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Research

Sub-Sea-Floor Methane in the Bering Sea—USGS Emeritus Describes Possible Gas-Hydrate Accumulations to the Geophysical Society of Alaska


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Chunks of gas hydrate
Above: Chunks of gas hydrate recovered from the Gulf of Mexico in 2002 (see Sound Waves article, "Gas Hydrate Studied in the Northern Gulf of Mexico"). Photograph by Bill Winters, USGS. [larger version]

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) emeritus scientist Dave Scholl described evidence for large accumulations of methane hydrate beneath the floor of the Bering Sea in an invited talk at a January 11 meeting of the Geophysical Society of Alaska in Anchorage. Methane hydrate is a naturally occurring crystalline substance in which molecules of methane—a primary component of natural gas—are trapped in a lattice of water molecules. Common in Arctic permafrost environments as well as in sea-floor sediment, methane hydrate interests scientists for numerous reasons, among them its potential as a future source of fossil fuel, and its potential to cause submarine landslides and to release large volumes of methane—a greenhouse gas—when conditions cause it to dissociate into free gas and water.

During his talk, Scholl showed seismic-reflection data collected by the U.S. Navy in the 1960s during antisubmarine-warfare research that revealed unexpected features beneath the floor of deep basins (3,500- to 4,000-m water depth) in the Bering Sea. The features, which range from 2 to 8 km in width, look like giant mushrooms in the seismic-reflection records. The "cap" of the mushroom is a stack of upward-arched seismic-reflection horizons with its top approximately 200 m below the sea floor. The "stem" of the mushroom is a continuous column of downward-arched horizons, extending from about 360 to at least 2,000 m below the sea floor. Using modern tools to re-analyze data in which the mushroom-like structures appear, USGS scientists have extracted new details about these features, now interpreted as natural-gas chimneys overlain by deposits of methane hydrate.

Bering Sea, North Pacific Ocean.
Above: Bering Sea, North Pacific Ocean. Bathymetric contour lines are in meters, with the darkest line representing 3,500-m water depth. The deep Aleutian and Bowers Basins lie at approximately 3,600- to 3,900-m water depth. Star, location of VAMP example; circled stars, nearest drilled wells, from Deep-Sea Drilling Program (DSDP) leg 19. Tracklines (gray) represent approximately 24,000 km of digitally recorded USGS single-channel seismic data. [larger version]

Seismic-reflection data are produced by bouncing acoustic (sound) energy off layers of sediment beneath the sea floor and recording the returning echoes. Some acoustic energy is reflected at any horizon where certain physical properties change—at the boundary between different sedimentary layers, for example. In the Bering Sea data, flat-lying horizons predominate, indicating that deep Bering Sea basins are filled with 2 to 4 (or more) km of sediment in little-deformed horizontal beds. The enigmatic "mushrooms" amid the flat-lying beds were dubbed "acoustic Velocity-AMPlitude (VAMP) anomalies" in the 1970s by USGS scientists examining both Navy and USGS seismic-reflection data from the Bering Sea.

Continuing research on the origin of VAMP structures brought recognition that the transition from upward-arching horizons to downward-arching horizons occurs at the same depth—approximately 360 m below the Bering Sea floor—as the predicted transition from stable methane hydrate (above) to stable methane gas (below). The form in which methane is most stable is determined by pressure and temperature. In the Bering Sea, the pressure at about 360 m below the sea floor is approximately 400 bars, and the temperature approximately 24°C. Below this "transition depth," higher temperatures cause methane to exist as a gas in pores in the sediment. Above the transition depth, lower temperatures and moderate pressures cause methane to exist as methane hydrate.

Conspicuous acoustic VAMP (Velocity-AMPlitude) anomaly in seismic-reflection image from the central Aleutian Basin
Above: Conspicuous VAMP anomaly in seismic-reflection image from the central Aleutian Basin (star on map, above). Overlying the image is a plot of temperature versus pore pressure, here assumed to be equal to hydrostatic pressure, or the weight of the overlying water. (1 MPa = 10 bars or approx 10 atm.) Nearly vertical line labeled "Hydrate-gas equilibrium" separates lower-temperature region where methane occurs as methane hydrate (left of line) from higher-temperature region where methane occurs as pore-filling gas (right of line). Line labeled "Temperature" shows expected increase of temperature with depth in sediment. Point where temperature line crosses equilibrium line marks transition depth above which hydrate is stable and below which free gas is stable; this depth is marked by gas-hydrate BSR (bottom-simulating reflection). [larger version]

VAMP (Velocity-AMPlitude) anomaly interpretation.
Above: VAMP anomaly interpretation. Sedimentary horizons (dashed lines) are drawn as they appear in seismic-reflection data. Scientists attribute horizon distortions largely to variations in velocity of sound through layers. BSR, bottom-simulating reflection, above which methane occurs as methane hydrate, and below which it occurs as pore-filling gas. Methane hydrate forming "cap" of mushroom (gray shading) is generally most concentrated (darkest shading) just above BSR. [larger version]
A white, icelike solid, methane hydrate yields about 164 volumes of free gas per unit volume of hydrate at room temperature and pressure (where the hydrate is unstable). Where temperature and pressure conditions are favorable, methane hydrate occurs in marine sediment as either massive accumulations (as shown in photograph) or pore-filling deposits.

Sound waves travel faster through methane hydrate than through water-filled sediment, and slower through gas-filled sediment than through water-filled sediment. Because of these acoustic-velocity differences, seismic-reflection horizons appear to bow upward where methane hydrate occurs, and downward where pore-filling methane gas occurs. The mushroom-like VAMP structures are thus believed to be acoustic images of large deposits of methane hydrate (the cap of the mushroom) directly overlying chimneys of ascending fluids carrying methane gas (the stem of the mushroom). The methane that forms VAMP structures is believed to be generated largely by thermal decomposition of organic matter in sedimentary deposits deeper within the sedimentary basin.

Thousands of VAMPs occur in the Bering Sea. New analyses by the USGS show that a single large VAMP structure involves a volume of methane equivalent to that of a large conventional gas field (approx 0.6-0.9 trillion ft3). If the hydrate hypothesis is correct and VAMP structures do indeed represent occurrences of methane hydrate and gas, then the potential total inventory of natural gas in the deep Bering Sea is enormous. The remoteness and depth of these deposits, however, make economic extraction implausible in the foreseeable future.

For more information about USGS study of the Bering Sea VAMPs, see "Possible Deep-Water Gas Hydrate Accumulations in the Bering Sea," by Ginger Barth, Dave Scholl, and Jonathan Childs, in the Fall 2006 issue of Fire in the Ice, the National Energy Technology Laboratory's Methane Hydrate Newsletter. In addition, an informative article about Scholl's talk to the Alaska Geophysical Society was written by Alan Bailey for the January 21, 2007, issue of Petroleum News (URL http://www.petroleumnews.com/pnfriends/286678373.shtml).


Related Sound Waves Stories
USGS Report of Methane Hydrate Off Southern California Sparks Media Interest
March 2006
Congressional Briefings on Gas Hydrates
March 2003
Gas Hydrate Studied in the Northern Gulf of Mexico
September 2002

Related Web Sites
Methane Hydrate - A Surprising Compound
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Gas Hydrate Studies
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Fire in the Ice
National Energy Technology Laboratory newsletter
Bering Sea likely rich in hydrates
Petroleum News

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Research
cover story:
Deadly Tsunami Hits Solomon Islands

Tsunami-Forecasting System Tested by Recent Earthquakes

Sub-Sea-Floor Methane in the Bering Sea

Outreach USGS Donates Equipment to Local Nonprofit Theater

Meetings Getting to Know ET (Evapotranspiration)

International Workshop on High-Seas Biogeography

Awards USGS Researcher Receives Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers

USGS Sirenia Project Receives Manatee Hero Award

Publications

April Publications List


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