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Journal of Sedimentary Research, 2007, v.

77, 433446
Research Article
DOI: 10.2110/jsr.2007.042
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY AND EVOLUTION OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS FROM THE ANGOLAN
CONTINENTAL MARGIN
M.J.R. GEE,
1,
* R.L. GAWTHORPE,
1
K. BAKKE,
2
AND S.J. FRIEDMANN,
3,{
1
Basin Studies and Petroleum Geoscience, School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, U.K.
2
Norsk Hydro Research Centre, Sandsliveien 90, Bergen, 5020, Norway
3
Department of Geology, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, U.S.A.
e-mail: rob.gawthorpe@manchester.ac.uk
ABSTRACT: Three-dimensional seismic data from the shallow subsurface of the continental margin offshore Angola reveal two
end-member morphological styles of submarine channel: (1) high-gradient, low-sinuosity, narrow channels with gull-winged
levees, and (2) lower-gradient, deeply incised systems with moderate- to high-sinuosity channel axes. A third, and rare, channel
form has moderate incision, low to medium sinuosity, and a moderate long-profile gradient. Based on channel parameters
(incision depth, long-profile gradient, channel-axis sinuosity) and crosscutting relationships, we suggest that the channels
evolved from initially steep and straight, with low sinuosity, to highly sinuous and deeply incised with lower channel-axis
gradients. Correlation of long-profile gradient with both incision and sinuosity suggests that incised channels appear to remove
convex-up curvature from the original slope as the channel axis evolves toward an equilibrium profile. Localized changes in
channel planform, gradient, sinuosity, and incision reflect the complex morphology of the slope associated with growth of salt-
related structures. Linear, high-amplitude seismic features, which correspond to weakly incised striations, or rills, on the open
slope are considered to be precursors of submarine channels.
INTRODUCTION
Submarine channels respond to sea-level change, sediment flux,
tectonics, and climate, and have a significant impact on the sedimentary
architecture of continental margins (e.g., Satterfield and Behrens 1990;
Damuth et al. 1988). They are also important oil and gas exploration
targets along continental margins (e.g., Kolla et al. 2001). Despite this,
many aspects of channel evolution and the processes that control their
geometry are still poorly constrained.
The use of 3D seismic technology along continental margins has
revealed turbidite channels in unprecedented detail (e.g., Roberts and
Compani 1996; Kolla et al. 2001; Mayall and Stewart 2000; Sikkema and
Wojcik 2000; Abreu et al. 2003; Deptuck et al. 2003; Samuel et al. 2003;
Posamentier and Kolla 2003; Posamentier 2003; Saller et al. 2004).
Numerous turbidite channels have been described in the shallow
subsurface of the Angolan continental margin that are exploration
targets, or analogues, for deeper hydrocarbon reservoirs (e.g., Kolla et al.
2001; Sikkema and Wojcik 2000; Mayall and Stewart 2000). The Angolan
continental margin has been strongly influenced by salt tectonics (e.g.,
Lavier et al. 2001; Valle et al. 2001; Hudec and Jackson 2002, 2004),
resulting in channels with an extraordinary range of geometries (e.g.,
Anderson et al. 2000; Mayall and Stewart 2000; Abreu et al. 2003;
Broucke et al. 2004; Gee and Gawthorpe 2006). Some submarine channels
are simple, with a straight planform, whereas others are highly complex,
and consist of broad, deeply incised canyons filled with numerous highly
amalgamated sinuous channels. Channels may be erosional or aggrada-
tional, with low or high sinuosities, and with or without well developed
levees (e.g., Mayall and Stewart 2000).
We quantify the geometry of a number of Angolan deep-water
submarine channels imaged from the shallow subsurface in terms of
present-day long-profile gradient, channel-axis sinuosity, and channel
depth. Many of the channels observed have wide (. 3 km) channel
valleys, which are incised by more than 200 m. At the base of each of
these incised channel valleys is a highly sinuous channel axis. Other
channels on the slope are smaller, typically 4060 m wide and tens of
meters deep, and are characterized by low-sinuosity channel axes. In
contrast to many other studies, which document the fill of channel
complexes, we focus specifically on the three-dimensional morphology of
the master erosion surface bounding channel complexes. By examining
and quantifying key characteristics of channel systems with different
incisional geometries, it may be possible to gain a clearer understanding
of the controls on channel geometry, and of aspects of channel initiation
and evolution.
GEOLOGICAL SETTING
The study area is located on the Angolan continental slope, about
100 km offshore, in water depths of approximately 1.5 km (Fig. 1). The
present-day shelf break is located approximately 60 km to the NE.
During the late Miocene, a large network of submarine channels was
active, transporting clastic sediment into deeper water towards the
southwest (Fig. 1). These submarine channels flowed across a seabed that
was actively deforming due to movement of a mobile salt layer at depth.
The salt is Aptian in age and in many places has pierced through the
* Present address: Lukoil Overseas, Ltd. Moscow, 115035, Russia
{ Present address: Energy and Environmental Directorate, Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, U.S.A.
Copyright
E
2007, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology) 1527-1404/07/077-433/$03.00
overlying stratigraphy to the current seafloor (e.g., Uchupi 1992; Valle et
al. 2001; Hudec and Jackson 2002, 2004).
The isochore for the near-surface seismic interval (, 500 ms (twtt)
below seafloor), which contains the submarine channels studied in this
paper, indicates that the slope had a complex geomorphology comprising
intra-slope basins and salt-cored growth folds and related faults (Fig. 1).
Deformation of the seafloor caused by these growth folds and faults
resulted in complex channel geometries that are highly variable over
distances of just a few kilometers. Many channel systems deviate around,
or converge between, growth anticlines and salt walls, and deposit
sediment within intervening intra-slope basins (Fig. 1) (e.g., Mayall and
Stewart 2000; Gee and Gawthorpe 2006). This pattern of sedimentation is
similar to the fill and spill of salt-withdrawal minibasins described from
the Gulf of Mexico (e.g., Winker 1996; Prather et al. 1998; Twichell et al.
2000; Beaubouef and Friedmann 2000; Badalini et al. 2000).
This study concentrates on channels buried a few hundred meters
below the present-day seafloor, where postdepositional deformation by
salt tectonics is inferred to be relatively low compared to deeper in the
subsurface. Figure 2A shows evidence for some postdepositional tilting
and erosion of the area in the form of reflection events that are truncated
at, or near, the seafloor. Local channel and slope gradients may have
undergone some postdepositional modification due to later salt-related
deformation, and the absolute gradient values quoted, therefore,
comprise a combination of original, depositional gradient and post-
depositional tilting. However, planform geometries (e.g., channel
sinuosity and width) and the amount of incision are unlikely to be
modified by later deformation. We have studied particular structural
domains on the slope where internal deformation is minimal and
consistent across the study area. Measurements of channel-axis gradients
appear to vary consistently with channel-axis sinuosity and channel-valley
incision. In fact, comparison of two channel systems (Channels 3 and 4),
one near the base and one near the top of the interval studied (Fig. 2),
shows similar channel-axis gradients and long-profile curvatures. This
suggests that, over the area where the channels have been measured, any
post-channel deformation has mainly affected the entire stratigraphic
interval around the channel systems in a similar way.
DATABASE AND METHODOLOGY
The 3D seismic data used in this study were acquired for the purposes
of oil and gas exploration, offshore Angola. The dataset has an inline
spacing of 12.5 m and a seismic resolution of , 60 m horizontally and
, 15 m vertically. The seismic interpretation objective was to define the
geometry of the master channel incision surface, to define the channel
valley, and to define the geometry of lowest (oldest) channel axis within
each channel valley (Fig. 3). The channel axis is seismically defined as
a geobody comprising amplitude anomalies recognized at the lowest point
along the base of each channel valley. Seismic interpretation involved
a combination of manual, line-by-line interpretation, autotracking, and
voxel-growing techniques. The master channel valley surface, channel
axis, and erosional and depositional features associated with the channel
were imaged using random seismic lines along, and perpendicular to, the
channel axis (long profile), together with a variety of maps and 3D
perspective views of the channel-valley morphology and seismic attributes
(mainly amplitude, dip, and coherence). The channel axis can be
recognized on the basis of its very high amplitude and generally lower
dip relative to the regional slope.
For quantitative analysis, x, y, z data generated from the 3D seismic
interpretation were gridded at , 15 m using GMT software (Wessel and
Smith 1991). Gradient and sinuosity were measured along each channel
axis at 2 km intervals from the gridded data. Gradients were measured in
milliseconds (twtt)/km along the channel axis, and sinuosity was
measured as the ratio of channel-axis length to channel-valley length.
Channel incision was measured by fitting an artificial surface (least
squares, spline curvature) across the top of the channel valley (Fig. 3),
taking into account any levee development, and resampling along the
same coordinates as used for the channel axis below. Incision was thus
calculated as the vertical difference between the contemporaneous slope
and the channel axis. Channel axis and incision profiles were sampled
from the seismic grid at 50 m intervals. Two-way travel times were
converted to depth using a seismic velocity of 2000 m/s (unpublished well
data) for the first several hundred milliseconds of stratigraphy below the
seabed.
FIG. 1.Map of study area showing the near-
surface salt-dome tops and channels interpreted
from the upper 500 ms (twtt) of the 3D seismic
volume. Channels trend from NE to SW through
complex salt structures on the slope. Gray
shaded interval shows isochore thicknesses for
the stratigraphic interval containing the chan-
nels. Darker shades 5 thicker sequences. Inset
map shows the study area offshore Angola.
Dotted lines show 24000 m and 22000 m
seafloor contours.
434 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
A total of 13 channels were analyzed within the study area, and we
present our results by describing four of these channels in detail to show
the range of channel sinuosity, gradient, incision and the degree of levee
development. The channels are located on a segment of the slope that
strikes NWSE and is affected by a series of NWSE-striking normal
faults, salt-cored folds, and salt diapirs (Fig. 1). The channels are
associated with a suite of distinctive seismic facies, and are recognized by
their V- or U-shaped geometry with up to 200 ms (twtt) of erosional relief
(Fig. 2B). The four channels that represent the focus of this study are
numbered according to the amount of channel-axis sinuosity and valley
FIG. 2.Seismic sections orientated approximately along strike of the paleoslope, illustrating the cross-sectional seismic characteristics of channel systems and slope
deposits (see Fig. 1 for location). A) Longer seismic line showing cross-sectional geometry of channels, synsedimentary normal faults, and the broad, near-surface
anticline truncated at the seabed. B) Detail of the four channels analyzed in this study. See text for description of the channels and seismic facies.
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS 435 J S R
incision. Channel 1 is relatively straight and weakly incised, whereas
Channels 3 and 4 are highly sinuous and deeply incised. There is not,
however, a simple stratigraphic relationship between the complexity of
the channel system and its relative age, with Channel 4 the oldest and
Channels 2, 1, and 3 progressively younger.
SEISMIC FACIES AND GEOMORPHOLOGY
Seismic Facies
Three seismic facies were used to identify the channel systems, on the
basis of reflection amplitude, geometry and lateral continuity (Fig. 2B).
The three seismic facies represent three specific depositional environ-
ments: (1) channel-axis deposits, (2) internal channel fill sediments, and
(3) levees.
Seismic Facies 1 is of low to moderate amplitude, with discontinuous to
chaotic and discordant reflections, and is confined within channels. It is
best developed within the upper 140 ms (twtt) of Channel 3 and the upper
45 ms (twtt) of Channel 2 (Fig. 2B). Seismic Facies 1 is interpreted as
fine-grained channel fill. A proportion of this fill was probably derived
from local slumping of the valley wall, especially at bends in the channel
valley (e.g., Mayall and Stewart 2000; Samuel et al. 2003).
Seismic Facies 2 consists of high-amplitude, discontinuous seismic
reflections or couplets at the base of, and sometimes within, the
internal fill of channel valleys (Fig. 2B). It occurs at the base of all
channels analyzed in this study. Within the deeply incised Channel 4
system, Seismic Facies 2 occurs at the base of the channel valley, and also
higher up within the fill (e.g., Fig. 2B). Seismic Facies 2 is interpreted as
coarse-grained lithologies deposited in the channel axis.
Seismic Facies 3 is characterized by high- to low-amplitude,
continuous, parallel to subparallel reflections that are immediately
adjacent to channels. These reflections typically dip away from the
channel axis, and they also decrease in amplitude away from the channel
axis (e.g., Fig. 2B). Seismic Facies 3 is interpreted as overbank deposits
that form gull-wing levees adjacent to the submarine channels (e.g., Kolla
et al. 2001; Mayall and Stewart 2000). The small, straight, slightly incised
submarine channels, such as Channel 1, typically have well-developed
levees that are 12 km wide and are continuous along the length of the
channel (Fig. 2B). In contrast, levees are generally absent in the more
deeply incised channels such as Channel 3 and 4.
Profiles along the axes of the four representative channels illustrate the
distribution of Seismic Facies 1 and 2 (Fig. 4A, B). Channel 1 has a simple
and relatively continuous, high-amplitude reflection event at its base that
is characteristic of Seismic Facies 2. This channel system is too narrow
and shallow for any channel fill to be clearly resolved. Channel 2 displays
limited, and highly variable, development of Seismic Facies 2 along its
channel axis. Amplitudes of Seismic Facies 2 degrade over high-gradient
reaches of the channel axis, and increase in strength and continuity in
lower-gradient reaches (Fig. 4B; Channel 2). The highest amplitudes
characterize areas of lower channel gradient, immediately downslope of
high-gradient reaches. The degradation of amplitudes may be related to
flow acceleration and bypass in regions of high gradient, compared to
flow deceleration and bedload deposition in lower-gradient sections of the
channel farther downslope. Thus the amplitude change may reflect
a change in lithology from coarse- to finer-grained deposits (e.g., Sullivan
et al. 2000; Morend et al. 2002).
Qualitative Geomorphology of Channel Valleys and Channel Axes
The four channel systems are shown in Figure 5A in plan view
superimposed on an isochore map of the stratigraphic interval which
contains the channels, and in Figure 5B as dip attribute maps that
illustrate the morphology of the channel-valley walls and channel axis. All
four channel valleys appear to have similar gross linear to low-sinuosity
plan-view geometry. They range from narrow, straight channels a few
tens of meters deep (e.g., Channel 1), to deeply incised channels, up to
several kilometers wide, with a more irregular valley-wall morphology
(e.g., Channel 4) (Figs. 5, 6, 7).
Channel 1.This channel has a very low sinuosity (, 1.1) and the
steepest gradient of the four channels (Figs. 4, 6, 7A). Channel 1 is mildly
incised (, 15 m) into the underlying substrate and has a simple, low-
sinuosity channel axis up to 4060 m wide marked by a ribbon-like high-
amplitude anomaly with broad, sinuous bends with a wavelength of
approximately 1 km (Figs. 5B, 6, 7A). The channel has well developed
levees characterized by relatively continuous, high-amplitude reflections
that diminish in seismic amplitude and relief over a distance of 12 km
from the channel axis. Similar small channels occur throughout the
interval studied, although they are more abundant in the upper part of the
section.
To the NW of Channel 1 there is a series of subparallel striations,
spaced 100300 m apart, that trend downslope and are characterized by
negative relief (, 15 m) and higher amplitudes than the surrounding
slope sediments (Figs. 6, 7A). We interpret these striations as open slope
erosion by either unconfined turbidity currents or mass-wasting events.
These open slope striations are morphologically similar to the slope
rills reported from the New Jersey continental slope by Pratson et al.
(1994).
Channel 2.The overall morphology of the channel valley of Channel
2 is similar to Channel 1, but it has more irregular valley walls, especially
on the SE flank (Figs. 5B, 7B). Channel 2 is incised 50100 m into slope
sediments and, despite the overall straight form of the channel valley, its
axis has low to moderate sinuosity (approximately 1.3) (Figs. 5B, 7B).
The higher amplitudes at the base of the channel valley, interpreted as
channel-axis sediments (Seismic Facies 2), are highly variable and
relatively discontinuous compared to Channel 1 (Fig. 7B).
Channel 2 is cut by three synsedimentary, down-to-the-basin normal
faults, over a 34 km reach (Figs. 5B, 7B). Across these faults there is an
increase in channel-axis gradient and a general widening of the channel
valley (Fig. 5B). Some of the largest channel-axis loops occur in this
faulted region (Figs. 5B, 7B). Up-dip of the fault scarps the channel valley
is narrower (e.g., Fig. 5B) and more deeply incised.
FIG. 3.Schematic diagram of a channel system, showing an incised channel
valley containing a highly sinuous channel axis, together with a graphical
definition of the terms used to describe the channel systems in this paper.
436 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
The paleo-seafloor immediately adjacent to Channel 2 is characterized
by discontinuous low to moderate amplitudes (Fig. 7B). Areas of higher
amplitude flanking Channel 2 occur localized, immediately adjacent to
outer bends along the valley walls (Fig. 7B). These observations suggest
that Channel 2 has poorly developed levees compared to Channel 1.
Channel 3.Channel 3 is deeply incised, up to 200 m, and has the
highest channel-axis sinuosity of the four channels (maximum 5 3.2;
mean 5 2; Figs. 5B, 7C). The channel axis is recognized by its sinuous,
ribbon-like high seismic amplitude which contrasts with the adjacent low-
amplitude channel valley fill (Fig. 7C). The channel valley is relatively
straight with scalloped walls that are not as irregular as Channels 2 and 4.
The radius of the valley-wall scallops is similar to channel-axis loops.
Outside of the channel valley, high amplitudes are preferentially
developed on the SE side of the channel, especially where there is
a prominent embayment in the downstream part of the channel valley
(Fig. 7C).
Channel 4.This channel is deeply incised, up to 200 m, and has
a moderate- to high-sinuosity channel axis, with a sinuosity up to 1.8
(Figs. 5B, 7D). Although the channel valley is overall straight, the valley-
wall morphology is irregular and asymmetric, with the SE wall being
highly arcuate or scalloped in plan view (Figs. 5B, 7D). In contrast to the
other channels, the channel axis in Channel 4 has an asymmetric position
within the valley, being preferentially located towards the SE side of the
valley (Figs. 5B, 7D). In many cases the position of the scallops on the SE
FIG. 4.AD) Long-profile seismic sections
along the four channel axes (Channels 14). See
Figure 5 for location of the channels.
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS 437 J S R
valley wall corresponds to large loops of the channel axis (Fig. 5B). In
contrast, loops on the NW side of the channel axis tend to be located
within the channel valley and not against the NW wall. The distal portion
of the channel system is generally less incised than the proximal region
and is characterized by a broad area of high amplitudes over 1 km wide
(Fig. 7D). This distal part of the channel also shows a prominent swing
from the regional SW dip of the slope to flow west-northwest, parallel to
the axis of an intra-slope basin (Figs. 1, 7D; Gee and Gawthorpe 2006).
The contemporaneous slope, outside of Channel 4, is generally
characterized by low to moderate amplitudes and no levee development.
Localized, moderate to high amplitudes do occur on the SE flank of
Channel 4, especially downslope of large scallops in the valley wall,
suggesting limited channel overspill (Fig. 7D). The asymmetry in valley-
wall morphology, channel-axis position, and amplitude anomalies on the
adjacent slope suggest that the whole channel system was progressively
tilted to the east-southeast during deposition (see Fig. 2).
Quantitative Analysis of Channel Parameters
Channel-axis long profiles for all 13 channel systems studied show
a distinct grouping into either high-gradient or low-gradient systems
(Fig. 8A). The high-gradient systems, for example Channel 1, tend to
have smoother long profiles, whereas the low-gradient systems, such as
Channel 4, have short-wavelength roughness at a length scale of , 4 km
(Fig. 8A). Present-day channel-axis long profiles, gradient, sinuosity, and
incision depth for the four case-study channels are summarized in
Figure 9. For all channel systems, apart from Channel 1, sinuosity is
negatively correlated with present-day channel-axis gradient. The lowest-
sinuosity example, Channel 1, has the steepest gradient. The steeper
channels (e.g., Channels 1 and 2) are also less incised, in contrast to the
highly sinuous systems (e.g., Channels 3 and 4; Figs. 8B, 9). Using
a reasonable velocity of 2000 m/s, the maximum channel-axis gradient
observed is approximately 3.4u (Channel 1), and the minimum channel-
axis gradient is approximately 0.4u (Channel 4). For all channels, except
Channel 4, the amount of incision decreases down channel (Fig. 8B, 9).
Channel 1.This channel has the highest average gradient, 44 ms
(twtt)/km, the lowest channel relief , 50 ms (twtt), and lowest sinuosity
(, 1.1) of all of the four channels. The axis of Channel 1 has a gradient
that starts at , 35 ms (twtt)/km, at the proximal end of the channel, and
increases to 55 ms (twtt)/km, 9 km down-channel (Fig. 9A). The gradient
reduces again to 40 ms (twtt)/km at 15 km, then rises to 60 ms (twtt)/km
at 20 km (Fig. 9A). Gradient and sinuosity appear to be positively
correlated across short channel reaches, , 4 km long. For longer
reaches, of approximately 20 km in length, sinuosity fluctuates and
decreases slightly against a gradient increase.
Channel 2.Channel 2 is incised by up to 100 ms (twtt) in its proximal
reach, but the amount of incision fluctuates along the length of the
channel, with a general decreases to approximately 50 ms (twtt) in its
distal part (Figs. 8B, 9B). The channel has an overall low to moderate
sinuosity, with a maximum of approximately 1.6 and an average of 1.3.
Syndepositional faults intersect Channel 2 and create higher channel-axis
gradients starting at approximately 13 km along the channel-axis profile
(Fig. 9B). The faults are reflected in the sinuosity, which decreases slightly
then increases in the immediate hanging wall of the faults (Fig. 9B).
Gradient and sinuosity are negatively correlated overall, although over
short reaches (, 4 km) sinuosity and gradient can show a positive
correlation.
Channel 3.The axis of Channel 3 has the highest sinuosity (. 3), and
the channel valley is also the most deeply incised, being locally over
200 ms (twtt) deep (Figs. 8B, 9C). Channel-valley incision is greatest in
the upper reaches of the channel, where it is . 200 ms (twtt) between 5
and 10 km (Fig. 8B). The amount of incision fluctuates markedly up to
50 ms (twtt) over just a few kilometers, but there is a gradual decreases to
, 150 ms (twtt) downslope (Fig. 8B). The present-day channel-axis
gradient is relatively constant at approximately 20 ms (twtt)/km, for the
FIG. 5.Plan-view geometry of Channels 14 (see Fig. 1 for location). A) Detail
of the channels in relationship to the isochore of the stratigraphic interval that
contain the channels. Dotted lines show isochore contours in ms (twtt). B)
Interpretations of the master incision surfaces of the channel valleys displayed as
dip-attribute maps (dark shades indicate steeper slopes). Thin black lines within
the channel valleys highlight the channel axis.
438 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
first 11 km, drops slightly to 15 ms (twtt)/km, then increases to
approximately 30 ms (twtt)/km at 30 km distance (Fig. 9C). Sinuosity is
relatively high initially, rising from approximately 2 to a maximum of 3.2
at 13 km. From 1330 km the sinuosity fluctuates, but there is a trend of
decreasing sinuosity downslope to values of 1.21.6 at the distal end of
the channel (Fig. 9C). With the exception of the interval between 17 and
22 km, which shows a positive correlation, there is a general negative
correlation between sinuosity and gradient (Fig. 9C).
Channel 4.This is the longest channel interpreted in this study, and it
has a gently convex-up to sigmoidal channel long profile and a relatively
constant amount of incision between 180 and 200 ms (twtt) (Figs. 8B,
9D). There is no consistent relationship between the channel-axis
sinuosity and present-day gradient along the length of the channel.
However, there is a general increase in sinuosity and channel-axis
gradient from 15 to 27 km (Fig. 9D). Sinuosity shows a marked decrease
from 27 km even though the gradient continues to increase (Fig. 9D).
Note that the position at which sinuosity sharply decreases at 27 km
corresponds to where the slope steepened and becomes more convex-up,
and does not coincide with the prominent break of slope at 35 km
(Fig. 9D). The channel valley straightens and increases in width from
60 m to 150 m downstream of the break of slope at 35 km (cf. Figs. 7D,
9D). This distal part of the channel is characterized by low gradients and
a broad area of very high seismic amplitudes.
Sinuosity, Gradient and Incision Relationships.The measurements of
sinuosity and gradient for all of the four main channels are summarized in
Figure 10A. Sinuosity shows wide scatter, but below a gradient of 10
12 ms (twtt)/km (approximately 0.7u), and above 3035 ms (twtt)/km
(approximately 2u), the channel axis is essentially straight, with sinuosities
generally below 1.3 (Fig. 10A). Between these low-gradient and high-
gradient domains characterized by low sinuosity there is a wide scatter of
sinuosity for a given channel-axis gradient. There is a marked shift from
straight to the highest-sinuosity channel axis (3.2) at a gradient of
, 12 ms (twtt)/km (Fig. 10A). The peak sinuosity for any given gradient
then generally decreases with increasing gradient until the channel axis is
effectively straight above 35 ms (twtt)/km. When the parameters for each
of the four channels are averaged there is a simple inverse correlation
between channel-axis gradient and both sinuosity and amount of incision
(Fig. 10B).
DISCUSSION
Existing models of deep-water channel complexes offshore Angola are
based on 3D seismic, wireline log, and core data (Mayall and Stewart
2000; Sikkema and Wojcik 2000; Kolla et al. 2001). These models largely
describe the evolution of the fill of major submarine channel valleys.
Typically this fill consists of a basal lag, debris flows, and slumps at the
base of the channel fill, overlain by sandy, straight or sinuous stacked
channels, and finally mud-rich, sinuous channellevee complexes. A
problem in defining former erosional channels by the deposits that fill
them is that the fill may not be directly related to the processes that
formed the original master erosional valley (Kneller 2003). Mayall and
Stewart (2000) make a broad distinction between the erosional sinuosity
that established the channel, and the constructional sinuosity that
characterizes the final channel fill.
The data generated by this study allow us to analyze the three-
dimensional morphology of the master channel valley. In the following
discussion we synthesize the seismic geomorphology of the submarine
channels, and the various channel parameters, in order to examine the
origin and evolution of erosional submarine channels and discuss the
possible controls on the variability of their planform geometry, long
profiles, sinuosity, and incision.
Local Controls on Gradient, Sinuosity, and Incision
The steep, linear to convex-up long profiles of the channel-valley axes
documented in this study reflect, in part, the structural morphology of the
Angolan continental slope. In the study area, the morphology of the slope
is complex, with a typical length scale of 1020 km controlled by the
growth of salt-cored anticlines, salt diapirs and walls, and intra-slope
FIG. 6.Oblique view of seismic amplitude
draped on timestructure map for the base of
Channel 1 looking upslope, towards the NE.
Inset is detail of channel and adjacent slope
(lighter, red and yellow colors are higher
amplitude). The highly linear channel valley
contains a slightly sinuous channel axis. Levees
are highlighted by high amplitudes adjacent to
the channel. Note the out-of-channel striations
on the slope to the west of Channel 1.
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS 439 J S R
FIG. 7.Oblique views of seismic amplitude draped on timestructure maps for the four channels (Channels 14) looking upslope, towards the NE. The timestructure
maps are for the bases of the channels; lighter, red and yellow colors are higher amplitude. See text for discussion.
440 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
basins (Fig. 1) (Mayall and Stewart 2000; Gee and Gawthorpe 2006). As
a result of this complex sea-floor topography, the long profiles of the
channels in this study are quite different from the concave-up equilibrium
profiles recorded from many submarine channels and canyons (e.g., Pirmez
et al. 2000; Mitchell 2005). It should also be remembered that a , 50 km
reach of the channels is imaged, and neither the proximal nor distal
portions of the channels have been studied. Despite these restrictions, there
are several observations that suggest that the studied channels were tending
to approach an equilibrium profile during their evolution.
Overall, the channels are more deeply incised, and the channel axes are
more sinuous, on the steep limbs of anticlines, and they broaden and
contain more sheet-like, aggradational, distributary channel networks
where they enter intra-slope basins (e.g., Channel 4, Fig. 5A; also see Gee
and Gawthorpe 2006). Thus evolution of the channels towards an
equilibrium profile is accomplished by erosion of high-gradient reaches
and deposition in low-gradient portions of the channel. Furthermore,
there are systematic relationships between channel parameters such as
sinuosity, channel depth, and gradient (e.g., Fig. 10B), an observation
that has been used by other workers to suggest a system that is in, or
approaching, equilibrium or grade (e.g., Pirmez and Flood 1995, Pirmez
et al. 2000).
In addition to the broad folding of the seafloor, across which the
channels formed, there are a number of syndepositional faults that
intersect the channels and cause significant changes in channel
morphology. Across these faults there are local increases in slope and
channel-axis gradient, and associated changes in sinuosity, depth of
incision, and channel-valley width. For example, across the faulted reach
of Channel 2 (Figs. 5, 7B, 9B), there is an increase in channel-axis
gradient, and a general widening of the channel valley, most notable in
the immediate hanging wall of each fault (Fig. 5B). Some of the largest
channel-axis loops occur in this region of Channel 2 (Figs. 5B, 7B). In
addition, up-dip of the faults the morphology of the channel is markedly
different: it is more deeply entrenched, the channel valley is narrow, and
sinuosity of the axis is lower and less variable (e.g., Figs. 5B, 9B).
In other slope settings, examples of submarine channels flowing over
steep slope segments appear to respond by either increasing sinuosity or
increasing incision in order to reduce the local gradient anomaly (e.g.,
Flood and Damuth 1987; Pirmez and Flood 1995; Pirmez et al. 2000). As
submarine flows cross a steeper slope they accelerate and become more
erosive. Increased erosion can result in either incision or sinuosity
increaseboth operate, over time, to reduce the local gradient. However,
there is a limit to how much gradient reduction can be achieved by
sinuosity increase alone, due to increased probability of loop cutoffs at
very high sinuosity (. 3) (e.g., Pirmez and Flood 1995). For some of the
Angolan submarine channels, sinuosity increases where channel-axis
gradients increase until sinuosity abruptly decreases (e.g., Channel 4;
FIG. 8.Characteristics of long profiles. A)
Long profiles for the channels within the study
area (straight channels 5 dotted lines; sinuous
channels 5 solid lines). Note grouping into
high-gradient straight channels and lower-gra-
dient sinuous channels. B) Variation of depth of
incision along channel axis for the four main
channels discussed. Note that low-sinuosity
channel (Channel 1) has the lowest depth of
incision, whereas the high-sinuosity channels
(e.g., Channels 3 and 4) have the highest depth of
incision. Most channels show a downslope de-
crease in depth of incision.
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS 441 J S R
Fig. 9D). Such a downstream sinuosity increase followed by an abrupt
decrease against continued increasing channel-axis gradient suggests that
a peak sinuosity threshold has been reached, above which only increased
incision is capable of further reduction of gradient. This may explain the
rapid fall-off in sinuosity with increasing gradient after the peak sinuosity
associated with a gradient of c. 12 ms (twtt)/km in Figure 10A.
Recent studies of laterally and vertically aggradational submarine
channels show excellent examples of lateral and downslope migration of
channel loops (e.g., Abreu et al. 2003; Posamentier 2003; Deptuck et al.
2003). However, in this study we observed little evidence of significant
channel-axis migration. This may be a function of the seismic resolution
of the data. Alternatively it may reflect major differences in sinuosity
evolution for aggrading and incising systems. For example, the lack of
channel-loop migration might simply indicate that the rate of incision was
too fast and the channels became entrenched. A high rate of incision
relative to the rate of channel widening has been shown to inhibit lateral
and downslope channel migration (Peakall et al. 2000). A notable feature
of the channel loops in Channel 4 is their asymmetry, with the channel
axis offset to the SE side of the channel valley (Fig. 5B). The morphology
of the channel valley mimics the asymmetry in of the channel axis, with
more irregular and scalloped walls on the SE side of the channel valley
compared to the NW (Figs. 5B, 7D). Such asymmetry is very reminiscent
of fluvial asymmetric meander belts (e.g., Alexander and Leeder 1987;
Alexander et al. 1994) and is another manifestation of the local structural
control on the morphology of these slope channels, in this case tilting
subparallel to the long profile.
As channels become progressively entrenched, they are able to confine
sediment-laden flows more effectively. Rapid incision also establishes the
channel location on the slope, inhibiting channel bifurcation or avulsion
(Babonneau et al. 2002). Progressive flow confinement would therefore
lead to levees becoming smaller and less continuous as channels become
more incised. In this study, channel valleys deeper than 5060 m appear
to be able to confine the majority of submarine flows and inhibit levee
formation outside the main channel valley (see difference in levee
FIG. 9.Long-profile variations in channel-axis sinuosity and gradient, together with plots of long-profile geometry and channel-valley depth for Channels 14. Long
profile of channel axis 5 solid line; projected top of adjacent slope 5 dotted line. Gradient and sinuosity were measured along the channel axis at 2 km intervals. Black
triangles 5 sinuosity, open squares 5 gradient. Profiles were sampled every 100 m along the channel axes. See text for discussion.
442 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
continuity between Channels 1 and 2; Fig. 7A, B). In more entrenched
channel systems overspill or levee deposits are restricted to the outer
bends of channels, suggesting localized flow stripping or overspill of
turbidity currents (Piper and Normark 1983; Hiscott et al. 1997; Peakall
et al. 2000).
Initiation of Submarine Channels
The process by which submarine channels and canyons initially form is
not well understood. Pratson et al. (1994) describe closely spaced slope
rills, on the New Jersey continental margin, that incise inter-canyon
areas. Morphologically, the slope rills are similar to the downslope-
directed slope striations observed in this study, which occur on the open
slope, outside of the main channel valleys (e.g., Figs. 6, 7A). We interpret
the slope striations to result either from large, unconfined and erosive
turbidity currents or from mass wasting (see Gee et al. 2005). This may be
one mechanism by which seafloor imperfections are produced that act as
seeds from which channels initiate and grow. A similar mechanism for
channel initiation on open submarine slopes was suggested by Elliott
(2000), in which erosional megaflutes may have created the initial
conditions for channel formation.
A conceptual model for the initiation of submarine channels can be
developed from a synthesis of the observations of the slope striations and
straight channels (e.g., Channel 1) presented in this paper, together with
results of numerical simulations of submarine-canyon evolution (e.g.,
Pratson and Coakley 1996) and fluvial incised-valley development during
sea-level fall (e.g., Ritchie et al. 2004). Once the slope striations are
initially developed on the open slope by erosion by submarine flows, their
growth can be viewed as a positive feedback process, whereby the amount
of sediment that is captured from sediment flows on the slope, and
generated by failure of the striation walls, increases as they deepen and
erode headward. Thus the slope striations that deepen and lengthen the
quickest capture more sediment flows from the surrounding slope, and
also generate more turbidity currents through larger and more frequent
collapse of their walls. Eventually the system of slope striations organizes
so that one or two of the most active striations evolve into submarine
channels, and the others become inactive and may be preserved on the
open slope.
A Conceptual Model for Channel Evolution
In general, our data show that the steeper, less incised channels (e.g.,
Channel 1), have smooth, convex-up long profiles that are similar to the
present-day seafloor profile. In contrast, the deeply incised channels (e.g.,
Channel 3), have rougher, less convex-up long profiles that have lower
gradient (Figs. 8, 9). Thus it appears that the less incised, and apparently
immature, channels still reflect the curvature of the slope on which they
initiated, whereas the channels that are deeply incised (e.g., Channel 3)
appear to have evolved and removed the original slope convexity. The
logical extension of this evolutionary trend would move towards the
formation of a concave-up equilibrium profile, as observed elsewhere for
many modern submarine channels (e.g., Pirmez et al. 2000; Mitchell
2005).
These observations can be summarized in a conceptual model of
channel evolution (Fig. 11). This model describes three stages in the early
evolution of a channel from an initially straight, high-gradient channel to
a deeply incised, highly sinuous channel with lower gradient. Observa-
tions supporting the idea that deeply incised channel systems evolved
from high-gradient, linear channel systems include the geometry of the
mature, incised channel valleys, which, although enlarged, still have an
overall linear channel-valley geometry (e.g., Figs. 5, 7), and the
correlation of channel parameters (e.g., sinuosity, gradient, incision)
across all types of channels (e.g., Figs. 9, 10). What is not clear from the
data used in this study, however, is what specific flow types and process
were responsible for channel profile evolution.
Stage 1 corresponds to a low-sinuosity, high-gradient channel, several
tens of meters wide (e.g., Channel 1; Figs. 4, 5, 7). Levees are well defined
along the length of the channel, and the channel axis is slightly incised
into the underlying seafloor. Levee relief contributes up to a few tens of
meters of the total channel relief for Stage 1 channels. The seismic data
(e.g., Figs. 1, 2) indicate that these Stage 1 channels are common in the
study area and are spatially associated with slope striations from which
we postulate that they develop (Fig. 11).
By Stage 2 (Fig. 11), the channel valley has widened to several hundred
meters and it has incised into the slope by several tens of meters. The
incised axis of the channel valley has developed a low to moderate
sinuosity (e.g. Channel 2; Figs. 4, 5, 7), and the combination of incision
FIG. 10.Summary of relationships between sinuosity, gradient, and incision.
A) Variation of channels-axis sinuosity with gradient. Note abrupt increase to peak
sinuosity at 1012 ms (twtt)/km, followed by general decrease in sinuosity with
increasing gradient, and largely straight channel axes above a gradient of 35 ms
(twtt)/km. B) Average value of incision, gradient, and sinuosity for each of the
Channels 14, showing general inverse correlation between channel-axis gradient
and both incision and sinuosity.
SEISMIC GEOMORPHOLOGY OF SUBMARINE CHANNELS 443 J S R
and increased sinuosity has reduced the overall gradient of the channel-
axis long profile. Deepening of the channel valley, together with lateral
erosion of the valley walls by submarine flows, increases instability of the
walls, leading to their collapse, creating an irregular, scalloped
morphology. Channel levees and deposits outside the main channel
valley are recognizable, but they are discontinuous and have lower relief
and lateral extent compared to Stage 1.
By Stage 3 the main channel valley has widened to 23 km wide and it
has incised to several hundred meters deep (Fig. 11). The axis of the
channel valley has become highly sinuous and the combination of incision
and sinuosity has significantly decreased long-profile gradients. The
valley walls have a complex scalloped morphology as a result of
collapse and lateral erosion. These deeply incised channels were probably
able to confine the majority of turbidity currents effectively, focusing
erosion within the channel valley and inhibiting sedimentation adjacent to
the channel on the open slope (e.g., Pirmez et al. 2000). However, the
high-amplitude lobate bodies on the slope, immediately adjacent to the
main channel valley of Channels 3 and 4 (Fig. 7), suggest that some of the
larger submarine flows were able to overspill the main channel valley. The
deeply incised valley that forms in Stage 3 is subsequently affected by
repeat infill and reincision, which further modify valley-wall morphology
and create highly variable channel-fill architecture (e.g., Mayall and
Stewart 2000; Deptuck et al. 2003; Samuel et al. 2003).
CONCLUSIONS
Three-dimensional seismic data from the continental slope, offshore
Angola, allow imaging of a wide range of submarine turbidite channels.
We have focused on the master erosion surface (here termed channel
valley) bounding submarine slope channels to determine the variability in
erosional channel morphology and to assess how these channels may
initiate and evolve. This study complements many previous studies of
submarine channels that, in contrast, are based largely on analysis of the
channel fill.
Based on analysis of the planform and cross-sectional geometry of the
channel valleys, and the long profile, sinuosity, and amount incision of
the channel-valley axis, two end-member channel types have been
recognized: (1) high-gradient, low-sinuosity, narrow channels with
gull-winged levees, and (2) lower-gradient, deeply incised systems with
moderate- to high-sinuosity channel axes.
Quantitative analysis of present-day gradient, sinuosity, and depth of
incision suggests an inverse relationship between channel-axis gradient
and both sinuosity and depth of incision. Sinuosity is highly variable for
a given gradient but shows an overall decrease in sinuosity with increasing
gradient for long-profile gradients between approximately 0.7u and 2u.
For gradients above and below these thresholds, channel axes are
essentially straight.
The long profiles of the channels are typically steep, linear to convex-up
and, thus, quite different from the smooth concave-up long profiles of
many submarine channels such as those associated with the Rhone or
Amazon (e.g., Pirmez et al. 2000). We interpret these complex long
profiles as a response to synsedimentary growth faulting and folding of
the slope due to salt tectonism. The channels tend towards an equilibrium
profile by incising and/or increasing sinuosity across steep channel
reaches, associated with anticline limbs and normal faults, and by
aggrading in lower-gradient reaches within intra-slope basins. Synsedi-
mentary deformation also has a major effect on the location and
planform geometry of the channels. Synsedimentary faults cutting across
channels at high angles cause marked changes in channel-valley width and
channel-axis sinuosity. In contrast, tilting subparallel to the channels
causes marked asymmetry of the morphology of the channel-valley walls,
and in the location and morphology of the channel axis.
We suggest a conceptual model for the evolution of erosional
submarine channels, with an initiation phase linked to the growth of
linear striations, or rills, on the open slope, whereby one or two of the
striations evolve at the expense of others to become submarine channels.
Early in their evolution, the channels are linear, narrow, and steep,
typically a few tens of meters wide and deep. They are characterized by
long profiles that mimic the morphology and gradient of the surrounding
slope, are weakly incised, and are largely confined by levees. These
channels evolve by reducing the initial high long-profile gradient by
incising and becoming more sinuous. As a result, the channels become
progressively more incised and sinuous with maturity, creating channel
valleys several kilometers wide and several hundred meters deep, with
highly sinuous channel axes. A consequence of progressive increase in the
depth of incision is that the channels generally become fixed in position
FIG. 11.Model summarizing the initiation
and evolution of erosional channels. Channels
evolve from rills on the open slope into high-
gradient, low-sinuosity channels that are slightly
incised into the slope and largely confined by
levees. As channels attempt to develop an
equilibrium long profile, they become more
incised and increase sinuosity in order to lower
long-profile channel-axis gradient. As a result
they develop wider, deeply incised channel
valleys, with lower gradient and a high-sinuosity
channel axis.
444 M.J.R. GEE ET AL. J S R
on the slope and submarine flows become increasingly contained within
the channel valleys. Thus, as the channels evolve, levee and overspill
deposits adjacent to the channels become rare.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We are grateful to Total Exploration and Production Angola, Norsk
Hydro, Esso Exploration Angola (Block 17) Ltd., BP Exploration (Angola)
Ltd., Statoil Angola Block 17 A.S., and Sonangol for permission to publish
the 3D seismic data from offshore Angola. We particularly thank Norsk
Hydro for supporting this project, and their long-term support of research in
Manchester. We gratefully acknowledge software donations by Schlumberger
and Paradigm Geophysical to the Basin Studies Group. We thank John
Gjelberg, Gianluca Badalini, Carlos Pirmez, and Lorna Strachan for
interesting discussions about channels and submarine slope processes.
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Received 27 September 2005; accepted 7 December 2006.
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