Physical Conditions Associated with Widespread Seafloor Methane Discharge on the Northern US Atlantic Margin

Monday, 15 December 2014: 8:15 AM
Adam D Skarke, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, United States, Carolyn D Ruppel, US Geological Survey, Woods Hole, MA, United States and Daniel S Brothers, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, United States
Recent analysis of water column backscatter data and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) video imagery collected by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer between 2011 and 2013 revealed methane discharge from the seafloor at over 570 gas seep locations along the northern US Atlantic margin. To the best of our knowledge, such large-scale seepage has not previously been observed on a passive margin outside the Arctic or not spatially associated with a petroleum basin. This seepage has implications for the global carbon cycle, ocean chemistry (e.g., acidification), and in some cases, the climate system. Using data collected by Okeanos Explorer and NOAA’s Deep Discoverer ROV, we combine water column backscatter data with video imagery and seafloor backscatter data to estimate gas flux and constrain the geoacoustic properties of the seabed at methane discharge sites. The total methane flux from the northern US Atlantic margin seeps is conservatively estimated at ~15-90 Mg y-1, based on observations of gas bubble volume, discharge rates, and discharge points per site. However, fewer than 1% of the identified seep sites have been inspected with a ROV, and this estimate is likely to be revised upward as the characteristics of the seeps are further constrained. Another important observation to emerge from our analysis is the lack of spatial correlation between seep sites and the ~5000 pockmarks mapped on the northern part of the US Atlantic margin. In this region, pockmarks, which are often easily identified by geophysical imaging of the seafloor, should not be considered potential target sites for finding undiscovered areas of seepage. Conversely, discrete patches of elevated relative seafloor acoustic backscatter amplitude do appear to be correlated with the spatial distribution of methane seeps, implying anomalous seafloor characteristic at seep loci. This finding is consistent with ROV video observations of authigenic carbonate outcrops and extensive chemosynthetic bivalve communities at seep sites, which create a seafloor substrate with higher acoustic impedance. This result suggests that seafloor acoustic reflectivity data, which are far more commonly collected and archived than water column backscatter data, might be used diagnostically to identify and constrain the distribution of seafloor locations of methane discharge.