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Numerical Investigations of the Fluid Flows at Deep Oceanic and Arctic Permafrost-Associated Gas Hydrate Deposits


Methane hydrate is an ice-like solid which sequesters large quantities of methane gas within its crystal structure. The source of methane is typically derived from organic matter broken down by thermogenic or biogenic activity. Methane hydrate (or more simply, hydrate) is found around the globe within marine sediments along most continental margins where thermodynamic conditions and methane gas (in excess of local solubility) permit its formation. Hydrate deposits are quite possibly the largest reservoir of fossil fuel on Earth, however, their formation and evolution in response to changing thermodynamic conditions, such as global warming, are poorly understood.

Upward fluid flow (relative to the seafloor) is thought to be important for the formation of methane hydrate deposits, which are typically found beneath topographic features on the seafloor. However, one-dimensional models predict downward flow relative to the seafloor in compacting marine sediments. The presence of upward flow in a passive margin setting can be explained by fluid focusing beneath topography when sediments have anisotropic permeability due to sediment bedding layers. Even small slopes (10 degrees) in bedding planes produce upward fluid velocity, with focusing becoming more effective as slopes increase. Additionally, focusing causes high excess pore pressure to develop below topographic highs, promoting high-angle fracturing at the ridge axis. Magnitudes of upward pore fluid velocity are much larger in fractured zones, particularly when the surrounding sediment matrix is anisotropic in permeability. Enhanced flow of methane-bearing fluids from depth provides a simple explanation for preferential accumulation of hydrate under topographic highs.

Models of fluid flow at large hydrate provinces can be constrained by measurements of naturally-occurring radioactive tracers. Concentrations of cosmogenic iodine, 129-I, in the pore fluid of marine sediments often indicate that the pore fluid is much older than the host sediment. Old pore fluid age may reflect complex flow patterns, such a fluid focusing, which can cause significant lateral migration as well as regions where downward flow reverses direction and returns toward the seafloor. Longer pathlines can produce pore fluid ages much older than that expected with a one-dimensional compaction model. For steady-state models with geometry representative of Blake Ridge (USA), a well-studied hydrate province, pore fluid ages beneath regions of topography and within fractured zones can be up to 70 Ma old. Results suggest that the measurements of 129-I/127-I reflect a mixture of new and old pore fluid. However, old pore fluid need not originate at great depths. Methane within pore fluids can travel laterally several kilometers, implying an extensive source region around the deposit. Iodine age measurements support the existence of fluid focusing beneath regions of seafloor topography at Blake Ridge, and suggest that the methane source at Blake Ridge is likely shallow.

The response of methane hydrate reservoirs to warming is poorly understood. The great depths may protect deep oceanic hydrates from climate change for the time being because transfer of heat by conduction is slow, but warming will eventually be felt albeit in the far future. On the other hand, unique permafrost-associated methane hydrate deposits exist at shallow depths within the sediments of the circum-Arctic continental shelves. Arctic hydrates are thought to be a relict of cold glacial periods, aggrading when sea levels are much lower and shelf sediments are exposed to freezing air temperatures. During interglacial periods, rising sea levels flood the shelf, bringing dramatic warming to the permafrost- and hydrate-bearing sediments. Permafrost-associated methane hydrate deposits have been responding to warming since the last glacial maximum ~18 kaBP as a consequence of these natural glacial cycles. This `experiment,' set into motion by nature itself, allows us a unique opportunity to study the response of methane hydrate deposits to warming.

Gas hydrate stability in the Arctic and the permeability of the shelf sediments to gas migration is thought to be closely linked with relict submarine permafrost. Submarine permafrost extent depends on several environmental factors, such as the shelf lithology, sea level variations, mean annual air temperature, ocean bottom water temperature, geothermal heat flux, groundwater hydrology, and the salinity of the pore water. Effects of submarine groundwater discharge, which introduces fresh terrestrial groundwater off-shore, can freshen deep marine sediments and is an important control on the freezing point depression of ice and methane hydrate. While several thermal modeling studies suggest the permafrost layer should still be largely intact near-shore, many recent field studies have reported elevated methane levels in Arctic coastal waters. The permafrost layer is thought to create an impermeable barrier to fluid and gas flow, however, talik formation (unfrozen regions within otherwise continuous permafrost) below paleo-river channels can create permeable pathways for gas migration from depth. This is the first study of its kind to make predictions of the methane gas flux to the water column from the Arctic shelf sediments using a 2D multi-phase fluid flow model. Model results show that the dissociation of methane hydrate deposits through taliks can supersaturate the overlying water column at present-day relative to equilibrium with the atmosphere when taliks are large (> 1 km width) or hydrate saturation is high within hydrate layers (> 50% pore volume). Supersaturated waters likely drive a net flux of methane into the atmosphere, a potent greenhouse gas. Effects of anthropogenic global warming will certainly increase gas venting rates if ocean bottom water temperatures increase, but likely won't have immediately observable impacts due to the long response times.

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