Oceanic sediments

Pelagic sediments

The term pelagic refers to the open ocean, and in the context of sedimentology, pelagic sediments are made up of suspended material that was floating in the ocean, away from shorelines, and has settled on the sea floor. This sediment comprises terrigenous dust, mainly clay and some silt-sized particles blown from land areas by winds, very fine volcanic ash, particularly from major eruptions that send fine ejecta high into the atmosphere, and airborne particulates from fires, mainly black carbon. It also includes bioclastic material that may be the remains of calcareous organisms, such as foraminifers and coccoliths, and the siliceous skeletons of Radiolaria and diatoms. All of these particles reside in the ocean water in suspension, moved around by currents near to the surface, but when they reach quieter, deeper water they gradually fall down through the water column to settle on the seabed. The origin of the terrigenous clastic material is airborne dust, and much of this is likely to have come from desert areas. The particles are therefore oxidised and the resulting sediments are usually a dark red-brown colour. These ‘red clays’ are made up of 75% to 90% clay minerals and they are relatively rich in iron and manganese. They lithify to form red or red-brown mudstones. These pelagic red mudrocks are a good example of how the colour of a sedimentary rock should be interpreted with caution: it is tempting to think of all red beds as continental deposits, but these deep-sea facies are red too. The accumulation rate of pelagic clays is very slow, typically only 1 to 5 mm/yr , which means it could take up to a million years of continuous sedimentation to form just a metre of sediment. Pelagic sediments with a biogenic origin are the most abundant type in modern oceans, and two groups of organisms are particularly common in modern seas and are very commonly found in strata of Mesozoic and Cenozoic age as well. Foraminifera are single-celled animals that include a planktonic form with a calcareous shell about a millimetre or a fraction of a millimetre across. Algae belonging to the group chrysophyta include coccoliths that have spherical bodies of calcium carbonate a few tens of microns across; organisms this size are commonly referred to as nanoplankton. The hard parts of these organisms are the main contributors to finegrained deposits that form calcareous ooze on the sea bed: where one group is dominant the deposits may be called a nanoplankton ooze or foraminiferal ooze. Calcareous oozes accumulate at rates ten times that of pelagic clays, around 3 to 50 mm/yr . This sediment consolidates to form a fine-grained limestone, which is a lime mudstone using the Dunham Classification, although these deposits are often called pelagic limestones. The foraminifers are normally too small to be seen with the naked eye, and the coccoliths are only recognisable using an electron microscope.

An electron microscope is also required to see any details of the siliceous biogenic material: diatoms are only 5 to 50 mm across while Radiolaria are 50 to 500 mm, so the larger ones can be seen with the naked eye. They are made of opal, a hydrated amorphous form of silica that is relatively soluble, and diatoms in particular are often dissolved. Accumulations of this material on the sea floor are known as siliceous ooze and they form more slowly than calcareous oozes, at between 2 and 10 mm/yr . Upon lithification siliceous oozes form chert beds. The opal is not stable and readily alters to another form of silica such as chalcedony, which makes up the chert rock. Deep sea cherts are distinctive, thinly bedded hard rocks that may be black due to the presence of fine organic carbon, or red if there are terrigenous clays present. The Radiolaria can often be seen as very fine white spots within the rock and where this is the case they are referred to as radiolarian chert. These beds formed from the lithification of a siliceous ooze deposited in deep water (primary chert) should be distinguished from chert formed as nodules due to a diagenetic silicification of a rock (secondary chert). Secondary cherts are developed in a host sediment (usually limestone) and have an irregular nodular shape: they do not provide information about the depositional environment but may be important indicators of the diagenetic history.

Distribution of pelagic deposits

Pelagic sediments form a significant proportion of the succession only in places that do not receive sediment from other sources, so any ocean areas close to margins tend to be dominated by sediment derived from the land areas, swamping out the pelagic deposits. The distribution of terrigenous and bioclastic material on the ocean floors away from the margins is determined by the supply of the airborne dust, the biogenic productivity of carbonate-forming organisms, the productivity of siliceous organisms, the water depth and the ocean water circulation. The highest productivity of the biogenic material is in the warmer waters near the Equator and also in areas where there is a good supply of nutrients provided by ocean currents. In these regions there is a continuous ‘rain’ of calcareous and, to a much lesser extent, siliceous biogenic material down towards the sea floor: this ‘rain’ is less intense in cooler regions or areas with less nutrient supply. The solubility of calcium carbonate is partly dependent on pressure as well as temperature. At higher pressures and lower temperatures the amount of calcium carbonate that can be dissolved in a given mass of water increases. In oceans the pressure becomes greater with depth of water and the temperature drops so the solubility of calcium carbonate also increases. Near the surface most ocean waters are near to saturation with respect to calcium carbonate: animals and plants are able to extract it from seawater and precipitate either aragonite or calcite in shells and skeletons. As biogenic calcium carbonate in the form of calcite falls through the water column it starts to dissolve at depths of around 3000 m and in most modern oceans will have been completely dissolved once depths of around 4000 m are reached. This is the calcite compensation depth (CCD). Aragonite is more soluble than calcite and an aragonite compensation depth can be defined at a higher level in the water column than a calcite compensation depth. The calcite compensation depth is not a constant level throughout the world’s oceans today. The capacity for seawater to dissolve calcium carbonate depends on the amount that is already in solution, so in areas of high biogenic productivity the water becomes saturated with calcium carbonate to greater depths and higher pressures are required to put the excess of ions into solution. The depth of the CCD is also known to vary with the temperature of the water and the degree of deep water circulation that is present.

Above the CCD the remains of the less abundant siliceous organisms are swamped out by the carbonate material; below the CCD the skeletons of Radiolaria can form the main biogenic component of a pelagic sediment. High concentrations of siliceous organisms need not always indicate deep waters. The cold waters of polar regions favour diatoms over calcareous plankton and in pre-Mesozoic strata calcareous foraminifers and nanoplankton are not present. At water depths of around 6000 m the opaline silica that makes up radiolarians and diatoms is subject to dissolution because of the pressure and an opal compensation depth (or silica compensation depth) can be recognised. In the deepest ocean waters it may be expected that only pelagic clays would be deposited. In some parts of the world’s oceans this is the case, and there are successions of red-brown mudrocks in the stratigraphic record that are interpreted as hadal (very deep water) deposits. In some instances, these deepwater mudstones include thin beds of limestone and chert: radiolarian chert beds also sometimes include thin limestone beds. The occurrence of these beds might be explained in terms of fluctuations in the compensation depths, but a simpler explanation is that these deposits are actually turbidites and this can be verified by the presence of a very subtle normal grading within the beds. Carbonate, for example, can be deposited at depths below the CCD if it is introduced by a mechanism other than settling through the water column. If the material is brought into deep water by turbidity currents it will pass through the CCD quickly and will be deposited rapidly. The top of a calcareous turbidite may subsequently start to dissolve at the sea floor, but the waters close to the sea floor will soon become saturated with the mineral and little dissolution of a calcareous turbidite deposit occurs.

Hemipelagic deposits

Fine-grained sediment in the ocean water that has been directly derived from a nearby continent is referred to as hemipelagic. It consists of at least 25% non-biogenic material. Hemipelagic deposits are classified as calcareous if more than 30% of the material is carbonate, terrigenous if more than half is detritus weathered from the land and there is less than 30% carbonate, or volcanigenic if more than half is of volcanic origin, with less than 30% of the material carbonate. Most of the material is brought into the oceans by currents from the adjacent landmass and is deposited at much higher rates than pelagic deposits (between 10 and over 100mm/yr ). Storm events may cause a lot of shelf sediment to be reworked and redistributed by both geostrophic currents and sediment gravity underflows. A lot of hemipelagic material is also associated with turbidity currents: mixing of the density current with the ocean water results in the temporary suspension of fine material and this remains in suspension for long after the turbidite has been deposited. The provenance and hence the general composition of the hemipelagic deposit will be the same as that of the turbidite. Consolidated hemipelagic sediments are mudrocks that may be shaly and can have a varying proportion of fine silt along with dominantly clay-sized material. The provenance of the material forms a basis for distinguishing hemipelagic and pelagic deposits: the former will be compositionally similar to other material derived from the adjacent continent, whereas pelagic sediments will have a different composition. Clay mineral and geochemical analyses can be used to establish the composition in these cases. Mudrocks interbedded with turbidites are commonly of hemipelagic origin, representing a long period of settling from suspension after the short event of deposition directly from the turbidity current.

Chemogenic sediments

A variety of minerals precipitate directly on the sea floor. These chemogenic oceanic deposits include zeolites (silicates), sulphates, sulphides and metal oxides. The oxides are mainly of iron and manganese, and manganese nodules can be common amongst deep-sea deposits. The manganese ions are derived from hydrothermal sources or the weathering of continental rocks, including volcanic material, and become concentrated into nodules a few millimetres to 10 or 20 cm across by chemical and biochemical reactions that involve bacteria. This process is believed to be very slow, and manganese nodules may grow at a rate of only a millimetre every million years. They occur in modern sediments and in sedimentary rocks as rounded, hard, black nodules. At volcanic vents on the sea floor, especially in the region of ocean spreading centres, there are specialised microenvironments where chemical and biological activity result in distinctive deposits. The volcanic activity is responsible for hydrothermal deposits precipitated from water heated by the magmas close to the surface. Seawater circulates through the upper layers of the crust and at elevated temperatures it dissolves ions from the igneous rocks. Upon reaching the sea floor, the water cools and precipitates minerals to form deposits localised around the hydrothermal vents: these are black smokers rich in iron sulphide and white smokers composed of silicates of calcium and barium that form chimneys above the vent several metres high. The communities of organism that live around the vents are unusual and highly specialised: they include bacteria, tubeworms, giant clams and blind shrimps. Ancient examples of mid-ocean hydrothermal deposits have been found in ophiolite suites but fossil fauna are sparse.


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