Reconstruction of the 1908 Messina gravity flow (central Mediterranean Sea) from geophysical and sedimentological data

Earthquakes, tsunamis and gravity flows are common processes offshore Eastern Sicily and pose a significant hazard to coastal communities and infrastructure. The 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami resulted in >60,000 casualties. It caused a large turbidity current, which broke the Malta-Zante telegraph cable. Yet, this gravity flow remains poorly characterised in terms of its route and flow behaviour. A comprehensive analysis of multibeam echosounder data, sub-bottom profiles, and sediment cores has been carried out to improve our understanding about gravity flow activity within conduit systems of the western Ionian Basin to reconstruct the characteristics of the 1908 sediment flow (e.g., erosion, velocity, source region). Three main canyon-channel systems can be distinguished within the study area. The easternmost system (C3) appears to be the most active in terms of sediment transport. There are numerous erosional and depositional bedforms, including large-scale scours (>100 m-long), turbidite sediment waves and channel wall collapses that are not overprinted by younger events. The other two canyon-channel systems (C1, C2) do not show many bedforms indicative of repeated and recent gravity flow activity. Indeed, the transport of the majority of sediment discharged into the western system (C1) is limited to <25 km downslope from the continental slope, while the central system (C2) facilitates sediment deposition from gravity flows. C3 is, thus, suggested to have been the main passageway of the 1908 sediment flow. It also leads directly to two of three cable break locations. The most likely source areas for the gravity flow are north-eastern Sicily and southern Calabria. Bedforms indicate a flow thickness of >170 m along the upper channel portion of C3 and > 140 m along its lower portion close to the cable breaks. An average flow velocity of 5.6 to 6.3 ms−1 is reconstructed, given the timing of the breaks and length of the canyon-channel system. The flow may have locally decelerated and accelerated while bypassing morphologic highs and knickpoints. These new findings significantly improve our understanding of the 1908 gravity flow (e.g., passageways, depositional/erosional behaviour, thickness, velocity) and provide important insights into gravity flow events in general, especially those with a large run-out. This knowledge is needed to assess potential hazards associated with these events.


Sediment gravity flow, 1908 Messina earthquake, Cable breaks, Canyon-channel systems, Erosional and depositional bedforms, Turbidite

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Schulten I., Micallef A., Krastel S., Urlaub M., Gutscher Marc-Andre, Kopp H. (2023). Reconstruction of the 1908 Messina gravity flow (central Mediterranean Sea) from geophysical and sedimentological data. Marine Geology. 459. 107047 (21p.).,

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