How was a thousand kilometre cable-breaking submarine flow triggered by an exceptional Congo River flood?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: Energy and Environment Institute


This proposal seeks to understand how a prodigious 1,250 km runout submarine sediment avalanche (turbidity current) was triggered on 14th January 2020, by the largest flood in 50 years along the Congo River. This submarine flow broke two seabed telecommunication cables that underpin data traffic to West Africa causing the internet to slow from Nigeria to South Africa. These submarine cables had not previously broken in the last 20 years. This flow also caused a series of oceanographic moorings to surface, placed along Congo Submarine Canyon by a NERC project (NE/R001952). Cable breaks and surfaced moorings show that this remarkable flow ran out for over 1,200 km, as measured along the canyon axis. Moreover, the flow continuously self-accelerated, such that it reached front speeds of >8 m/s, some 1,150 to 1,250 km from its source at the mouth of the Congo River. This is the longest runout turbidity current yet monitored in action, and the only monitored flow to continuously self-accelerate for over a thousand kilometres.

It is important to understand how such powerful and very long runout turbidity currents are triggered, especially for hazards to strategic seabed cables, including cable routes that are planned for 2020-21 off West Africa. The January 14-16th submarine flow is not associated with an earthquake, and it occurred during a period of low wave heights. However, it does coincide with an extreme flood of 80,000 m3s-1 observed in December 2019 along the Congo River. It is thus also important to determine how the frequency of submarine flows will be effected by future climate and hydrological changes in the Congo Basin. Here we seek to understand how this exceptional river flood triggered a thousand kilometre submarine flow, by conducting a detailed survey of the Congo River mouth. We will use the geomorphology of that river-to-submarine-canyon transition to understand how the offshore flow was triggered by the river flood, for example by mapping landslide scars, or testing a hypothesis that river bedload was driven over a single steep avalanche face. This is an urgency grant because evidence of how the Jan 2020 flow was triggered (e.g. seabed failure scarps) will be buried or wiped-out by the next peak discharge of the Congo River in Oct 2020.

There are extremely few direct measurements of the most powerful turbidity currents that run out for hundreds to thousands kilometres to the deep ocean, and the few measurements available previously produced step changes in understanding. Indeed, there has only been one previously directly-measured turbidity current on this scale, which is the Grand Banks event in 1929 that broke all ~20 cables across the N. Atlantic. The Grand Banks event ran out for over 800km, but decelerated from 19 m/s to 3 m/s, rather than continuously accelerating as in the Jan 2020 event. Moreover, the Jan 2020 event already has much more detailed measurements from the timing of offshore moorings, with further data to come via recovery of these moorings and 12 OBS (with hydrophones and geophones) on a NERC cruise. This Jan 2020 event is thus a rare and extremely valuable opportunity to understand how far large-scale flows operate, linked to exceptional river floods with much longer (50-100 year) recurrence intervals.

The main gap in our understanding of the Jan 2020 event is what happened at the river mouth, and this is key for predicting flow frequency and links to climate change. The geomorphology of the river to canyon-head transition is currently unknown. For example, UKHO bathymetric charts mainly use data collected in the 1890s. Here we will use swath multibeam echosounder systems to survey the river to canyon transition at much higher resolution and in three dimensions, thereby documenting its geomorphology in unprecedented detail. Past work shows how a single multibeam bathymetric survey can produce major insights into turbidity currents triggering at river mouths.


10 25 50