Novel sensor array helps to understand submarine cable faults off West Africa

Seabed telecommunication cables can be damaged or broken by powerful seafloor flows of sediment (called turbidity currents), which may runout for hundreds of kilometres into the deep ocean. These flows have the potential to affect multiple cables near-simultaneously over very large areas, so it is more challenging to reroute traffic or repair the cables. However, cable-breaking turbidity currents that runout into the deep ocean were poorly understood, and thus hard to predict, as there were no detailed measurements from these flows in action. Here we present the first detailed measurements from such cable-breaking flows, using moored-sensors along the Congo Submarine Canyon offshore West Africa. These turbidity currents include the furthest travelled sediment flow (of any type) yet measured in action on Earth. The SAT-3 (South Atlantic 3) and WACs (West Africa Cable System) cables were broken on 14-16th January 2020 by a turbidity current that accelerated from 5 to 8 m/s, as it travelled for > 1,130 km from river estuary to deep-sea, although a branch of the WACs cable located closer to shore survived. The SAT-3 cable was broken again on 9th March 2020 due to a second turbidity current, this time slowing data transfer during regional coronavirus (COVID-2019) lockdown. These cables had not experienced faults due to natural causes in the previous 19 years. The two cable-breaking flows are associated with a major flood along the Congo River, which produced the highest discharge (72,000m3) recorded at Kinshasa since the early 1960s, and this flood peak reached the river mouth on ~30th December 2019. However, the cable-breaking turbidity currents occurred 2-10 weeks after the flood peak and coincided with unusually large spring tides. Thus, the large cable-breaking flows in 2020 are caused by a combination of a major river flood and tides; and this can provide a basis for predicting the likelihood of future cable-breaking flows. Older (1883-1937) cable breaks in the Congo Submarine Canyon occurred in temporal clusters, sometimes after one or more years of high river discharge. Increased hazards to cables may therefore persist for several years after one or more river floods, which cumulatively prime the river mouth for cable-breaking flows. The 14-16th January 2020 flow accelerated from 5 to 8 m/s with distance, such that the closest cable to shore did not break, whilst two cables further from shore were broken. The largest turbidity currents may increase in power with distance from shore, and are more likely to overspill from their channel in distal sites. Thus, for the largest and most infrequent turbidity currents, locations further from shore can face lower-frequency but higher-magnitude hazards, which may need to be factored into cable route planning. Observations off Taiwan in 2006-2015, and the 2020 events in the Congo Submarine Canyon, show that although multiple cables were broken by fast (> 5 m/s) turbidity currents, some intervening cables survived. This indicates that local factors can determine whether a cable breaks or not. Repeat seabed surveys of the canyon-channel floor show that erosion during turbidity currents is patchy and concentrated around steeper areas (knickpoints) in the canyon profile, which may explain why only some cables break. If possible, cables should be routed away from knickpoints, also avoiding locations just up-canyon from knickpoints, as knickpoints move up-slope. This study provides key new insights into long runout cable-breaking turbidity currents, and the hazards they pose to seafloor telecommunication cables.


turbidity current, submarine canyon, submarine cable, Congo Canyon, cable fault, cable break, river flood

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Talling Peter, Baker Meg, Pope Ed, Cula Costa, Cartigny Matthieu, Faria Rui, Clare Michael, Simmons Steve, Silva Jacinto Ricardo, Heijnen Maarten, Hage Sophie, Heerema Catharina, Ruffell Sean, McGee Claire, Hasenhündl Martin, Apprioual Ronan, Ferrant Anthony, Gaillot Arnaud, Wallace Dec, Griffiths Allan, Tshimanga Raphael, Bola Gode, Trigg Mark, Robertson Rick, Urlaub Morelia, Parsons Dan, Nunes Neto Ducerolde Carlos, Jorge Tresor Illola, Nambala Laldemira, Nunny Robert (2021). Novel sensor array helps to understand submarine cable faults off West Africa. EarthArXiv. INPRESS.,

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