (maximum 4 cm/s), with a slight modulation by tides (±1 cm/s). This quasi-steady deep-water thermohaline circulation is able to keep sediment particles in suspension, rather than to erode seafloor sediment. The bottom hydrodynamic regime becomes energetic when mesoscale eddies (horizontal scale of 10 to 100 km) approach. Our modelling study indicates that both surface and bottom mesoscale eddies are essential to account for the spatial heterogeneity in sedimentation pattern along the northern South China Sea continental slope. According to simulation, the eddy front contains the highest flow velocity over a mesoscale eddy cycle (45 days), exceeding the threshold for resuspension of unconsolidated sediment (15 cm/s). As a consequence massive resuspension is produced at various sites, and redistributed by sub-mesoscale (horizontal scale of 1 to 10 km) circulations originated from an eddy-topography interaction. In contrast to the surrounding areas, which are subject to erosional forcing for a relatively long part (>7% of an eddy cycle), both the locally-confined drift and a further upstream large elongated-mounded drift experience little erosion (<2.5% of an eddy cycle), and serve as depositional centres for sediment from remote areas and erosion from adjacent areas. Our study demonstrates a promising new perspective for bridging the scales between short-term sediment dynamics and long-term sedimentation through a comparison of modelled scenarios between normal conditions and energetic events.
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