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Project Watershed Central New York

Dedicated to facilitating water resource education in Central New York


Sediment is any particulate matter that can be transported by fluid flow and which eventually is deposited as a layer of solid particles on the bed or bottom of a body of water or other liquid. Sedimentation is the deposition by settling of a suspended material.

Seas, oceans, and lakes accumulate sediment over time. The material can be terrigenous (originating on the land) or marine (originating in the ocean). Deposited sediments are the source of sedimentary rocks, which can contain fossils of the inhabitants of the body of water that were, upon death, covered by accumulating sediment. Lake bed sediments that have not solidified into rock can be used to determine past climatic conditions.

If a fluid, such as water, is flowing, it can carry suspended particles. The settling velocity is the minimum velocity a flow must have in order to transport, rather than deposit, sediments, and is given by Stoke's Law:

where w is the settling velocity, ? is density (the subscripts p and f indicate particle and fluid respectively), g is the acceleration due to gravity, r is the radius of the particle and ? is the dynamic viscosity of the fluid.

If the flow velocity is greater than the settling velocity, sediment will be transported downstream as suspended load. As there will always be a range of different particle sizes in the flow, some will have sufficiently large diameters that they settle on the river or stream bed, but still move downstream. This is known as bed load and the particles are transported via such mechanisms as saltation (jumping up into the flow, being transported a short distance then settling again), rolling and sliding. Saltation marks are often preserved in solid rocks and can be used to estimate the flow rate of the rivers that originally deposited the sediments.

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