The nature and hydrogeologic significance of mud diapirs and diatremes for accretionary systems


  • Kevin M. Brown


In accretionary wedges, often morphologically similar sedimentary intrusions, when observed by remote geophysical means, may have one of two quite different driving mechanisms and a highly variable significance for the regional hydrogeologic picture. For example, mud diapirs are driven by buoyancy forces that arise from bulk density contrasts. In them, mud and pore fluid upwell en masse and fluid migration is a related (sometimes important) but generally subsidiary process. In contrast, diatremes contain sediments fluidized during rapid fluid advection and are forcibly and directly driven by the hydrogeologic system. The nature of fluid input from local and exotic source regions can, therefore, strongly affect sedimentary intrusive processes and vice versa. This complicates the process of defining the main features of the hydrogeological systems operating in accretionary wedges. Focused vertical advection through steep sided (piercement) mud diapirs requires conduit systems, otherwise flow will be diffuse and directed more horizontally out of the low-permeability mud mass. However, where the permeability of the overburden is less than that of the diapir, the whole diapir may act as a conduit. Apart from this special case, conduits will be associated with highly anisotropic scaly fabrics that can sometimes develop in the marginal shear zone of diapirs. Scaly fabrics form during deformation and compaction of a mud matrix under conditions of constant or increasing effective stress. However, the effective stress path can be complex as it is both controlled by the relative rates of upward intrusion and burial (by sedimentation and/or structural thickening) and the hydrogeologic system. Due to this, it appears likely that even in a geographically related group of diapirs, effective stress histories will vary widely between intrusions so that some can form advective pathways for fluids and some cannot. Mixed systems of behavior may also be present with local diatremes developing within diapirs above the terminations of conduit systems and rapidly expanding methane gas pockets. The potentially heterogeneous near-surface behavior may be why the surface manifestations of sedimentary intrusions are so variable when observed in the field. Diatremes can also form separately as large primary features above any structural or stratigraphic conduit that rapidly expels water or gas into the base of an unlithified sediment column. When active, large diatremes require enormous quantities of fluid (water or gas) to drive them, particularly if they are long lived features and hence are a direct indication of at least an episodically vigorous hydrogeologic system.