Transfer of hydrocarbons from natural seeps to the water column and atmosphere


Corresponding author: Ian R. MacDonald, Texas A&M University — GERG, College Station, TX 77843, USA. E-mail: Tel: + 979 862 2323. Fax: + 979 862 1347.


Results from surface geochemical prospecting, seismic exploration and satellite remote sensing have documented oil and gas seeps in marine basins around the world. Seeps are a dynamic component of the carbon cycle and can be important indicators for economically significant hydrocarbon deposits. The northern Gulf of Mexico contains hundreds of active seeps that can be studied experimentally with the use of submarines and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV). Hydrocarbon flux through surface sediments profoundly alters benthic ecology and seafloor geology at seeps. In water depths of 500–2000 m, rapid gas flux results in shallow, metastable deposits of gas hydrate, which reduce sediment porosity and affect seepage rates. This paper details the processes that occur during the final, brief transition — as oil and gas escape from the seafloor, rise through the water and dissolve, are consumed by microbial processes, or disperse into the atmosphere. The geology of the upper sediment column determines whether discharge is rapid and episodic, as occurs in mud volcanoes, or more gradual and steady, as occurs where the seep orifice is plugged with gas hydrate. In both cases, seep oil and gas appear to rise through the water in close proximity instead of separating. Chemical alteration of the oil is relatively minor during transit through the water column, but once at the sea surface its more volatile components rapidly evaporate. Gas bubbles rapidly dissolve as they rise, although observations suggest that oil coatings on the bubbles inhibit dissolution. At the sea surface, the floating oil forms slicks, detectable by remote sensing, whose origins are laterally within ∼1000 m of the seafloor vent. This contradicts the much larger distance predicted if oil drops rise through a 500 m water column at an expected rate of ∼0.01 m s−1 while subjected to lateral currents of ∼0.2 m s−1 or greater. It indicates that oil rises with the gas bubbles at speeds of ∼0.15 m s−1 all the way to the surface.