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Subduction zone earthquake as potential trigger of submarine hydrocarbon seepage

Abstract

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is abundant in marine sediments1,2. Submarine seepage of methane-dominated hydrocarbons is heterogeneous in space and time, and mechanisms that can trigger episodic seep events are poorly understood2,3,4. For example, critical gas pressures have been predicted to develop beneath impermeable sediments that bear gas hydrates, making them susceptible to mechanical failure and gas release5,6. Gas hydrates often occur in seismically active regions, but the role of earthquakes as triggers of hydrocarbon seepage through gas-hydrate-bearing sediments has been only superficially addressed7,8. Here we present geochemical analyses of sediment cores retrieved from the convergent margin off Pakistan. We find that a substantial increase in the upward flux of gas occurred within a few decades of a Mw 8.1 earthquake in 1945—the strongest earthquake reported for the Arabian Sea. Our seismic reflection data suggest that co-seismic shaking fractured gas-hydrate-bearing sediments, creating pathways for the free gas to migrate from a shallow reservoir within the gas hydrate stability zone into the water column. We conservatively estimate that 3.26×108 mol of methane have been discharged from the seep site since the earthquake. We therefore suggest that hydrocarbon seepage triggered by earthquakes needs to be considered in local and global carbon budgets at active continental margins.

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Figure 1: Seafloor images from the Nascent Ridge area offshore Pakistan and local bathymetry.
Figure 2: Concentration depth profiles of dissolved and solid-phase constituents for the two examined sites.
Figure 3: Numerical simulation of the evolution of the sulphate concentration profiles compared to measured profiles at both examined sites.
Figure 4: North–south-oriented seismic line GeoB 07-384 across Nascent Ridge and interpreted sub-bottom architecture.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Zabel for providing sulphate data. M. Römer kindly assisted in compiling the map and R. Alvaréz and M. Y. Yoshinaga assisted in the laboratory analyses. We acknowledge comments by T. Goldhammer and J. Collins on an earlier version of the manuscript. We thank Seismic Micro-Technology, (The KINGDOM Software) and GEDCO (Vista Windows Seismic Data Processing) for providing academic software licenses. This work has been supported through the DFG Research Centre/Cluster of Excellence ‘The Ocean in the Earth System’ (MARUM) with additional funding by the Helmholtz Association (Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven).

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Contributions

D.F. and S.K. designed the study and wrote the manuscript. D.F. and T.P. conducted the laboratory sample analyses. J.M.M. developed the numerical simulation. V.S. and N.F. processed and interpreted the seismic data and contributed to writing the manuscript. J.M.M., M.S., T.P. and G.B. substantially contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David Fischer.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Fischer, D., Mogollón, J., Strasser, M. et al. Subduction zone earthquake as potential trigger of submarine hydrocarbon seepage. Nature Geosci 6, 647–651 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1886

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