University of Malta

Submarine Canyons and Gullies
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Submarine canyons are Earth’s most dramatic erosional features, comprising steep-walled valleys that originate in the continental shelf and slope. They incise one-fifth of continental margins worldwide and play a key role in their evolution by transferring sediments into deep water settings. Submarine canyons are also considered important biodiversity hotspots, pathways for nutrients and pollutants, analogues of hydrocarbon reservoirs and regulators of oceanographic processes. Our work on Mediterranean and New Zealand canyons has improved understanding of:

  1. Canyon geometries in passive margins: By investigating the Ebro margin, we demonstrated how canyons in passive margins   develop into geometrically self-similar systems that approach steady state and higher drainage efficiency, while validating the concept of space-for-time substitution (Micallef et al., 2014b).
  2. Topographic signature of active tectonics in submarine canyons: Canyon topography in active margins, such as the Hikurangi margin, fails to reach steady-state because of continuous adjustment to perturbations associated with tectonic displacements and base-level change (Micallef et al., 2014a). Such transient adjustments migrate up the canyon and are revealed by multiple knickpoints and distinct morphometric signatures.  
  3. The role of gully erosion in submarine canyon evolution: We presented evidence of a topographic signature that indicates that gullies, one of the most widespread morphologies on the seafloor, may be initiated by unconfined, shelf-sourced, downslope-accelerating gravity flows (Micallef and Mountjoy, 2011; Tubau et al., 2013).  
  4. Holocene sedimentary activity in a non-terrestrially coupled submarine canyon (Mountjoy et al., 2014).  
Current research entails the compilation of a geodatabase of Mediterranean submarine canyons and their classification, and the investigation of the role of groundwater seepage in eroding box canyons in carbonate lithologies.


3D multibeam bathymetric image of Palliser Canyon, offshore New Zealand (Source: NIWA).

Last Updated: 14 April 2016

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