Geo-Marine Letters

, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 19–36 | Cite as

Sand waves near the shelf break of the northern South China Sea: morphology and recent mobility

  • Hongyun Zhang
  • Xiaochuan MaEmail author
  • Lihua Zhuang
  • Jun YanEmail author


Sand waves near the shelf break in the northern South China Sea have not previously been described in detail due to the lack of high-resolution bathymetric data. Their occurrence, however, is important for understanding sand transport and dispersal in the northern South China Sea. Here, using recent bathymetric data, side-scan image, bottom current measurements, and sediment samples collected in 2010 and 2016, we document the distribution, geometry, and mobility of sand waves in five regions along the shelf break of the northern South China Sea. Results show that the sand waves have distinctly different distribution patterns, geometries, and migration behaviors above and below the 145 m isobath. Sand waves at depths greater than 145 m are larger and steeper, and mostly occur on slopes steeper than 0.5°. Their crest lines are aligned parallel to the isobaths and their migration direction is toward the southeast (seaward). In comparison, the sand waves on the gentler sloping seabed at water depths < 145 m migrate toward the northwest with crest lines mostly intersecting the depth contours. Neither the heights nor the wavelengths of the sand waves correlate with water depth, although the two classes of sand wave are restricted to distinct depth intervals. The observed bottom currents, which are characterized by strong velocity pulses, probably relate to internal solitary waves which have the capacity of moving the sediment in the sand wave fields. The height-wavelength relationships of the sand waves correspond to those of subaqueous dunes. The diverging migration directions of the sand waves are interpreted as reflecting the polarity conversion of the internal solitary waves in the northern South China Sea during their propagation onto the shelf. The volume changes of the sand waves from 2010 to 2016 indicate both sediment loss and sediment accretion in various areas, suggesting complex sediment dispersal patterns near the shelf break.



We are grateful to Z. Luan, C. Chen, X. Liu, and Y. Song of the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences on raw data collecting and processing. The crews on board during surveys are also thanked.

We would like to thank the editor Andrew Green and the anonymous associated editor and reviewers for their insightful comments to improve the manuscript.

Funding information

This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41576056, 41876035 and 41406061).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aliotta S, Perillo GME (1987) A sand wave field in the entrance to Bahia Blanca Estuary, Argentina. Mar Geol 76:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen JRL (1968) The nature and origin of bedform hierarchies. Sedimentology 10:161–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Allen JRL (1980) Sand waves: a model of origin and internal structure. Sediment Geol 26:281–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Allen JRL (1982) Simple models for the shape and symmetry of tidal sand waves: (1) statically stable equilibrium forms. Mar Geol 48:31–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ashley GM (1990) Classification of large-scale subaqueous bedforms: a new look at an old problem. J Sediment Petrol 60:160–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bai Y, Song H, Guan Y, Yang S (2017) Estimating depth of polarity conversion of shoaling internal solitary waves in the northeastern South China Sea. Cont Shelf Res 143:9–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bao J, Feng C, Ren J, Zheng Y, Chengqiang WU, Huiquan LU, Yan XU (2014) Morphological characteristics of sand waves in the middle Taiwan shoal based on multi-beam data analysis. Acta Geol Sin-Engl 88:1499–1512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Barker W (1901) On sand-waves in tidal currents: discussion. Geogr J 18:200–202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Barnard PL, Hanes DM, Rubin DM, Kvitek RG (2013) Giant sand waves at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. EOS Trans Am Geophys Union 87:285–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Belde J, Back S, Reuning L (2015) Three-dimensional seismic analysis of sediment waves and related geomorphological features on a carbonate shelf exposed to large amplitude internal waves, Browse Basin region, Australia. Sedimentology 62(1):87–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blondeaux P, Vittori G (2011) The formation of tidal sand waves: fully three-dimensional versus shallow water approaches. Cont Shelf Res 31(9):990–996CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bøe R, Skarðhamar J, Rise L, Dolan MFJ, Bellec VK, Winsborrow M, Skagseth Ø, Knies J, King EL, Walderhaug O, Chand S, Buenz S, Mienert J (2015) Sandwaves and sand transport on the Barents Sea continental slope offshore northern Norway. Mar Pet Geol 60:34–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bogucki D, Dickey T, Redekopp LG (1997) Sediment resuspension and mixing by resonantly generated internal solitary waves. J Phys Oceanogr 27:1181–1196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bogucki DJ, Redekopp LG, Barth J (2005) Internal solitary waves in the coastal mixing and optics 1996 experiment: multimodal structure and resuspension. J Geophys Res Oceans 110:1–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Borsje BW, de Vries MB, Bouma TJ, Besio G, Hulscher SJMH, Herman PMJ (2009) Modeling bio-geomorphological influences for offshore sandwaves. Cont Shelf Res 29:1289–1301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Brandt P, Alpers W, Backhaus JO (1996) Study of the generation and propagation of internal waves in the strait of Gibraltar using a numerical model and synthetic aperture radar images of the European ERS 1 satellite. J Geophys Res Oceans 101:14237–14252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Buijsman MC, Ridderinkhof H (2008) Long-term evolution of sand waves in the Marsdiep inlet. I: high-resolution observations. Cont Shelf Res 28:1190–1201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Campmans GHP, Roos PC, Vriend HJD, Hulscher SJMH (2017) Modeling the influence of storms on sand wave formation: a linear stability approach. Cont Shelf Res 137:103–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chen Z, Nie Y, Xie J, Xu J, He Y, Cai S (2017) Generation of internal solitary waves over a large sill: from Knight inlet to Luzon Strait. J Geophys Res Oceans 122:1555–1573CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cheng MH, Hsu JRC, Chen CY, Chen CW (2009) Modeling internal solitary wave across double ridges and a shelf-slope. Environ Fluid Mech 9(3):321–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Cloet RL (1954) Sandwaves in the southern North Sea and in the Persian Gulf. J Navig 7:272–279CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dalrymple RW, Knight RJ, Lambiase JJ (1978) Bedforms and their hydraulic stability relationships in a tidal environment, Bay of Fundy, Canada. Nature 275:100–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Du H, Wei G, Zhang YM, Xu XH (2012) Experimental investigation on the shoaling and breaking of internal solitary waves over a slope (in Chinese with English abstract). The 11th National Conference on Hydrodynamics and the 24th National Hydrodynamics Symposium and the Anniversary of the 110th Anniversary of Professor Zhou Peiyuan's BirthGoogle Scholar
  24. Du C, Liu Z, Dai M, Kao SJ (2013) Impact of the Kuroshio intrusion on the nutrient inventory in the upper northern South China Sea: insights from an isopycnal mixing model. Biogeosciences 10:6419–6432CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Duda TF, Lynch JF, Irish JD, Beardsley RC, Ramp SR, Chiu CS, Tang TY, Yang YJ (2005) Internal tide and nonlinear internal wave behavior at the continental slope in the northern South China Sea. IEEE J Ocean Eng 29:1105–1130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fang G, Fang W, Fang Y, Wang K (1998) A survey of studies on the South China Sea upper ocean circulation. Acta Oceanogr Taiwan 37:1–15Google Scholar
  27. Fang G, Kwok Y-K, Yu K, Zhu Y (1999) Numerical simulation of principal tidal constituents in the South China Sea, Gulf of Tonkin and Gulf of Thailand. Cont Shelf Res 19:845–869CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fang W, Chen Y, Mao Q (2000) Abrupt strong currents over continental slope of northern South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). Trop Oceanol 19:70–75Google Scholar
  29. Feng S (1982) An introduction to storm surges (in Chinese). Science Press, Beijing, p 241Google Scholar
  30. Feng W, Bao C, Chen J, Zhao X (1982) Preliminary study on submarine relief of the northern South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). Acta Oceanol Sin 4:007Google Scholar
  31. Feng W, Li W, Shi Y (1994) Dynamic study on submarine sand waves of the northern South China Sea. Acta Oceanol Sin 16:92–99Google Scholar
  32. Fenster MS, Fitzgerald DM, Moore MS (2006) Assessing decadal-scale changes to a giant sand wave field in eastern Long Island Sound. Geology 34(2):89–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Flemming B (1988) Zur Klassifikation subaquatischer, strömungstransversaler Transportkörper. Bochum Geol Geotechn Arb 29:44–47Google Scholar
  34. Flemming BW, Bartholomä A (2012) Temporal variability, migration rates, and preservation potential of subaqueous dune fields on the southeast African continental shelf. Int Assoc Sedimentol Spec Publ 44:229–247Google Scholar
  35. Franzetti M, Le Roy P, Delacourt C, Garlan T, Cancouët R, Sukhovich A, Deschamps A (2013) Giant dune morphologies and dynamics in a deep continental shelf environment: example of the banc du four (Western Brittany, France). Mar Geol 346:17–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gan XL, Huang WG, Yang JS, Xiao-Feng LI, Lou XL, Shi AQ (2007) The study of spatial and temporal distribution characteristics of internal waves in the South China Sea from multi-satellite data (in Chinese with English abstract). Remote Sensing Technology and Application 22:242–245Google Scholar
  37. Groves DG, Hunt LM (1980) Ocean world encyclopedia. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Guo C, Chen X (2014) A review of internal solitary wave dynamics in the northern South China Sea. Prog Oceanogr 121:7–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Harris PT, Collins MB (1984) Side-scan sonar investigation into temporal variation in sand wave morphology: Helwick sands, Bristol Channel. Geo-Mar Lett 4:91–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. He Q, Wei Z, Wang Y (2012) Study on the sea currents in the northern shelf and slope of the South China Sea based on the observation (in Chinese with English abstract). Acta Oceanol Sin (in Chinese with English abstract) 34:17–28Google Scholar
  41. Holloway PE, Barnes B (1998) A numerical investigation into the bottom boundary layer flow and vertical structure of internal waves on a continental slope. Cont Shelf Res 18(1):31–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hosegood P, Bonnin J, Haren HV (2004) Solibore-induced sediment resuspension in the Faeroe/Shetland Channel. Geophys Res Lett 31:760–768CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hu J, Kawamura H, Hong H, Qi Y (2000) A review on the currents in the South China Sea: seasonal circulation, South China Sea warm current and Kuroshio intrusion. J Oceanogr 56:607–624CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Hwang JS, Dahms HU, Tseng LC, Chen QC (2007) Intrusions of the Kuroshio Current in the northern South China Sea affect copepod assemblages of the Luzon Strait. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 352:12–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kenyon NH, Akhmetzhanov AM, Twichell DC (2002) Sand wave fields beneath the loop current, Gulf of Mexico: reworking of fan sands. Mar Geol 192:297–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. King EL, Bøe R, Bellec VK, Rise L, Skarðhamar J, Ferré B, Dolan MFJ (2014) Contour current driven continental slope-situated sandwaves with effects from secondary current processes on the Barents Sea margin offshore Norway. Mar Geol 353:108–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Li L, Chen Z, Liu J, Chen H, Yan W, Zhong Y (2014) Distribution of surface sediment types and sedimentary environment divisions in the northern South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). J Trop Oceanogr 33:54–61Google Scholar
  48. Li J, Zheng Q, Hu J, Xie L, Zhu J, Fan Z (2016) A case study of winter storm-induced continental shelf waves in the northern South China Sea in winter 2009. Cont Shelf Res 125:127–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lonsdale P, Malfait B (1974) Abyssal dunes of foraminiferal sand on the Carnegie Ridge. Geol Soc Am Bull 85:1697–1712CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Luan X, Peng X, Wang Y, Qiu Y (2010) Activity and formation of sand waves on northern South China Sea shelf. J Earth Sci 21:55–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Ma X, Yan J, Fan F (2014) Morphology of submarine barchans and sediment transport in barchans fields off the Dongfang coast in Beibu Gulf. Geomorphology 213:213–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ma X, Yan J, Hou Y, Lin F, Zheng X (2016) Footprints of obliquely incident internal solitary waves and internal tides near the shelf break in the northern South China Sea. J Geophys Res Oceans 121:8706–8719CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. McCave IN (1971) Sand waves in the North Sea off the coast of Holland. Mar Geol 10:199–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Morelissen R, Hulscher SJMH, Knaapen MAF, Németh AA, Bijker R (2003) Mathematical modelling of sand wave migration and the interaction with pipelines. Coast Eng 48:197–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Nan F, Xue H, Yu F (2015) Kuroshio intrusion into the South China Sea: a review. Prog Oceanogr 137:314–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Németh AA, Hulscher SJMH, Vriend HJD (2002) Modelling sand wave migration in shallow shelf seas. Cont Shelf Res 22:2795–2806CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Németh AA, Hulscher SJMH, Damme RMJV (2007) Modelling offshore sand wave evolution. Cont Shelf Res 27:713–728CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Nielsen P (1992) Coastal bottom boundary layers and sediment transport. Advanced series on ocean engineering, vol 4. World Scientific Publishing, SingaporeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Peng XC, Wu L, Cui ZG, Liu S, Wang Y (2006) A stability analysis of seabed sand waves in waters north of Dongsha Islands of South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). J Trop Oceanogr 25:21–27Google Scholar
  60. Qian H, Huang X, Tian J, and Zhao W (2015) Shoaling of the internal solitary waves over the continental shelf of the northern South China Sea. Acta Oceanol Sin 34(9):35–42Google Scholar
  61. Quaresma LS, Vitorino J, Oliveira A, da Silva J (2007) Evidence of sediment resuspension by nonlinear internal waves on the western Portuguese mid-shelf. Mar Geol 246:123–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Ramp SR, Tang TY, Duda TF, Lynch JF, Liu AK, Chiu C-S, Bahr FL, Kim H-R, Yang Y-J (2004) Internal solitons in the northeastern South China Sea. Part I: sources and deep water propagation. IEEE J Ocean Eng 29:1157–1181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Reeder DB, Ma BB, Yang YJ (2011) Very large subaqueous sand dunes on the upper continental slope in the South China Sea generated by episodic, shoaling deep-water internal solitary waves. Mar Geol 279:12–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rubin DM, McCulloch DS (1980) Single and superimposed bedforms: a synthesis of San Francisco Bay and flume observations. Sediment Geol 26:207–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schijen EPWJ (2017) Modelling the influence of storm related processes and their frequencies of occurrence on sand wave dynamics in the North Sea. University of Twente, Twente, p 79Google Scholar
  66. Soulsby RL, Whitehouse RJS (1997) Threshold of sediment motion in coastal environments. In: Pacific coasts and ports’ 97: proceedings of the 13th Australasian coastal and ocean engineering conference and the 6th Australasian port and harbour Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand: Centre for Advanced Engineering, University of Canterbury, vol 1, pp 145–150Google Scholar
  67. Stewart CJ, Davidson-Arnott RGD (1988) Morphology, formation and migration of longshore sandwaves; Long Point, Lake Erie, Canada. Mar Geol 81:63–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Van Landeghem KJJV, Wheeler AJ, Mitchell NC, Sutton G (2009) Variations in sediment wave dimensions across the tidally dominated Irish Sea, NW Europe. Mar Geol 263:108–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Waage M (2012) Sand waves and sediment transport on the SW Barents Sea continental slope. University of Tromsø, Tromsø, p 119Google Scholar
  70. Wang S, Li D (1994) Dynamic analysis of continental shelf slope and submarine sandwave in the Pearl River Estuary Basin in the South China Sea. Acta Geologica Sinica (Chinese Edition) 16:122–132Google Scholar
  71. Whitmeyer SJ, Fitzgerald DM (2008) Episodic dynamics of a sand wave field. Mar Geol 252:24–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wu JZ, Hu RJ, Zhu LH, Ma F, Liu JL (2006) Study on the seafloor sandwaves in the northern South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). Periodical of Ocean University of China 36:1019–1023Google Scholar
  73. Wu JL, Wei G, Du H, Xu JN (2017) Experimental study on the flow field induced by internal solitary waves and its influence factors. Marine Sciences (in Chinse with English abstract) 41(09):114–122Google Scholar
  74. Xia H, Liu Y, Yang Y (2009) Internal-wave characteristics of strong bottom currents at the sand-wave zone of the northern South China Sea and its role in sand-wave motion (in Chinese with English abstract). J Trop Oceanogr 6:15–22Google Scholar
  75. Yang W, Yin B, Yang D, Xu Z (2013) Application of FVCOM in numerical simulation of tide and tidal currents in the northern South China Sea (in Chinese with English abstract). Mar Sci 37:10–19Google Scholar
  76. Zhao Z, Alford MH (2006) Source and propagation of internal solitary waves in the northeastern South China Sea. J Geophys Res Oceans 111:63–79Google Scholar
  77. Zheng Q, Susanto RD, Ho CR, Song YT, Xu Q (2007) Statistical and dynamical analyses of generation mechanisms of solitary internal waves in the northern South China Sea. J Geophys Res Oceans 112:1–16Google Scholar
  78. Zhong Y, Chen Z, Li L, Liu J, Li G, Zheng X, Wang S, Mo A (2017) Bottom water hydrodynamic provinces and transport patterns of the northern South China Sea: evidence from grain size of the terrigenous sediments. Cont Shelf Res 140:11–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Marine Geology and Environment, Institute of OceanologyChinese Academy of SciencesQingdaoChina
  2. 2.University of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Laboratory for Marine Geology and EnvironmentQingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and TechnologyQingdaoChina

Personalised recommendations