Seismic triggering of landslides and turbidity currents offshore Portugal

TitleSeismic triggering of landslides and turbidity currents offshore Portugal
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsMasson, DG, Arzola, RG, Wynn, RB, Hunt, JE, Weaver, PPE
JournalGeochem. Geophys. Geosyst.
ISBN Number1525-2027
Keywords3002 Marine Geology and Geophysics: Continental shelf and slope processes (4219), 3022 Marine Geology and Geophysics: Marine sediments: processes and transport, 3045 Marine Geology and Geophysics: Seafloor morphology, geology, and geophysics, palaeoseismicity, submarine canyon, turbidites

Sediments in deep water basins often include turbidites that record sediment input from adjacent continental margins. In seismically active areas, where turbidity currents are triggered by earthquakes, the basinal turbidite sequence may thus contain a record of palaeoseismicity, which can be used to infer the frequency of earthquakes affecting the margins of the basin. This is particularly useful where large earthquakes have a recurrence interval than is greater than the historical record. However, turbidity currents can be triggered by several processes, and it is often difficult to trace individual turbidites to their precise source areas and to assign a definite trigger to a particular turbidite. Here, we demonstrate that turbidites emplaced at ∼6600 and ∼8300 Cal yr BP in the Tagus Abyssal Plain, off Portugal, correlate with erosional hiatuses in two submarine canyons on the continental margin. The turbidites are sourced from simultaneous landsliding in both canyons, requiring regional triggers interpreted as earthquakes. An earthquake recurrence interval for the continental margin of ∼4000 years is estimated by extrapolation to deeper turbidites in the basin sequence. However, the example of the 1755 earthquake, which caused widespread devastation in southwest Iberia, shows that palaeoseismic interpretations must be made with caution. The 1755 earthquake had a magnitude 8.5 and yet the associated turbidite in the abyssal plain is typically ∼5 cm thick, while older turbidites can be 1 m thick. Given the large 1755 earthquake magnitude, the difference in turbidite thickness is unlikely to be related to the relative size of triggering earthquakes. Instead, we suggest that the offshore location of the 1755 earthquake, coupled with low sedimentation rates during the Holocene, may have limited the size of the associated turbidite.