An early and obvious theory was that the canyons present today were carved during glacial times, when sea level was about 125 meters below present sea level, and rivers flowed to the edge of the continental shelf. However, while many (but not all) canyons are found offshore from major rivers, subaerial river erosion cannot have been active to the water depths as great as 3000 meters where canyons have been mapped, as it is well established (by many lines of evidence) that sea levels did not fall to those depths.
The major mechanism of canyon erosion is now thought to be turbidity currents and underwater landslides. Turbidity currents are dense, sediment-laden currents which flow downslope when an unstable mass of sediment that has been rapidly deposited on the upper slope fails, perhaps triggered by earthquakes. There is a spectrum of turbidity- or density-current types ranging from "muddy water" to massive mudflow, and evidence of both these end members can be observed in deposits associated with the deeper parts of submarine canyons and channels, such as lobate deposits (mudflow) and levees along channels.
Mass wasting, slumping, and submarine landslides are forms of slope failures (the effect of gravity on a hillslope) observed in submarine canyons. Mass wasting is the term used for the slower and smaller action of material moving downhill; and would commonly include the effects of bioerosion: the burrowing, ingestion and defecation of sediment performed by organisms. Slumping is generally used for rotational movement of masses on a hillside. Landslides, or slides, generally comprise the detachment and displacement of sediment masses. All are observed; all are contributory processes.
It is now understood that many mechanisms of submarine canyon creation have had effect to greater or lesser degree in different places, even within the same canyon, or at different times during a canyon's development. However, if a primary mechanism must be selected, the downslope lineal morphology of canyons and channels and the transportation of excavated or loose materials of the continental slope over extensive distances require that various kinds of turbidity or density currents act as major participants.