Asphalt Volcanism Research, Gulf of Mexico

 Here is evidence that the common belief that the Gulf of Mexico is a desert zone devoid of volcanic activity is erroneous.  Since at least 2004, it has been known and studied by international researchers and universities in Germany, USA, and Mexico.  I’m sure the common person knows nothing beyond their desire for cheap oil and gas products, I know I didn’t until this “oil spill”, as it is incorrectly called, happened.  It is fascinating to get some information that was obviously reserved for “larger” minds than we ill-educated regular consuming grunts.
Asphalt Volcanism and Chemosynthetic Life in the Campeche Knolls, Gulf of Mexico

I. R. MacDonald, Science 14 May 2004:

Vol. 304. no. 5673, p. 923
Biological communities form in a variety of deep-sea settings, most notably associated with mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems, but also in other areas of hydrothermal vents and seeps on continental margins and off axis discharge from oceanic crust. They also occur locally in association with other food sources, such as decaying whale carcasses. MacDonald et al. (p. 999) now describe another process that provides fuel for life in the deep ocean–asphalt volcanism. A large area of solidified asphalt that flows in the southern Gulf of Mexico supports a deep-sea biota. The asphalt, associated with petroleum generation in the region, erupted on the sea floor at temperatures high enough to form prominent joints upon cooling, and solidifies upon contact with seawater. Such processes in asphalt volcanic fields may be widespread in the abyssal Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps in other areas with abundant petroleum resources.  CREDIT: MACDONALD ET AL.

Asphalt flows from deep-sea volcanoes  New kind of volcano discovered in the Gulf of Mexico

Underwater volcanoes that spew asphalt instead of lava: they were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico during an expedition of the research vessel SONNE, led by Prof. Gerhard Bohrmann of the DFG Research Center Ocean Margins. On these volcanoes the multinational team of scientists encountered a previously unknown highly diverse ecosystem at a water depth of 3,000 meters. The prominent scientific journal Science reports the spectacular discovery in its issue of 14 May 2004.

Asphalt, commonly known to us as the material that covers our streets, has been found flowing out of mounds that rise 450 to 800 meters above the desert-like floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers discovered the asphalt volcanoes during a cruise of the research vessel SONNE. First observed in video footage, the structures were confirmed by bottom samples taken during the expedition. “We were actually only searching for the presence of methane at the seafloor, instead we found a new kind of volcano associated with a complex ecosystem,” relates Prof. Gerhard Bohrmann enthusiastically.

The researchers surmise that such asphalt volcanoes only occur in the Gulf of Mexico, but that they are abundant there, because the conditions required for their formation – deep water, salt diapirs below the seafloor, and the presence of oil deposits – are found only here.

When special microorganisms deep below the seafloor degrade petroleum, asphalt remains as a waste product. It is not unusual to find small amounts of this, but in some places in the Gulf of Mexico the asphalt covers more than a square kilometer of sea bottom. The researchers christened one of the mounds “Chapopote”, after the Aztec word for asphalt. Video recordings of this mound clearly show how the asphalt flowed out of the crater and down the slope. The pictures are amazingly reminiscent of lava from volcanoes on land. In addition, they are home to numerous life forms: tube worms, clams, fish, crabs, and – typical for deep-sea oases – abundant bacteria.

Asphalt is commonly presumed to be hostile to life. “Nevertheless, we have now found a complete ecosystem, not only living on the asphalt, but also apparently feeding on it,” says Bohrmann. The amazing thing about this is: as a waste product asphalt no longer contains the usual basic deep-sea nutrients, methane and hydrogen sulfide. Almost all animals living in the deep sea feed on such chemical compounds because energy from the sun only penetrates the upper layer of the ocean. “Now we have to find out what compounds the organisms on the asphalt volcanoes use, and how the network of life in this system is interconnected.”

The geologist of the DFG Research Center Ocean Margins is fascinated. “As a scientist, one rarely has the opportunity to discover things that are still completely unknown. The chance for discoveries of this magnitude exists only in the deep sea.”

The geologist of the DFG Research Center Ocean Margins is fascinated. “As a scientist, one rarely has the opportunity to discover things that are still completely unknown. The chance for discoveries of this magnitude exists only in the deep sea.”  Windows Media Video Link   Prof. Dr. Gerhard Bohrmann Contact:

DFG Research Center Ocean Margins
University Bremen
PO Box 33 04 40
D-28334 Bremen
Germany                         to Research group: Geology / Marine Geology

StaffName Function Phone

Bohrmann, Gerhard, Prof. Dr. Leader of the group +49-421-218-65050
Brüning, Markus PhD Student +49-421-218-65055
Chen, Falin, Prof. Dr. AvH Stipendiary +49-421-218-65064
Fischer, David PhD Student +49-421-218-65059
Haas, Antonie, Dr. Guest +49-421-218-65055
Hiruta, Akihiro, Dr. DAAD Stipendiary +49-421-218-65058
Hohnberg, H.-J., Dipl. Eng. Guest +49-421-218-65058
Iversen, Morten, Dr. Post Doc +49-421-218-65059
Klapp, Stephan A., Dr. Post Doc +49-421-218-65055
Körber, Jan-Hendrik PhD Student +49-421-218-65064

Marcon, Yann
Ohling, Greta Administration Secretary +49-421-218-65051
Pape, Thomas, Dr. Post Doc +49-421-218-65053
Rinkel, Angelika Foreign Language Assistant +49-421-218-65051
Römer, Miriam PhD Student +49-421-218-65059
Sahling, Heiko, Dr. Senior Scientist +49-421-218-65054

Large amounts of methane either as free gas or dissolved in porewater are present in sediment deposits along continental margins. Under the condition of high pressure and cold temperature methane and other gases form ice-like gas hydrates. A focus of our research is to understand the formation, structure and dynamics of gas hydrates in natural systems and their influences on the marine environment. Like groundwater springs on land fluids and gas circulate through the upper sediment sequences of the seafloor and escape at so-called cold vents or cold seeps. Study objects are precipitates (carbonates, gas hydrates, and barites) and chemoautotrophic communities that are present at those seeps when methane is oxidized in the sediments.  Working Areas
Cold seeps and gas hydrate deposits at active and passive continental margins: South-China Sea, Hydrate Ridge off Oregon, Gulf of Mexico, Black Sea, and Mediterranean.  Methods

Seafloor mapping at various spatial scales, deployment of TV-guided equipment, seafloor observation and sampling with submarines and remotely operated vehicles (ROV’s), petrological, geochemical and mineralogical investigations on rocks and sediments obtained by conventional coring or drilling, use of pressure coring devices. 

METEOR Cruise M67 2a

Synopsis  The METEOR expedition 67 starts on the 20th February 2006 in Talcahuano / Chile after two months in the shipyard. It is planed to conduct research in two main areas by two different research groups: one working of the coast of Chile (M 67/1) and another in the Gulf of Mexico (M 67/2). In both regions research will be carried out to study processes related to the seepage of methane-rich fluids. In total, the transit will cover more than 6600 nautical miles to the port in Bridgetown / Barbados scheduled at 24th April 2006
Participants of the cruise M67 2a
RCOM: DFG Research Center Ocean Margins, University Bremen

IFM-GEOMAR: Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University, Wischhofstr. 1-3, 24148 Kiel, Germany
TAMU:Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, 6300 Ocean Dr. PALS ST 320, Corpus Christi, TX 78412, USA
UNAM: Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnologia, y Instituto de GeofisicaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de México, A.P. 70-305 Ciudad, Universitaria, 04510 México, D.F.
UOG: Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, 30602-3636, USA
PEMEX: Petróleos Mexicanos, Vilharmosa, México

 Scientific Program M67-2a

In the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) so called asphalt volcanoes have been discovered during a short cruise of R/V SONNE 174 in 2003. These asphalt volca-noes are the main focus of the leg M 67/2.

Twenty-two morphological highs (knolls) have been mapped in the Campeche Bay off Mexico at water depth of more than 3000m. They are connected to salt diapirism. Yet unknown processes have shaped the mor-phology of the knolls, which have crater-like structures and show signs of mass wasting processes. Towed TV-sled observations at two knolls revealed evidence for lava-like asphalt flows with different generations of flows and chemosynthetic communities. The origin and processes leading to these as-phalts at the seafloor can not be explained by any of the known mechanisms leading to fluid seepage, i.e. mud volcanism or diapir-ism. During leg M 67/2 selected knolls will be mapped by high-resolution multichannel seismic and DTS sidescan sonar.

A portcall in Tampico / Mexico will be used for the exchange of cruise participants and for the setup of the remotely operated vehi-cle (ROV) QUEST. The investigation of the asphalt volcanism takes place in a collaborative action between Germany, Mexico (Prof. Dr. Elva Escobar Briones, UNAM) and the USA (Prof. Dr. Ian MacDonald, TAMU). In order to promote the fruitful tri-lateral collaboration a press conference and a reception on board are planned

Fig. High-resolution bathymetry obtained with during cruise SO 174-2. Overview map (left) and detail map (right) of the northern Campeche Knolls. The knolls are numbered according to the geographic position of their highest summits. The locations of oil slicks at the sea surface are indicated as dots. Those were detected by RADASAT-Satellite pictures and indicate that oil seepage occur at most knolls.

Geo-Biosphere Interactions (GB)

Above link leads to GB research projects 1-7.  Fascinating!

Reports, Proceedings
2008Bohrmann, G., Spieß, V., and cruise participants (2008) Report and preliminary results of R/V Meteor Cruise M67/2a and 2b, Balboa – Tampico – Bridgetown, 15 March – 24 April, 2006. Fluid seepage in the Gulf of Mexico. Berichte, Fachbereich Geowissenschaften, Universität Bremen, No. 263, 119 pages, Bremen, 2008. 

Bohrmann G und Sahling H (2010) Aspahltvulkane am Meeresboden – Kohlenwasserstoffe in kalten Quellen im Golf von Mexiko. in Kudrass H: Mit der Sonne die Erde erfassen: 55-59, RF Forschungsschiffahrt. 



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