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Sediment and Sedimentation

Sediment Load

When particles are eroded and transported by wind, water, or ice, they become part of the transport medium's sediment load. There are three categories of load that may be transported by an erosional agent: dissolved load, suspended load, and bedload. Wind is not capable of dissolving minerals, and so it does not transport any dissolved load. The dissolved load in water and ice is not visible; to be deposited, it must be chemically precipitated.

Sediment can be suspended in wind, water, or ice. Suspended sediment is what makes stream water look dirty after a rainstorm and what makes a wind storm dusty. Suspended sediment is sediment that is not continuously in contact with the underlying surface (a stream bed or the desert floor) and so is suspended within the medium of transport. Generally, the smallest particles of sediment are likely to be suspended; occasionally sand is suspended by powerful winds and pebbles are suspended by flood waters. However, because ice is a solid, virtually any size sediment can be part of the suspended sediment load of a glacier.

Bedload consists of the larger sediment that is only sporadically transported. Bedload remains in almost continuous contact with the bottom, and moves by rolling, skipping, or sliding along the bottom. Pebbles on a river bed or beach are examples of bedload. Wind, water, and ice can all transport bedload, however, the size of sediment in the bedload varies greatly among these three transport agents.

Because of the low density of air, wind only rarely moves bedload coarser than fine sand. Some streams transport pebbles and coarser sediment only during floods, while other streams may transport, on a daily basis, all but boulders with ease.

Figure 2. This graph illustrates that consolidated, fine-grained clay deposits subjected to stream erosion can be nearly as difficult to erode as gravel and boulders. Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group.

Flood water greatly increase the power of streams. For example, many streams can move boulders during flooding. Flooding also may cause large sections of a river bank to be washed into the water and become part of its load. Bank erosion during flood events by a combination of abrasion, hydraulic impact, and mass wasting is often a significant source of a stream's load. Ice in glaciers, because it is a solid, can transport virtually any size material, if the ice is sufficiently thick, and the slope is steep.

For a particular agent of transport, its ability to move coarse sediments as either bedload or suspended load is dependant on its velocity. The higher the velocity, the coarser the load.


Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre Biography to Seminiferous tubulesSediment and Sedimentation - Weathering, Water, Wind, Glacial Ice, Sediment Erosion, Sediment Size, Sediment Load - Erosion and transport, Agents of erosion and transport, Deposition