3 minute read

Sediment and Sedimentation

Weathering, Water, Wind, Glacial Ice, Sediment Erosion, Sediment Size, Sediment LoadErosion and transport, Agents of erosion and transport, Deposition

Sediments are loose Earth materials such as sand that accumulate on the land surface, in river and lake beds, and on the ocean floor. Sediments form by weathering of rock. They then erode from the site of weathering and are transported by wind, water, ice, and mass wasting, all operating under the influence of gravity. Eventually sediment settles out and accumulates after transport; this process is known as deposition. Sedimentation is a general term for the processes of erosion, transport, and deposition. Sedimentology is the study of sediments and sedimentation.

There are three basic types of sediment: rock fragments, or clastic sediments; mineral deposits, or chemical sediments; and rock fragments and organic matter, or organic sediments. Dissolved minerals form by weathering rocks exposed at Earth's surface. Organic matter is derived from the decaying remains of plants and animals.

Erosion and transport of sediments from the site of weathering are caused by one or more of the following agents: gravity, wind, water, or ice. When gravity acts alone to move a body of sediment or rock, this is known as mass wasting. When the forces of wind, water, or ice act to erode sediment, they always do so under the influence of gravity.


Large volumes of sediment, ranging in size from mud to boulders, can move downslope due to gravity, a process called mass wasting. Rock falls, landslides, and mudflows are common types of mass wasting. If you have ever seen large boulders on a roadway you have seen the results of a rock fall. Rock falls occur when rocks in a cliff face are loosened by weathering, break loose, and roll and bounce downslope. Landslides consist of rapid downslope movement of a mass of rock or soil, and require that little or no water be present. Mud flows occur when a hillside composed of fine grained material becomes nearly saturated by heavy rainfall. The water helps lubricate the sediment, and a lobe of mud quickly moves downslope. Other types of mass wasting include slump, creep, and subsidence.

Mechanical deposition

When the velocity (force) of the transport medium is insufficient to move a clastic (or organic) sediment particle it is deposited. As you might expect, when velocity decreases in wind or water, larger sediments are deposited first. Sediments that were part of the suspended load will drop out and become part of the bed load. If velocity continues to drop, nearly all bedload movement will cease, and only clay and the finest silt will be left suspended. In still water, even the clay will be deposited, over the next day or so, based on size—from largest clay particles to the smallest.

During its trip from outcrop to ocean, a typical sediment grain may be deposited, temporarily, thousands of times. However, when the transport medium's velocity increases again, these deposits will again be eroded and transported. Surprisingly, when compacted fine-grained clay deposits are subjected to stream erosion, they are nearly as difficult to erode as pebbles and boulders. Because the tiny clay particles are electrostatically attracted to one another, they resist erosion as well as much coarser grains. This is significant, for example, when comparing the erodibility of stream bank materials—clay soils in a river bank are fairly resistant to erosion, whereas sandy soils are not.

Eventually the sediment will reach a final resting place where it remains long enough to be buried by other sediments. This is known as the sediment's depositional environment.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre Biography to Seminiferous tubules