Sediment and Sedimentation - How it works

Transporting Sediment

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

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properties likely will induce decomposition of the rock.


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, Δ .

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.

Sediment Load

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 mm)
  • 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.

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