Seismic detection of marine methane hydrate

W. S. HOLBROOK, A. R. GORMAN, M. HORNBACH, K. L. HACKWITH, AND J. NEALON, University of Wyoming, Laramie, U.S.
D. LIZARRALDE, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, U.S.
I. A. PECHER, Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand

As offshore petroleum exploration and

development move into deeper water,
industry must contend increasingly with
gas hydrate, a solid compound that
binds water and a low-molecular-weight
gas (usually methane). Gas hydrate has
been long studied in industry from an
engineering viewpoint, due to its tendency to clog gas pipelines.
However, hydrate also occurs naturally wherever there are high pressures,
low temperatures, and sufficient concentrations of gas and water. These conditions prevail in two natural
environments, both of which are sites
of active exploration: permafrost
regions and marine sediments on continental slopes. In this article we discuss
seismic detection of gas hydrate in
marine sediments.
Gas hydrate in deepwater sediments
poses both new opportunities and new
hazards. An enormous quantity of natural gas, likely far exceeding the global
inventory of conventional fossil fuels, is
locked up worldwide in hydrates. Extraction of this unconventional resource
presents unique exploration, engineering, and economic challenges, and several countries, including the United
States, Japan, Canada, India, and Korea,
have initiated joint industry-academicgovernmental programs to begin studying those challenges. Hydrates also
constitute a potential drilling hazard.
Because hydrates are only stable in a
restricted range of pressure and temperature, any activity that sufficiently
raises temperature or lowers pressure
could destabilize them, releasing potentially large volumes of gas and decreasing the shear strength of the host
sediments. Assessment of the opportunities and hazards associated with
hydrates requires reliable methods of
detecting hydrate and accurate maps of
their distribution and concentration.
Hydrate may occur only within the
upper few hundred meters of deepwater sediment, at any depth between the
seafloor and the base of the stability
zone, which is controlled by local pressure and temperature. Hydrate is occasionally exposed at the seafloor, where
it can be detected either visually or
acoustically by strong seismic reflection
amplitudes or high backscatter on sidescan sonar records (although this signature is often complicated by associated

686

THE LEADING EDGE

JULY 2002

Figure 1. Location of Blake Ridge, offshore SE
United States. The white region on the Blake
Ridge shows the mapped extent of gas hydrate
deposits.

authigenic carbonate hardgrounds).
However, much hydrate exists within
the pore spaces of sediments at depths
down to the base of the hydrate stability zone, and it need not be associated
with seafloor hydrate outcrops. Therefore, accurate mapping of hydrate occurrences requires methods of detecting and
quantifying hydrate at depth, not just
hydrate exposed at the seafloor.
The standard method for determining where hydrate occurs at depth is by
identifying a bottom-simulating reflector (BSR) on seismic reflection sections.
The BSR represents a reflection from the
hydrate-gas phase boundary, which
generates an impedance contrast because hydrate-bearing sediments have a
higher P-wave velocity than gas-bearing
sediments. The essential characteristic
of the BSR is its cross-cutting relationship
to strata, which identifies it as a chemical phase boundary rather than a stratigraphic reflection. Using the BSR as the
sole indicator of hydrate occurrence has
severe limitations, however. While BSRs
are common in hydrate-bearing sediments, they are not ubiquitous; indeed,
in environments where fluid flow is
highly focused, such as the Gulf of
Mexico, they are rare or absent. Results
from Ocean Drilling Program Leg 164
showed that hydrates can be present
even where BSRs are lacking. Moreover,
the amplitude of the BSR is strongly sensitive to small concentrations of gas
beneath the HSZ. Determination of
hydrate concentrations from BSR amplitudes requires careful AVO modeling,
preferably by prestack full waveform

inversion, and even then, the BSR confers information only about the concentration of hydrate within a few meters
of the phase boundary. The BSR, then,
reliably indicates the presence of hydrate
but says very little about its vertical or
lateral distribution.
How can hydrate be detected at
depth within sediments? Some recent
seismic reflection results from the Blake
Ridge provide an instructive case study.
The Blake Ridge, one of the best-studied hydrate provinces in the world,
could be described as the “type section”
of hydrate deposits. The first hydrate
BSR was discovered on the Blake Ridge,
and the first samples of marine gas
hydrates were recovered there. The ridge
is a sediment drift deposit formed by
contour-hugging currents of the Western
Boundary Undercurrent, which flows
south along the western margin of the
North Atlantic Ocean (Figure 1). The
ridge juts southeastward into the deeper
ocean basin; the hydrate-bearing portion of the ridge occurs in water depths
of about 2000-4000 m. Because of its relative sedimentological and tectonic simplicity, the Blake Ridge is an excellent
locale to study the hydrate/gas system;
in particular, the relatively uniform
lithology (muds and silts) provides a virtual tabula rasa against which strong
anomalies in physical properties (e.g.,
velocity, density, and reflectance) can be
confidently interpreted in terms of
hydrate or free gas. In Fall 2000, we
acquired seismic reflection data on the
Blake Ridge aboard the R/V Maurice
Ewing, using a 2-GI gun source (105/105
in3) and a 6000-m, 480-channel digital
streamer. The resulting seismic data are
of excellent quality and resolution and
contain three different examples of direct
seismic detection of gas hydrate:
enhanced reflectors (“hydrate bright
spots”), cross-stratal reflections in the
hydrate stability zone (“paleo-BSRs”),
and zones of reduced reflectance
(“amplitude blanking”).
Depending on its concentration,
hydrate can either enhance or suppress
seismic reflectance. Recent studies of permafrost hydrates in the Mallik well of
Arctic Canada show that hydrate may
preferentially form in more porous (and
thus lower-velocity) layers, raising their
velocity relative to the less porous
(higher-velocity) layers. At low satura-

Immediately beneath each chimney. laterally restricted reflections at traveltimes of 100-250 ms beneath the seafloor.87 s. such as chimneys and disruptions in the BSR.76 s two-way traveltime is caused by a high-velocity layer at 2. however. reflection amplitudes in the free gas zone (at and beneath the BSR) are anomalously weak. nor has a chimney been JULY 2002 THE LEADING EDGE 687 . showing two adjacent chimneys of low reflectance. These observations indicate that. high-amplitude reflections (arrows) in the hydrate stability zone. The high-velocity anomaly reaches a peak of 2. migrated upward along faults or hydrofractures. immediately overlying disruptions in the BSR. thus gener- ating enhanced reflectance. Numerous anomalously bright reflections in the data set likely correspond to layers of concentrated hydrate. Figure 2). Upward migration of free gas in hydrate systems often creates zones of vertically reduced reflection amplitudes. each of which overlies a disruption in the BSR. strong reflections occur in an otherwise simple section of stratified. which are particularly pronounced within a 500-m radius of a clear disruption in the BSR and sub-BSR gascharged zone. Seismic data from line R37.and lessporous strata. hydrate may thereby reduce the impedance contrast between more. faulted sediments. Although such features are relatively common in hydrate-bearing regions.. suppressing seismic reflectance—a phenomenon called “blanking. are often associated with bright amplitudes in the hydrate stability zone (e. The association of the disrupted BSR with enhanced amplitudes in the hydrate stability zone suggests that the bright. Gas escape features. (Interestingly. where several short. visual inspection of the reflection falsely suggests a “reversed” polarity compared to the seafloor—a cautionary tale of the dangers of casually interpreting waveform polarity of thin-bed reflections.” An example is given in Figure 3. tions (below ~25% of pore space). The example in Figure 4 shows bright.96 km depth. to our knowledge.g.” At high hydrate saturation.9 km/s. even in a relatively low-methane-flux environment such as the Blake Ridge. consistent with a hydrate saturation of 60-80% of the pore volume. shallow reflections are layers of concentrated hydrate formed by the rapid migration of free gas out of the hydrate stability zone. such as low-permeability capping sediment. which shows two adjacent chimneys of about 100 m radius. likely a zone of concentrated gas hydrate. showing prominent.Seafloor Two-way traveltime(s) Figure 2. a gas hydrate chimney has never been drilled. derived by waveform inversion of prestack data. The strong reflection at 3. which marks the phase boundary between the hydrate stability zone and the underlying free gas zone. The chimneys are thought to represent gas-migration features. Waveform inversion of the prestack data clearly shows that a positive velocity anomaly at a subseafloor depth of 250 m is responsible for the bright reflection at 3. Seismic data from line 3D-03.1 km/s against a background of 1. hydrate-bearing layers can have velocities significantly greater than the surrounding sediment.) The vertical association of these bright reflections with disruptions in the underlying gas zone makes a clear case that these events represent concentrated hydrate formed by upward migration of methane gas along faults or fractures. and created the chimneys. but natural traps. BSR is the bottom-simulating reflection. A particularly clear example occurs on line 3D-03 (Figure 2). Figure 3. The principal barrier to upward migration of gas is not formation of hydrate. suggesting that free gas has escaped from beneath the BSR. Right inset shows detailed velocity-depth function at site of inverted triangle. or “chimneys. free gas can penetrate upward hundreds of meters through the hydrate stability zone before forming hydrate. The Blake Ridge data show examples of both enhanced and suppressed reflectance due to the effects of hydrate.

consistent with a hydrate saturation of 40%. The crosscutting reflection thus represents a “paleo-BSR. ampli- . For that reason. The zone of concentrated hydrate lies in strata that are currently highly gascharged beneath the present-day BSR. ~80 m above the present BSR (Figure 5). it is invalid to compare reflectances of strata at different stratigraphic levels (which have no a priori reason to be similar). and it is especially important to disregard the reflectances of strata beneath the BSR. because reflectance can change laterally for reasons that have nothing to do with hydrate. (The overall contrast between high reflection amplitudes beneath the BSR and low amplitudes above the BSR is not due to amplitude blanking. Detailed velocity analysis shows that the lens has a significantly higher P-velocity (1910 m/s) than adjacent strata at the same subseafloor burial depth (1820 m/s). after sedimentation the phase boundary moves upward). but rather to amplitude enhancement by gas beneath the BSR. high-amplitude reflections in the hydrate stability zone in association with disruptions in the BSR. it remains unclear whether chimneys are zones of locally enhanced gas hydrate concentration (with accordingly “blanked” amplitudes) or merely disturbed zones due to fluid migration 688 THE LEADING EDGE JULY 2002 (with amplitudes reduced by scattering). We interpret this reflection as the top of a zone of concentrated hydrate that formed after one or more episodes of seafloor erosion. The best-case scenario for interpreting hydrate occurrence from amplitude blanking is when. as in Figure 5. but quantitative estimates of hydrate concentration are very difficult to obtain solely from reflectance. Reflectance is clearly anomalously low in a lens of ~80 m thickness immediately between the present-day BSR and the paleo-BSR described above: Strata that pass downward through the paleo-BSR have distinctly lower reflectance within the lens than above it. The combined evidence of a lowreflectance. showing short. amplitude blanking due to hydrate can be difficult to identify unequivocally. causing the hydrate/gas phase boundary to move downward (analogously. Unfortunately. Another example of a reflection from gas hydrate comes from the eroding flank of the Blake Ridge. the subseafloor temperature gradient reequilibrates. These features are interpreted as concentrated hydrate resulting from vertical migration of free gas from below the BSR. Seismic data from line R38. Of particular importance (and difficulty) is the definition of a reference reflectance— identifying areas of “low reflectance” begs the question of “low relative to what?” In particular. where a clear reflection cross-cuts dipping strata but lies well within the hydrate stability zone.Figure 4. Following erosion.) Carefully calibrated amplitude blanking can be useful as an indicator of possible hydrate accumulations.” marking the position of the phase boundary prior to erosion. The interpretation of the paleo-BSR as a reflection from the top of a zone of concentrated hydrate is bolstered by two characteristics of the underlying lens of material: high P-velocities and reduced reflectance (“amplitude blanking”). which are often enhanced by free gas. definitively determined to correspond to a high-velocity anomaly (the narrow radius of these features makes velocity analysis challenging). high-velocity lens capped by a cross-stratal reflector convincingly supports an interpretation of enhanced hydrate concentrations.

A key challenge. (Geological Survey of Canada. These studies will have wideranging implications: Methane hydrates are of interest not just as a potential fossil fuel reserve.gov/scng/hydrate/maincontent. Multicomponent. which responds to the relatively high resistivity of hydrate-bearing sediment. 1999). Mackenzie Delta. 2002). government.global carbon cycle. freezing free gas into hydrate. The hydrate concentration is then best inferred from the magnitude of the P-wave velocity. Figure 5. (Geophysical Research Letters. 2001). TLE Acknowledgments: We thank the captain and crew of the R/V Maurice Ewing for a successful cruise. Due in part to ongoing efforts of the Ocean Drilling Program. and to collaborations among industry. but it is particularly important to obtain broadband. not the degree of blanking. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U. (GEOPHYSICS. 2000). The examples shown here from the Blake Ridge are relatively simple and straightforward but might easily be masked in more complex sedimentological or tectonic environments. 2002). “Gas hydrates— Geological perspective and global change” by Kvenvolden (Reviews of Geophysics. but also due to their possible role in climate change and the Suggested reading. at a minimum. and academia forged by the Department of Energy’s recently initiated National Methane Hydrate R&D Program (http://www. any direct indication of hydrate. “Elastic-wave velocity in marine sediments with gas hydrates: Effective medium modeling” by Helgerud et al. “Amplitude blanking related to the pore-filling of gas hydrate in sediments” by Lee and Dillon (Marine Geophysical Researches. must be confirmed as a high-VP anomaly by seismic velocity analyses in order to be confidently associated with methane hydrate. capped by a “top hydrate” reflection that cross-cuts dipping strata. “Direct seismic detection of methane hydrate on the Blake Ridge” by Hornbach et al. American Geophysical Union. Ultimately. (Geology. Northwest Territories.S. Blanking alone should be considered a tenuous indicator of hydrate unless. because the addition of hydrate to sediments can increase their shear-wave velocity as well as their Pwave velocity. Department of Energy. The top-hydrate reflection is a paleo-BSR produced when seafloor erosion caused the hydrate/gas phase boundary to migrate downward.edu JULY 2002 THE LEADING EDGE 689 . 1996). “Scientific results from JAPEX/JNOC/GSC Mallik 2L-38 gas hydrate research well. (Geophysical Monograph 124. blanked zones are also independently confirmed to have locally enhanced Pwave velocity. tudes of individual strata are reduced in a zone that also has an anomalously high P-wave velocity. what is needed are focused studies of methane hydrate systems using an array of complementary techniques. especially geoelectrical sounding. Seismic data from line 3D-82x.htm). 1993). and their distribution and detection are likely to vary considerably from place to place. 1999). high-resolution data that also have sufficient source-receiver offsets to accurately determine seismic velocities and amplitude-variation-with-offset behav- ior. “Migration of methane gas through the hydrate stability zone in a low-flux hydrate province” by Gorman et al. doe. including bright spots within the hydrate stability zone. is to develop reliable techniques for detecting and quantifying gas hydrate occurrences in complex geologic environments. “Methane hydrate and free gas on the Blake Ridge from vertical seismic profiling” by Holbrook et al. Indeed. then. the next few years promise to be a time of quantum increase in knowledge of hydrate systems and their geologic and geophysical signatures. It is important to recognize that hydrate occurrences are still relatively poorly known.netl. “Geophysical studies of marine gas hydrate in northern Cascadia” by Hyndman et al. Surface seismic techniques are likely to remain a linchpin of hydrate detection. applied in the full range of natural environments in which hydrates occur. ocean-bottom cables are likely to be an important technology to characterize hydrate-bearing sediments. Corresponding author: steveh@uwyo. Some nonseismic tools show promise for detecting and quantifying hydrates. Canada” by Dallimore et al. (Science. showing a zone of reduced amplitudes (“blanking”).