Abyssal Storms

Until recently, ocean scientists thought of the deep ocean abyss as a dark, cold but serene place where small particles rained gently onto the ocean floor. However, instruments lowered to the sea floor to measure ocean motion or currents and resulting mobilization of bottom sediments detected a much more active environment. Scientists found that bottom currents and abyssal storms occasionally scour the ocean bottom, generating moving clouds of suspended sediment. A surface current of 5 knots (250 cm/sec) is considered relatively strong. A bottom current of 1 knot ( 50 cm/sec) is ripping. Although this may be called an abyssal storm, the water motion pales by comparison to wind speeds in atmospheric storms.

Abyssal currents and storms apparently derive their energy from surface ocean currents. Wind-driven surface ocean currents flow about the margins of the ocean basins as gyres centered near 30 degrees latitude. (Refer to Figure 6.6, page 131, in your DataStreme Ocean textbook.) Viewed from above, these subtropical gyres rotate clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. For reasons given in Chapter 6 of your textbook and this week's Supplemental Information, surface currents flow faster, are narrower, and extend to greater depths on the western arm of the gyres. These are known as western boundary currents and include, for example, the Gulf Stream of the North Atlantic basin. Abyssal currents are also most vigorous on the western side of the ocean basins, moving along the base of the continental rise, which is on the order of several kilometers deep.

Abyssal storms may be linked to or may actually be eddies (rings) that occasionally break off from the main current of the Gulf Stream (and other western boundary currents). During an abyssal storm, the eddy or ring may actually reach to the bottom of the ocean where the velocity of a bottom current increases ten-fold to about 1.5 km (1 mi) per hr. While that is an unimpressive wind speed, water is much denser than air so that its erosive and sediment-transport capacity is significant even at 1.5 km per hr. At this higher speed, the suspended sediment load in the bottom current increases by a factor of ten. Abyssal storms scour the sea floor leaving behind long furrows in the sediment. After a few days to a few weeks, the current weakens or the eddy (ring) is reabsorbed into the main surface circulation and the suspended load settles to the ocean floor. In this way, abyssal storms can transport tons of sediment long distances, disrupting the orderly sequence of layers of deep-sea sediments. Scientists must take this disruption into account when interpreting the environmental significance of deep-sea sediment cores.

Prepared by AMS DS Ocean Central Staff and Edward J. Hopkins, Ph.D., email hopkins@meteor.wisc.edu
Copyright, 2006, The American Meteorological Society.