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Oceanic methane layers: the hydrocarbon seep bubble deposition hypothesis


Correspondence: Dr Ira Leifer, Chemical Engineering Department, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106–5080, USA. Tel.: 805 8934941; fax: 805 8934731; e-mail:


ABSTRACT Bubble plumes from hydrocarbon seeps drive upwelling flows in the water column that can disappear if the bubbles dissolve. This may lead to formation of a layer enriched in gases and substances transported by the bubbles, a process we term bubble deposition. A review of observed dissolved methane layers in the North Sea showed their existence in an area of active seeping pockmarks at a height of ∼ 20–30 m above the sea bed, well below the thermocline. To test the bubble deposition hypothesis, rising seep bubbles were simulated numerically. The model predicted a dissolution depth consistent with the observed methane layer for ∼ 2700-µm-radius bubbles. The model also predicted that bubbles smaller than 3400 µm dissolved subsurface, decreasing to 2000 µm for a 10-cm s−1 upwelling flow. We speculate that this layer may be attractive to marine organisms. Although North Sea seeps are not oily, this mechanism also applies to oily bubbles from hydrocarbon seeps or a leaking undersea gas/oil pipeline. Thus bubble deposition can create a subsurface oil layer which rises far slower than either the bubble stream or droplets entrained in the stream.