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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Strategies for Detecting Hidden Geothermal Systems by Near-Surface Gas Monitoring


"Hidden" geothermal systems are those systems above which hydrothermal surface features (e.g., hot springs, fumaroles, elevated ground temperatures, hydrothermal alteration) are lacking. Emissions of moderate to low solubility gases (e.g., CO2, CH4, He) may be one of the primary near-surface signals from these systems. Detection of anomalous gas emissions related to hidden geothermal systems may therefore be an important tool to discover new geothermal resources. This study investigates the potential for CO2 detection and monitoring in the subsurface and above ground in the near-surface environment to serve as a tool to discover hidden geothermal systems. We focus the investigation on CO2 due to (1) its abundance in geothermal systems, (2) its moderate solubility in water, and (3) the wide range of technologies available to monitor CO2 in the near-surface environment. However, monitoring in the near-surface environment for CO2 derived from hidden geothermal reservoirs is complicated by the large variation in CO2 fluxes and concentrations arising from natural biological and hydrologic processes. In the near-surface environment, the flow and transport of CO2 at high concentrations will be controlled by its high density, low viscosity, and high solubility in water relative to air. Numerical simulations of CO2 migration show that CO2 concentrations can reach very high levels in the shallow subsurface even for relatively low geothermal source CO2 fluxes. However, once CO2 seeps out of the ground into the atmospheric surface layer, surface winds are effective at dispersing CO2 seepage. In natural ecological systems in the absence of geothermal gas emissions, near-surface CO2 fluxes and concentrations are primarily controlled by CO2 uptake by photosynthesis, production by root respiration, and microbial decomposition of soil/subsoil organic matter, groundwater degassing, and exchange with the atmosphere. Available technologies for monitoring CO2 in the near-surface environment include (1) the infrared gas analyzer (IRGA) for measurement of concentrations at point locations, (2) the accumulation chamber (AC) method for measuring soil CO2 fluxes at point locations, (3) the eddy covariance (EC) method for measuring net CO2 flux over a given area, (4) hyperspectral imaging of vegetative stress resulting from elevated CO2 concentrations, and (5) light detection and ranging (LIDAR) that can measure CO2 concentrations over an integrated path. Technologies currently in developmental stages that have the potential to be used for CO2 monitoring include tunable lasers for long distance integrated concentration measurements and micro-electronic mechanical systems (MEMS) that can make widespread point measurements. To address the challenge of detecting potentially small-magnitude geothermal CO2 emissions within the natural background variability of CO2, we propose an approach that integrates available detection and monitoring methodologies with statistical analysis and modeling strategies. Within the area targeted for geothermal exploration, point measurements of soil CO2 fluxes and concentrations using the AC method and a portable IRGA, respectively, and measurements of net surface flux using EC should be made. Also, the natural spatial and temporal variability of surface CO2 fluxes and subsurface CO2 concentrations should be quantified within a background area with similar geologic, climatic, and ecosystem characteristics to the area targeted for geothermal exploration. Statistical analyses of data collected from both areas should be used to guide sampling strategy, discern spatial patterns that may be indicative of geothermal CO2 emissions, and assess the presence (or absence) of geothermal CO2 within the natural background variability with a desired confidence level. Once measured CO2 concentrations and fluxes have been determined to be of anomalous geothermal origin with high confidence, more expensive vertical subsurface gas sampling and chemical and isotopic analyses can be undertaken. Integrated analysis of all measurements will determine definitively if CO2 derived from a deep geothermal source is present, and if so, the spatial extent of the anomaly. The appropriateness of further geophysical measurements, installation of deep wells, and geochemical analyses of deep fluids can then be decided based on the results of the near surface CO2 monitoring program.

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