The materials that make up Earth are each products of complex cycles and interactions, as a study of sediment and sedimentation shows. Sediment is unconsolidated material deposited at or near Earth’s surface from a number of sources, most notably preexisting rock. There are three kinds of sediment: chemical, organic, and rock, or clastic sediment. Weathering removes this material from its source, while erosion and mass wasting push it along to a place where it is deposited. After deposition, the material may become a permanent part of its environment, or it may continue to undergo a series of cycles in which it experiences ongoing transformation.
HOW IT WORKS
There are three types of sediment: rocks, or clastic sediment; mineral deposits, or chemical sediment; and organic sediment, composed primarily of organic material. (In this context, the term organic refers to formerly living things and parts or products of living things; however, as discussed in Minerals, the term actually has a much broader meaning.) There are also three general processes involved in the transport of sediment from higher altitudes to lower ones, where they eventually are deposited: weathering, mass wasting, and erosion.
The lines between these three processes are not always clearly drawn, but, in general, the following guidelines apply. When various processes act on the material, causing it to be dislodged from a larger sample (for example, separating a rock from a boulder), this is an example of weathering. Assuming that a rock has been broken apart by weathering, it may be moved farther by mass-wasting processes, such as creep or fall, for which gravity is the driving factor. If the pieces of rock are swept away by a river, high winds, or a glacier (all of which are flowing media), this is an example of erosion.
Weathering is divided further into three different types: physical, chemical, and biological. Physical or mechanical weathering takes place as a result of such factors as gravity, friction, temperature, and moisture. Gravity may cause a rock to roll down a hillside, breaking to pieces at the bottom; friction from particles of matter borne by the wind may wear down a rock surface; and changes in temperature and moisture can cause expansion and contraction of materials.
Whereas physical weathering attacks the rock as a whole, chemical weathering involves the breakdown of the minerals or organic materials that make up the rock. Chemical breakdown may lead to the dissolution of the materials in the rock, which then are washed away by water or wind or both, or it may be merely a matter of breaking the materials down into simpler compounds.
Biological weathering is not so much a third type of weathering as it is a manifestation of chemical and physical breakdown caused by living organisms. Suppose, for instance, that a plant grows within a crack in a rock. Over time, the plant will influence physical weathering through its moisture and the steady force of its growth pushing at the walls of the fissure in which it is rooted. At the same time, its specific chemical properties likely will induce decomposition of the rock.
Sediment can be transported by weathering, erosion, and mass wasting. Here a winter storm has caused coastal erosion of a beach.
Mass wasting, sometimes known as mass movement, comprises a number of types of movement of earth material, all of them driven by gravity. Creep is the slow downward drift of regolith (unconsolidated material produced by weathering), while slump occurs when a mass of regolith slides over, or creates, a concave surface—that is, one shaped like the inside of a bowl. Slump sometimes is classified as a variety of slide, in which material moves downhill in a fairly coherent mass along a flat or planar surface. Such movements, sometimes called rock slides, debris slides, or landslides, are among the most destructive types of mass wasting.
When a less uniform, or more chaotic, mass of material moves rapidly down a slope, it is called flow. Flow is divided into categories, depending on the specific amounts of water: granular flows (0-20% water) and slurry flows (20-40% water), the fastest varieties of which are debris avalanche and mudflow, respectively. Mudflows can be more than 60 mi. (100 km) per hour, while debris avalanches may achieve speeds of 250 mi. (400 km) per hour.
Even these high-speed varieties of mass wasting entail movement along slopes that are considerably less than 90°, whereas a final variety of mass wasting, that is, fall, takes place at angles almost perpendicular to the ground. Typically the bottom of a slope or cliff contains accumulated talus, or fallen rock material. Nor is fall limited to rock fall: debris fall, which is closely related, includes soil, vegetation, and regolith as well as rocks. (For more on these subjects, see Mass Wasting.)
Erosion typically is caused either by gravity (in which case it is generally known as mass wasting, discussed earlier) or by flowing media, such as water, wind, and even ice in glaciers. It removes sediments in one of three ways: by the direct impact of the agent (i.e., the flowing media that is discussed in the following sections); by abrasion, another physical process; or by corrosion, a chemical process.
In the case of direct impact, the wind, water, or ice removes sediment, which may or may not be loose when it is hit. On the other hand, abrasion involves the impact of solid earth materials carried by the flowing agent rather than the impact of the flowing agent itself. For example, sand borne by the wind, as discussed later, or pebbles carried by water may cause abrasion.
Corrosion is chemical and is primarily a factor only in water-driven, as opposed to wind-driven or ice-driven, erosion. Streams slowly dissolve rock, removing minerals that are carried downstream by the water.
Of the fluid substances driving erosion, liquid water is perhaps the one most readily associated in most people’s minds with erosion. In addition to the erosive power of waves on the seashore, there is the force exerted by running water in creeks, streams, and rivers. As a river moves, pushing along sediment eroded from the streambeds or riverbeds, it carves out deep chasms in the bedrock beneath.
Moving bodies of water continually reshape the land, carrying soil and debris down slopes, from the source of the river to its mouth, or delta. A delta is a region formed when a river enters a larger body of water, at which point the reduction in velocity on the part of the river current leads to the widespread deposition of sediment. It is so named because its triangular shape resembles that of the Greek letter delta, A.
Water at the bottom of a large body, such as a pond or lake, also exerts erosive power; then there is the influence of falling rain. Assuming that the ground is not protected by vegetation, raindrops can loosen particles of soil, sending them scattering in all directions. A rain that is heavy enough may dislodge whole layers of top-soil and send them rushing away in a swiftly moving current. The land left behind may be rutted and scarred, much of its best soil lost for good.
Ice, of course, is simply another form of water, but since it is solid, its physical properties are quite different. It is a solid rather than a fluid, such as liquid water or air (the physical sciences treat gases and liquids collectively as “fluids”), yet owing to the enormous volume of ice in glaciers, these great masses are capable of flowing. Glaciers do not flow in the same way as a fluid does; instead, they are moved by gravity, and like giant bulldozers made of ice, they plow through rock, soil, and plants.
Under certain conditions a glacier may have a layer of melted water surrounding it, which greatly enhances its mobility. Even without such lubricant, however, these immense rivers of ice move steadily forward, gouging out pieces of bedrock from mountain slopes, fashioning deep valleys, removing sediment from some regions and adding it to others. In unglaciated areas, or places that have never experienced any glacial activity, sediment is formed by the weathering and decomposition of rock. On the other hand, formerly glaciated areas are distinguished by layers of till, or glacial sediment, from 200 to 1,200 ft. (61-366 m) thick.
The processes of wind erosion sometimes are called eolian processes, after Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. Eolian erosion is in some ways less forceful than the erosive influence of water. Water, after all, can lift heavier and larger particles than can the winds. Wind, however, has a much greater frictional component in certain situations. This is particularly true when the wind carries sand, every grain of which is like a cutting tool.
Wind erosion, in fact, is most pronounced in precisely those places where sand abounds, in deserts and other areas that lack effective ground cover in the form of solidly rooted, prevalent vegetation. In some desert regions the bases of rocks or cliffs have been sandblasted, leaving a mushroom-shaped formation owing to the fact that the wind could not lift the fine grains of sand very high.
Eroded particles become part of what is called the sediment load transported by the fluid medium. Sediment load falls into three categories: dissolved load, suspended load, and bed load. The amount of each type of load that a fluid medium is capable of carrying depends on the density of the fluid medium itself: in other words, wind can carry the least of each and ice the most.
The wind does not carry any dissolved load, since solid particles (unlike gases) cannot be dissolved in air. Ice or water, on the other hand, is able to dissolve materials, which become invisible within them. Typically, about 90% of the dissolved load in a river is accounted for by five different ions, or atoms that carry a net electric charge: the anions (negative ions) chloride, sulfate, and bicarbonate and the cations (positive ions) of sodium and calcium.
Suspended load is sediment that is suspended, or floating, in the erosive medium. In this instance, wind is just as capable as water or ice of suspending particles of the sediment load, which are likely to color the medium that carries them. Hence, water or wind carrying suspended particles is usually murky. The thicker the medium, the larger the particles it is capable of suspending. In other words, ice can suspend extremely large pieces of sediment, whereas water can suspend much more modest ones. Wind can suspend only tiny particles.
Then there is bed load, large sediment that never becomes suspended but rather is almost always in contact with the substrate or bottom, whether “the bottom” is a streambed or the ground itself. Instead of being lifted up by the medium, bed load is nudged along, rolling, skipping, and sliding as it makes its way over the substrate. Once again, the density of the medium itself has a direct relationship to the size of the bed load it is capable of carrying. Wind rarely transports bed load thicker than fine sand, and water usually moves only pebbles, though under flood conditions it can transport boulders. As with suspended load, glaciers can transport virtually any size of bed load.
Sediment Sizes and Shapes
Geologists and sedimentologists use certain terms to indicate sizes of the individual particles in sediment. Many of these terms are familiar to us from daily life, but whereas people typically use them in a rather vague way, within the realm of sedimentology they have very specific meanings. Listed below are the various sizes of rock, each with measurements or measurement ranges for the rock’s diameter:
• Clay: Smaller than 0.00015 in. (0.004 mm)
• Silt: 0.00015 in. (0.004 mm) to 0.0025 in. (0.0625 mm)
• Sand: 0.0025 in. (0.0625 mm) to 0.08 in. (2
• Pebble: 0.08 in. (2 mm) to 2.5 in. (64 mm)
• Cobble: 2.5 in. (64 mm) to 10 in. (256 mm)
• Boulder: Larger than 10 in. (256 mm).
This listing is known as the Udden-Went-worth scale, which was developed in 1898 by J.A. Udden (1859-1932), an American sedimentary petrologist (a scientist who studies rocks). In 1922 the British sedimentary petrologist C. K. Wentworth) expanded Udden’s scale, adapting the definitions of various particle sizes to fit more closely with the actual usage and experience of researchers in the field. The scale uses modifiers to pinpoint the relative sizes of particles. In ascending order of size, these sizes are very fine, fine, medium, coarse, and very coarse.
Sediments and Dust Bowls
Sediment makes possible the formation of soil, which of course is essential for growing crops. Therefore it is a serious matter indeed when wind and other forces of erosion remove sediment, creating dust-bowl conditions. The term “Dust Bowl,” with capital letters, refers to the situation that struck the United States Great Plains states during the 1930s, devastating farms and leaving thousands of families without home or livelihood. (See Erosion for much more about the Dust Bowl.)
During the late 1990s, some environmentalists became concerned that farming practices in the western United States were eroding sediment, putting in place the possibility of a return to the conditions that created the Dust Bowl. However, in August 1999, the respected journal Science reported studies showing that sediment in farmlands was not eroding at anything like the rate that had been feared. Soil scientist Stanley Trimble at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied Coon Creek, Wisconsin, and its tributaries, a watershed for which 140 years’ worth of erosion data were available. As Trimble discovered, the rate of sediment erosion in the area had dramatically decreased since the 1930s, and was now at 6% of the rate during the Dust Bowl years.
Some studies from the 1970s onward had indicated that farming techniques, designed to improve the crop output from the soil, had created a situation in which sediment was being washed away at alarming rates. However, if such sediment removal were actually taking place, there would have to be some evidence—if nothing more, the sediment that had been washed away would have had to go somewhere. Instead, as Trimble reported, “We found that much of the sediment in Coon Creek doesn’t move very far, and that it moves in complex ways.” The sediment, as he went on to explain, was moving within the Coon Creek basin, but the amount that actually made it to the Mississippi River (which could be counted as true erosion, since it was removing sediment from the area) had stayed essentially the same for the past 140 years.
Sedimentary structures remaining in a dried river bed. Clay soils crack as they lose moisture and contract when trapped water evaporates as the result of drought.
Deposition and Depositional Environments
Eventually everything in motion—including sediment—comes to rest somewhere. A piece of sediment traveling on a stream of water may stop hundreds of times, but there comes a point when it comes to a complete stop. This process of coming to rest is known as deposition, which may be of two types, mechanical or chemical. The first of these affects clastic and organic sediment, while the second applies (fittingly enough) to chemical sediment.
In mechanical deposition, particles are deposited in order of their relative size, the largest pieces of bed load coming to a stop first.
These large pieces are followed by medium-size pieces and so on until both bed load and suspended load have been deposited. If the sediment has come to a full stop, as, for instance, in a stagnant pool of water, even the finest clay suspended in the water eventually will be deposited as well.
Unlike mechanical deposition, chemical deposition is not the result of a decrease in the velocity of the flow; rather, it comes about as a result of chemical precipitation, when a solid particle crystallizes from a fluid medium. This often happens in a saltwater environment, where waters may become overloaded with salt and other minerals. In such a situation, the water is unable to maintain the minerals in a dissolved state (i.e., in solution) and precipitates part of its content in the form of solids.
The matter of sediment deposition in water is particularly important where reservoirs are concerned, since in that case the water is to be used for drinking, cooking, bathing, and other purposes by humans. One of the biggest problems for the maintenance of clean reservoirs is the transport of sediment from agricultural areas, in which the soil is likely to contain pesticides and other chemicals, including the phosphorus found in fertilizer. A number of factors, including precipitation, topography, and land use, affect the rate at which sediment is deposited in reservoirs.
The area in which sediment is deposited is known as its depositional environment, of which there are three basic varieties: terrestrial, marginal marine, and marine. These are, respectively, environments on land (and in landlocked waterways, such as creeks or lakes), along coasts, and in the open ocean. A depositional environment may be a large-scale one, known as a regional environment, or it may be a smaller subenvironment, of which there may be hundreds within a given regional environment.
There are many characteristic physical formations, called sedimentary structures, that sediment forms after it has reached a particular depositional environment. These formations include bedding planes and beds, channels, cross-beds, ripples, and mud cracks. A bed is a layer, or stratum, of sediment, and bedding planes are surfaces that separate beds. The bedding plane indicates an interruption in the regular order of deposition. (These are concepts that also apply to the field of stratigraphy. For more on that subject, see the essay Stratigraphy.)
Channels are simply depressions in a bed that reflect the larger elongated depression made by a river as it flows along its course. Cross-beds are portions of sediment that are at an angle to the beds above and below them, as a result of the action of wind and water currents—for example, in a flowing stream. As for ripples, they are small sandbar-like protuberances that form perpendicular to the direction of water flow. At the beach, if you wade out into the water and look down at your feet, you are likely to see ripples perpendicular to the direction of the waves. Finally, mud cracks are the sedimentary structures that remain when water trapped in a muddy pool evaporates. The clay, formerly at the bottom of the pool, begins to lose its moisture, and as it does, it cracks.
The Impact of Sediment
It is estimated that the world’s rivers carry as much as 24 million tons (21,772,800 metric tons) of sediment to the oceans each year. There is also the sediment carried by wind, glaciers, and gravity. Where is it all going? The answer depends on the type of sediment. Clastic and organic sediment may wind up in a depositional environment and experience compaction and cementation in the process of becoming sedimentary rock. (For more on sedimentary rock, see Rocks.)
On the other hand, clastic and organic particles may be buried, but before becoming lithified (turned to rock), they once again may be exposed to wind and other forces of nature, in which case they go through the entire cycle again: weathering, erosion, transport, deposition, and burial. This cycle may repeat many times before the sediment finally winds up in a permanent deposi-tional environment. In the latter case, particles of clastic and organic sediment ultimately may become part of the soil, which is discussed elsewhere in this topic (See Soil).
A chemical sediment also may become part of the soil, or it may take part in one or more bio-geochemical cycles (also discussed elsewhere; see Biogeochemical Cycles). These chemicals may wind up as water in underground reservoirs, as ice at Earth’s poles, as gases in the atmosphere, as elements or compounds in living organisms, or as parts of rocks. Indeed, all three types of sediment—clastic, chemical, and organic—are part of what is known as the rock cycle, whereby rocks experience endlessly repeating phases of destruction and renewal. (See Rocks for more details.)
Sedimentary Mineral Deposits
Among the most interesting aspects of sediment are the mineral deposits it contains—deposits that may, in the case of placer gold, be of significant value. A placer deposit is a concentration of heavy minerals left behind by the effect of gravity on moving particles, and since gold is the densest of all metals other than uranium (which is even more rare), it is among the most notable of placer deposits.
Bed load: Sediment that is capable of being transported by an erosive medium (wind, water, or air) but only under conditions in which it remains in nearly constant contact with the substrate or bottom (e.g., a streambed or the ground). Bed load, along with dissolved load and suspended load, is one of three types of sediment load.
Compound: A substance made up of atoms of more than one element chemically bonded to one another.
Consolidation: A process whereby materials become compacted, or experience an increase in density. This takes place through a number of processes, including recrystallization and cementation.
Deposition: The process whereby sediment is laid down on the Earth’s surface.
Diagenesis: A term referring to all the changes experienced by a sediment sample under conditions of low temperature and low pressure following deposition.
Dissolved load: Sediment load that is absorbed completely by the erosive medium (either water or ice) that carries it. Dissolved load is one of three types of sediment load, the others being suspended load and bed load.
Erosion: The movement of soil and rock due to forces produced by water, wind, glaciers, gravity, and other influences. In most cases, a fluid medium, such as air or water, is involved.
Fluid: In the physical sciences, the term fluid refers to any substance that flows and therefore has no definite shape—that is, both liquids and gases. Occasionally, substances that appear to be solid (for example, ice in glaciers), in fact, are flowing slowly; therefore, within the earth sciences, ice often is treated as another fluid medium.
Ion: An atom or group of atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons and thus has a net electric charge. Positively charged ions are called cations, and negatively charged ones are called anions.
Mass wasting: The transfer of earth material down slopes by processes that include creep, slump, slide, flow, and fall. Also known as mass movement.
Mineral: A naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and a crystalline structure.
Organic: At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon, with the exception of carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides, such as carbon dioxide.
Precipitation: In the context of chemistry, precipitation refers to the formation of a solid from a liquid.
Regolith: A general term describing a layer of weathered material that rests atop bedrock.
Rock: An aggregate of minerals or organic matter, which may be consolidated or unconsolidated.
Sediment: Material deposited at or near Earth’s surface from a number of sources, most notably preexisting rock. There are three types of sediment: rocks, or clastic sediment; mineral deposits, or chemical sediment; and organic sediment, composed primarily of organic material.
Sedimentary rock: One of the three major types of rock, along with igneous and metamorphic rock. Sedimentary rock usually is formed by the deposition, compaction, and cementation of rock that has experienced weathering. It also may be formed as a result of chemical precipitation.
Sedimentation: The process of erosion, transport, and deposition undergone by sediment.
Sediment load: A term for the particles transported by a flowing medium of erosion (wind, water, or ice). The types of sediment load are dissolved load, suspended load, and bed load.
Sedimentology: The study and interpretation of sediments, including sedimentary processes and formations.
Suspended load: Sediment that is suspended, or floating, in the erosive medium (wind, water, or ice). Suspended load is one of three types of sediment load, along with dissolved load and bed load.
Till: A general term for the sediments left by glaciers that lack any intervening layer of melted ice.
Unconsolidated rock: Rock that appears in the form of loose particles, such as sand.
Weathering: The breakdown of rocks and minerals at or near the surface of Earth due to physical, chemical, or biological processes.
Of course, the fact that gold is valuable has done little to hurt, and a great deal to help, human fascination with placer gold deposits. Placer gold played a major role from the beginning of the famous California Gold Rush (1848-49), which commenced with discovery of a placer deposit by prospector James Marshall on January 24, 1848, along the American River near the town of Coloma. This discovery not only triggered a vast gold rush, as prospectors came from all over the United States in search of gold, but it also proved a major factor in the settlement of the West. Most of the miners who went to the West failed to make a fortune, of course, but instead they found something much better than gold: a gorgeous, fertile land like few places in the United States—California, a place that today holds every bit as much allure for many Americans as it did in 1848.
Despite the attention it naturally attracts, gold is far from the only placer mineral. Other placer minerals, all with a high specific gravity (density in comparison to that of water), include platinum, magnetite, chromite, native copper, zircon, and various gemstones. Nor are placer minerals found only in streams and other flowing bodies of water; wave action and shore currents can leave behind what are called beach placers. Among the notable beach placers in the world are gold deposits near Nome, Alaska, as well as zircon in Brazil and Australia, and marine gravel near Namaqualand, South Africa, which contains diamond particles.
An entirely different process can result in the formation of evaporites, minerals that include carbonates, gypsum, halites, and magnesium and potassium salts. (These specific mineral types are discussed in Minerals.) Formed when the evaporation of water leaves behind ionic, or electrically charged, chemical compounds, evaporites sometimes undergo physical processes similar to those of clastic sediment. They may even have graded bedding, meaning that the heavier materials fall to the bottom. In addition to their usefulness in industry and commerce (e.g., the use of gypsum in sheetrock for building), physical and chemical aspects of evaporites also provide scientists with considerable information regarding the past climate of an area.