Authigenic carbonate formation at hydrocarbon seeps in continental margin sediments: A comparative study

Thomas H. Naehr1 , Peter Eichhubl2, Victoria J. Orphan3, Martin Hovland4, Charles K. Paull5, William Ussler III5, Thomas D. Lorenson6 and H. Gary Greene7

1 Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, 6300 Ocean Drive, Corpus Christi, TX 78412, USA
2 University of Texas at Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology, University Station, Box X, Austin, TX 78713-8924, USA
3 Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Mail Code 100-23, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA
4 Statoil, 4001 Stavanger, Norway
5 Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, 7700 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, CA 95039, USA
6 USGS, 345 Middlefield Road, M.S. 999, Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA
7 Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, 8272 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, CA 95039, USA


Authigenic carbonates from five continental margin locations, the Eel River Basin, Monterey Bay, Santa Barbara Basin, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the North Sea, exhibit a wide range of mineralogical and stable isotopic compositions. These precipitates include aragonite, low- and high-Mg calcite, and dolomite. The carbon isotopic composition of carbonates varies widely, ranging from −60‰ to +26‰, indicating complex carbon sources that include 13C-depleted microbial and thermogenic methane and residual, 13C-enriched, bicarbonate. A similarly large variability of δ18O values (−5.5‰ to +8.9‰) demonstrates the geochemical complexity of these sites, with some samples pointing toward an 18O-enriched oxygen source possibly related to advection of 18O-enriched formation water or to the decomposition of gas hydrate. Samples depleted in 18O are consistent with formation deeper in the sediment or mixing of pore fluids with meteoric water during carbonate precipitation.

A wide range of isotopic and mineralogical variation in authigenic carbonate composition within individual study areas but common trends across multiple geographic areas suggest that these parameters alone are not indicative for certain tectonic or geochemical settings. Rather, the observed variations probably reflect local controls on the flux of carbon and other reduced ions, such as faults, fluid conduits, the presence or absence of gas hydrate in the sediment, and the temporal evolution of the local carbon reservoir.

Areas with seafloor carbonates that indicate formation at greater depth below the sediment-water interface must have undergone uplift and erosion in the past or are still being uplifted. Consequently, the occurrence of carbonate slabs on the seafloor in areas of active hydrocarbon seepage is commonly an indicator of exhumation following carbonate precipitation in the shallow subsurface. Therefore, careful petrographic and geochemical analyses are critical components necessary for the correct interpretation of processes related to hydrocarbon seepage in continental margin environments and elsewhere.