Linking oceanographic processes to contourite features: Numerical modelling of currents influencing a contourite depositional system on the northern South China Sea margin


Combining high-resolution bathymetry and 2-D seismic data with 3-D hydrodynamic numerical simulation results to identify Quaternary plastered contourite drifts in the South China Sea northern margin (i.e., the Jianfeng and Yitong slopes), this study aims to disentangle the impacts of bottom currents associated with the intermediate and deep water masses. Upslope parts of plastered drifts (~1000–1200 mwd) are smooth and gentle (up to 1°) surfaces, which can also be classified as contourite terraces. They are characterised by non-deposition and sheeted deposition that indicate dominant flow conditions capable of transporting sediments. The responsible hydrodynamic forcing here is the anticyclonic South China Sea Intermediate Water currents, which flow eastward with a mean velocity of 2–3 cm/s. These are sporadically enhanced and can exceed 6 cm/s during high-energy intermittent events such as deep-reaching eddies. The central parts of the plastered drifts, located seaward of the terraces, present a subtle mounded morphology (1°–2°, ~1200–1500 mwd) partly perturbated by wavy bedforms. The downslope parts of the plastered drifts feature step-forming slides/slumps with steep slope gradients (1°–5°, ~1500–2000 mwd). According to our simulation results, the depth range of the plastered drifts overlaps the transition zone between the intermediate and deep water masses, wherein the simulated mean current velocity is 0–2 cm/s with variable directions, suggesting its deposition-favourable environment. Steep (>2°) slopes beneath the plastered drifts (below ~2000 mwd) present along-slope truncations, including contourite channels and moats that indicate enforced currents capable of erosion. Responsible hydrodynamic forcing is the cyclonic South China Sea Deep Water currents, which flow westward with a mean velocity of 3–5 cm/s and exceed 15 cm/s during high-energy intermittent events. The results of this study show a clear link between bottom currents' behaviours (e.g., mean flow condition and variability) and contouritic depositional patterns, which suggest that continental slopes can be effectively shaped by large-scale ocean circulations through the topography-current interaction. The weakest hydrodynamic condition and highest sediment accumulation rate, occurring in the ~800 m thick transition domain between two water masses in the study area, facilitate the development of plastered drifts at the seaward side of contourite terraces. The outcomes of our study may have broad implications for understanding the relationship between processes and products in continental margins.
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