, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 5-30

Process-sedimentological challenges in distinguishing paleo-tsunami deposits

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Abstract

There has been a lively debate since the 1980s on distinguishing between paleo-tsunami deposits and paleo-cyclone deposits using sedimentological criteria. Tsunami waves not only cause erosion and deposition during inundation of coastlines in subaerial environments, but also trigger backwash flows in submarine environments. These incoming waves and outgoing flows emplace sediment in a wide range of environments, which include coastal lake, beach, marsh, lagoon, bay, open shelf, slope and basin. Holocene deposits of tsunami-related processes from these environments exhibit a multitude of physical, biological and geochemical features. These features include basal erosional surfaces, anomalously coarse sand layers, imbricated boulders, chaotic bedding, rip-up mud clasts, normal grading, inverse grading, landward-fining trend, horizontal planar laminae, cross-stratification, hummocky cross-stratification, massive sand rich in marine fossils, sand with high K, Mg and Na elemental concentrations and sand injections. These sedimentological features imply extreme variability in processes that include erosion, bed load (traction), lower flow regime currents, upper-flow regime currents, oscillatory flows, combined flows, bidirectional currents, mass emplacement, freezing en masse, settling from suspension and sand injection. The notion that a ‘tsunami’ event represents a single (unique) depositional process is a myth. Although many sedimentary features are considered to be reliable criteria for recognizing potential paleo-tsunami deposits, similar features are also common in cyclone-induced deposits. At present, paleo-tsunami deposits cannot be distinguished from paleo-cyclone deposits using sedimentological features alone, without historical information. The future success of distinguishing paleo-tsunami deposits depends on the development of criteria based on systematic synthesis of copious modern examples worldwide and on the precise application of basic principles of process sedimentology.