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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of

the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

Gemma Ercilla
Belén Alonso
Jesús Baraza
CSIC-Instituto de Ciencias del Mar
Paseo Joan de Borbó, s/n
08039 Barcelona Spain

Abstract tal part (Figs. 1 and 2). The earlier studies reveal the
existence of three submarine canyons located in front of
The distal Orinoco turbidite system (from 4,200 to the mouth of the Orinoco River, east of Trinidad Island
5,000 m water depth) has been surveyed with state-of-art, (Fig. 1), the variable morphologies and trajectories of
high-resolution acoustic techniques, such as the SIMRAD which are controlled by the tectonics of the area (Valerey
EM12 multibeam and the SIMRAD TOPAS ultra high-res- et al., 1985; Faugères et al., 1993). These three canyons
olution parametric echo sounders. New results indicate pass through the Barbados deformation front, and then
that the distal part of this turbidite system shows at least converge into a single channel that turns sharply north-
two active systems of sediment transfer, towards the north
ward, parallel to the foot of the Barbados deformation
and towards the east. Both sediment transfer systems
depict a large sedimentary complex on which channels front (Fig. 1). This single channel becames a system of
with variable sinuosity, degree of incision, and width/relief braided distributary channels further nortward, in the basin
ratio, braided channels, and distal depositional lobes coex- adjacent to the Barbados deformation front (Belderson et
ist even in short distances. Such complexity is the result of al., 1984) (Fig. 2). The braided channels were defined
different patterns of sediment transport of the gravity from seafloor imagery obtained with the GLORIA long
flows within the turbidite system and of different styles of range side-scan sonar system (Fig. 2A). These braided
sedimentation. In addition, the complexity of the east- channels converge again downstream into a single channel
trending distributary system is accentuated by the probable along the base of Barbados deformation front (Belderson
activity of unchannelized turbidity currents whose interac-
et al., 1984). Previous studies by Embley and Langseth
tion with the topography generates a sediment wave field
on the right-hand inner margin of this system. The east- (1977), which were conducted in the area east of the
trending distributary system connects with the Vidal mid- braided system, suggest the presence of turbidite channels
ocean channel, earlier through a channel that now is filled, having an eastward trending course, directed towards the
and at the present time through a bypass zone of unchan- Demerara abyssal plain (Fig. 1). This eastward-trending
nelized debris flows. channel appears connect with the 950 km long, Vidal mid-
ocean channel, which runs northwards and ends into the
Introduction Barracuda abyssal plain (Embley et al., 1970; Baraza et
al., 2000).
The Orinoco turbidite system is located on the northern The objectives of this work were to use multibeam
South America continental margin and extends down to bathymetry and backscatter information from high-resolu-
the basin located to the east of the Barbados deformation
tion subbottom profiles to study the morphology and
front (Fig. 1). This deformation front is the result of the
recent sedimentary processes of the distal (from 4,500 to
convergence between the Atlantic and Caribbean tectonic
plates. The Orinoco turbidite system is mainly fed by the 5,000 m water depth) Orinoco turbidite system, including
Orinoco River, the average sediment discharge of which is both the northward trending, braided channels defined by
approximately 86x106 Ton/yr. (Belderson et al., 1984). Belderson et al. (1984), and the eastward trending turbid-
The Orinoco turbidite system has had little study, and the ite channels identified by Embley and Langseth (1977). In
few existing papers (Belderson et al, 1984; Faugères et al., order to achieve these objectives, morphologic features,
1993; Ercilla et al., 1998) have focussed mainly on its dis- backscatter, and acoustic facies were analyzed.

GCSSEPM Foundation 20th Annual Research Conference 374


Deep-Water Reservoirs of the World, December 3–6, 2000
Ercilla et al.

Figure 1. Bathymetric map showing the canyons identified by Faugères et al. (1993). (1) the turbidite channels of Embley and
Langseth (1977); (2) and the pathway of the Vidal mid-ocean channel; (3) The rectangle refers to the study area.

Methods depth value. Bathymetric data were corrected for the geo-
metric propagation of sound in the stratified water column.
The data presented in this paper were collected Ping rate was approximately once every 100 m, and the
onboard the R/V HESPERIDES during the ORINOCO’97 average sonar footprint was ca. 200x200 m. Ultra-high res-
cruise (Fig. 2 and 3). Bathymetric mapping was under- olution (tens of centimeters) seismic profiles were
taken with a SIMRAD EM12 swath bathymetry echo obtained with a SIMRAD TOPAS (Topographic Paramet-
sounder. This system used a frequency of 12 kHz and ric Sonar, Dybedal and Böe 1994). The penetration of the
transmitted an 81-beam swath having a 120° opening acoustic signal obtained with the TOPAS system varied
angle, providing 81 values of bathymetry across the ship between 35 and 200 ms. The study of these ultra-high res-
track and covering an area of width equivalent to three olution seismic profiles followed the echo character
times the water depth. In addition, the system simulta- concepts established by Damuth (1975), Masson et al.
neously recorded acoustic backscatter amplitude for each (1992), and Kuhn and Weber (1993), among others.

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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

Figure 2. (A) Drainage pattern of the Orinoco deep sea fan at the toe of the Barbados deformation front, as depicted by
GLORIA imaging (after Belderson et al., 1984). (B) Interpretation of EM 12 multibeam bathymetry and backscatter collected
during the ORINOCO’97 Hesperides cruise (for location see part A).

In this paper there are no sedimentological data to cor- this last system, a sediment wave field is identified on
relate to the seismic facies. Therefore the term of gravity right-hand margin. The eastern trending part of the distrib-
flows is used according to Nardin et al. (1979), using the utary system appears to have a direct connection with the
term interchangeably with turbidite flows and other forms westernmost tributaries of the Vidal mid-ocean channel
of mass flows such as debris flows and grain flows. These (Baraza et al., 1998, 2000). In the following paragraphs,
specific types of gravity flows will be only used in those the morphological and sedimentary characteristics of both
cases having clear seismic evidence (i.e., type of acoustic sections, the sediment wave field, and the connection area
facies, geometry, boundaries) that can be compared with with the Vidal id-ocean channel are detailed separately.
the characteristic signature that some of them produce on
high resolution seismic records. The North-Trending Distributary System

Morpho-Sedimentary Analysis This part of the distributary system lies adjacent to the
Barbados deformation front (Fig. 2). The use of ultra-high
The study area on the distal part of the Orinoco turbid- resolution acoustic systems has allowed a detailed study of
ite system includes two parts of the distributary system the braided distributary system defined by Belderson et al.
with well-differentiated orientation (Figs. 2 and 3): (i) The (1984). The new results show that what was imaged as a
more proximal part trends northern and corresponds to the braided system actually is a complex depositional system
braided system defined by Belderson et al. (1984); and (ii) composed of at least one sinuous channel-levee system, a
a east-west system that corresponds to the eastward trend- braided channels, and distal depositional lobes (Ercilla et
ing turbidite channels of Embley and Langseth (1977). In al., 1998) (Fig. 2).

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Ercilla et al.

by discontinuous stratified to chaotic acoustic facies asso-


ciated with a hummocky sea-floor surface. Ercilla et al.
C (1998) establish that the growth pattern of the sinuous
channel shows an overall westward migration of the over-
bank deposits, and eventually of the whole channel-levee
system, so that the youngest deposits are the ones closest
to the toe of the Barbados deformation front. Such a trend
reasonably matches that interpreted from GLORIA imag-
ing (Belderson et al., 1984).
0.1 to > 0.6 The braided channel is located northeast of the sinuous
Sinuous Channel channel-levee, over a gently sloping area (Figs. 2B, 4B,
5A, B). It is defined by an elongated depression orientated
north-south that has 10 km width and 5 m relief (Fig. 5C).
This depression is imaged by the multibeam echo sounder
as a surface composed of high backscatter lineations orien-
tated north-south and surrounded by a surface of medium
backscatter (Fig. 5B). The TOPAS profiles show that this
surface is eroded by several small incisions (~ 1 m relief)
spaced several hundred meters apart that form a rough ero-
0.1 to 0.06
sional surface having a high-amplitude acoustic signature,
Braided Channel and which exhibit subbottom reflections of high amplitude
and short lateral continuity (Fig. 5C). These meter-scale
incisions correspond to the high backscatter lineations
(Ercilla et al., 1998). Such features imaged by the multi-
beam and TOPAS records resemble a braided pattern.
The distal depositional lobes are located to the east of
the braided channel, where the sea-floor surface is essen-
tially flat (Figs. 2, 5A, 5B, 5D). We interpret this
sedimentary feature as a depositional lobe because its
< 0.06
backscatter features resemble those of the distal deposi-
Distal Depositional Lobe tional lobes defined in the Mississippi turbidite system
(Twichell et al., 1992). The multibeam data show a high
Figure 2(C). Schematic block diagrams showing the three backscatter surface having a crenulated boundary, which
morpho-sedimentary features identified in the north-trend- contrasts sharply with the surrounding area characterized
ing distributary system. These features occur within a short by low backscatter (Fig. 5B). Locally, within the low back-
distance from each other, and they seem to the result of dif- scatter area, low-medium and high backscatter north-south
ferences in sea floor gradients. These morpho-sedimentary lineations are identified. The TOPAS profiles indicate that
features are probably genetically-related, however our data the distal depositional lobes are composed of vertically
do nor show whether depositional lobes form at the end of stacked lenticular bodies, with an apparent compensa-
braided channels or at the end of sinuous channel. tional stacking pattern. This pattern is suggested by the
westward migration of the depositional lobe depocenter
The sinuous channel-levee develops in the most proxi- (Fig. 5D). The lenticular bodies are 3 to 5 ms thick, 10 to
mal area of the north-trend distributary system, close to 20 km wide, and are internally composed of transparent
the toe of the Barbados deformation front (Figs. 2B and 4). facies bounded by an irregular, high amplitude surface
It represents the downslope continuation of the canyons (Fig. 5D). On the top of these bodies, metric-scale erosive
running parallel to the deformation front, identified by incisions are identified, which correspond to the high
Valery et al. (1985) and Faugères et al. (1993) (Fig. 1). backscatter lineations.
The sinuous channel-levee has a U-shaped cross-section, a
relief of 20 to 40 m, a width of about 2 km, and is easily The East-Trending Distributary System
followed for more than 45 km (Fig. 4) The channel floor
deposits are acoustically characterised by chaotic reflec- This part of the system is composed of a main channel
tions, and form an irregular sea-floor surface with that trends eastward, is U-shaped in cross-section, has a
prolonged echoes of high-reflectivity and medium to high- well-defined channel floor, and the internal margins form a
backscatter amplitude (Fig. 4B, C). The levees are defined very broad (almost 100 km) gently sloping seafloor

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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

12 N Figure 7A 4800

00
47
4600

Figure 7B

4500

48
00
46 4900
00

45
00

11 N
00

460 47
44

0 00

4400 Figure 8B

430
0
Figure 8A
BACKSCATTER MAP KEY
Boundary channel-floor

4600
High backscatter areas

High backscatter lineations


(sediment waves)
56 W 55 W 54 W
Area covered by EM-12

Figure 3. EM12 multibeam bathymetry and backscatter map of the east-trending distributary system. Heavy tracks correspond
to the profiles in Figures 7 and 8.

(Fig. 6). This channel results from the confluence of a west (Figs. 3 and 6). These thalwegs have a slightly sinu-
smaller channel coming from the northwest and at least ous course and high backscatter floor, and they can be
four smaller channels coming from the southwest (Figs. 3 followed along the floor of the main channel for more than
and 6). The channel coming from the northwest displays 85 km (Figs. 3 and 6). The thalweg near the left margin of
an open, V-shaped cross section, which is 5.5 km wide and the main channel is about 9.5 km wide and 15 km in relief,
has a relief of 10 m. The channel floor is composed of and the thalweg near the right margin is 20 km wide and
hyperbolic and discontinuous stratified facies that form an 12 m in relief.
irregular erosive surface of high acoustic amplitude, and
the margins of this channel consist of a discontinuous From 4,680 to 4,840 m water depth, the main channel
stratified facies (Fig. 6). The four smaller channels coming narrows, becomes more deeply incised and its pathway
from the southwest have less than 10 m in relief and erode turns slightly to the southeast (Figs. 3 and 6). Along this
a high acoustic amplitude, rugged surface (Fig. 6). All sector (155 km long) the main channel has an asymmetric
these small channels merge at 4,500 m water depth to form U-shaped cross-section, the width of which decreases pro-
a single major, eastward trending channel, which is about gressively downstream to a minimum of 9 km and has an
40 km wide and has a relief of up to 60 m ( Figs. 3 and 6). average relief of 35 m (Figs. 2 and 7). The channel floor
Downstream from the confluence, in water depths between deposits have a high acoustic amplitude surface consisting
4,500 and 4,680 m, the floor of the main channel is of mostly subbottom discontinuous stratified and transpar-
defined on the backscatter imagery as an irregular surface ent facies that form tabular and lenticular bodies (2 to 5
of high acoustic amplitude (Fig. 3). The subbottom pro- km wide; Fig. 8A). These facies define an onlapping-
files show that channel floor is composed of chaotic and divergent channel-fill pattern and are overlying a transpar-
hyperbolic facies of high reflectivity (Fig. 3). On the floor ent, laterally continuous layer (< 5 ms thick) that also is
of the main channel, at least two main thalwegs are identi- identified in the margins of the main channel (Fig. 7A). In
fied, which probably represent the final expression of the plan view, the most surficial transparent bodies seems to
smaller channels coming from the northwest and south- define irregular and elongated, high backscatter patches

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Ercilla et al.

Figure 4. (A) EM 12 multibeam bathymetry where the sinuos channel, braided channel and distal depositional lobes (north-
trending distributary system) are identified. Contour interval 5 m. (B) Interpreted EM 12 backscatter image. High backscatter
corresponds to dark tones. (C) High-resolution and line drawing across the sinuous channel. For location see part B of this
figure.

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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

Figure 5. (A) EM12 multibeam bathymetry displaying the sinuous channel of the north-trending distributary system. Contour
interval 5 m. (B) Interpreted EM 12 backscatter image. High backscatter corresponds to dark tones. (C) TOPAS seismic profile
and line drawing across the braided channel. The arrows mark the small incisions that groove the depression forming an
erosional surface. (D) TOPAS seismic profile and line drawing across the distal depositional lobes. The arrows show the
incisions identified at the tops of the lenses. The thickest lines in both line drawings refers to seismic facies described in the text.
The numbers 1 and 2 indicate the westward depocenter migration of the depositional lobes, which suggests an apparent
compensational stacking pattern. For location C and D, see part B of this figure.

(Fig. 3). Locally, where the channel is more incised and confluence with these smaller channels causes the progres-
narrower, the acoustic character of the channel floor also sive widening of the main channel up to 24 km and also
indicates the presence of chaotic facies forming a high changes its cross-section to a smooth U-shape profile that
amplitude and backscatter irregular seafloor (Figs. 3, 6, is up to 26 m in relief (Figs. 3 and 6). These morphologic
and 7B). The channel margin deposits are characterized characteristics continue towards the easternmost limit of
mainly by parallel and subparallel stratified facies interca- the study area for another 31 km. Along this sector the
lated with transparent layers (Fig. 8B). deposits on the floor of the main channel are composed of
Downslope from 4,840 m, the main channel is joined acoustically stratified and transparent facies forming a sea-
by to several smaller (2.5 to 9.5 km wide and 10 to 17 m in floor of high acoustic amplitude and backscatter (Figs. 3
relief) channels that come from the north and northeast and 6). The channel margin deposits are mainly character-
and that exhibit high backscatter floor ( Figs. 3 and 6). The ized by stratified reflections of high lateral continuity.

380
Channel from

4600
NW source

00
45

00
47
12 N 4800

00
4600

47
Channels from 4900

SW source
4500

00
48
4900
00
46

Ercilla et al.
00
45
11 N
00

0
44

460 00
47

4400

Physiographic Map Key


High reflectivity channel
0
courses 430
channel floor

thalweg
Paralell stratified

4600
scarps
margins/turbidite

Undulated stratified
migration
migrating direction
Contour interval: 20 m
sediment
waves
56 W 55 W 54 W

Figure 6. EM12 multibeam bathymetry and surficial acoustic facies map of the east-trending distributary system.
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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System
Figure 7. (A) and (B) TOPAS seismic profiles showing cross-sections of the main channel of the east-trending distributary system respectively at 4,700-4,720 m and 4,800-
4,820 m water depth. For location see Figure 3.
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Ercilla et al.

Sediment Wave Field channel of the Vidal mid-ocean channel (Baraza et al.,
2000; Fig. 9A). The TOPAS profiles show that the high-
The sediment wave field is located on the right-hand backscatter areas correspond to lenticular bodies 3 to 8 ms
margin of the main trending channel, and covers an area of thick and 4 km wide. These bodies are internally defined
by transparent facies, are bounded by high acoustic ampli-
more than 29,000 km2 and is between 70 and 160 km in
tude surfaces, and interrupt the lateral continuity of the
width (Figs. 3, 6, and 8). The right-hand channel margin
surrounding stratified deposits (Fig. 9B). Based on their
where this field is present has gradients less than 0.21º that
dip to the east except in the eastern part where it changes acoustic response, type of boundaries, and geometry, these
sharply in direction, trending north-south and steepening lenticular bodies probably represent mass flow deposits.
eastward (Figs. 3 and 6). The backscatter imaging of the
seafloor shows lineations that can be attributed to the sedi- Discussion
ment waves; the depressions between the crests are imaged
as high backscatter areas while the crests are imaged as
low backscatter areas (Fig. 3). The crests of the sediment The morphologic and sedimentary characteristics of the
waves are aligned northwest-southeast (parallel and sub- two parts of the distributary system belonging to the distal
parallel to the local slope; Figs. 3 and 6). The sediment Orinoco turbidite system suggest that sediment gravity
waves display an asymmetrical profile, range from 0.8 to 9 flows are deflected into two nearly perpendicular direc-
km in wavelength, and are from < 1 to 52 ms in amplitude tions: north-south and east-west. It cannot be determined,
(Fig. 8). A group of nearly perpendicular sediment waves however, whether they are simultaneously active, or
having northeast-southwest orientated crests (oblique to whether they correspond to different sources and/or periods
the slope) is present in the easternmost part, where the of activity. The development of these two orientations
regional topography has a north-south trend (Figs. 3 and could have had a structural influence due to the tectonically
6). The internal structure of the sediment waves is charac- active context on which they develop (convergence
terised by undulated stratified seismic facies formed by the between the Atlantic and the Caribbean tectonic plates).
superposition of asymmetric layers that thin towards the Although the TOPAS records do not show structural fea-
smooth flank of the wave and thicken toward the steep tures affecting the most recent sediments of the distal
flank; there is generally a good lateral continuity between Orinoco turbidite system, we can tentatively consider that
adjacent waves. The sediment layers that form the sedi- the north-trending distributary system could have been
ment waves indicate an upslope migration of the crests controlled by the toe of the Barbados deformation front and
with time (Fig. 8). the east-trending distributary system by the northeast-east
trending regional topography of the continental margin,
Connection Area with the Vidal Mid-Ocean Channel which is conditioned by the Barbados deformation front
and the Demerara Ridge, and/or also by the east -trending
regional topography of the Demerara abyssal plain, which
The east-trending part of the distributary system
develops in a context of fracture zone associated to the
evolves into an area having a practically flat-lying seafloor
where the channel loses its morphological expression Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Figs. 1, 2A, and 2B).
(Fig. 9). Nevertheless, the paleo-pathway of the main The morpho-sedimentary characteristics of the north-
channel can be identified in the subsurface as continuing trending distributary system initially confirm the interpre-
eastward until reaching the Vidal mid-ocean channel. The tation of Belderson et al. (1984) that dense sediment
seismic characteristics of the channel fill seem to be strati- gravity flows form braided channels in this area. Neverthe-
fied facies alternating with transparent facies (Fig. 9B). less, the use of new, ultra high-resolution acoustic
The vertical succession of these facies varies from an techniques indicate that in addition to braided channels
onlap fill configuration restricted to the channel floor to a sinuous channels and distal depositional lobes (in the
parallel fill configuration correlatable between the channel sense of Twichell et al., 1992) are also present (Ercilla et
and margins. al., 1998). We interpret that the distal, north- trending
Although there is no bathymetric evidence of channel- Orinoco turbidite system represents a complex deposi-
ized features in the present-day seafloor of the connection tional system on which at least three types of morpho-
area, the backscatter does not show a featureless seafloor, sedimentary elements, probably genetically related, co-
but the presence of two parallel, high backscatter areas exist in a distance of a few kilometers (Fig. 2). It is not
more than 100 km in length, which contrast with the low possible, however, to determine with confidence if there is
backscatter surrounding area (Fig. 9). These high-back- a downslope progression from sinuous channel to braided
scatter areas extend from the easternmost end of the east- channel to distal depositional lobe, or alternatively there
trending distributary system to the head of a tributary may be parts of the system where braided channels feed

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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

Figure 8. (A) and (B) TOPAS seismic profiles showing the sediment waves developed in the right-hand inner margin of the main
channel of the east-trending distributary system. For location see Figure 3.

distal depositional lobes and other places where sinuous reach the most distal part of the turbidite system, but ter-
channels feed distal depositional lobes. In fact, we can minate in distal depositional lobes (Ercilla et al., 1998;
establish only that these differences reflect real differences Figs. 2, 5A, 5B, and 5D).
in sediment/transport style along the length of the system. Part of the sediment gravity flows originating on the
Previously, Belderson et al. (1984) suggested that the sedi- proximal sectors of the turbidite system, and/or those that
ment gravity flows originated in the proximal Orinoco tur- reach the north-trending distributary system, are deviated
bidite system form incised canyons/channels in those toward the east and contribute to the development of east-
sectors having relatively high gradients (about 0.1º to ward distributary system (Figs. 3 and 6). This system is
>0.6º; Figs. 2C and 4A). Where the seafloor gradients composed of a main channel in which the morpho-sedi-
decrease (about < 0.06º to 0.1º), these gravity flows mentary characteristics change along its course and shows
expand (spread) laterally and form braided channels smaller, sinuous secondary channels circulating along its
(Figs. 2, 5A, 5B, and 5C). Our observations also suggest proximal sector. In spite of the lack of bathymetry data in
that some of these flows do not have enough energy to the transition between the two parts of the system, an

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Ercilla et al.

BACKSCATTER MAP
BACKSCATTER MAP
VIDAL MID-OCEAN
Morphological highs
CHANNEL
Channels

Low Backscatter
areas

High backscatter areas


(gravity flow deposits)

Coverage area with


EM 12
N 12 00

Fig.B
CONNECTION AREA
N 11 20

A
W 53 30 W 53 00 W 52 30

Debris flow deposits


Paleochannel

25 ms
1.5 km B
Figure 9. (A) Interpretation of the backscatter features of the connection area between the east-trending distributary system
and the Vidal Mid-Ocean Channel. The black segment refers to the location of the TOPAS seismic profile on B. (B) TOPAS
seismic profile displaying the paleochannels and the unchannalized debris flow deposits which correspond to the high
backscatter fringes identified on A.

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High Resolution Morpho-Sedimentary Characteristics of the Distal Orinoco Turbidite System

increase in the regional slope gradients toward the east, Vidal mid-ocean channel, and continue down channel as
from a practically flat seafloor to about 0.1º, together with confined gravity flows (Fig. 9).
a change in the regional topographic orientation from The genesis of the sediment wave field developed on
northeast to east are found (Figs. 1 and 3). Both facts the right-hand margin of the east-trending distributary sys-
would favour the eastward escape of gravity flows flowing tem, is still controversial. The formation of sediment
northward, and the increase in their erosive potential. waves on deep marine environments can be associated to
Then, these flows travelling east as channelized sediment three different processes: bottom currents, unchannelized
gravity flows and form the small erosive channels that turbidite currents, and creep folding (Wynn et al., 2000).
converge into the main channel (Figs. 3 and 6). It cannot Each one of these processes originates sediment waves
be determined, however, whether all small channels have having different morpho-sedimentary characteristics.
been simultaneously active or whether they correspond to Based on these characteristics, it is unlikely that the
different periods of activity. observed sediment waves are the result of creep folding,
The morphologic and sedimentary changes (incision, because the thickness of each individual sediment layer
narrowing, channel course trend) shown by the main chan- would have to be continuous along the same wave, which
nel on its eastward course also may have been conditioned is not the case (Fig. 8). It is more difficult to decide
by variation in the energy of the sediment gravity flows. whether the observed sediment waves are formed by the
An increase in the erosive potential of the flows due to a action of bottom currents or by turbidite currents, as both
corresponding increase in the gradient and/or in the sedi- may have similar morphology characteristics. These com-
ment/water discharge would result in the erosion of the mon characteristics include similar dimensions (up to 9
channel walls (increasing the sinuosity) or of the channel km in wavelength and 40 m in amplitude), asymmetry,
floor (decreasing the width/relief ratio; Pirmez and Flood, upslope migration, and crests in general parallel and sub-
1995). The bathymetric data (Fig. 3) reveal that the slight parallel to the regional slope (Figs. 3, 6, and 8). Another
change in course to the southeast (from 4,680 m water morphologic characteristic that is commonly used to dif-
depth) coincides with a decrease in the overall channel ferentiate between sediment waves generated by bottom
gradients (0.11º to 0.06º), which would favour a lateral currents or by turbidity currents is that the latter show a
expansion of the gravity flow filaments. Likewise, a fur- progressive decrease downslope in wavelength and ampli-
ther increase (at 4,840 m water depth) in the channel floor tude. We have not observed such a generalised decrease in
gradients (0.06º to 0.13º) would cause the narrowing and the studied sediment wave field, except locally and sharply
incision of the main channel. for those waves developed close to the channel floor; the
This study presents the first evidence of an existing rest of the waves are characterised by variable wavelengths
functional connection between the easternmost end of the and amplitudes (Fig. 8). As morphologic criteria are con-
east-trending part of the distributary system of the Orinoco troversial in establishing the genesis of the sediment wave
turbidite system and the Vidal mid-ocean channel (Fig. 9). field, sedimentological analysis are presently being done
Earlier, there was a channel connection that now is filled; on two gravity cores recovered on this field (Gonthier,
this filling probably reflects a decrease in gradient on the pers. comm.). The preliminary sedimentological results
Demerara abyssal plain, gradual basin filling, and/or pro- indicate the presence of turbidite levels making up the sed-
gressive decrease in energy and load of the sediment iment waves (Gonthier, pers. comm.), and therefore they
gravity flows that feed the east-trending distributary sys- would point out a turbidite-current origin for this sediment
tem. In spite of this filling, relatively high-energy wave field. Taking into account these preliminary sedi-
processes are still active in the connection area. Recently, mentological results, we can tentatively considered that
this connection occurs in the form of sediment gravity turbidite sediment arrives to the east-trending distributary
flows that do not have the capability of eroding a thalweg, system as unconfined turbidite currents that move downs-
and then remain unconfined. The evolution from confined lope through its right-hand inner margin.
gravity flows coming from the east-trending distributary
system to unconfined gravity flows could be related to
their pass into an open, and practically flat area. Then, this Conclusions
connection area would represent a zone of bypass at the
present time, where the only active sedimentary process is This work presents the results of ultra high resolution
the unconfined transport of high-density gravity flows of acoustic techniques from the distal part of the Orinoco tur-
sediment over a low gradient area. Downslope of this area, bidite system. Two parts of an active sediment transfer
the unconfined sediment fluxes are either merely channel- system have been mapped, one trending north and a sec-
ized by a tributary of the Vidal mid-ocean channel or they ond one trending east. Their development could have been
increase their energy and eroding potential and contribute structurally influenced by the convergence between the
to the excavation of the upper parts of the tributary of the Atlantic and the Caribbean tectonic plates. This structural

386
Ercilla et al.

influence would had conditioned the orientation and gradi- The present work also provides evidence of connection
ents of the regional topography of the continental margin between the easternmost distal Orinoco turbidite system
and the Demerara abyssal plain. These two parts of the and the Vidal mid-ocean channel. Earlier, this connection
system show a complex pattern of morphology and depos- took place via a channel that represented the downslope
its related to sediment gravity flow variations apparently continuation of the east-trending distributary system and
controlled by downstream gradient changes. As a result, in that now is filled. At the present time, the connection area
the north-trending channels having variable sinuosity, is represented by a practically flat lying seafloor that rep-
braided channels and distal depositional lobes co-exist resent a bypass zone of unconfined gravity flows (debris
within short distances. Likewise, downstream changes in flows) that feed the head of a proximal tributary of the
the gradients and consequent pattern of the gravity flows Vidal mid-ocean channel.
could explain the observed changes in the incision and
narrowness of the east-trending part of the system. This Acknowledgments
work, then, demonstrates that a great variety of morpho-
sedimentary features occur in the deep sea and extends the This paper greatly benefited from reviews by Nelson,
spectrum of submarine drainage patterns. C. H., Pirmez, C., and Twichell, D.C.. The research was
supported by the Projects “Márgenes continentales y cuen-
This work also shows for the first time the existence of cas profundas: registro sedimentario de la variabilidad
a large sediment wave field developed in the right-hand climática y paleoambiental” (ref. AMB95-0196), and
inner margin of the east-trending distributary system. The “Canales medio-oceánicos y zonas de fractura: interacción
genesis of the sediments waves is not yet clear as their mutua, evolución reciente de los canales Ecuatorial y
morphologic features are compatible with either bottom Vidal (Atlántico Ecuatorial).” (Ref. ANT95-0889-CO2-
current or turbidite current origins. Nevertheless, prelimi- 01), both of the Spanish “Comisión Interministerial de
nary sedimentological analysis point out a turbidite origin Ciencia y Tecnología” (CICYT). We thank to the Orinoco
as unconfined turbidite currents, probably sourced from Scientific Party for their help in collecting data, and the J.I.
the south American margin east of the Orinoco Delta, that Díaz, E. Tortosa and UGBO team for their assistance dur-
have moved downslope through the margin. ing the cruise.

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