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Cascadia Margin cold seeps: Subduction zone fluids, gas hydrates, and chemosynthetic habitats

March 31, 2020

Priority Geographic Area: The outer continental shelf and upper continental slope from Canada/U.S. border offshore Washington State to the Mendocino Fracture Zone (Northern California), entirely within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), from the outermost shelf to at least 2000 m water depth (Figure 1).

Description of Priority Area: Since 2015, over a thousand water column gas plumes originating at seafloor gas seeps have been discovered landward of the Cascadia deformation front (e.g., Embley et al., 2016; Johnson et al., 2015, 2019; Merle and Embley, 2016; NA-95 Cruise Report, 2018; Riedel et al., 2018), adding to those that had long been known on Hydrate Ridge (e.g., Heeschen et al., 2003; Tréhu et al., 2004). The recently-discovered seeps stretch from offshore Vancouver Island to the Mendocino Fracture Zone and from the outer shelf to ~2000 m water depth, occurring both landward and seaward of the nominal limit for gas hydrate stability zone on the upper continental slope (Figure 1). Hundreds of seeps likely remain undiscovered. Water column imaging is incomplete both within the target geographic area and farther seaward, between the 2000 m isobath and the deformation front, which is the subject of an imaging study described in a white paper by Watt et al. The recently-discovered Cascadia Margin cold seeps partially overlap an important active margin gas hydrate province (Spence et al., 2001; Tréhu et al., 2003, 2004), as well as an area where sediments on the North American plate are folded and faulted and affected by fluids generated in the subduction complex beneath the Cascadia forearc (e.g., Saffer and Tobin, 2011). Several Ocean Drilling Program expeditions have focused on hydrate systems offshore Vancouver and Oregon (e.g., Riedel et al., 2009; Tréhu et al., 2004) and on the connection between the shallow and deep hydrogeologic systems. Cabled observatories now continuously monitor physical, chemical, and venting processes on south Hydrate Ridge (OOI; e.g., Philip et al., 2016a) and offshore Vancouver Island (NEPTUNE; e.g. Römer et al., 2016). Outside of these well-studied gas hydrate areas, a subset of the recently-discovered Cascadia seeps, including some that we visited with R/V Falkor in 2019 (e.g.,…), also likely emit methane associated with shallow subseafloor gas hydrate systems. Other seeps are delivering not only methane, but also deep-derived gases (Baumberger et al., 2018, 2020) to the seafloor. Many Cascadia Margin seeps have also been recognized at water depths too shallow (e.g., 175 m) to be connected to gas hydrate dynamics. These seeps are postulated to be emitting gas and fluids that originated deep in accretionary wedge before migrating up normal faults generated during forearc extension associated with large earthquakes (Johnson et al., 2019). Only a small fraction of the recently discovered U.S. Cascadia Margin water column gas plumes has so far been verified by ROVs (Hercules from E/V Nautilus in 2016 and 2018; SuBastian from R/V Falkor in 2018 and 2019) to correspond to seafloor seeps. Careful scientific mapping, investigation, and sampling at the seeps have also been limited (e.g., Baumberger et al., 2018, 2020; Merle and Embley, 2016; Seabrook et al., 2018; Greinert et al. 2019). This white paper focuses on expanding exploration of already-identified U.S. Cascadia Margin cold seeps through a multipronged and multidisciplinary discovery program that could be accomplished with a variety of NOAA assets. The goals of the proposed exploration activities are to develop high-resolution maps of seep fields from deep ocean vehicles; to verify (and sample) seafloor gas emissions at the locations of water column plumes for compositional and isotopic studies; to map, sample, and conduct analyses on chemosynthetic communities and deep-sea coral habitats near seep sites to document species distributions and habitats as a function of depth and latitude along the margin; to collect seep geologic samples that can constrain the timing of methane emissions through geochronology; and to record environmental data (e.g., CTD) near the seafloor and in the water column above the seeps. Seafloor mapping using shipboard systems (multibeam/backscatter) would be needed to characterize seafloor features near seep sites. Water column imaging (EK60/80 and/or multibeam WCD data) conducted before and after seafloor explorations would capture active methane plumes and constrain temporal variations in seep emissions (e.g., Kannberg et al., 2013; Philip et al., 2016a, 2016b), which are known to vary on time scales as rapid as tidal cycles on this margin (e.g., Römer et al., 2016). What are the characterization and data needs in this area? Check all that apply: __x_ Biology, Geology, Physical Oceanography, Chemistry ___ Marine Archaeology ___ Other Provide a list or brief description of the data needed within this area, from your perspective: 1. Water column backscatter to image active gas plumes 2. High-resolution multibeam bathymetry, seafloor backscatter, and shallow sub-bottom imaging 3. Visual characterization and ground truthing of potential seeps, including high-resolution mapping and photography from near-seafloor vehicles; collection of seep-associated species, corals, sediments, authigenic carbonates, gases, and seawater Describe relevance to national security, conservation, and/or the economy: The Cascadia margin seeps provide significant ecosystem services, including habitat for commercially important fishes and support for diversity along the continental margin. Methane seeps are also biological hotspots for krill, plankton, and crustaceans, which in turn sustain higher trophic levels (e.g., whales). Methane-derived authigenic carbonates serve as a hard substrate for deep-sea corals and sponges on millennial time scales. The studies proposed here will elucidate the relationship among seep environments, deep-sea corals, sponges, fisheries, and other organisms and provide new insight into subduction zone and hydrate-associated fluids in this important seismogenic zone. The studies address fishery management concerns and inform future conservation of sensitive species (e.g., deep-sea corals) and benthic habitats. From your perspective, what makes this area unique? The Cascadia Margin seeps are a critical component of the leaky margin that stretches from Baja California to the Aleutian Arc along the Pacific coastline of North America. Cold seeps have been intensely studied on the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Atlantic passive margins with a focus on chemosynthetic communities, deep-sea corals, and leakage of microbially-generated and/or thermogenic hydrocarbons; however, the recently-discovered Cascadia Margin seeps, as well as active margin seep systems in general, remain more poorly characterized. Such seeps not only contribute to the ocean carbon cycle (e.g., Pohlman et al., 2011), thereby fueling the base of the food chain in these settings, but also emit subduction zone fluids that provide clues about processes within the seismogenic zone and the accretionary complex. The Cascadia seeps area allows both biological (e.g., benthic habitats, coral distributions) and physical processes (e.g., generation of subduction zone fluids) to be studied along both depth (perpendicular to the deformation front) and latitudinal gradients.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Cascadia Margin cold seeps: Subduction zone fluids, gas hydrates, and chemosynthetic habitats
Authors Amanda Demopoulos, Carolyn D. Ruppel, Nancy G. Prouty, Janet Watt, Tamara Baumberger, David A Butterfield
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Series Title
Series Number
Index ID 70229996
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center