Seafloor Environments Within the Boston Harbor-Massachusetts Bay Sedimentary System: A Regional Synthesis

Harley J. Knebel, Ronald C. Circé


Modern seafloor sedimentary environments within the glaciated, topographically complex Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay area have been interpreted and mapped from an extensive collection of sidescan sonar records and supplemental marine geologic data. Three categories of environments are present that reflect the dominant long-term processes of erosion or nondeposition, deposition, and sediment reworking. (1) Environments of erosion or nondeposition comprise exposures of bedrock, glacial drift, coarse lag deposits, and possibly coastal plain rocks that contain sediments (where present) ranging from boulder fields to gravelly sands and occur in areas of relatively strong currents. (2) Environments of deposition contain fine-grained sediments ranging from muddy sands to muds that have accumulated in areas of predominantly weak bottom currents. (3) Environments of sediment reworking contain patches with textures ranging from sandy gravels to muds that have been produced by a combination of erosion and deposition in areas with variable bottom currents.

The distribution of sedimentary environments across the Boston Harbor-Massachusetts Bay area is extremely patchy. Locally, this patchiness is due either to modifications of bottom-current strength (caused by the irregular topography and differences in water depth) or to small-scale changes in the supply of fine-grained sediments. Regional patchiness, however, reflects differences in geologic and oceanographic conditions among the estuarine, inner shelf, and basinal parts of the sedimentary system. The estuarine part of the system (Boston Harbor) is a depositional trap for fine-grained sediments because it is protected from large waves, has generally weak and variable tidal currents, and receives a large supply of finegrained detritus from natural and anthropogenic sources. The inner shelf, on the other hand, is largely an area of erosion or nondeposition due to sediment removal and redistribution during past sea-level changes, to sediment resuspension and winnowing by modern waves and currents, and to an inadequate supply of fine-grained sediments. The basinal part of the system (Stellwagen Basin) is mainly a tranquil depositional environment in which fine-grained sediments from several potential sources settle through the water column and accumulate under weak bottom currents.

This study indicates areas within the Boston Harbor-Massachusetts Bay sedimentary system where fine-grained sediments and associated contaminants are likely to be either moved or deposited. It also provides a guide to the locations and variability of benthic habitats.


Sedimentary environments; estuarine and coastal sedimentation; estuarine and coastal processes; seafloor texture

Full Text:



  • There are currently no refbacks.