Contributions to atmospheric methane by natural seepages on the UK continental shelf

Alan Judd, Gareth Davies, Jason Wilson, Richard Holmes, Gordon Baron, Ian Bryden

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    Natural gas seepages occur on the United Kingdom's continental shelf and although published reports suggest that they are very rare, the petroleum industry has identified, but not publicly reported, many more. There is also very little data on the flux of gas from seabed seepages, and even less on the contribution of seepages to atmospheric concentrations of gases such as methane. Potential gas source rocks include Quaternary peats as well as petroliferous source rocks such as the Carboniferous Coal Measures and the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Clays. There are also other organic-rich sediments which are potential source rocks. Together these cover a considerable part of the U.K. continental shelf. Analogue seismic reflection (pinger) profiles acquired during the British Geological Survey's regional mapping programme have been reviewed to identify water column targets including fish and plumes of gas bubbles. The ability to distinguish targets is critical to an assessment of the distribution of gas seepages. Both theoretical predictions of target identity and the habits of shoaling fish have been investigated in order to identify a method of distinction. Data from seabed seepages and measurements of seepage rates have been used to establish likely ranges of gas flux rates and the sizes of gas bubbles. The likelihood that a rising bubble will survive and escape into the atmosphere is determined primarily by bubble size and water depth; methane, the principal constituent of seepage gas, is relatively unreactive and sparingly soluble. The studies have enabled a new estimate of the distribution of gas seepages on the U.K. continental shelf, and of the contribution to atmospheric methane levels. The results suggest that natural gas seepages are significantly more important as a source of methane than had hitherto been established. It is estimated that between 120,000 and 3.5 mtonnes of methane per year come from a continental shelf area of about 600,000 km2. This represents between 2% and 40% of the total United Kingdom methane emission. It is suggested that similar contributions arise from other continental shelf areas worldwide, and that geological sources of atmospheric methane are more significant than is generally acknowledged.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)165-189
    Number of pages25
    JournalMarine Geology
    Issue number1-2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 1997


    • atmospheric methane
    • gas seepage
    • UK shelf


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