Characteristics of velocity and excess density profiles of saline underflows and turbidity currents flowing over a mobile bed

Octavio E. Sequeiros, Benoit Spinewine, Rick T. Beaubouef, Tao Sun, Marcelo Horacio Garcia, Gary Parker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Turbidity currents in the ocean and lakes are driven by suspended sediment. The vertical profiles of velocity and excess density are shaped by the interaction between the current and the bed as well as between the current and the ambient water above. We present results of a set of 74 experiments that focus on the characteristics of velocity and fractional excess density profiles of saline density and turbidity currents flowing over a mobile bed. The gravity flows include saline density flows, hybrid saline/turbidity currents and a pure turbidity current. The use of dissolved salt is a surrogate for suspended mud that is so fine that it does not settle out readily. Thus, all the currents can be considered to be model turbidity currents. The data cover both Froude-subcritical and Froude-supercritical regimes. Depending on flow conditions, the bed remains flat or bed forms develop over time, which in turn affect vertical profiles. For plane bed experiments, subcritical flow profiles have velocity peaks located higher up in the flow, and display a sharper interface at the top of the current, than their supercritical counterparts. The latter have excess density profiles that decline exponentially upward from the bed, whereas subcritical flows show profiles with a region near the bed where excess density varies little. Wherever bed forms are present, they have a significant effect on the profiles. Especially for Froude-supercritical flow, bed forms push the location of peak velocity upward, and render the near-bed fractional excess density more uniform. In the case of subcritical flow, bed forms do not significantly affect fractional excess density profiles; velocity profiles are pushed farther upward from the bed than in the case of a plane bed, but to a lesser extent than for supercritical bed forms. Overall, the relative position of the velocity peak above the bed shows a dependence upon flow regime, being lowered for increasing Froude number Fd. Gradient Richardson numbers Rig in the near-bed region increase with increasing Fd, but are lower than the critical value of 0.25, indicating that near-bed turbulent structures are not notably suppressed. At the top interface, values of Rig are above the critical value for subcritical and mildly supercritical Fd, effectively damping turbulence. However as Fd increases, Rig goes below the critical value. Shape factors calculated from the profiles for use in the depth-averaged equation of motion are evaluated for different flow and bed conditions. Normalized experimental profiles for supercritical currents scale up well with observations of field-scale turbidity currents in the Monterey Canyon, and the range of average bed slopes and Froude numbers also compare favorably with estimated field-scale flow conditions for the Amazon canyon and fan. This suggests that the experimental results can be used to interpret the kinds of flows that are responsible for the shaping of major submarine canyon-fan systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number005007QHY
Pages (from-to)412-433
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Hydraulic Engineering
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2010


  • Bedforms
  • Density currents
  • Subcritical flows
  • Supercritical flows
  • Vertical profiles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Mechanical Engineering

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