Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



Reviews of Geophysics





First Page


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Transport of particulate material across continental shelves is well demonstrated by the distributions on the seabed and in the water column of geological, chemical, or biological components, whose sources are found farther landward or farther seaward. This paper addresses passive (incapable of swimming) particles and their transport across (not necessarily off) continental shelves during high stands of sea level. Among the general factors that influence across-shelf transport are shelf geometry, latitudinal constraints, and the timescale of interest. Research studies have investigated the physical mechanisms of transport and have made quantitative estimates of mass flux across continental shelves. Important mechanisms include wind-driven flows, internal waves, wave-orbital flows, infragravity phenomena, buoyant plumes, and surf zone processes. Most particulate transport occurs in the portion of the water column closet to the seabed. Therefore physical processes are effective where and when they influence the bottom boundary layer, causing shear stresses sufficient to erode and transport particulate material. Biological and geological processes at the seabed play important roles within the boundary layer. The coupling of hydrodynamic forces from currents and surface gravity waves has a particularly strong influence on across-shelf transport; during storm events, the combined effect can transport particles tens of kilometers seaward. Several important mechanisms can cause bidirectional (seaward and landward) transport, and estimates of the net flux are difficult to obtain. Also, measurements of across-shelf transport are made difficult by the dominance of along-shelf transport. Geological parameters are often the best indicators of net across-shelf transport integrated over time scales longer than a mouth. For example, fluvially discharged particles with distinct composition commonly accumulate in the midshelf region. Across-shelf transport of particulate material has important implications for basic and applied oceanographic research (e.g., dispersal of planktonic larvae and particle-reactive pollutants). Continued research is needed to understand the salient mechanisms and to monitor them over a range of timescales.




Bottom-boundary layer, suspended sediment transport, wave-current interaction, fine-grained sediments