Failure mechanics, transport behavior, and morphology of submarine landslides



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Submarine landslides retrogressively fail from intact material at the headwall and then become fluidized by strain weakening; the final deposits of these flows have low porosity, which controls their character in seismic reflection data. Submarine landslides occur on the open slope and also localized areas including margins of turbidite channel-levee systems. I develop and quantify this model with 3-D seismic reflection data, core and log data from Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 308 (Ursa Basin, Gulf of Mexico), flume experiments, and numerical modeling. At Ursa, multiple submarine slides over the last 60 ky are preserved as mass transport deposits (MTDs). Retrogression proceeded from an initial slope failure that created an excavated headwall, which reduced the horizontal stress behind the headwall and resulted in normal faults. Fault blocks progressively weakened until the gravitational driving stress imposed by the bed slope exceeded soil strength, which allowed the soil to flow for more than 10 km away from the source area. The resulting MTDs have lower porosity (higher bulk density) relative to non-failed sediments, which ultimately produces high amplitude reflections at the base and top of MTDs. In the laboratory, I made weak (low yield strength) and strong flows (high yield strength) from mixtures of clay, silt, and water. Weak flows generate turbidity currents while moving rapidly away from the source area. They create thin and long deposits with sinuous flow features, and leave behind a relatively smooth and featureless source area. In contrast, strong flows move slowly, do not generate a turbidity current, and create blocky, highly fractured source areas and short, thick depositional lobes. In Pleistocene turbidite channels of the Mississippi Fan, deep-seated rotational failures occurred in the flanking levees. The rotational failures displaced material into the channel from below where it became eroded by turbidity flows. This system achieved a delicate steady state where levee deposition and displacement along the fault into the channel was balanced by erosion rate of turbidity flows. This work enhances our understanding of geohazards and margin evolution by illuminating coupled processes of sedimentation, fluid flow, and deformation on passive continental margins.