Quantifying velocity and turbulence structure in depositing sustained turbidity currents across breaks in slope

Thomas E. Gray, Jan Alexander, Mike R. Leeder

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Two-dimensional experiments investigating sediment transport and turbulence structure in sustained turbidity currents that cross breaks in slope are presented as analogue illustrations for natural flows. The results suggest that in natural flows, turbulence generation at slope breaks may account for increased sand transport into basins and that the formation of a hydraulic jump may not be necessary to explain features such as the occurrence of submarine plunge pools and the deposition of coarser-grained beds in the bottomsets of Gilbert-type fan deltas. Experimental flows were generated on 0°, 3°, 6° and 9° slopes of equal length which terminated abruptly on a horizontal bed. Two-component velocities were measured on the slope, at the slope break and downstream of the slope break. Flows were depositional and non-uniform, visibly slowing and thickening with distance downstream. One-dimensional continuous wavelet transforms of velocity time series were used to produce time-period variance maps. Peaks in variance were tested against a background red-noise spectrum at the 95% level; a significant period banding occurs in the cross-wavelet transform at the slope break, attributed to increased formation of coherent flow structures (Kelvin–Helmholtz billows). Variance becomes distributed at progressively longer periods and the shape of the bed-normal-velocity spectral energy distribution changes with distance downstream. This is attributed to a shift towards larger turbulent structures caused by wake stretching. Mean velocity, Reynolds shear stress and turbulent kinetic energy profiles illustrate the mean distribution of turbulence through the currents. A turbulent kinetic energy transfer balance shows that flow non-uniformity arises through the transfer of mean streamwise slowing to mean bed-normal motion through the action of Reynolds normal stresses. Net turbulence production through the action of normal stresses is achieved on steeper slopes as turbulence dissipation due to mean bed-normal motion is limited. At the slope break, an imbalance between the production and dissipation of turbulence occurs because of the contrasting nature of the wall and free-shear boundaries at the bottom and top of the flows, respectively. A rapid reduction in mean streamwise velocity predominately affects the base of the flows and steeper proximal slope flows have to slow more at the break in slope. The increased turbulent kinetic energy, limited bed-normal motion and strong mixing imposed by steep proximal slopes means rapid slowing enhances turbulence production at the break in slope by focusing energy into coherent flow structures at a characteristic period. Thus, mean streamwise slowing is transferred into turbulence production at the slope break that causes increased transport of sediment and a decrease in deposit mass downstream of the slope break. The internal effects of flow non-uniformity therefore can be separated from the external influence of the slope break.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-488
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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