Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Non-UFO: The Gulf of Mexico

The oil industry has the talents of the best geologists and geotechnicians at its service, and is the employer of choice for these disciplines. However, one wonders if an effort to keep the location of a major petroleum strike confidential -- having invested millions in 2--D and 3-D seismic mapping -- BP's quest for oil led it to pierce the main chamber, or a subsidiary one, of an unusual geological phenomenon discovered six years ago.

In the spring of 2003, the German research vessel RV Sonne was engaged in a routine survey of the underwater geological feature known as the Campeche Escarpment at a depths in excess of three thousand meters. Previous imagery of this location had shown the presence of intriguing traces of oil floating in the sea, and the oceanographic vessel deployed a complex video and still camera system to get a better idea of the phenomenon. Forty-eight hours after the survey commenced, nothing beyond the customary ocean floor was visible to researchers in the vessel above.

However, in the early hours of the morning, Mexican researcher Elva Escobar – part of the international and interdisciplinary team of scientists probing the mystery – noticed something truly unusual: while scanning the features on a monitor, one of the team members noticed what resembled a rock wall: a possible igneous volcano. But this guess was somehow unsatisfactory, given the great age of the Gulf of Mexico, which is older than the Caribbean Sea. A similar phenomenon on the Pacific Ocean, which is still geologically active, would have been readily comprehensible. So what was going on, in an area lacking volcanic activity?

The team’s dutiful research into this geological puzzle yielded unexpected results. All their data suggested that the “volcano” they had discovered spewed asphalt instead of lava – something they had never witnessed before. Several kilograms of random samples from the seabed only confirmed their astonishing discovery.

The underwater feature was given the name Chapapote, the Nahuatl term for tar.

Natural tar deposits, millions of years old, are often associated with oil fields, emitting large bubbles of gas. This new geological feature presented signs of natural methane hydrates and hydrocarbons.

These findings were published in Science, May 14, 2004.