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Sediment is any particulate matter that can be transported by fluid flow and which eventually is deposited as a layer of solid particles on the bed or bottom of a body of water or other liquid. Sedimentation is the deposition by settling of a suspended material.
Sediments are also transported by wind (eolian) and glaciers. Desert sand dunes and loess are examples of aeolian transport and deposition. Glacial moraine deposits and till are ice transported sediments. Simple gravitational collapse also creates sediments such as talus and mountainslide deposits as well as karst collapse features.
Seas, oceans, and lakes accumulate sediment over time. The material can be terrigenous (originating on the land) or marine (originating in the ocean). Deposited sediments are the source of sedimentary rocks, which can contain fossils of the inhabitants of the body of water that were, upon death, covered by accumulating sediment. Lake bed sediments that have not solidified into rock can be used to determine past climatic conditions.
Rivers and streams
If a fluid, such as water, is flowing, it can carry suspended particles. The settling velocity is the minimum velocity a flow must have in order to transport, rather than deposit, sediments, and is given by Stoke's Law:
where w is the settling velocity, ρ is density (the subscripts p and f indicate particle and fluid respectively), g is the acceleration due to gravity, r is the radius of the particle and μ is the dynamic viscosity of the fluid.
If the flow velocity is greater than the settling velocity, sediment will be transported downstream as suspended load. As there will always be a range of different particle sizes in the flow, some will have sufficiently large diameters that they settle on the river or stream bed, but still move downstream. This is known as bed load and the particles are transported via such mechanisms as saltation (jumping up into the flow, being transported a short distance then settling again), rolling and sliding. Saltation marks are often preserved in solid rocks and can be used to estimate the flow rate of the rivers that originally deposited the sediments.
Any particle that is larger in diameter than approximately 0.7 mm will form visible topographic features on the river or stream bed. These are known as bedforms and include ripples, dunes, plane beds and antidunes. See bedforms for more detail. Again, bedforms are often preserved in sedimentary rocks and can be used to estimate the direction and magnitude of the depositing flow.
Key depositional environments
The major fluvial (river and stream) environments for deposition of sediments include:
- Deltas (arguably an intermediate environment between fluvial and marine)
- Alluvial fans
- Braided rivers
- Oxbow lakes
Shores and shallow seas
The second major environment where sediment may be suspended in a fluid is in seas and oceans. The sediment could consist of terrigenous material supplied by nearby rivers and streams or reworked marine sediment (e.g. sand). In the mid-ocean, living organisms are responsible for the sediment accumulation, their shells sinking to the ocean floor upon death.
Marine environments also see the formation of bedforms, whose characteristics are influenced by the tide.
Key depositional environments
The major areas for deposition of sediments in the marine environment include:
- Littoral sands (e.g. beach sands, coastal bars and spits, largely clastic with little faunal content)
- The continental shelf (silty clays, increasing marine faunal content).
- The shelf margin (low terrigenous supply, mostly calcareous faunal skeletons)
- The shelf slope (much more fine-grained silts and clays)
One other depositional environment which is a mixture of fluvial and marine is the turbidite system, which is a major source of sediment to the ocean shelf and basins.
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