12.2 Lithogenous Sediments

or is primarily composed of small fragments of preexisting rocks that have made their way into the ocean. These sediments can contain the entire range of particle sizes, from microscopic to large , and they are found almost everywhere on the ocean floor. Lithogenous sediments are created on land through the process of , where rocks and minerals are broken down into smaller particles through the action of wind, rain, water flow, temperature- or ice-induced cracking, and other erosive processes. These small eroded particles are then transported to the oceans through a variety of mechanisms:

  • Streams and rivers: Various forms of deposit large amounts of sediment into the oceans, mostly in the form of finer-grained particles (Figure 12.2.1). About 90% of the lithogenous sediment in the oceans is though to have come from river discharge, particularly from Asia. Most of this sediment, especially the larger particles, will be deposited and remain fairly close to the coastline, however, smaller particles may remain suspended in the water column for long periods of time and may be transported great distances from the source.
Figure 12.2.1 River discharge in the Yukon Delta, Alaska. The pale color demonstrates the large amounts of sediment released into the ocean via the rivers (By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
  • Wind: Wind-borne () transport can take small particles of sand and dust and move them thousands of kilometers from the source. These small particles can fall into the ocean when the wind dies down, or can serve as the nuclei around which raindrops or snowflakes form. Aeolian transport is particularly important near desert areas (Figure 12.2.2).
Figure 12.2.2 A plume of wind-borne particles from Sudan (left) blow over the Red Sea (By NASA (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=5645) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
  • Glaciers and ice rafting: As glaciers grind their way over land, they pick up lots of soil and rock particles, including very large , that get carried by the ice. When the glacier meets the ocean and begins to break apart or melt, these particles get deposited (Figure 12.2.3). Most of the deposition will happen close to where the glacier meets the water, but a small amount of material is also transported longer distances by rafting, where larger pieces of ice drift far from the glacier before releasing their sediment.
Figure 12.2.3 When glaciers reach the sea they can break apart, depositing their sediments into the ocean, including very large pieces of rock (By Ianaré Sévi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).
  • Gravity: Landslides, mudslides, avalanches, and other gravity-driven events can deposit large amounts of material into the ocean when they happen close to shore.
  • Waves: Wave action along a coastline will erode rocks and will pull loose particles from beaches and shorelines into the water.
  • Volcanoes: Volcanic eruptions emit vast amounts of ash and other debris into the atmosphere, where it can then be transported by wind to eventually get deposited in the oceans (Figure 12.2.4).
Figure 12.2.4 Eruption of the Mayon Volcano, Philippines, in 1984. Much of the material spewed from a volcanic eruption may eventually make its way into the oceans (By C.G. Newhall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
  • Gastroliths: An interesting, although relatively minor avenue for the transport of lithogenous sediments to the ocean is in the form of gastroliths. Gastrolith means “stomach stones” and comes from the fact that many animals, including seabirds, pinnipeds, and some crocodiles will deliberately swallow stones in one area and regurgitate them in another. Often these stones swallowed on land will be regurgitated at sea. Why swallow stones? Possible explanations include using the stones to help grind up food in the stomach, to act as ballast to aid in buoyancy regulation, or to fill the stomach and reduce feelings of hunger during fasting periods on shore.

Most of these processes deposit lithogenous sediment fairly close to shore. The sediment particles can then be transported farther away by waves and currents, where they may eventually escape the and reach the deep ocean floor.


Lithogenous sediments usually reflect the composition of whatever materials they were derived from, so they are dominated by the major minerals that make up most terrestrial rock. This includes , feldspar, clay minerals, iron oxides, and terrestrial organic matter. Quartz (silicon dioxide, the main component of glass) is one of the most common minerals found in nearly all rocks, and it is very resistant to abrasion (see section 12.1), so it is a dominant component of lithogenous sediments, including sand.


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Introduction to Oceanography by Paul Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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