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Thomas Gold

October 2000


Aircraft Hazard related to gas emission from the Earth

I think it important that pilots, the aircraft industry, air safety staff, accident investigators,
should all be aware of the possibility of the hazard described in the accompanying article, and
also that research shold be directed to establish the severity of this hazard, and find ways of
diminishing the risk.

My new book, "The Deep Hot Bioshpere," (Copernicus, An Imprint of Springer-Verlag, New
York, ISBN 0-387-98546-8) is now available in bookstores in the USA and United Kingdom. It can
also be obtained on the Internet from Barnes & Noble or It discusses most of the
items listed below.

The basic idea that a large amount of microbiol life exists in the pore spaces of the rocks down
to depths of between 6 and 10 kilometers arose in the following way: natural petroleum almost
always contains elevated levels of the chemically inert gas helium and at the same time it
contains molecules that are unquestionably of biological origin. How these two different
substances meet up in oil has long been a puzzle. If there exists microbial life, down to all
levels that can be reached by the drill, then the biological molecules can be explained. The
association with helium can then be explained adequetely if the hydrocarbons have come up
from much deeper levels and thereby swept up the diffusely distributed helium that exists in
the rocks.

The evidence that such a deep bioshpere exists has now been strongly supported by microbiol
studies in deep bore holes.

Drilling deep into the crystalline granite of Sweden between 1986 and 1993 revealed
substantial amounts of natural gas and oil. 80 barrels of oil were pumped up from a depth
between 5.2 km and 6.7 km.

Russian petroleum geologists followed this operation closely. Dr. P.N. Kropotkin reported at a
meeting in Moscow that the discovery of oil deep in the Baltic Shield may be considered a
decisive factor in the hundred year old debate about the biogenic or abiogenic origin of oil. This
discovery was made in deep wells that were drilled in the central part of the crystalline Baltic
Shield, on the initiative of T. Gold.

Drilling into crystalline bedrock is now underway in Russia on a large scale. More than 300 wells
have been drilled to a depth of more than 5 km and are productive, as also is the giant White
Tiger field offshore Vietnam, mostly producing also from basement rock.

Outgassing processes of the Earth are discussed, and the relation they may have to:

• geophysics
• geochemistry
• sub-surface biology
• origin of petroleum
• earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
• deposits of certain metal ores
• chemical processing of the crust
Sub-surface life on Earth may give an indication that similar life exists on other planetary
bodies, and suggests means of looking for that. The material is presented in the form of
assorted papers from the following menu.

• The most important information for estimating the value of a field: Recharging of oil and
gas fields.
• The origin of petroleum
Natural Gas and Oil
The Origin of Methane (and oil) in the Crust of the Earth — This is a major paper,
outlining the reasons why an origin from non-biological materials accounts better for the
facts, than an origin from buried biomass (approximately 31 printed pages).

Can There Be Two Different Processes Responsible for Commercial Oil?
• Evidence for a primordial origin of hydrocarbons
On the History of Science - Excerpts from a paper by P.N. Kropotkin
Depth Effects of Petroleum
• Association of hydrocarbons with helium and with biological molecules
Association of Petroleum with Helium and Biological Molecules
• Causes of Earthquakes and Earthquake Prediction
Earthquakes, Gases, and Earthquake Prediction
Eye-witness Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes
• Sub-surface life on Earth and possibly on other planetary bodies
The Deep, Hot Biosphere — Reason for suspecting massive microbial life in the crust of
the Earth.
Life on other Planets — Sub-surface life on Earth suggests that similar life may exist on
other planetary bodies.
• The deposition of certain metal ores
Metal Ores and Hydrocarbons
• T. Gold Vita

A natural phenomenon that may pose a severe aircraft hazard?

There have been many serious aircraft accidents in recent years that have not had a
satisfactory explanation despite exhaustive researches, and that have certain features in
common. Those features include apparently a situation of extreme urgency and danger, so that
there was no time for the flight crew to communicate details to the flight controllers; in some
cases there were circumstances that seemed quite unexpected and perplexing to the flight
crew, suggesting an urgent need to override the usual automated control systems and
manually put the plane into a steep dive. In several cases this was followed by actions to avoid
excessive speed that would threaten the structural integrity of the aircraft. Several accidents
have another feature in common: they occurred along the edge of the North-Eastern American
continental shelf. These include, among others, TW 800 on July 17, 1996, Swissair 111 on
September 2, 1998, Egypt Air 990 on October 1999, and also the crash of J. F. Kennedy Jr. The
case of the EgyptAir crash has recently come under public debate again as some new
information has become known, and the explanation tentatively offered by the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), suggesting a suicide attempt by a co-pilot, has come
under strong attack by Egyptian authorities, and does not fit with the new information.

In view of the statistically quite improbable occurrence of these accidents, it seems prudent
now to widen the search to causes that have so far not been included among possible aircraft
hazards, and that have possibly a relationship to geographical features. Among such, the
massive emission of gases from the seafloor (or land surface) seems to us most worthy of
Massive sudden eruptions of gases have occurred in many locations, bursting up through the
ground both from ocean floors and from dry land. They often occur repetitively in the same
area, and on land create what is known as "mud volcanoes". The amounts of expelled material
accumulated in some mud volcanoes in the last million years are as large as 10 or 20 billion
tons, and the estimates of the amounts of gas responsible are several times larger than that.
The erupting gases are usually dominated by methane. Since methane is lighter than air, it
races upwards at high speed. Many cases are known where the gas spontaneously ignited, and
flames to a height of 6,000 ft have been photographed from Baku, in the active mud volcano
area on the West shore of the Caspian Sea. Much higher brief flashes have been reported, up to
30,000 ft but these were too brief to be photographed. Massive flammable gas eruptions at or
near times of earthquakes (before, during or after) are reported in historical and in recent times
from many parts of the world.
Similar eruptions are indicated on the sea floors, where large areas are densely covered with
"pockmarks", quite characteristic circular features in the ocean mud, with diameters of
between 10 and 200 meters. These features were first detected in the North Sea by Dr. Martin
Hovland, of Statoil, (the Norwegian oil company), overlying known gas and oil fields. Similar
fields have since been detected in many parts of the world by sonar, again often showing a
relation to underlying hydrocarbon fields, and also there showing features of repetition of
outbursts, with methane again the major component. Both in mud volcanoes and in pockmark
fields the emitted quantities of gas in any single event may well amount to some millions of

Another set of observations has now to be added: it is the occurrence of "mystery clouds" in
the air. Satellite photography over a ten year period revealed more than two hundred clouds
that rose up at a high speed from a small area of land or sea, forming an expanding funnel.
Temperature observations showed a much lower temperature in the funnel cloud than in the
outside air at the same height, and this implied that the rising gas must be one that is
intrinsically much lighter than air. Only methane and hydrogen are candidates, and both are
combustible. The largest such cloud on record was seen and reported by several airline pilots
flying between Tokyo and Alaska, North-East of Japan, on April 9, 1984. They described it as a
mushroom cloud that reached up to 50,000 ft, attaining a diameter of more than 200 miles.

Evidence of massive gas emissions have recently been reported by the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute, who conducted a sonar survey of the mid-Atlantic US continental shelf
edge. Along a major fault line they found many and very large pockmarks, similar to those
described by Dr. Hovland, indicating that sudden almost explosive gas eruptions had taken
place there. Also recent reports from the Province of Quebec, of frequent and large displays of
lights in the sky, clearly related to the swarm of earthquakes between November 1988 and end
of January 1989 in the region of Sanguenay and Quebec City, leave little doubt that massive
gas eruptions occurred there, with some flames reaching high into the sky. Altogether 46 such
sightings were recorded in that period, some but not all coincident with earthquake shocks.
Earthquake-related lights have been well known and reported since antiquity, and indeed one
very large event involving gas flames was reported in 1663, not far from the Sanguenay region,
close to the St.Lawrence River.

I had investigated in 1982 a "near disaster" of a British Airways 747 plane flying at 37,000 ft
over a volcanic region of Java. All four engines stopped shortly after it had entered a visible but
tenuous volcanic cloud. After gliding down to 15,000 ft without power, and there apparently
leaving the cloud, all engines could be started again immediately. The same sequence of
events was experienced two weeks later by an Air Singapore 747 plane over a nearby region,
and many years later by a KLM flight over the Aleutian Islands. A gas lighter than air, and
hence combustible, must have been responsible in all three cases, to have carried small
volcanic dust grains to these altitudes, and its combustion may have been responsible for the
engine failures that were so sharply limited to the flight within the cloud, probably due to the
fuel- rich and oxygen poor mixtures of the gas adding to the airplane fuel. Gas eruptions of
volcanoes are known of either kind: eruptions of a ground-hugging heavy gas identified as
carbon dioxide, but also eruptions of a light and flammable gas, probably methane, whose
density is a little more than half that of air.

With three large planes having come so close to disaster, but yet able to give a precise
account of the events, one has to take the threat of gas emission seriously. The belief that such
emissions can come only from volcanoes has been voiced, but is clearly wrong in view of the
facts already mentioned. What threats would massive gas emissions pose for aircraft?

One effect I have already described: the possibility of inducing failure of all engines. But
several other aircraft hazards have also to be considered. One is due to the great upward
speed the light gases would have, greatly in excess of the vertical speeds in ordinary
atmospheric turbulence, and structural damage to the plane or serious injuries to persons may
result from the ensuing violent vertical movement. The ignition and explosion of a large mass
of gas external to the plane may be initiated by the engine exhausts and may be violently
destructive, yet the recovered airplane skin would not show the shrapnel holes that would be
the usual signs of explosions.

Other consequences of gas emissions are the dangerous and misleading indications that the
flight instruments would provide. Air speed indicators and air pressure altimeters would give
quite false and fluctuating readings. The autopilots, programmed for air, may have totally
erroneous responses in the light gas, as indeed may the pilots themselves, who would be
perplexed by a situation they had never encountered or contemplated before.

A further hazard is that clouds of low density gas may not support a plane, even at a flying
speed that would be amply high enough in air. This would cause a stall of the aircraft, or be
preceded by automatic stall-warning that requires the pilot to turn the nose down into a dive,
and then confront the danger of excessive speed.

Then there are the various fire hazards resulting from combustible air-gas mixtures, especially
in some confined spaces in the airplane where flames could be supported, even if the same
gas-air mixture would readily be extinguished in the external high speed airflow. That danger
may be highest in cable ducts where damage could destroy the airplane control system.

The North-Eastern coastline or edge of the continental shelf of the US and Canada, is the
northward continuation of the line whose investigation I have already mentioned. This
extension also has a history of earthquakes and gas emission from sand beaches and water
surfaces beyond the shoreline. Such emissions had not ceased around the times of the aircraft
disasters. A large number of reports were phoned in to police and emergency services in New
Brunswick and Nova Scotia on October 27, about three days before the Egypt Air crash, stating
that at 9:30 p.m. a large fireball had been seen streaking across the night sky. The details
reported did not correspond to a meteorite, but included reports of flames and events much
slower than those caused by meteors. A peak in the number of reports recorded prior to an
event must be taken seriously, if the number greatly exceeds the number on other days, as
was the case here. There were similar reports also before and after the TW 800 crash. There
was also a report from Swiss Air 111 of a strange smell about three minutes before the
declaration of emergency. This is particularly suggestive of gas effects, as a similar report was
made in one of the near accidents over Java, where gas certainly was involved.

We may then wish to investigate whether some features of aircraft disasters along this region,
the four disasters mentioned and several others that have also occurred along this corridor,
could have an explanation in terms of the list of hazards I have mentioned, or others that have
not yet been considered, that could be attributed to gas eruptions.

Mr. Jack Reed retired from the Sandia National Laboratory, an expert in sound propagation,
has noted that the "loud" boom heard by many eye witnesses at the time of the TW 800 crash
on a 25 mile stretch of Long Island, nearest point to the plane 15 miles away, was far too loud
to have been caused by the proposed explosion of the empty central fuel tank. In his view a
one ton bomb of TNT would have been the least required to make such a sound at that
distance. Nor would such an explosion have caused the various external luminous phenomena
that have been reported by many. Also it is doubtful that an explosion of such a small amount
of fuel vapor could have had the power to tear off the entire front section of the fuselage. The
absence of shrapnel holes in the recovered skin of TW 800 was taken to exclude a bomb
explosion inside or outside the plane. However, a massive external gas explosion would
produce no shrapnel.
The facts newly announced about the EgyptAir disaster make clear that a deliberate dive had
seemed imperative to the pilot then at the controls, and that a dangerous overspeed situation
had then arisen. After a brief recovery to level flight, again a dive seemed imperative, and the
overspeed may then have destroyed the plane.

There are many steps that can be taken to find whether the sequence of disasters along this
heavily traveled corridor may be due to gas emissions. As an immediate step I urge the
continuation of the sonar search for pockmarks on the ocean floor along this coastline in the
regions of the four disasters mentioned and others that occurred near this geographical line,
since this will have a good chance of showing whether these accidents were indeed over
locations at which strong gas outbursts had occurred. A routing change may then be indicated
as the first step to avoid further disasters.

Thomas Gold

Professor Emeritus

Cornell University

Ithaca NY 14853-6801

Recharging of oil and gas fields.

There have been numerous reports in recent times, of oil and gas fields not running out at the
expected time, but instead showing a higher content of hydrocarbons after they had already
produced more than the initially estimated amount. This has been seen in the Middle East, in
the deep gas wells of Oklahoma, on the Gulf of Mexico coast, and in other places. It is this
apparent refilling during production that has been responsible for the series of gross
underestimate of reserves that have been published time and again, the most memorable
being the one in the early seventies that firmly predicted the end of oil and gas globally by
1987, a prediction which produced an energy crisis and with that a huge shift in the wealth of
nations. Refilling is an item of the greatest economic significance, and also a key to
understanding what the sources of all this petroleum had been. It is also of practical
engineering importance, since we may be able to exercise some control over the refilling

The debate about the origin of all the petroleum on Earth lies in the center of the subject. If we
really knew that it is only biological materials, which, in their decay, could produce
hydrocarbons, then the quanities that could ever be produced would be limited by the
biological content of the sediments. But then the clear and strong association of petroleum with
the inert gas helium would have no explanation; the finding of hydrocarbon gases, liquids and
solids on most other planetary bodies in our solar system which have surface conditions quite
unsuitable for surface life, could not be understood; the presence of hydrocarbons which we
now find in abundance in basement rocks would also remained unexplained.

If we accept the fact, now known full well, that hydrocarbons are a common constituent of the
cosmos and the planetary condensations that formed in it, then we have a totally different
viewpoint. Hydrocarbons are stable down to great depths and the high temperatures there,
contrary to many statements that have been made that the temperature reached at depths
between 30,000 and 40,000 ft would dissociate most of the hydrocarbons. But these
calculations are seriously in error, because they ignored the strong stabilizing effect of pressure
at depth, that had been calculated by Soviet (Ukrainian and Russian) thermodynamicists.

The existence of diamonds, crystals of pure carbon that form at pressures which are not
reached on earth at depths of less than 140 kilometers, proves that unoxidized carbon exists at
such depths, and also carbon-bearing liquids must flow there that can deposit carbon at high
purity. High pressure fluid inclusions in diamonds prove that liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons
were present at their formation. Present day meteorites give us examples of the solids
responsible for the building up of the Earth; among those only one class, the carbonaceous
chondrites, contain much carbon, mostly in unoxidized form. That this material is present in the
Earth's interior in large abundance is shown by the distribution of noble gases and their
isotopes that have emerged into our atmosphere and show distributions that are strikingly
similar to those in carbonaceous chondrites, but dissimilar to those of any other class of
meteorites. The presence of this type of material would account for a continuous supply of
hydrocarbons to the atmosphere, as the outer layers of the mantle heat up over time and make
fluids form from the solid hydrocarbons that were included in the forming Earth (as also in most
of the other planets and their satellites, in the asteroids, comets and interplanetary dust
grains). Such fluids are less dense than the rocks, and buoyancy forces will propel them

Rocks and lower density fluids can co-exist at any level in a solid planetary body, provided that
the pressure of the pore fluids is sufficiently high to make the differential pressure between
rocks and fluids less than the crushing strength of the rocks. For a static case (with no upward
flow of the fluid), this would result in pressure domains, within which the fluid pressure shows a
pressure gradient with depth given just by the density of the fluid (the "head"), and where the
bottom of each domain is at the level at which the fluid pressure is insufficient to maintain pore
spaces against the higher pressure of the rock. (See Figure 1.) It is assumed here (for the static
case) that this makes a complete barrier. As for the top of any domain, this cannot be at a level
higher than that at which the fluid pressure equals the rock pressure, since fluid pressures in
excess of this value cannot be maintained in rocks that on a large scale and in long time-
intervals, have no tensile strength and therefore cannot resist the intrusion of the fluids and the
generation of new pores.

If we consider the case of a slow upward migration of fluids (liquids or gases), then this picture
changes to one in which each domain

Idealized stacked pore pressure domains that make up a stepwise approximation

to the rock pressure.

Pc is the critical pressure at which the pore fluid pressure cannot support the
rock against crushing.
will be stacked on another one below, all the way down to the level of origin of the fluid. The
fluid pressure would thus make a stepwise approximation to the pressure in the rocks. Now
none of the barriers can be absolute, since they would be torn open by the fluids that arise
from deeper and higher pressured domains. But the barriers would be torn open in each case
only to the point at which the flow to the overlying domain causes it to suffer a pressure drop
resembling that of the static case. This rule will apply whatever the nature of the rock. The
heights of the domains will be determined by the rock and fluid densities and the crushing
strength of the rocks; this height has been found to be between 10,000 ft and 15,000 ft in
many sedimentary rocks, and in excess of 20,000 ft in granitic basement rocks. The upward
seepage of methane is very widespread all over the Earth, as is shown by the great extent of
methane hydrates on the ocean floors and in permafrost regions on land, where mostly no
shallow source of methane can be invoked.

Vertically stacked domains of hydrocarbons have been found in all cases where drilling was
sufficient to display them. The consistent tendency to find hydrocarbons below any producing
region has been given the name of "Koudyavtsev's Rule", after the important Russian
petroleum investigator who discovered this effect and collected a very large number of
examples of it from all parts of the world. This rule would be the consequence of a deep origin
of hydrocarbons and a steady process of outgassing.

With this picture in mind we would readily understand that refilling of hydrocarbon fields is
possible and even probable. But if merely the steady upward flow from deep sources had been
responsible, the refilling time scales would be much too slow to be of commercial interest, or to
match the speed that appears to have been observed. A limit to the global average of that flow
speed can be derived from the approximately known supply of carbon to the atmosphere over
time. On that basis a large gas field may be recharging in times reckoned in tens of thousands
of years, still very short compared with many millions of years, as had been the widespread
belief. But observed refill times of just a few tens of years cannot be explained by this. However
another effect will set in when a field is under production and the pressure in its domain is
thereby diminished. The pressure difference between the producing domain and the one below
it will then be increased, resulting in a higher rate of flow through the low permeability layer
that divides these domains, or it may even result in a physical rupture of that layer.

There is an analogous case known in Kuwait. The extraction of goundwater at the shallow levels
results in the disintegration of the barrier to the oil levels just below, and the water in the wells
is suddenly replaced by oil. The delicate pressure balance that had established itself, just up to
the level that the strength of the rock could bear, had been upset. Similarly in stacked domains
of hydrocarbons, the lower domains will be opened quickly, once the upper ones had been
depleted and the fluid pressure thereby reduced sufficiently. This process can be fast, just as it
is in Kuwait, where we had the advantage that a different liquid (water) filled the upper domain,
so that one could identify the rupture to the oil filled domain below.

This type of refilling process thus allows exploitation of the domain below that from which
production had been obtained before. In turn, when this lower domain had suffered a sufficient
pressure loss, the process may continue to the next lower domain. How much more than the
original content of a hydrocarbon field can be produced in any one case will depend on
numerous details of the formation, but present indications are that it is often at least double.
The present global gas and oil glut appears to be due to this effect, and we have not yet seen
the end of it, or any indication that it will end soon. Gas fields will be subject to faster refilling
than oil fields, and moreover the volumes of gas in lower domains will in general be greater
due to the higher pressures there and the higher compressibility of gas. Gas will thus become
more plentiful than oil for this reason alone, but gas seems to be generally more plentiful and
more widespread than oil. The environmental advantages of changing from coal or oil to gas,
by far the cleanest of all combustible fuels, are very large, and the changeover is at present
still handicapped by the mistaken belief that the supplies of gas will run out soon.

Thomas Gold

September 1999
Natural Gas and Oil

Thomas Gold

January 1997

Natural gas and oil are widely considered to originate on Earth from the chemical evolution of
biological debris. A view, widespread in earlier times and entertained by Mendeleev among
others, was instead that these substances originated in materials laid down in the formation
process of the Earth, and later percolated towards the surface.

Similar hydrocarbons are widespread on many other planetary bodies, as well as on comets
and generally in deep galactic space, clearly not related to biological materials there.

Thermodynamic considerations show that in the high-pressure, high-temperature regime of the

outer mantle of the Earth, hydrogen and carbon will readily form hydrocarbon molecules, and
some of those will be stable during ascent into the outer crust. There is no reason now for
invoking the unique origin of biology for the Earth's hydrocarbons, different from the origin of
similar materials on the other planetary bodies.

The many molecules of unquestionably biological origin in petroleum - hopanes, pristine,

phytane, steranes, certain porphyrins - can all be produced by bacteria, and such microbial life
at depth is indeed now seen to be widespread. The presence of these molecules can no longer
be taken to be indicative of a biological origin of petroleum, but merely of the widespread
presence of a microflora at depth. The presence of helium and of numerous trace metals, often
in far higher concentrations in petroleum than in its present host rock, has then an explanation
in the scavenging action of hydrocarbon fluids on their long way up. Many mineral deposits
may be due to the formation and transportation of organo-metallic compounds in such
streams, often interacting with microbial life in the outer crust.

A 6.6 km deep well drilled in the granite of Sweden shows petroleum and gas, and bacteria that
can be cultured, all in the complete absence of any sediments, and hence of any biological
debris. Combustible gas in large sample containers has been brought to the surface from a
depth of more than 6.5 km. It will readily burn, and it shows a composition which includes
methane and heavier hydrocarbons up to C-7, as well as free hydrogen. The greatest
concentrations of this gas are in and close to the various intrusions of volcanic rocks (dolerite),
indicating that the gases have used the pathways from depth that the volcanic rock created or
used in its ascent.

The Origin of Methane (and Oil) in the Crust of the Earth

Thomas Gold

U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1570, The Future of Energy Gases, 1993


The deposits of hydrocarbons in the crust of the Earth have long been regarded by many
investigators as deriving from materials incorporated in the mantle at the time of the Earth's
formation. Outgassing processes, active in all geological epochs, then transported the liquids
and gases liberated there into porous rocks of the crust. The alternative viewpoint, that
biological debris was the source material for all crustal hydrocarbons, gained widespread
acceptance when molecules of clearly biological origin were found to be present in most
commercial crude oils.

Modern information re-directs attention to the theories of a non-biological, primeval origin.

Among this information is the prominence of hydrocarbons—gases, liquids and solids—on many
other bodies of the solar system, as well as in interstellar space. Advances in high-pressure
thermodynamics have shown that the pressure-temperature regime of the Earth would allow
hydrocarbon molecules to be formed and to survive between the surface and a depth of 100 to
300 km. Outgassing from such depth would bring up other gases present in trace amounts in
the rocks, thus accounting for the well known association of hydrocarbons with helium. Recent
discoveries of the widespread presence of bacterial life at depth point to this as the origin of
the biological content of petroleum. The carbon budget of the crust requires an outgassing
process to have been active throughout the geologic record, and information from planets and
meteorites, as well as from mantle samples, would suggest that methane rather than CO2 could
be the major souce of surface carbon. Isotopic fractionation of methane in its migration through
rocks is indicated by numerous observations, providing an alternative to biological processes
that have been held responsible for such fractionation. Information from deep boreholes in
granitic and volcanic rock of Sweden has given support to the theory of the migration of gas
and oil from depth, to the occurrence of isotopic fractionation in migration, to an association
with helium, and to the presence of microbiology below 4 km depth.


The gas methane, CH4, the principal component of natural gas, does not contain sufficient
evidence in itself from which to deduce its origin on the Earth. There is some evidence from its
isotopic composition, but interpretations of that are not unique. Information, however, exists in
the mode of occurrence of natural gas reservoirs, in the geographic and geological
relationships, in associated chemicals, and, above all, in the frequent association with other
hydrocarbons, specifically crude petroleum and bituminous coal. Although there are numerous
occurrences of natural gas without the heavier hydrocarbons, the association is generally so
clear that one cannot contemplate an origin for the natural gas deposits independent of those
of petroleum. We shall therefore first consider the origin of the whole set of hydrocarbons,
including natural gas, and then discuss aspects that are specific to methane.

Debate about the Origin of Petroleum

It is remarkable that in spite of its widespread occurrence, its great economic

importance, and the immense amount of fine research devoted to it, there
perhaps still remain more uncertainties concerning the origin of petroleum than
that of any other commonly occurring natural substance. (H.D.Hedberg, 1964)

Actually it cannot be too strongly emphasized that petroleum does not present
the composition picture expected from modified biogenic products, and all the
arguments from the constituents of ancient oils fit equally well, or better, with
the conception of a primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bio-products have
been added. (Sir Robert Robinson, President, Royal Society, 1963)

The capital fact to note is that petroleum was born in the depths of the Earth,
and it is only there that we must seek its origin. (D. Mendeleev, 1877)

The origin of petroleum has been a subject of many intense and heated debates, ever since
this black fluid was first discovered to be present in large quantities in the pore spaces of many
rocks. Is it something brought in from space when the Earth was formed? Or is it a fluid
concentrated from huge amounts of vegetation and animal remains that may have been buried
in the sediments over hundreds of millions of years?
Arguments have been advanced for each viewpoint, and although they conflict with each other,
each line of argument sounds strangely convincing. In favor of the biogenic origin of petroleum,
the following four observations have been advanced:

(1) Petroleum contains groups of molecules which are clearly identified as the breakdown
products of complex, but common, organic molecules that occur in plants, and that could not
have been built up in a non-biological process.

(2) Petroleum frequently shows the phenomenon of optical activity, i.e. a rotation of the plane
of polarization when polarized light is passed through it. This implies that molecules which can
have either a right-handed or a left-handed symmetry are not equally represented, but that
one symmetry is preferred. This is normally a characteristic of biological materials and absent
in fluids of non-biological origin.

(3) Some petroleums show a clear preference for molecules with an odd number of carbon
atoms over those with an even number. Such an odd-even effect can be understood as arising
from the breakdown of a class of molecules that are common in biological substances, and may
be difficult to account for in other ways.

(4) Petroleum is mostly found in sedimentary deposits and only rarely in the primary rocks of
the crust below; even among the sediment, it favors those that are geologically young. In many
cases such sediment appears to be rich in carbonaceous materials that were interpreted as of
biological origin, and as source material for the petroleum deposit.

On the other side of the argument, in favor of an origin from deeply buried materials
incorporated in the Earth when it formed, the following observations have been cited:

(1) Petroleum and methane are found frequently in geographic patterns of long lines or arcs,
which are related more to deep-seated large-scale structural features of the crust, than to the
smaller scale patchwork of the sedimentary deposits.

(2) Hydrocarbon-rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon-rich at many different levels, corresponding

to quite different geological epochs, and extending down to the crystalline basement that
underlies the sediment. An invasion of an area by hydrocarbon fluids from below could better
account for this than the chance of successive deposition.

(3) Some petroleums from deeper and hotter levels lack almost completely the biological
evidence . Optical activity and the odd-even carbon number effect are sometimes totally
absent, and it would be difficult to suppose that such a thorough destruction of the biological
molecules had occurred as would be required to account for this, yet leaving the bulk
substance quite similar to other crude oils.

(4) Methane is found in many locations where a biogenic origin is improbable or where
biological deposits seem inadequate: in great ocean rifts in the absence of any substantial
sediments; in fissures in igneous and metamorphic rocks, even at great depth; in active
volcanic regions, even where there is a minimum of sediments; and there are massive amounts
of methane hydrates (methane-water ice combinations) in permafrost and ocean deposits,
where it is doubtful that an adequate quantity and distribution of biological source material is

(5) The hydrocarbon deposits of a large area often show common chemical or isotopic features,
quite independent of the varied composition or the geological ages of the formations in which
they are found. Such chemical signatures may be seen in the abundance ratios of some minor
constituents such as traces of certain metals that are carried in petroleum; or a common
tendency may be seen in the ratio of isotopes of some elements, or in the abundance ratio of
some of the different molecules that make up petroleum. Thus a chemical analysis of a sample
of petroleum could often allow the general area of its origin to be identified, even though quite
different formations in that area may be producing petroleum. For example a crude oil from
anywhere in the Middle East can be distinguished from an oil originating in any part of South
America, or from the oils of West Africa; almost any of the oils from California can be
distinguished from that of other regions by the carbon isotope ratio.

(6) The regional association of hydrocarbons with the inert gas helium, and a higher level of
natural helium seepage in petroleum-bearing regions, has no explanation in the theories of
biological origin of peroleum.

Advocates of the Abiogenic Theory

Among the early advocates of a non-biological origin of petroleum was the great Russian
chemist Mendeleev, the originator of the periodic table of the elements. His arguments,
presented in a paper on the origin of petroleum (Mendeleev, 1877) are still valid today. He
already knew of the large-scale patterns of hydrocarbon occurrence, but his information on the
processes that shaped the Earth was not our present understanding, and made his
explanations much more complex than would need to be the case now.

Sokoloff (1889) discussed the "cosmic origin of bitumina" (carbonaceous substances from
petroleum to pitch and tar), and he related these to the meteorites, knowing then already
about their hydrocarbon content. He stressed that oil and tar occur in basement rocks, such as
in the gneiss of Sweden. He could find no relationship to the fossil content of rocks, and he
stressed that porosity was the sole circumstance which relates to the accumulation of
bituminous substances.

Vernadsky (1933) gave reasons why he considered that with increased pressure and deceased
oxygen availability with depth, hydrocarbons would be stable and largely replace carbon
dioxide as the chief carbon-bearing fluid.

Kudryavtsev (1959) the most prominent and strongest advocate of the abiogenic theory in
modern times, argued that no petroleum resembling the chemical composition of natural
crudes has ever been made from genuine plant material in the laboratory, and in conditions
resembling those in nature. He gave many examples of of substantial and sometimes
commercial quantities of petroleum being found in crystalline or metamorphic basements, or in
sediments directly overlying those. He cited cases in Kansas, California, Western Venezuela and
Morocco. He pointed out that oil pools in sedimentary strata are often related to fractures in the
basement directly below. The Lost Soldier Field in Wyoming has oil pools, he stated, at every
horizon of the geological section, from the Cambrian sandstone overlying the basement to the
upper Cretaceous deposits. A flow of oil was also obtained from the basement itself.

Hydrocarbon gases, he noted, are not rare in igneous and metamorphic rocks of the Canadian
Shield. Petroleum in Precambrian gneiss is encountered in wells on the eastern shore of Lake
Baikal. He stressed that petroleum is present, in large or small quantity, but in all horizons
below any petroleum accumulation, apparently totally independent of the varied conditions of
formation of these horizons. This statement has since become known as "Kudryavtsev's Rule"
and many examples of it have been noted in different parts of the world. Commercial
accumulations are simply found where permeable zones are overlaid by impermeable ones, he

Kudryavtsev introduced a number of other relevant considerations into the argument. Columns
of flames have been seen during the eruptions of some volcanoes, sometimes reaching 500
meters in height, such as during the eruption of Merapi in Sumatra in 1932. (We since know of
several other instances.) The eruptions of mud-volcanoes have liberated such quantities of
methane, that even the most prolific gasfield underneath should have been exhausted long
ago. Also the quantities of mud deposited in some cases would have required eruptions of
much more gas than is known in any gasfield anywhere. The water coming up in some
instances carries such substances as iodine, bromine and boron that could not have been
derived from local sediments, and that exceed the concentrations in seawater one hundred
fold. Mud volcanoes are often associated with lava volcanoes, and the typical relationship is
that where they are close, the mud volcanoes emit incombustible gases, while the ones further
away emit methane. He knew of the occurrence of oil in basement rocks of the Kola Peninsula,
and of the surface seeps of oil in the Siljan Ring formation of Central Sweden (which we shall
discuss later). He noted that the enormous quantities of hydrocarbons in the Athabasca tar
sands in Canada would have required vast amounts of source rocks for their generation in the
conventional discussion, when in fact no source rocks have been found.

Beskrovny and Tikhomirov (1968) noted, as did Anders, Hayatsu and Studier (1973), that of the
many possible isomers of petroleum molecules, the particular sub-set found in natural
petroleum is also the one singled out in artificial oil production from hydrogen and carbon
rather than from biological substances.

Profir'ev (1974) argued that so-called source rocks have no identification that proves their
hydrocarbons to be primarily biogenic. He also discounted the hypothesis, often advanced, that
the transport and deposition of oil from supposed source rocks to the final reservoir was
accomplished by solution in gas: the quantities of gas that would be required would exceed by
orders of magnitude the quantities that could be derived from the supposed source materials.

Levin (1958) concerned himself with the formation process of the Earth, claiming that the class
of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites, a low-temperature condensate that was
probably responsible for bringing in solids that contained water, could have brought to the
forming Earth several times larger quantities of carbonaceous materials than all the ocean

Kravtsov (1975) presented much observational material. He showed that the natural seepage
of methane in many areas was far more than could be supplied by any kind of gasfield known.
If the volcanic gases of the Kurile Islands, for example, are typical of the gases emitted over the
time-span of the volcanic activity there, the amount of methane emitted would far exceed the
conventional estimate of the present-day total world reserves. He also gave many examples of
"Kudryavtsev's Rule."

Kropotkin and Valyaev (1976, 1984) and Kropotkin (1985) developed many aspects of the
theory of deep-seated, inorganic origin of hydrocarbons. They concluded that petroleum
deposits were formed where pressure conditions permitted the condensation of heavier
hydrocarbons, transferred from great depth by rapidly rising streams of compressed gases. In
volcanic regions, they noted, decomposition of hydrocarbons would be favored, resulting in the
formation of carbon dioxide and water, while in "cool" regions hydrocarbons would be
preserved, and could accumulate in alluvial cover and highly fractured beds, depending on the
presence of adequate reservoirs and covers. According to these authors "vertical migration of
hydrocarbons from levels far below formations rich in biogenic organic matter, which have
been considered the source material for the oil, can be demonstrated in a majority of deposits."
Kropotkin also presented numerous examples where Kudryavtsev's Rule is satisfied in a striking

There were several voices also outside Russia (or the Soviet Union), who argued for a non-
biogenic origin. Most notable among them was Sir Robert Robinson (1963, 1966) who, like
Mendeleev, can be considered among the most distinguished chemists of his day. He studied
the chemical make-up of natural petroleums in great detail, and concluded that they were
mostly far too hydrogen-rich to be a likely product of the decay of plant debris. Olefins, the
unsaturated hydrocarbons, would have been expected to predominate by far in any material
that was derived in that way.

Sylvester-Bradley (1964, 1972) discussed that the meteorites have hydrocarbons, and that
hydrocarbons on the Earth derived in major part from such material. He proposed that
hydrocarbons streaming up through the crust from great depth would have provided energy
sources for simple forms of life. He knew about the biological materials in petroleum, but, like
Robert Robinson, he thought that they were due to contaminating additions from microbiology
in such locations.
Before discussing further the possible origins of hydrocarbons on the Earth, it is necessary to
discuss the present state of knowledge of the formation process of the Earth and the planetary
system, and the materials that contributed to the formation.

The Formation Process of the Earth

The Earth is a body with a most complex history. None of its sister planets display signs of the
processes that appear to have been the major ones to shape this planet of ours. On all the
other solid bodies of the Solar System the effects of impact cratering can be seen very clearly.
Craters spanning a range of size from a few kilometers to several thousand can be clearly
recognized. Impacts of solid objects upon all the planetary bodies in the process of their
formation must have been a common occurrence.

Strangely, on our Earth similar cratering events can only be seen, if at all, in a very subdued
form. We see arcs of circles appearing in the midst of a topography shaped by other effects. It
seems reasonable to interpret such circular features as the remains of impacts, now deeply
buried but affecting the outer crust at a later stage in some way that makes the buried impacts
recognizable again. One has to suppose that other events occurred here that obscured most of
the evidence of this early bombardment.

Nevertheless, it is now quite clear that the Earth, like the other solid planetary bodies, also
formed by the accretion of solid objects, probably largely in the form of small grains, but
interspersed with occasional major pieces. It appears that then a partial melting took place,
causing materials of lower density to make their way to the surface, while presumably melts of
high density sank down towards the center. The heat for this melting was the result of
radioactivity contained in the material, as well as just the heat resulting from compression.
Once partial melting occurred, two other sources of heat came into play: firstly the gravitational
energy that is released as materials can move and sort themselves out according to density.
Secondly there is the chemical energy that results from all the chemical reactions that can then
take place, either between different liquids or between liquids and solids. The original diverse
materials accreted as cold objects would certainly not have been chemically equilibrated with
each other, but would be left in an uneven distribution by the chances of the impact events.
After gaining mobility by melting, many chemical reactions would take place that would, on
average, release energy and thus provide more heat, as well as giving rise to volatile

Both these last two sources of energy have the interesting property that they make the heating
unstable: where more heating has occurred and more melt produced, more of these actions
can take place and therefore still more heat will be produced there. One may well speculate
that the very uneven distribution of internal heat sources which we recognize at the surface,
derives from such an instability. The circumpacific "belt of fire" is the most striking example,
but there are also many other lanes characterized by high heat flow and volcanic activity. They
are also characterized by the outflow of fluids, gases and liquids, that are thought to have a
deep origin. Deposits of hydrocarbons frequently show a clear association with such patterns.
(An example is shown in Figure 3.)

If the major volume of the Earth has never been molten, the mantle of the Earth underneath
the crust must still contain the diversity of chemistry, the chemical energy sources and the
sources of gases and liquids that would be the legacy of an accretion process from diverse and
initially cold solids. Major impacts would have thrown up ring patterns of mountains, which, as
on the Moon, would convert vertical patterns of chemical inhomogeneity into regional patterns.
Many arcuate patterns on the Earth of present surface topography and of chemical features or
of heat flow may be a consequence of this.

The Theory of the Biological Origin of Hydrocarbons on Earth

Oil, hydrocarbon gases and coal on the Earth were thought to have derived entirely from
biological debris for the following reasons: One reason was the belief in earlier times that
hydrocarbons were specifically organic substances: hence the name "organic carbon" for all
forms of unoxidized carbon. The knowledge that hydrocarbons are abundant in the universe,
and on many of the other planetary bodies of our solar system, was not available at that time.
Now we know that carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the Universe after hydrogen,
helium and oxygen, is almost certainly also the fourth most abundant in the planetary system;
there it is predominantly in the form of hydrocarbons. The major planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus
and Neptune, have large amounts of methane and other hydrocarbon gases in their
atmospheres. Titan, a large satellite of Saturn, has methane and ethane in its atmosphere, and
these gases form clouds and behave much like water does in the atmosphere of the Earth.
Triton, a large satellite of Neptune, appears to have hydrocarbons mixed with water ices on its
surface, as does the outermost planet known at this time, Pluto. A large fraction of all the
asteroids show a surface reflectance closely resembling that of tar, and the comets have
hydrocarbons among the gases they emit. The surface of the core of Comet Halley, recently
observed by spacecraft, is most reasonably interpreted as one of tar. Complex, polycyclic
hydrocarbon molecules, similar to those in natural petroleum have been observed to be a
prominent component of interplanetary dust grains that currently enter the Earth's upper
atmosphere (Clemett and others, 1993).

Hydrocarbons in our planetary system are certainly very abundant, and in all the
extraterrestrial examples mentioned almost certainly not related to biology. Also hydrocarbons
are prominent among the gases identified in the molecular clouds of the galaxy, and it is from
such clouds that the solar system formed initially. The presence and great abundance of
hydrocarbons is universal, and no special mechanism for their generation on the Earth needs to
be invoked, unless one knew with certainty that they could not have survived the formation
process here, although they did so on many of the other planetary bodies. (No evidence of
hydrocarbons has yet been seen on Mars, Moon, Venus and Mercury. The atmosphere of Venus
is too hot to have maintained gaseous or liquid hydrocarbons; the other three bodies lack an
adequate protective atmosphere to have maintained them on their surfaces.)

In earlier times there was the belief that the Earth had formed as a hot, molten body. In that
case no hydrocarbons or hydrogen would have survived against oxidation, nor would any of
these substances have been maintained in the interior after solidification. With that belief,
there seemed no other possibility of accounting for the hydrocarbons embedded in the crust
than by the outgassing of carbon in the form of CO2, produced by materials that could have
survived in a hot Earth, and subsequent photosynthesis by plants that converted this CO2 into
unoxidized carbon compounds. This consideration is irrelevant now that we know that a cold
formation process assembled the Earth and that hydrocarbons could have been maintained,
and could be here for the same reasons as they are on the other planetary bodies.

The common existence of molecules of clearly biological origin in most petroleum and
bituminous coal is no longer an argument for a biological origin of hydrocarbons, now that we
know of the wide reach of microbiology in the crust (Jannasch, 1983; Yayanos, 1986; Gold,
1992). Before this had been identified, the possibility of widespread biological contamination at
depth had not been considered. Now, especially after the discovery of the volcanic vents on the
ocean floors and the profuse chemosynthetic life that exists there, the outlook is different. It is
now seen as not only possible, but very likely, that microbiology is common in the crust down
to depths of between 5 and 10 kilometers, a level below which the temperature will reach
values too high for any microbial life we know, thought to be between 110 and 150 °C. This
deep microbial life uses as its energy source the various chemical imbalances that the
outgassing process creates as gases and liquids stream up through rocks with which they have
never been chemically equilibrated. Knowing now of the occurrences of such deep microbial
life, it seems likely that no location that could support such life has been kept sterile from it for
the long periods of geologic time. Hydrocarbons, together with oxygen donors such as sulfates
or metal (principally iron) oxides, substances that are common in the rocks or water, would
provide a usable energy source for microorganisms. Hydrocarbon deposits would therefore
acquire biological debris in the course of time. The molecules which are commonly regarded as
proof of the biological origin of petroleum and of bituminous coal have all been found to be also
produced by subsurface bacteria; indeed some of them can only be produced by bacteria
(Ourisson and others, 1984). Pristane, phytane, steranes, hopanes are unquestionably of
biological origin, but do not certify the biological origin of either petroleum, coal, kerogen or
whatever other deposits in which they are seen. With the photosynthetic theory of their origin,
they seemed to certify that these materials were all once at the surface. But this is no longer a
valid inference. Many other conclusions in geology were based on this, and should also be
reconsidered now.

Origin of the Carbon on the Earth

The surface and surface sediment on the Earth contain approximately one hundred times as
much carbon as would have been derived from the grinding up of the basement rocks that
contributed to the sediment. The surface is enormously enriched in carbon, and this needs an

The carbon we have on the surface or in the sediment of the Earth is estimated to be 4/5 in the
form of carbonate rocks, and 1/5 in unoxidized form, frequently referred to as "organic." (The
word "organic" given then to all unoxidized carbon, is of course now a misleading misnomer.)
The quantities are large: if expressed as the mass of the element carbon per square
centimeter of total Earth surface area, the estimate is about 20 kilograms. (I will be referring to
this quantity again later.)

During formation of the Earth by the accumulation of cold solids, very little gaseous material
was incorporated. The knowledge of this comes from the extremely low level of the non-
radiogenic noble gases in the atmosphere of the Earth. Among those, only helium could have
escaped into space, and only xenon could have been significantly removed by absorption into
rocks. Neon, argon, krypton would have been maintained as an atmospheric component. The
noble gas proportions in the Sun and in space are known. Any acquisition of such a mix of
gases in the formation process would not have been able to selectively exclude noble gases
that have no significant chemical interactions. One is forced to conclude that the acquisition of
gases, or substances that would be gaseous at the pressures and temperatures that ruled in
the region of formation of the Earth, was limited to the small value implied by the low noble
gas values. The carbon supply the Earth received initially could not have been in the form of
hydrocarbon gases, high volatility hydrocarbon liquids, or CO or CO2.

Could meteoritic infall of carbon at later times be held responsible for the surface carbon
excess? Such a massive infall would have left much other evidence in the geologic record, and
this is absent. The only alternative is that carbon came up from the interior as a liquid or gas,
just as is also true for the water of the oceans (approximately 300 kg/cm2) the nitrogen of the
atmosphere (1 kg/cm2 approximately) and the (largely radiogenic) argon of the atmosphere.

Perhaps one might consider the possibility that the Earth once had a massive atmosphere of
carbon dioxide that evolved early on, from materials that could have survived the formation
process, and that these then became converted in into the carbon deposits we now have; but
that also does not seem an acceptable explanation, for in that case we should see
incomparably more very early carbonate rocks than the amounts laid down later. This is not
what the geologic record shows. What it does show is a reasonably continuous process of
laying down carbonate rocks; no epoch having enormously more per unit time, nor enormously
less. If outgassing from depth is responsible, then one has to discuss what the source material
in the Earth might have been, what liquids or gases might have come from them, and what
their fate would have been as they made their way up through the crust.

The meteorites represent some samples of leftover material from the formation of the planets.
While they may not be representative of the quantities of the different types that made up the
Earth, they appear to represent at least samples of all the major components. Only one type,
the carbonaceous chondrites, contain significant amounts of carbon, and they contain it mainly
in unoxidized form, a substantial fraction in the form of solid, heavy hydrocarbons. This
material, when heated under pressure as it would be in the interior of the Earth, would indeed
release hydrocarbon fluids, leaving behind deposits of solid carbon.

The quantitative information on carbonaceous chondrites is difficult to evaluate. They are much
more friable than most other meteorites, and therefore survive the fall through the atmosphere
less often than the others. Carbonaceous chondrites also are destroyed by erosion on the
ground much more rapidly. The result must be that far fewer than the original proportion are
ever discovered. They may well represent even now the largest quantity of meteoritic material
still available for collection by the Earth; the infall of interplanetary dust to which I have
referred, contains similar carbonaceous material.

By contrast, carbonates, which would be a source material for CO2, exist in meteoritic materials
only in very small concentrations, so that an origin of the carbon from an initial CO 2 source
seems unlikely. If the carbonaceous chondrite material is the principal source of the surface
carbon we have, then the initial material that could be mobilized in the Earth at elevated
temperatures and pressure would be a mix of carbon and hydrogen. What would be the fate of
such a mix? Would it all be oxidized with oxygen from the rocks, as some chemical equilibrium
calculations have suggested? Evidently not, for we have clear evidence that unoxidized carbon
exists at depths between 150 km and 300 km in the diamonds. We know they come from there,
because it is only in this depth range that the pressures would be adequate for their formation.
Diamonds are known to have high-pressure inclusions that contain CH4 and heavier
hydrocarbons, as well as CO2 and nitrogen (Melton and Giardini, 1974). The presence of at least
centimeter-sized pieces of very pure carbon implies that carbon-bearing fluids exist there, and
that they must be able to move through pore-spaces at that depth, so that a dissociation
process may deposit selectively the pure carbon; a process akin to mineralization processes as
we know them at shallower levels. The fluid responsible cannot be CO 2, since this has a higher
dissociation temperature than the hydrocarbons that co-exist in the diamonds; it must
therefore have been a hydrocarbon that laid down the diamonds.

Diamonds will only survive a transport to the low pressure at the surface, if it is accompanied
by rapid cooling; if they are taken through a slow cooling process they will turn to graphite, the
equilibrium form of carbon at low pressure. Diamond is a metastable form of carbon at the low
surface pressure, but the temperature is too low for a relaxation to the stable form. Indeed,
diamonds are found predominately in the vicinity of sites of explosive gas eruptions, diamond
pipes, where rapid gas expansion caused quick cooling. There is also evidence for pure carbon
transported up from depth at a slow rate: pseudomorphs of diamonds. Spaces showing the
octahedral symmetry of diamond have been found filled with graphite, in mantle rocks that
have come to the surface in Morocco (Pearson and others, 1989). These rocks came up
presumably in a slow ascent, and contained a dense array of octahedral spaces filled with
graphite, clearly fitting the interpretation as pseudomorphs of diamond. This discovery
suggests that a very high density of diamonds exists at least in some locations in the mantle,
and that their rarity on the surface is to be attributed to the rarity of the explosive events that
could bring them up sufficiently quickly. It is noteworthy that hydrocarbons are found in
diamond pipes together with the diamonds, suggesting that the gases involved in the explosive
events were not oxidizing (Kravtsov and others, 1976; 1981).

The Surface Carbon Budget

The deposition of carbonate rocks has been an ongoing process throughout the times of the
geologic record. Most, but not all of this carbonate has been an oceanic deposit, deriving the
necessary CO2 from the atmospheric-oceanic CO2 store. The amount that is at present in this
store is, however, only a very small fraction of the amount required to lay down the carbonates
present in the geologic record. The atmospheric-oceanic reservoir holds at present only about
0.01 kg of carbon per cm2 of the Earth's surface area. If we take the figure quoted, of about 20
kg of carbon per cm2 laid down over the time of the identified geologic record, there must have
been a supply renewing the atmospheric-oceanic CO2 gradually, but by an amount 2,000 times
the present content. This amount of carbon, if calculated as a continuous and steady
outgassing rate and initially all coming up as methane, would translate into a one meter deep
layer of methane (at STP) being created all over the Earth every 2,700 years. If the rate is
regionally variable so that, for example, one tenth of the area produces nine tenths of the
amount, then in the gas-prone areas one meter STP methane would come up every 300 years.
If natural gas fields are filled from outgassing methane, such a supply rate would be much
more than adequate in the timespans available to create all the known fields.

If the supply of carbon from below ceased, the present rate of laying down carbon would
deplete the atmosphere-ocean reservoir in something on the order of 500,000 years, a very
short fraction of geologic time. Outgassing of carbon in some form must have been a
continuous process; it is not likely that humans evolved just in the last period, just before the
death of all plant life. We must therefore inquire what quantities of carbon would have been
available at deep levels, in what form this was, and in what manner this resupply of the
atmospheric-oceanic CO2 reservoir could have taken place. It is also clear that one cannot
discuss the man-made additions to the atmospheric carbon gases without regard to the large
and surely variable natural carbon emission that has taken place throughout geologic time.

The resupply of carbon must be from juvenile sources. Recycling of sediments cannot account
for it, both for reasons of the quantities involved and for reasons of the isotopic composition. If
the repeated subduction of carbonate rocks occurred on the necessary massive scale, it would
seem that old carbonates should have disappeared almost completely. This is not the case. The
isotopic information, to which we shall return later, also would say that in a process of
continuous recycling the proportion of 13C would continuously increase in the atmosphere, and
hence the younger carbonates should be isotopically heavier than the old ones; this also is not
the case. Marine carbonates of all ages back to the Archaean show the same narrow range of
the carbon isotopic ratio (Schidlowski and others, 1975, see also Figure 4).

How much carbonaceous chondrite material would have been required to provide the supply of
the surface carbon? Let us make a simple calculation for this. Suppose that in the depth range
between 100 and 300 kilometers we have a patchwork in which the carbonaceous chondrite
material comprises 20 percent on an average. In this material, carbon amounts to 5 percent.
This means, on an average, each square centimeter column through the 200 kilometer layer
would contain 1 percent of carbon (5% of 20%), which would translate into 660 kilograms per
square centimeter. If one-thirtieth of this had been mobilized and reached the outer crust, it
would suffice to account for all the carbon of the carbonate sediments and the sediments of
unoxidized carbon. Of course the proportion of carbonaceous chondrite type of material may
have been very much larger, and the producing layer much thicker. The fraction that needs to
have been mobilized would then be much smaller. All one can really say at this stage is that
there is no quantitative problem. Volatile-rich material of sufficient quantity to have supplied
the water of the oceans, as discussed by Levin (1958), could quite easily have supplied the
quantity of hydrocarbons for all the surface carbon.

As we have seen, the primary source material in the Earth that would send up a carbon-bearing
fluid is likely to be a hydrocarbon mix, not a substance that would produce CO2 in the first
place. On the way up, however, some unknown fraction would come on pathways held open by
magma, where these fluids would largely be oxidized to CO2 and water. On other pathways,
created by pressure fracturing in solid rock, the direct oxidation will be minimal and these fluids
may arrive at the surface as methane and other hydrocarbon gases or liquids. However, even
in the solid rock a substantial proportion is frequently oxidized at shallow levels, as is indicated
by the common presence in oil and gas-rich regions, of carbonate cements. These cements
derive from metal oxides initially present in the rocks, and CO 2 derived apparently from the
oxidation of methane with some oxygen supplied from the rocks; the carbon isotope ratio of
these pore-filling cements is not compatible with a derivation from atmospheric CO 2, and their
distribution fills the pores in a vertical column, suggesting an origin from ascending fluids. This
oxidation is probably due to the action of microorganisms that obtain oxygen from components
of the rock, and it is then limited to the outer levels of the crust where the temperature is in the
range in which microbial activity can take place. It can be presumed quite reasonably that only
a fraction of the CO2 so produced will in fact remain in the ground as carbonate, and a
substantial fraction, quite possibly the major amount, will escape into the atmosphere.

A supply of hydrocarbons at depth may thus provide CO2 into the atmospheric-oceanic
reservoir in three different ways. One is through volcanic pathways and oxidation with oxygen
supplied by the magma; another is by ascent of hydrocarbons through solid rocks and oxidation
at shallow levels, most likely by bacterial action, with subsequent escape of CO2 to the
atmosphere; a third process will be the escape of methane and other hydrocarbons into the
atmosphere, where, in the presence of atmospheric oxygen, they would reside on average 10
years before oxidation to CO2. What fraction of carbon resupply comes by each of these
pathways is still not known directly, but some limits can be placed by considerations of the
maintenance of the atmospheric oxygen level within the bounds suggested by the geologic
record, and possibly by some other more direct measurements.

Methane in the atmosphere is present at about 1.7 ppm by volume. Much or most of this
represents a cycling of atmospheric carbon through biological processes, but the quantitative
estimates of the magnitudes and speeds of these processes are not sufficiently precise to
determine whether the observed concentration is the one to be expected. One may therefore
inquire whether a contribution to this methane directly from outgassing sources is a possibility.
Fortunately there is a clear possibility of distinguishing biologically recycled methane from
juvenile methane: the radiocarbon (14C) proportion of the biological contribution should be the
same as that of atmospheric CO2, since such recycling would almost all take place in a short
time compared with the half-life of radiocarbon (5,700 years). Thus carbon from deep sources
would be free from radiocarbon. A measurement of the fraction of radiocarbon in atmospheric
methane can therefore supply the information. Several such measurements have been
attempted, but there are difficulties and uncertainties connected with the sampling method
and with the measurement itself. The latest measurements have given values of approximately
32% of non-radiocarbon bearing atmospheric methane (Lowe and others, 1988). Would such
values be compatible with a supply of carbon from juvenile sources?

We may take, for a simple calculation, methane at 1.7 ppm (vol) and a lifetime of about 10
years against oxidation. Let us suppose that 30% of this is juvenile, and see how this compares
with the requirements of the terrestrial carbon budget. The measurements quoted would give
an amount of juvenile carbon at present in CH4 in the air of 2 x 10-7 kg carbon/cm2. If this were
replenished on a ten year timescale, the lifetime of atmospheric methane, the average supply
per year would have to be 2 x 10-8 kg/cm2 year. To lay down the carbon deposits of 20 kg/cm2
entirely from this source would therefore take 1 billion years, a figure compatible with the
geologic record. While this cannot be taken to be a confirmation of the results that have been
reported, nor of the proportion of the juvenile supply of CH4, it does demonstrate that such
measurements are worth doing, and that a substantial fraction of the atmospheric methane
may in fact be juvenile. If it is, one must suspect that such a contribution would have large time
variations, as have all other tectonic processes, and that therefore much higher or much lower
values could be registered at the present time, or at any one time, than the long-term average
value. The time variations of atmospheric CH4 reported from ice cores should be seen in the
light of these considerations.

Thermodynamics of Outgassing

With the carbonaceous chondrite type of material as the prime source of the surface carbon,
the question arises as to the fate of this material under heat and pressure, and in the
conditions it would encounter as buoyancy forces drove some of it it towards the surface.

This problem has been tackled by thermodynamicists, most thoroughly by Chekaliuk (1976).
His conclusion was that at sufficient pressure, such as that at a depth of 200 km or so, a mix of
hydrocarbon molecules would be the equilibrium configuration, despite a temperature which
would be far in excess of the dissociation temperature for these molecules (Figure 1). The
pressure would provide these molecules with some stability, although any one molecule may
indeed have sufficient internal energy to fall apart at the elevated temperature. At high
pressures the assembly as a whole does not have enough energy to generate the increased
volume that the dissociated molecules would demand. Fragments will instantly be reformed in
such a way as to satisfy the volumetric constraint. No molecule has permanent stability, but a
statistical assembly of hydrocarbon molecules will represent an average equilibrium. The
detailed mix of molecules will depend on pressure and temperature, and on the carbon -
hydrogen ratio present. Other atoms that may be present also, such as oxygen and nitrogen,
will form a variety of complex molecules with the carbon and hydrogen. Metal atoms that may
be present in the surroundings will form a range of organo-metallic molecules in these

Even with the knowledge that the diamonds and their high-pressure inclusions have provided,
it has been argued that hydrocarbons could not come from these deep levels, because they
could not survive at temperatures that are reached in the crust at a depth below 20 kilometers
(Hunt, 1975); but these discussions in the petroleum literature have not included the effects of

Figure 1. Stability of hydrocarbons at temperatures and pressures in the Earth (from

Chekaliuk, 1976). Pressure-temperature regime of Earth is indicated by the shaded region.
Thermodynamic calculations indicate domains in which various hydrocarbon molecules are
stable. The lines marked Paraffins, Naphthenes, and Aromatics enclose domains in which a mix
of hydrocarbon molecules would be set up from hydrogen and carbon, and on crossing outward
from these domains the percentages indicated would be retained. Methane is essentially stable
to the left of the line marked 95 percent, and 10 percent would still be retained on crossing to
the right of the line so marked (that is, 90 percent would dissociate into hydrogen and carbon).
According to these calculations, most of the petroleum components would be present in
equilibrium of a carbon-hydrogen mix at a depth between 100 and 300 km, and methane
streaming up could bring a significant fraction of these petroleum components toward the
surface. b, bar; kb, kilobar; km, kilometer; m, meter; T, temperature.

The statistical mix of hydrocarbon molecules expected from a carbonaceous chondrite source
material, being less dense than the surrounding rock, would have buoyancy forces driving it
towards the surface. If present in a locality in sufficient concentration, the fluid will fracture the
solid rock, and ascend in such fracture porosity. (Molecular diffusion in rock over large distances
is too slow a process to be of any significance, even on the long time-scales of geology.) In that
upward travel, the temperature and the pressure would be decreasing, and the various
molecules would reach levels where the temperature was low enough for them to achieve
stability. Each one of these molecules would then cease the "musical chairs" game, and
become effectively permanent. If there is a high ratio of hydrogen to carbon in the stream,
saturated hydrocarbons would become a major component, and, with sufficient hydrogen,
methane, the most stable of all the hydrocarbon molecules, may become by far the dominant
component. At depth methane will behave chemically like a liquid, and it will dissolve the
heavier hydrocarbons that may be present, and therefore greatly reduce the viscosity of the
entire fluid.

The continuing upward stream would acquire more and more of such unchangeable molecules,
and the final product that may be caught in the reservoirs we tap for oil and gas, is the end
product of this process. The detailed chemistry of the oils in each region then represents this
final phase of the oil molecules on their way up, and that chemistry will be determined by the
pressure-temperature regime the flow has experienced, the initial hydrogen-carbon ratio of the
mix, and possibly surface catalytic actions and contributions from the rocks through which the
flow has gone.

At shallow levels and low pressures, methane, now a gas, will separate out from the heavier
components, leaving those as fluids of higher viscosity, and therefore much more subject to
retention in reservoir rocks: the quantities of methane that would need to have been in the
stream to facilitate the transport of oils, would be many times larger than that of the oils, but
because of the great mobility of methane gas, most of it would fail to be retained in the ground
at shallow levels.

Horizontal and Vertical Patterns of Hydrocarbon Fields

Everyone now thinks of Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Iran and Iraq as being the oil region of the
world. It is indeed one connected large patch that is oil-rich, stretching for 2,700 km from the
mountains of Eastern Turkey down through the Tigris Valley of Iraq and through the Zagros
Mountains of Iran into the Persian Gulf, into Saudi Arabia and further south into Oman (Figure
2). There is no feature that the geology or the topography of this entire large region has in
common, and that would give any hint why it would all be oil and gas rich. The various oil
deposits are in different types of rock, in rocks of quite different ages, and they are overlaid by
quite different caprocks. They are in a topography of folded mountains in Turkey and the high
Zagros mountains of Iran, in the river valley of the Tigris in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf itself, in the
flat plains of Arabia and in the mountainous regions of Oman. It cannot have been a matter of
chance that this connected region had so prolific a supply of oil and gas, but resulting from
totally different circumstances in different parts of the region. These hydrocarbon-bearing
formations represent times so different from each other that there would have been no
similarity in the climate or in the types of vegetation that existed there during deposition, just
as there is no similarity in the reservoir rocks or in the caprocks of the different regions now. Yet
it is a striking fact that the detailed chemistry of these oils is similar over the whole of this large
region (Kent and Warman, 1972). Surely this is an example of the need to invoke a larger scale
phenomenon for the cause of the oil supply than any scale we can see in the geology of the
outer crust.

Figure 2. Oil fields of the Middle East, showing continuous region from Turkey to Oman. The
dots represent individual fields, and the size of each dot indicates the magnitude of the field.

The island arc of Indonesia, of which Java and Sumatra are the main components, belongs to a
much larger pattern of an arc, that stretches from the western tip of New Guinea through these
Indonesian islands into the Indian Ocean, through the Andaman Islands up into the Irrawaddi
valley of Burma, and on into the high mountains of Southern China, over a total length of 6,000
km (Figure 3). That it is one connected arc all the way cannot be doubted because the
frequency of earthquakes along the whole of this arc is hundreds of times greater than outside.
Along the whole of this arc petroleum is very abundant. But at one end this arc is made up of
volcanic islands; at the other end, in Burma and China, it is in continental material with folded
mountains. Again there are great age differences and differences in every aspect of the
geology in which the oilfields exist; but here we have a unifying feature, namely the belt of
earthquakes and volcanoes which stretches over this entire length, and which points to causes
in the deeper crust or in the mantle.

Many other examples can be quoted and they all point to the same conclusion: oil-rich regions
seem to be defined by much larger-scale patterns than those we see in the surface geology or
topography of the region.

Figure 3. Petroleum and tectonic map of Southeast Asia. The map shows the belt of
hydrocarbon occurrence paralleling the volcanic and earthquake belt from New Guinea, through
the southern islands of Indonesia, Java, and Sumatra, through the Andaman Islands and on into
the Irrawaddy valley of Burma and the mountains of southern China. Data compiled from World
Seismicity Map (Tarr, 1974) and from the Oil and Natural Gas Map of Asia (revised 1975),
published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
(ESCAP). M, earthquake magnitude.

Another global observation of similar significance is the vertical stacking of hydrocarbons

deposits, Kudryavtsev's Rule: "Any region in which hydrocarbons are found at one level will be
seen to have hydrocarbons in large or small quantities, but at all levels down to and into the
basement rock." The most common sequence is to find gas at the deepest levels, oil above,
sometimes more gas above the oil, and coal at the shallowest. If one examines gas, oil and coal
maps of different parts of the globe, one finds this rule repeated very frequently. It holds in
most of the Middle East: many oil wells in Iran have penetrated through large coal deposits.
Deep underneath the oil of the Gulf States, large gas fields have been discovered. Almost all
the oil wells of Java and Sumatra have drilled through coal, and even the deep gas of Oklahoma
is often underneath coal. What we are seeing is principally a succession of hydrocarbons with
diminishing hydrogen content as one goes from the deepest to the shallowest. One presumes
that bacterial action, which attacks the hydrogen rich hydrocarbons first, has been largely
responsible for the progressive hydrogen depletion of upwelling hydrocarbons. For coal, the
situation is more complex because biology can be involved in another way also. In a
hydrocarbon outgassing area, the ground water is held strongly anoxic because hydrocarbon
oxidizing bacteria are abundant there, and quickly remove atmospheric oxygen carried in that
water. The result is that the normal processes of fermentation of plant material, which would
turn the carbon back to the atmospheric CO2, will be interrupted. Hydrocarbon outgassing
areas tend to become swamps filled with the insoluble carbon of plant material. What plant
fossils there are in bituminous coal (frequently there are none) are often themselves filled with
the same homogeneous coal as that which surrounds them, suggesting a carbon source
different from the fossilized plant material itself. It would not seem possible that plant material
was converted into the homogeneous coal, and yet that a fraction survived as fossils with a
precise maintenance of detail; and that this was then filled by the homogeneous coal derived
from similar material.

The huge gas deposits in the form of methane hydrates in the oceans may not have an
adequate explanation in terms of the plant debris of the ocean mud. There is often little organic
mud and its gaseous products would not have migrated downwards. Yet it has been said by the
Russian investigators (Makogan, 1988) that, so far as they could see, in every location on the
ocean floor and in the permafrost of the North where the temperature-pressure situation would
make methane hydrates stable, they are found. As the deeper ocean regions are being
investigated for hydrates, the inadequacy of a biological source material for them may become
even more obvious, since the biological deposits there tend to be much smaller than in the
continental shelf regions that have been the principal targets so far.

Every deep hole that has been drilled into the crystalline basement, by several Soviet deep
drilling programs, by the German on-going deep drilling efforts, by the deep drilling into the
Swedish granite, has shown the presence of hydrocarbons at depth. While the quantities vary
regionally, the indications we now have would point to a ubiquitous presence of some amounts
at deep levels everywhere. Even small amounts of methane or of hydrogen at the deeper levels
in the rocks show that equilibration between the oxygen fugacity of the rocks and of the fluids
has not taken place, since in chemical equilibrium these fluids could not be present. The
explanation for this is that only a small fraction of the volume of the rocks could equilibrate by
diffusive processes with the fluid streaming through pores; the pore fluids determine the
oxygen levels in these cracks, the rest of the rock takes no part in this. Chemical equilibrium
calculations are meaningful only in situations where the rocks and the fluids are much more
tightly intermixed, such as in gases streaming through molten rocks. There each moving gas
bubble keeps meeting new rock material to provide oxygen, and in these circumstances most
carbon reaches the surface in oxidized form as CO2. In solid rock there is a mixture of various
proportions of methane and CO2, frequently with methane as the major quantity.

Since methane hydrate formation is a very efficient means of retaining any upward streaming
methane, even regions with low rates of methane emission would still build up hydrates in the
long course of time. CO2 hydrates could exist also, but very little of this has so far been found,
presumably because the cool, non-volcanic regions produce mainly methane, and the hot
regions do not lay down hydrates. If plant debris were responsible, CO 2 would be a major
component of the gases produced, and CO2 hydrates should be common.

If hydrocarbon outgassing is in fact a major source of the surface carbon excess, then one must
of course consider whether it is also a major source of all the carbonaceous deposits that are
found in the crust. The frequent compliance with Kudryavtsev's Rule would have no explanation
for any other mode of deposition.

It has often been argued that oil deposits are in the vicinity of "source-rocks", rocks that
contain carbonaceous materials which have been assumed to come from biological deposits.
Most commonly these rocks are shales, and their hydrocarbon content often shows a close
chemical match to that of the oil pool in the vicinity. This has been taken to verify the source-
rock concept; but it would only do so if these shales were generally particularly rich in
discerible fossils. This is not the case, and there is no reason for attributing their hydrocarbon
content to anything other than a supply from the same source as that of the neighboring oil.
The so called "source-rocks" can be regarded as a further demonstration of Kudryavtsev's Rule.

Interpretations Based on the Carbon Stable Isotopes

Carbon has two stable isotopes; 12C (6 protons, 6 neutrons) and 13C (6 protons, 7 neutrons). The
natural carbon on the Earth contains predominantly 12C , and 13C is mixed in at a level of
approximately 1 percent. This mixing ratio must have been determined in the nuclear
processes in the stars that cooked up the elements and eventually supplied them to form the
planets. There are no processes that could occur on the planets that would be able to change
this ratio greatly. Only small variations can be produced, not by any effects on the nuclei
themselves, but only by processes that show a slight preference and select in favor of either
the light or the heavy isotope.

The study of the distribution of the carbon isotopes in relation to petroleum and natural gas has
a very extensive literature. We shall discuss here only one aspect of it: can isotope
measurements determine whether a hydrocarbon compound was derived from biological
material or whether it is primordial? Because many petroleum geologists have considered that
such a distinction can be made, and that petroleum and natural gas appear on that basis to be
usually of biological origin, it is clear that we must address this aspect here.

A selection process that enriches one or other isotope is usually referred to as a process of
"fractionation." The resulting fractionated material is referred to as isotopically light or
isotopically heavy, depending on the ratio of the lighter to the heavier isotope. Measurements
of the slight variations in the carbon isotope ratio in different samples is usually not done in
absolute terms, but by comparison with a norm, and the small departures from this norm are
then the quantities noted. The norm that has been selected for this purpose is a marine
carbonate rock called Pee Dee Belemnite, or PDB, and this norm has a carbon isotope value
that is about in the middle of the distribution of all the marine carbonates. The measurements
are then quoted as the departure of the 13C content of the sample from that of the norm, and
the figure is usually given in parts per thousand (permil) and referred to as the d 13C value of
the sample.

Unoxidized carbon in plants derives from atmospheric carbon dioxide by the process of
photosynthesis. In this process the light isotope is slightly favored. As a result this carbon is
slightly depleted in 13C relative to atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the effect is larger than that
occurring in any other single nonbiological chemical process recognized in nature. When it was
found that most of the deposits of unoxidized carbon, like petroleum, methane, coal and
kerogen, show also a marked depletion of 13C, it was considered that this confirmed their
biological origin. d13C for plant organic carbon is generally in the range of -8 to -35 permil (PDB
standard). The atmospheric carbon dioxide from which that carbon derived is at -6 per mil,
showing the possibility of a large fractionation effect. Marine carbonates laid down from
atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in ocean water have d13C values ranging from about +5
to -5 permil (average 0) and thus evidently a fractionation averaging 6 permil occurs in favor of
the heavy isotope during that process.

In the production of methane from plant debris a further fractionation takes place that again
favors the light isotope, and plant-derived methane is therefore isotopically even lighter and its
d13C plots at -50 to -80 permil. In the literature we now find that some arbitrary division has
generally been assumed, so that carbon with d13C values lighter than -30 permil is regarded as
of biological origin, while heavier carbon is taken to be from some other source.

There is no clear division in the actual data. Carbonaceous materials have d13C values spanning
the range from +20 to -110 permil on the Earth, and they span an even larger range in the
carbonaceous meteorites. There is no natural dividing point in the data and the choice of a
particular figure in this continuous distribution, for making the distinction between organic and
inorganic origin seems very arbitrary. The question is of course what other fractionation
processes can select in favor of the light isotope.
Figure 4. Distribution of ratio (expressed as d13C) of the stable isotopes 13C and 12C in different
terrestrial materials. Methane and carbonate cements span a much larger range of these
isotope ratios than all other forms of terrestrial carbon. PDB, Peedee belemnite.

A look at the distribution of the carbon isotope ratio in different natural forms of carbon gives
immediately a strong suggestion (Figure 4). Just methane, the only carbon-bearing molecule
that is light enough to suffer significant isotopic fraction, shows the largest spread of values.
The atmospheric carbon dioxide from which marine carbonates have been deposited
throughout geological time seems to have had a remarkably constant isotopic ratio, so that
d13C values for nearly all these carbonates fall into the range of -5 to +5 permil. d13C in
petroleum has a fairly narrow range, from -20 to -38 permil. Carbonate (calcite) cements in the
rocks have d13C values spanning the second widest range. This fact by itself would suggest that
the carbonate cements are generally produced from methane, and their shift of between 20
and 40 permil heavier than the range for methane suggests that a fractionation occurs when
methane is oxidized in the ground and then combined with calcium oxide to produce the
carbonate cement. Everything in the data points to such a process. These cements are found in
great quantity overlying gas and oil fields. They are usually isotopically lighter than marine
carbonates, the lightest among them as light as -65 permil. Where methane and carbonate
cements are found in the same location the methane is usually isotopically lighter than the
carbonate by between 20 to 60 permil. The overall isotopic distribution of methane and
carbonate cements show a similar shift.

Figure 5. Carbon isotope ratios (expressed as d13C) of methane plotted against depth of
occurrence (from Galimov, 1969). Although there is much variability in this relationship, it is
almost always true that where methane is found at different levels in the same area, the
methane is isotopically lighter (contains less 13C) the shallower the level.

Galimov (1969), a major contributor to the carbon isotope investigations, saw that in any
vertical column methane tends to be isotopically lighter, the shallower the level. This appears
to be true irrespective of the type or age of the formation from which the sample was
taken.(Figure 5). It is most unlikely that in all those cases methane from two different sources
mixed in such a fashion. A much better explanation is that a progressive fractionation of the
methane had taken place in its upward migration. Some of this methane appears to be lost to
oxidation, ending up as carbon dioxide (Figure 6), and a fraction of that in turn as calcite
cements. This oxidation process seems to prefer the heavy isotope and so the remaining
methane gets isotopically lighter on the way up. At each level the calcite thus derives from the
already fractionated methane and so it also will become lighter, tracking the methane but
always remaining heavier than the methane at that same level.

Figure 6. Comparison of the carbon isotope ratios (expressed as d13C) of methane and
coexisting carbon dioxide in ocean-floor sediments (from Galimov and Kvenvolden, 1983). The
carbon isotope ratios of the two gases seem to follow the same depth dependence, but with
the CO2 always isotopically heavier than the methane. This is the pattern to be expected if
progressive fractionation were happening, with the CO2 produced (probably by bacterial
oxidation) from methane moving upward through the crust. Both the methane and the CO 2
produced would become isotopically lighter on the way up, but the CO2 would be heavier by a
constant amount than the methane from which it was derived. (This is not the interpretation
given by the authors of the article.)

Progressive fractionation is an important process because it can drive the remaining material to
a very much greater fractionation than could be done by any single chemical step. It is of
course the technique used for commercial isotope separation, where extremely large
fractionation factors are required. In our case two effects work in the same sense, helping to
create the result. One is the tendency for the oxide to bind slightly more tightly with the
heavier carbon isotope (in CO2), and in equilibrium conditions at a low temperature the heavy
isotope will therefore be enriched in the oxide and depleted in the remaining methane. The
other effect is the diffusion speed, which for methane with the heavier isotope and a mass
number of 17, will be 3 percent slower than for the light methane with a mass number of 16.
This means that in any circumstance where methane is diffusing through a barrier to fill a
reservoir, the light isotope methane will enter initially with a 30 per mil enrichment. If this
reservoir were to fill another, the light isotope enrichment would augment. Differential removal
by oxydation, by different solubilities in water, by different adsorption on solids, by bacterial
attack, will all affect the final result of a slow percolation of methane through diverse strata of
rock. Since in any such progressive fractionation the final effect can be arbitrarily large, one
cannot conclude that a large fractionation implies that of a single step process, namely the one
that occurs in plants.
The constancy of the isotopic ratio of marine carbonates spanning all ages deserves further
comment. If at any time between the Archean and the present a large change had taken place
in the amount of plant debris that was buried, and if this plant debris was, as is usual,
isotopically light, then more of the light isotope would have been taken out of the atmospheric-
oceanic carbon dioxide reservoir. The remaining CO2 in that reservoir would have been driven
to a slightly heavier composition. If as much as one-fifth of the buried carbon was in the form of
such plant debris, then the shift in the remaining atmospheric carbon and the resulting shift in
the carbonates laid down from it should have been readily observable. When land vegetation
suddenly proliferated in Silurian times, for example, one might well think that twice as much
unoxidized plant material was buried as before this event. Why is there no change in the
isotopic ratio of marine carbonates in that epoch? An explanation that the primordial supply
suffered a change in the isotopic ratio just sufficient to compensate is improbable. A more likely
explanation is that the quantity of biological debris that is buried is a much smaller fraction
than the one usually assumed. The reason for this may be that the identification of much of the
buried carbonaceous material as plant debris is not correct and that a large proportion of this
material derived directly from hydrocarbons ascending from the mantle. The extra contribution
made by the time-variable burial of plant debris may then be so small an effect that it does not
show in the isotopic ratio of the carbonates. Of course if all the dispersed kerogen and the oil
shales, which have been regarded as source material for oil pools, were derived from the
primary hydrocarbons, then this discrepancy would disappear. It is worth noting that the
amount of carbon that would have been contained in certifiable fossils is a very small quantity
by comparison.

The remarkable constancy of isotope values of marine carbonates also affects the question
mentioned earlier, of the amount of carbon that may be coming up as a result of the heating of
subducted sediment. In such a process some or all of the carbonates may be dissociated and
the CO2 may come to the surface. Much of the unoxidized carbon that is in the same sediment,
whether it derives from plants or from a primordial hydrocarbon supply, is known to be
isotopically much lighter. Of that, only a fraction would be turned into liquids or gases, limited
by the availability of hydrogen; the remainder would eventually turn into elemental carbon--
graphite or anthracite--and in that form it would be insoluble and stable, and would not be
returned to the atmosphere. A process of multiple recycling of sedimentary carbon would
therefore always take away more of the light isotope than of the heavy, and this would drive
the atmospheric-oceanic CO2 to a heavier isotope value. Recycling of sediments cannot
account for a significant fraction of the resupply of atmospheric CO2 over geologic time.

The Helium Association with Petroleum

On the basis of hydrocarbon outgassing from great depth, we understand immediately why
various trace elements, especially helium, should be so commonly associated with deposits of
oil and gas. The long pathway through pressure created fracture porosity in the rocks will, of
course, sweep up whatever helium was available in those pores. Helium is generated in the
rocks by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, but at too low a concentration to create
a fracture porosity or hold it open. Its transport is therefore dependent entirely on a carrier gas,
such as the more abundant hydrocarbons may provide. Helium is not only strongly associated
with hydrocarbon deposits, it has even been noted to be particularly enriched in gas-oil
reservoirs, more so than in dry gas reservoirs (Nikonov, 1973). It is also particularly enriched in
reservoirs having a high nitrogen content. Any chemical or biological cause for the enrichment
can be ruled out for the chemically inert helium. Only variations in the concentrations of the
parent radioactive elements, and variations in the the length of pathway through the rocks
from which the helium has been swept, can come under consideration for an explanation of the
great regional differences of the observed helium concentration. Where large variations have to
be explained, such as by a factor of 100 or more from one location to another, the lenth of
pathway through which the carrier gas has swept is likely to have been the dominant effect. If
carrier gases from a depth of 300 km are involved in one case, while only gases from the depth
of sediment are involved in another, then this variant will outweigh any likely variation in the
concentration of the radioactive elements. The helium concentration in a gas is then mainly an
indication of the depth from which this gas has come. With this explanation one would conclude
that nitrogen frequently derives from the deepest levels of any of the volatiles, and oil from the
next deepest; dry methane sometimes from shallower levels still, but all from levels far deeper
than the sediment. Helium enrichment is not found in sediment in the absence of larger
amounts of hydrocarbons or nitrogen, and ten percent helium in methane-nitrogen gases is the
highest concentration that has been found. Yet if helium could flow without a carrier gas, there
should be many locations where amounts of helium had accumulated that were similar to the
amounts of helium in some gas-fields, but now, in the absence of methane or nitrogen, they
would be pure helium fields. Such fields would have been discovered, and would be very
valuable. Their absence thus certifies the carrier gas concept for helium transport.

Some information can be gained from a study of the isotopic composition of the helium. Helium
has two stable isotopes, helium-4 and helium-3. Most of the helium found on Earth is helium-4,
the result of the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. In the atmosphere helium is
present at a concentration of 5.24 ppm by volume. The helium-3 isotope, which is much less
abundant, is present in the atmosphere at about 1.4 parts of helium-3 to a million parts of
helium-4. In the surface of the Sun and in the Solar Wind one observes a ratio of helium-3 to
helium-4 of 3 x 10 -4, or about 200 times higher than the ratio in our atmosphere.

The primordial helium that was incorporated in the Earth as a small impurity in the rock grains
must have been more similar to the solar composition and thus much richer in helium-3 than
any present day terrestrial helium. But the total quantity that was brought in by the grains was
small and so the continuous production of helium-4 from the radioactive decay became the
major contributor to helium in all locations on the Earth.

While a small proportion of helium-3 can also be produced by radioactivity in an interaction

involving uranium and lithium, this is not thought to be a major contribution to the Earth's
helium-3. The lithium production of helium-3 in the most ideal circumstances, where lithium
and uranium are in close association, could be as high as to give 3He/4He ratios of 1.2 x 10 -5, or
ten times the ratio in the atmosphere (Morrison and Pine, 1955). But this would occur only in
some rare minerals, and the average production in the crust of the Earth of helium-3 has been
estimated as at least a hundred times lower. This means that in any location where we find a
helium-3 to helium-4 ratio of more than one-tenth the atmospheric value, it is probably due to
a contribution of some primordial helium. In those cases we then know that we are dealing with
a gas that has at least a component that must have come from deep rocks, since the crust in
its formation process would have largely outgassed, and primordial helium would not have
been maintained there.

However, we cannot assume the converse. Where the proportion of helium-3 is low, the gas
may well have come from mantle depths also, since in a mantle that was never all liquid, the
gas content could never have become a uniform mix, nor could it have remained a uniform mix
if the rates of outgassing were different in different regions.

Where a carrier gas has washed through pore spaces that it has created, it will have
transported the mix of primordial and radiogenic helium that happens to have been there. If
such a flow has been going on for a long time, then the primordial component will have been
depleted, while the continuously produced radiogenic component will still be present. The
heliun-3 proportion will have suffered a dilution throughout the existence of this flow. Pore
spaces that have been flushed for a long time would have low helium-3 values, but there would
be no reason to assume that such gases derived from a smaller depth. While the presence of a
high helium-3 value is indicative of young pathways from mantle depths, helium with low
helium-3 values does not give a firm indication of its depth of origin. Great concentrations of
any helium, however, suggest that sweeping by a carrier gas on long pathways has been
responsible, and this in itself is an indication of a deep origin.

The partial pressure at which helium is found, whether as a collection under a caprock or
anywhere else, may also serve as in indication of its depth of origin. As an inert gas, it cannot
have had its partial pressure increased from that of its point of origin by any chemical action. In
any flow, its partial pressure must always decrease; only the (unlikely) circumstance a
mechanical pumping action could ever cause an increase. Helium must have derived generally
from a location where the radioactive decay could produce the partial pressure at which it is
found, or a yet higher one. This is an important consideration in estimating whether helium in a
location could come from the radioactivity of the surrounding rocks or whether it has come
from greater depths. For this calculation one has to take into consideration not only the local
concentration of uranium and thorium, but the helium porosity that the rock has (the volume of
pore spaces large enough to be occupied by the helium atom, which includes many
imperfections in the rock crystals, and will therefore represent a larger volume than the
porosity presented to a gas of larger molecular size). At deeper levels, where the rocks are
subjected to a high lithostatic pressure, the helium porosity will be small, and a given
radioactive concentration will send the resulting helium into smaller volumes, and therefore set
up correspondingly higher partial pressures. This consideration shows that in many locations,
even where natural gas has a comparatively high helium content, the local rock cannot have
supplied it. It explains why helium measurements at or near the surface seem to be successful
in finding hydrocarbons underneath (Roberts, 1980), but rarely successful as a means of
prospecting for uranium deposits.

Regional patterns of helium abundance have been observed in which the helium concentration
and the helium partial pressure are far higher than the sediments could have produced in their
entire age (Pierce and others, 1964), but where the patterns of gas composition (ratios of
components) stretch horizontally over distances very large compared with any particular
gasfield of the region. The helium must certainly have come from below the sediment, and it
must have arrived there already in regionally well-defined mixing ratios with methane and
initrogen, so that the different fields of the region could all be filled with the same or a closely
similar mix. Only a mix that had entered the sediment and its individual gas fields from below
could achieve that (Gold and Held, 1987).

Relation of Outgassing of Hydrocarbons to Atmospheric Oxygen

The problem of the maintenance of the atmospheric oxygen levels within the bounds
suggested by the geologic record has not yet been solved satisfactorily, but it is clearly closely
related to the carbon supply. Photosynthesis in the plants produces free oxygen by the
dissociation of water. If none of the products of photosynthesis escaped from the circulation of
atmosphere and biosphere, if fermentation returned all the content of carbon and hydrogen in
plant debris back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and water (the form in which it was
taken up by the plants), then there would be no net gain or loss of atmospheric oxygen. If some
hydrogen were to escape, however, as hydrogen does escape from the upper atmosphere into
space, or if it were laid down in hydrides or other hydrogen compounds in the sediment, then
for every two hydrogen atoms so removed, there would be one oxygen atom that would
constitute a net addition to the atmosphere.

If all the fresh carbon supply that the atmosphere receives came in as CO 2, and if all the carbon
laid down in the sediment were in the form of carbonate rocks (i.e. CaO from rocks combinig
with CO2 to make Ca CO3), then also this process would neither add nor subtract from the
atmospheric oxygen. If, however, as is generally thought, about one-fifth of the carbon that is
laid down is in the form of plant debris, then there would be constantly a large addition to the
atmospheric oxygen. For each carbon atom that is so buried there would be at most one
oxygen atom and at most two hydrogen atoms (polysaccharides like cellulose are (C 6H10O5)x).
Every carbon atom that came up in the form of CO 2 provides two oxygen atoms, while the
burial of that carbon atom would bury only one oxygen atom and take away possibly as many
as two hydrogen atoms that had derived from the dissociation of water and would not now be
available to reform a water molecule with its photosynthetically liberated oxygen atom. Thus,
for every carbon atom laid down as biological debris, approximately two oxygen atoms would
be liberated. For the figures given, of 20 kg/cm 2 of total carbon laid down, one-fifth in biological
materials, the total amount of oxygen left over to join the atmosphere would be 10.6 kg/cm 2 of
O2. That is more than 50 times the present atmospheric oxygen content. All carbon being
supplied as CO2, and one-fifth laid down in plant debris, the rest as carbonate rocks, does not
seem a possible scenario over long periods of geologic time.

If a fraction of the juvenile carbon was supplied as CH4, that would diminish the oxygen excess,
as both the carbonates and the organic carbon would lay down some oxygen, and the left-over
hydrogen would form water, using up more atmospheric oxygen. Of course this could make the
balance towards no gain or loss of atmospheric oxygen. But to maintain the atmospheric
oxygen level within the bounds given by the geologic record, the supply of carbon as methane
and as CO2, and the laying down of carbon in the sediment would have to be balanced very
precisely, since both involve such large quantities of oxygen compared to the atmospheric
oxygen content. One could not attribute such constancy nor the chance of just producing the
balance, to tectonically controlled events over long periods of time. Some powerful stabilizing
effect would have to be at work.

What are the limits on the excursions of atmospheric oxygen content that the geologic record
can provide? In all the times that forests have existed, oxygen levels cannot have been higher
than the present by more than a few percent, for we are now not far from that concentration at
which fires would make it impossible for forests and many other major land plants to survive. In
earlier times, before the emergence of large land plants in the Silurian, there may have been
periods of higher oxygen values, and such periods have been suggested to account for the
oxidation states of iron in some ancient sediments. The other limit, that of low oxygen values,
can only be estimated from the oxygen requirements of animals both in seawater and on land,
and from the oxidation state of some sediments. Again this limit cannot be set very far below
the present values for all the periods back to the Cambrian, in which oxygen-breathing fishes
have existed. Before these epochs the limits may have been wider.

What could be the stabilizing influences that are at work? The laying down of inorganic
sediments may have a stabilizing effect, as these sediments can become more highly oxidized
than the basement rocks from which they derived. A large amount of sulfur may be present
now in a more highly oxidized state than that in which it came to the surface. Another
stabilizing effect may be the escape of hydrogen from the Earth into space. In the presence of
smaller atmospheric oxygen values, more hydrogen liberated by photosynthesis could diffuse
into the outer atmosphere without being caught by oxidation, thereby leaving more oxygen
behind. It is doubtful, however, that such large quantities of oxygen could have been liberated
or absorbed in these processes as would be required, or that the stabilizing effect could have
the required strength to keep the atmospheric oxygen levels within the narow bounds.

Perhaps the strongest stabilizing effect would be the control that the atmospheric oxygen
concentration must have on the amount of plant debris that will be buried before being re-
oxidized. Higher oxygen levels in the air, and hence in groundwater, will diminish the areas of
swamps and of anoxic lakes, ponds and seas, the locations in which plant material would
escape the fermentation processes that would turn the carbon back to CO2, thereby taking
away atmospheric oxygen. Conversely, low oxygen would favor anoxic deposition, leaving more
oxygen behind. Possibly this effect could be sufficiently powerful. However with the imprecise
knowledge of the amounts of plant material buried in different epochs, with the strong
possibility that deposits of organic carbon are in significant part due to upwelling hydrocarbons
and not all to plant debris, and with the inexact knowledge of the ratio of oxidized to
unoxidized carbon in the primary carbon supply to the surface, no firm judgment can yet be

The Mechanics of the Ascent of Fluids through the Crust

There are two principal methods of ascent towards the surface of fluids that are liberated in the
mantle and that are of lesser density than that of the rock, and hence buoyant relative to it.
One is the ascent in volcanic regions, where magma, with its density closely similar to that of
the surrounding rock, can hold open vertical pathways down to depths of a hundred kilometers
or more. Any other fluids that can pressure fracture the rock and make their way through
cracks into such lava channels can then move upward by buoyancy forces, and quickly reach
the surface. Hydrogen and hydrocarbons would, as we have said, be largely oxidized in
bubbling through magma, but the extent of this oxidation would of course depend on the
relative proportions of hydrocarbons and magma at any time. There are strong indications that
small amounts of gases coming out of volcanoes at quiet times are largely oxidized, while in
violent eruptions the unoxidized gases--hydrogen and methane--are prominent. On many
occasions flames have been reported during major eruptions, and have been seen as quite
distinct from the ejection of hot material. During the episodes of the Krakatoa eruption below
the sea surface, a large region of flames above the water were observed, in this case of course
in the complete absence of any confusing sprays of lava. But even at quiet times some
volcanoes emit enough combustible gases to burn above the lava lake. This has been observed
in the Hawaiian volcanoes and also in volcanoes of the African Rift. Volcanic eruptions in Java
have delivered ashes containing several percent of unoxidized carbon.

The other possible manner of ascent of fluids from the mantle is the build-up of sufficient fluid
pressure to fracture the rock and create pathways (Gold and Soter, 1984, 1985). For such
pathways to stay open, the pressure in the rock due to the overburden weight, and the fluid
pressure in the pore spaces, have to be closely similar. Since rock is extremely weak in tension,
a fluid pressure higher than the lithostatic value will quickly create more fractures. In
compression rock is much stronger and pore spaces will only be crushed shut when the pore
pressure deficit exceeds a certain value. If one considers fluids that are less dense than the
rock, then any connected system of pore spaces filled with such fluids will have a smaller
pressure gradient with depth than that of the surrounding rock. At the top of such a domain the
pressure may be close to that in the rock (the lithostatic pressure). The bottom of such a
domain will then have a deficit of pressure and since this cannot exceed a value defined by the
compressive strength of the rock, there will be a limit to the vertical height that such a domain
can occupy (Figure 7 ). In the volcanic case, the dense lava with its pressure gradient closely
similar to that of the surrounding rock, can keep open a channel to a depth of a hundred
kilometers or more. In the case where the fluid is a hydrocarbon or water, and hence of of
much lower density, it is only an interval of a few kilometers that can be held open; an interval
whose height can be calculated from a knowledge of the compressive strength of the rock, and
vertical pressure gradients in rock and fluid, given by their respective densities.

Figure 7. Schematic diagram showing pressure of rock due to overburden and pressure of fluid
(less dense than the rock) in connected pore spaces. P c denotes critical pressure difference
(between rock pressure and fluid pressure) at which the rock compressive strength is
inadequate to maintain pores. Dashed lines indicate fluid pressures that are physically
unrealizable because of the limited compressive strength of the rock.

These limitations do not mean that gases or liquids are prevented from making their way up. If
fluids are evolving as a consequence of an increase of temperature or of chemical reactions
taking place at depth, they may create fracture porosity, and increase the pressure in such a
domain of pore spaces. As more fractures are being created, the vertical height of the domain
will increase. As soon as the height spanned exceeds the critical value, the rock at the bottom
of the domain will crush shut. Such a domain may then be unstable and migrate upwards,
driven by the force of buoyancy, much like a bubble of gas in a liquid makes its way up. Only
here, in the presence of solid rock, it is not a round bubble but a region of rock with interspaced
but connected pore spaces. Just as the bubble would split the liquid above it while the liquid
below it would close again, so in this case it will happen with the rock. The rock itself does not
move upwards, but the domain of pore spaces with its fluid makes its way up through the rock.
Above strongly outgassing regions in the mantle one may have a frequent dispatch of pore
space domains towards the surface.
Another mode of upward flow is also possible. If the generation of fluid is continuous, a set of
adjoining, stationary pore space domains may be set up, and the flow may be in the form of a
continuous or intermittent leakage from one to the next one above. The stability of such a flow
will require that the pressure drop from the top of one domain to the base of the next will occur
as a result of the flow through the low permeability of the dividing layer. (Figure 7.) However
the flow occurs, it must always adopt a stepwise pressure profile, with domains in which the
fluid pressure gradient has almost precisely the static value, given by the density of the fluid,
divided from the next domain by a region in which the fluid pressure gradient has a much
higher value. (If the mass of fluid is small compared to the mass of rock, as would mostly be
the case, then the average pressure gradient over a large vertical interval must be the
lithostatic one in both rock and fluid.) Such a flow can be compared with a flow of a river from
the mountains, which creates a system of cataracts. Consider the potential energy in the flow:
pressure in one case, height in the other. In the case of the river, almost all loss of height
occurs at the cataracts, the flow between them being almost quiescent and level. Similarly, in
the former case, almost all the drop in pressure would occur not continuously but in a few
sharply defined locations.

If we look at this situation from the surface down we may find a system of connected pore
spaces frequently filled with water, and we therefore define a pressure in the pore spaces that
is called hydrostatic, and a pressure in the rock, called lithostatic. As the two pressure
gradients with depth are dissimilar, a point must be reached where the rock will close. I have
referred to this as the "critical layer." Beneath that we can again have open pore spaces, but
now only provided that they are filled with a fluid at a pressure exceeding the hydrostatic value
that would be calculated for that depth, but not exceeding the lithostatic value. We may then
have another domain of fluid-filled pores, but again only of a limited vertical height. The
uppermost domain can be calculated to reach down to a depth of between 3 and 5 kilometers
in soft rock, but possibly as much as 10 kilometers in hard rock. This is the domain in which
most of the oil and gas exploitation has been done so far, but a comparatively small number of
cases exist where the drill went through a sharp pressure transition, and where the secomd
domain has been tapped.

It should be emphasized that such a critical layer is a necessity dictated by the finite
compressive strength of rock. It is thus a caprock layer which must overlie any region in which
outgassing is occurring. As the strength of the rock is of course regionally quite variable, this
critical layer may be far from level. It may be of a complex shape with large variations in
height, and there may even be locations where it doubles over on itself. The main thing is that
it has to be a continuous sheet. This is not to say that there may not be other layers of caprock
in an outgassing region where a material of low permeability was laid down, and presumably all
shallow gasfields have required the presence of such a caprock. The importance of the critical
layer is that an outgassing region will inevitably possess that type of caprock at a sufficiently
deep level.

The critical layer, like other layers of caprock, will not have zero permeability and there will be
some leakage through it, as we have discussed. In a long term steady state of a continuous
upward flow, the leakage through the critical layer (and through all the similar layers at deeper
levels) must occur at the mean supply rate. Nothing can change the flow rate of this upward
stream: it is given by the production rate of the fluid below. All that any caprock or any critical
layer can do is to increase the amount that is dammed up underneath it. The situation is similar
to that of the flow of a river from the mountains to the sea, where, we may suppose, the rainfall
producing the water all occurs up in the mountains. On the way down, the river will transport
all the water that has been collected; and if the river is dammed up anywhere along its length,
the steady state flow rate will not be changed. All that the dam will do is to create a lake on the
upstream side of it, but finally the amount of water flowing over the dam will be exactly the
same as that which would have flowed without the dam.

This is an important consideration from a practical point of view. One has observed that over
natural gas producing regions the amount of methane and other hydrocarbons in the soil is
greatly enhanced, sometimes by a factor of one hundred or more, and any attempts at
deducing a flow rate to account for this gives such high rates of methane seepage as to appear
incompatible with a supply coming only from a gasfield below. The technique of surface
chemical prospecting, such as measuring the soil methane, has been described by some as
necessarily in error, since it was not conceivable that the outflow rate could be so high that the
gasfield would be exhausted in a few thousand years. But of course if there is a continuous gas
supply from below, and at rates that are in no way in conflict with the limits we can place on
such outgassing processes, then it will make good sense to observe the surface concentrations
of hydrocarbon gases. It would also make good sense to extend this technique and introduce
tracer gases in a well at some depth, and observe the time it takes for the tracer gases to
appear in the surrounding soil. From this, and the knowledge of the porosity of the ground, an
actual flow rate can be established, and so one could evaluate for any region how much
methane per day or per year is seeping out.

Regions that have a high seepage rate will in general be favorable ones for finding good
reservoirs, since for a given quality seal or caprock a larger quantity is likely to be dammed up
underneath that seal. Surface gas prospecting has been certified over many known gasfields,
the outstanding example being the Cement Field of Oklahoma. The technique is yet to be used
on a large scale in the search for more gas.

In several regions of the U.S. drilling to 5 kilometers (15,000 ft.) or deeper has demonstrated
the sharp pressure discontinuity to which I have referred. All of the deep gas in the Anadarko
Basin is below this discontinuity and there all the deep gas seems to form essentially one
reservoir. In Louisiana and neighboring areas of the Gulf Coast, the pressure discontinuity is a
little shallower and the continuous sheet represented by it has been carefully mapped (Jones,
1980), with the information available from a large number of wells and the interpolation
between them from seismic data. In Oklahoma there is, in some instances, a dramatic increase
in the porosity after penetrating the critical layer. Porosities as high as 18 percent have been
found below 20,000 feet in the carbonate rocks. It is clearly not possible to account for this by
any process of enclosing a rock volume tightly, and then compressing it to achieve the gas
pressure in the pores. Since that gas pressure is roughly twice that above the critical layer, one
would have to contemplate an initial gas-filled porosity of 36 percent. This is not a value that
has ever been seen. The conclusion must be, therefore, that the gas has entered from even
higher pressure regions deeper down, and that it has expanded pore spaces to these values.
Investigations of the details of the fracture patterns in the rocks confirm such an explanation.

We may then describe how a flow of hydrocarbons from depth may take place. As we have
discussed, a high proportion of saturated compounds would indicate that methane was a major
component that dilutes the stream. But at shallow levels where the pressure is low, the heavier
hydrocarbon molecules will be shed from the stream. The largest such effect will take place at
the flow through the last pressure discontinuity on the way up, the shallowest critical layer. It is
there that the oils are likely to be deposited, being now viscous and easily retained, while much
or all of the gases can continue upwards and largely escape into the atmosphere. Oil deposits
are concentrated laterally because major faults have facilitated their ascent and have caused a
confluence towards them; and the oil deposits are concentrated vertically because of the sharp
pressure changes in going from one pore-space domain to the next, at which oil and gas get

Results in Sweden

The distinction between hydrocarbons derived from biological materials and hydrocarbons of
primordial origin would be made most clearly by examining igneous or metamorphic rocks
which could not have maintained either hydrocarbons or biogenic materials capable of
producing them, before they froze to their present condition. If crude oil, methane and other
hydrocarbon gases can be found in such locations, at depths that would exclude a seepage
down from above, then this would demonstrate an origin from sources below.

Crude oil has been found and produced from crystalline and basement rocks in numerous
locations, but mostly in places where a transport from neighboring sediments could be invoked
as an explanation. The clearest example we have where a production from sedimentary
materials can be excluded comes from two deep bore-holes in the granitic rock of central
Sweden (Gold, 1991).
As we have noted, the granite and gneiss of Sweden has many signs of impregnation with
hydrocarbons. Tar is frequently found during tunneling and mining operations as a substance
filling cracks in the granite. Methane explosions and prominent shows of methane have been
seen frequently. If hydrocarbons come from depth, one might judge that the large granitic block
which makes up most of Sweden overlies an area of mantle that is particularly hydrocarbon
rich, and one might think that the hydrocarbons of the Norwegian Trench or of the countries
surrounding the Baltic signify an outflow from this area of the mantle. Fractures of the rock
within Sweden may then have been conduits for hydrocarbons from the same source.

It is with this consideration in mind that I persuaded the Swedish Government to study the
region of a giant meteoritic impact crater, the "Siljan Ring" in Central Sweden. An impact that
left a circular formation 44 kilometers in diameter would undoubtedly have fractured the rock
to great depth, and one might therefore have expected this to be a particularly favorable
location for finding upwelling hydrocarbons.

It was quickly ascertained that just the area of the Siljan structure was quite anomalously rich
in soil methane and other light hydrocarbons, that many ordinary water wells produced copious
amounts of gas and that a number of stone quarries in the area had oil seeping out of the rocks
and making oil pools in the ground. It is true that the stone quarries were in the sedimentary
rock which fills a ring shaped depression, but those sediments are nowhere deeper than 300
meters. Oil seepage generated after 360 million years from such a small quantity of sediments
seemed improbable. Aside from the ring shaped depression, the basement rock is very close to
the surface in the whole area; there is barely enough soil for the trees to grow both inside and
outside the Siljan Ring feature.

As a result of the clear demonstration that the area was quite anomalous for its hydrocarbon
content, it was decided to engage in a major drilling operation. Since 1986 two wells have been
drilled: one to a depth of 6.7 kilometers, the other to a depth of 6.5 kilometers. Both holes
showed the presence of methane and of other hydrocarbon gases, as well as of crude oil. While
in the first hole (Gravberg I) diesel oil was used for a time as a component of the drilling mud,
only water-based mud was used in the second hole (Stenberg 1), which is situated in the center
of the ring, and is 12 km distant from the ring sediments, and also from Gravberg 1. Although
the detailed chemical makeup of the oil found at deep levels in Gravberg was not the same as
diesel oil, many considered nevertheless that the diesel drilling oil could be held responsible.
Some 15 tons of oil were pumped up, oil that had hydrocarbon components and organo-
metallic compounds that are frequently in natural crude oils, but were absent or present only in
very much lower abundance in any of the drilling fluids. Some biological molecules, steranes,
were found to be from the same set and in closely similar ratios as had been seen in the
surface seepage oils (Figure 8 ), and this strengthened the case that the two oils had a
common origin. Steranes are thought to derive from sterol, a component of methane-oxidizing
Figure 8. The four most prominent biomarker molecules, steranes, found in the oils of the
Siljan region, Sweden. The steranes are present in similar proportions in surface-seep oil
(Solberga quarry), local near-surface oil shale (Tretaspis Shale), and oil in black sludge obtained
from 5.6 km depth in Gravberg 1 well. This similarity indicates a common origin of all three oils.
The identity of the four sterane molecules is given in the usual notation by the number of
carbon atoms and the right or left symmetry of the molecule.

In both holes the hydrocarbon content of the rocks increased with depth and in both holes high
spots in methane (and in Gravberg 1 also in heavier hydrocarbons) were in the locations in
which volcanic intrusive rock, dolerite, was present (Figure 9). (Heavier hydrocarbons were not
measured during drilling in Gravberg 1).

Figure 9. Stenberg 1 well, Sweden: Methane content of drill cuttings as function of depth.
Presence of intrusive volcanic rock, dolerite, is marked below graph, showing correlation with
high spots of methane readings. Heavier hydrocarbons were also measured, and were largely in
step with methane.

The carbon isotope ratio of the methane became heavier with increasing depth, and in the
dolerite zones and their immediate surroundings it was as heavy as between -12 to -15 per mil
in the Gravberg hole, and -7.2 to-7.8 per mil in the Stenberg hole. In both holes the helium
concentrations were frequently as high as several percent of the total gas present, and possibly
exceeding the highest concentration seen in any well.

The investigations during the drilling of Stenberg I gave the clearest indication that a range of
hydrocarbon gases and liquids had indeed entered from deep levels. The content of
hydrocarbon gases and liquids (aromatics) in the drilled out rock was carefully measured every
five-foot interval during drilling. It showed very large increases in the dolerite and in the granite
closely adjoining it (Figure 9). Since the dolerite has undoubtedly intruded from below, one has
to conclude that the pathways which guided it up, or the pathways which it generated in the
intrusion, are the pathways later used by the hydrocarbons. This relationship also confirms that
contaminants introduced during drilling were not responsible for the observed hydrocarbon.

In both holes large amounts of a magnetite/oil sludge were discovered, the magnetite present
as very small grains, mostly submicroscopic and highly concentrated in the sense that it
formed more than 95 percent of the mineral content of the sludge. Twelve tons of this
substance were pumped up from the Gravberg hole from a depth below 5.2 kilometers. It was
suspected that the magnetite had been refined and concentrated by bacterial action, as has
been seen in other oil-bearing regions at shallower levels (Sparks and others, 1990). Sample
collection of liquids that entered the Gravberg wellbore below 5.2 kilometer depth was carried
out by the Swedish State Bacteriological Laboratory in Stockholm and several strains of
previously unknown thermophilic and anaerobic microorganisms were cultured from these
samples (Szewzyk and others, 1993).

During the test procedure of the Stenberg well a gas cylinder was brought up containing free
gas that would readily burn. Apart from a nitrogen contamination (due to nitrogen used to
expel the drilling water), the gas consisted principally of methane with approximately 10
percent helium and 10 percent hydrogen. No continuous flow could be obtained, apparently
due to the blocking effect of the entry of dense magnetite sludge into the wellbore.

The oil brought up with this sludge was investigated in detail by the Danish Geological Survey
and considered to be a biodegraded crude oil. Chromatograms of it matched closely those
obtained from the oil pumped up in Gravberg.

The scientific investigations carried out on products of the two holes have thus demonstrated
that hydrocarbons are present deep in granitic rock in the complete absence or proximity of
any sedimentary materials and in a distribution that leaves no reasonable doubt that they have
come from deeper levels. The mix of the different hydrocarbon molecules, both of the gases
and the oils, is quite a typical mix, as it is found in other oil and gas producing regions. The
quantities of oil and gas that appear to be present in this 44 km diameter formation, tested in
two distant locations, appear to be very large, as judged by the porosity measurements and the
vertical intervals showing high concentrations. Production flow rates could not be achieved in
either hole, apparently because in a confluent flow towards the wellbore, the sludge quickly
concentrates and blocks the pores. The observed concentration of iron oxides in the rock is too
low for the magnetite sludge to have been generated in the depth intervals in which it was
found, and it must have been gathered and concentrated by a flow. We presume that this flow
was that of the oil with which the magnetite is now associated. In that case, deeper levels than
those that could be reached by the two boreholes (6.7 and 6.5 km ) would tap into liquids and
gases that contain smaller concentrations of magnetite, and would therefore cause less
obstruction to a flow.


If the main supply of the commercial quantities of hydrocarbons, both gas and oil, is indeed
derived from mantle depths and from materials that were incorporated in the Earth at its
formation, then many points in petroleum geology and in other aspects of geology will have to
be reconsidered. The quantity and locations of gas and oil that can be found, the method of
prospecting for them, and the technology involved will all be affected.
It was thought previously that gas could only be found where there was a particularly
impermeable caprock, tight enough to hold gas, above sediments rich in biological debris. Now
one would judge that gas can be found wherever a seepage of gas can be found at the surface,
and where there is an adequate porosity at some depth below. If a low permeability layer exists
over a porous region, then this may have dammed up the flow sufficiently for production. But
at deeper levels the critical layer will in any case provide a caprock. Thus in searching for gas,
the requirement of a special caprock and the requirement of biological debris have both
disappeared. The porosity requirement may be satisfied in many more locations than was
previously thought, since beneath the critical layer the fluids coming from high pressures will
frequently have created fracture porosity (as was clearly seen in Oklahoma).

If hydrocarbons have been a major source of all the carbon supplied to the surface, then of
course the quantities that would be involved are orders of magnitude larger than was
previously estimated. The shallow zone above the shallowest critical layer, which is almost
everywhere the only zone that has been the subject of oil and gas prospecting, will be seen to
be the zone low in hydrocarbons, because they have largely escaped from these shallow levels.
Oils, which became concentrated at shallow levels by the escape of the much more abundant
gases, have been the chief object of the petroleum explorers. The deeper levels, which must be
expected to have maintained the much more abundant gas, have not been explored at all
outside of the United States, and in the U.S. the few areas that have been so explored have
been found to be very productive.

Drilling to below 5 or 6 kilometers is still expensive and not much exploration to these levels
will be done so long as the good prospects there are not recognized. But despite the expense of
drilling, which would no doubt greatly decrease if more of it were done, the productivity from
deep levels has frequently shown itself to be very high. Gas at depth below the critical layer
tends to have a pressure approaching the lithostatic value, which may be on the order of 2,000
bar. The density is thus hundreds of times higher than it is in shallow wells, and may be as high
as half the density of oils; therefore the content of gas in a given volume of pore spaces is
hundreds of times greater than in shallow wells. The high pressure differentials into the well
bore mean that very high flow rates can be obtained, even from rock which at shallower levels
would be regarded as of insufficient permeability for production. The ultimate production from
a given well is greater, because a greater pressure gradient drives gas to the wellbore, and the
expansion of the gas will allow a large proportion of the initial gas in place to be produced. It is
therefore by no means true that gas production from the deep horizons must be expensive, and
many examples exist already that show that deep gas production can be quite competitive with
shallow gas. The initial investment in an area will be higher, but so will be the returns.

Because deep gas does not have many of the special requirements for its accumulation that oil
has, one may expect it to be in many more locations than oil. Many countries in all parts of the
world will benefit from a more widely distributed fuel source.

Prospecting by the search for surface seepage of gas is a rational procedure, since large
quantities of gas must constantly be escaping. Oil was found mainly by the attention that oil
seeps drew to an area; gas seeps require instruments to be found, but, with more gas than oil
coming up and escaping more readily, gas seeps are good indicators of the presence of gas
underneath. The quality of available prospecting methods is a major economic item, especially
for the deep horizons where exploratory drilling is expensive.

A flow of hydrocarbon fluids through the crust will have affected much of its chemical
development. The concentration of many types of mineral deposits, especially of metal ores,
has not had adequate explanations. The leaching out of particular components from the rocks
requires fluids that can dissolve these components, and it requires large pressure differentials
to drive these fluids through the pores of a sufficient quantity of rock to gain access to the
materials. Hydrocarbons ascending from depth may provide these requirements. They will be
present at a high temperature and pressure, where organo-metallic compounds can readily
form. Such compounds are largely soluble in hydrocarbons, and may thus be transported
upwards by them. These metals may include some that have quite inadequate solubilities to
have been transported by aqueous fluids, but that can form organo-metallics. Silver, gold, and
the platinum group are in that category, but many others may come under consideration for
such processes. It is interesting to note that particularly gold has been found in many locations
together with elemental carbon. Vanadium and nickel have shown a strong association with
petroleum, both by the presence of compounds in the petroleum, and the deposition in or near
oilfields. Several of the elements that would have a high vapor pressure at mantle
temperatures have been found associated with hydrocarbons, not only helium but also
mercury, and all the halides. A range of new processes will have to be investigated for the
understanding of mineralization in the crust, and the search for hydrocarbons may become
associated with the search for certain minerals. The microbiology in the ground which is fed by
hydrocarbons may have contributed to highly selective processes; just as we saw concentrated
magnetite in the boreholes in Sweden, apparently concentrated by microbial action, so perhaps
all the large magnetite deposits of Sweden have a similar origin. Judging from the quantities of
microbial material that have been identified in hydrocarbon regions (Ourisson and others,
1984), microbial processing may have been of major importance in the evolution of the crust.


Anders, E., Hayatsu, R., and Studier, M. H., 1973. Organic compounds in meteorites. Science
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Beskrovny, N. S. and Tikhomirov, N. I., 1968. Bitumens in the hydrothermal deposits of

Transbaykal. In: The genesis of oil and gas; Izdvo Nedra.

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Further reading: Gold, T. Power from the Earth: Deep Earth Gas - Energy for the Future.
Published by J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1987 (US distributer: The Bookery, 215 N. Cayuga
Street, Ithaca, NY 14850)
Can There Be Two Independent Sources of Commercial Hydrocarbon Deposits, One
Derived from Biological Materials, the Other from Primordial Carbon and Hydrogen,
Incorporated into the Earth at its Formation?

Thomas Gold

November 1996

In any discussion of the ultimate origin of hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) that are
commercially extracted, this is a major question: are there two pathways for generating these
deposits, or is there evidence that there is only one? If it can be shown that there is only one,
then a proof of the derivation of any one hydrocarbon deposit would constitute a proof that this
represents the derivation of all.

The two pathways that are under discussion are a derivation from biological materials
deposited in the sediments, or a derivation from carbonaceous materials incorporated into the
Earth at its formation.

For the biological origin we have the evidence of the (unquestionably) biological origin of some
sets of molecules found in all commercial oils.

For the second, the primordial origin of commercial hydrocarbons, we have the comparison
with the abundance of similar hydrocarbons on many other planetary bodies, also in
interplanetary grains, in comets, and also in the interstellar gas clouds thought to be similar to
the cloud that formed the solar system. We also see abundance of methane in the volcanic
ocean vents where there are no substantial biological sediments. Furthermore the common
association of hydrocarbons with the inert gas helium has no explanation in a formation
process from biological materials, but is readily understood as a consequence of the sweeping
up of the trace gases by hydrocarbon fluids, if those have migrated up from a deep level, far
below the sedimentary blanket.

The evidence for a biological origin, given by the presence of biological molecules in all oils,
can be explained not only by a biological origin of the oils themselves, but equally well or
better by a contamination with microbial materials in all oil wells. Microbial life at depth in the
rocks was predicted on the basis that it would account for the biological molecules in oils, and
such life has now been found to be widespread.

It has often been suggested that both modes of derivation may have occurred. There have
been suggestions that the two different modes can be identified, and it has been said that
"most" commercial oil and gas have come from biological materials, though there is some oil
and gas, though commercially insignificant, that derived from deep sources in the mantle. Are
there common features in all commercial crude oils that would rule out the dual origin theories?

The similarity of all commercial crude oils encompasses the following factors:

1.) Nickel and vanadium porphyrins are found in varying proportions, but in all petroleum
deposits. Porphyrin molecules are complex molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen and
nitrogen, together with a metal atom. Their presence in petroleum has been attributed to
chlorophyll from photosynthesizing plants, and to the haem of the blood of animals, and both
these will indeed produce porphyrin molecules. But those would contain the metal atoms of
magnesium and iron. However no single case is known of magnesium or iron porphyrins having
been found in petroleum anywhere. An explanation that on every occasion in all oils the
original metal atoms had been exchanged for just nickel and vanadium from the rocks in their
surroundings, seems extremely improbable. No explanation has been offered how plant debris
would have produced the nickel and vanadium molecules, while, in the other explanation,
nickel and vanadium complexes may well be expected, since these two metals are particularly
prone to make organometallic compounds. This find therefore favors a deep origin, and at the
same time a common origin for all oils.

2.) The heavier hydrocarbon molecules have a large variety of isomers (molecules of the same
number of hydrogen and carbon atoms, but assembled in different geometrical configurations).
The distribution of isomers of aromatic hydrocarbons has been demonstrated to depend upon
the temperature range of their formation. Studies of the isomers of 322 oils from various oil
fields of the world, have shown that they have a common set of isomers, a set that has been
demonstrated to come from a formation temperature of between 700 and 1,100 °C. There is no
significant difference in this range between oils coming from different tectonic settings. The
overall hydrocarbon composition corresponds to the equilibrium state at temperatures 1,300 to
1,500 °C and pressures of 20 to 40 kb. The estimate is that this is the condition in the upper
mantle at depths of 60 to 160 km. Temperatures and pressures in the sedimentary blanket are
certainly far from the conditions necessary to account for the isomeric composition
characteristic of all natural oils. (This information comes primarily from the publications of two
chemists and thermodynamicists from the Ukraine, G.E. Boiko and E.B. Chekaliuk, over the
years from 1950 to 1982. Although there is much reference to these publications in the Soviet
scientific literature, and I have referred to them in my publications, I have found no other
reference to these in the U.S., British, German or French literature.) This universal property of
oils thus makes it extremely unlikely that two completely different modes of formation could
have been responsible for such complex but similar products; at the same time the
temperature range indicated is far too high for a sedimentary origin.

The depth range indicated is also that of the derivation of diamonds, whose formation required
the presence of unoxidized carbon under a pressure in excess of 30 kb. Violent gas-driven
eruptions from upper mantle depths were required to deliver the diamonds and other deep
source materials to the surface.

3.) The common association of hydrocarbons with helium has no explanation in a biological
origin theory; in a theory involving the ascent of hydrocarbons from deep levels, the physical
process of sweeping up the gases in the pores of the rock, would be expected; and helium is a
significant component of those. This also points to a derivation of the majority of oils from deep

4.) The arguments of Robert Robinson still stand, that any biological debris would be quite
unlikely to produce hydrogen-saturated hydrocarbons. The hydrogen/carbon ratio of biological
materials is too low in the first place, and slow chemical processing in geologic settings would
lead to a further loss of hydrogen. Yet most commercial hydrocarbon deposits contain methane
and other high hydrogen components. The average hydrogen proportion is greater, the deeper
the level from which the hydrocarbons are withdrawn, corresponding to a hydrogen loss during
the upward migration of the fluids.

The overall conclusion is therefore that natural petroleum has detailed chemical features that
are common to all, and that we must therefore consider that all derived from the same process.
Moreover, most oils bear clear evidence of having had a deep origin, and a high temperature of

Excerpts from the paper by P.N. Kropotkin, entitled "On the History of Science:
Professor N.A. Kudryatsev (1893-1971) and the Development of the Theory of
Origin of Oil and Gas"

Presented at a conference in Moscow in 1995, honoring Professor Kudryatsev's contributions to

the field.

In the theory of an organic origin of petroleum it was considered that oil is formed in deposits
rich in biogenic organic matter, the so-called "source rocks", at temperatures not exceeding
300 to 500 °C. A decisive fact against this theory came from the determination of the
temperature of formation of oil from quantitative relations of isomers of identical chemical
composition. Such studies were performed by G.E. Boiko, who considered the relations for the
best studied isomers from 322 oils from various oil fields of the world, and the results of these
analyses were published between 1950 to 1975. The relations for these isomers in the
hydrocarbon system depend mainly on temperature. The results obtained have shown that in
all oils of the world, the isomers of aromatic hydrocarbons are in relative proportions
corresponding to the equilibrium at the temperature of approximately 1000 to 1400 °K. Oils of
geosyncline and platform areas do not differ significantly in the temperatures corresponding to
this equilibrium composition. The thermodynamic calculations of the complete hydrocarbon
composition of oils has shown that it is the equilibrium state at temperatures of 1600 to 1800
°K and pressures of 2 to 4 x 103 MPa (Boiko, 1982). Based on experimental data and
thermodynamic computations, G.E. Boiko came to the conclusion that the synthesis of oil takes
place in the upper mantle at depths of 40-160 kilometers. In any case it could not be
synthesized within the sedimentary blanket where temperatures and pressures certainly do not
correspond to the isomeric relations characteristic of all oils.

A.S. Eigenson underscores the inconsistency of the argumentation for the biogenic origin of oils
based on the presence in them of so-called molecular fossils. Hunt considers as a typical
molecular fossil the porphyrins that are a closed bridge structure of four pyrol rings which can
readily produce complexes (Eigenson, 1990). Such derivatives of porphyrin as a magnesium
complex are contained in chlorophyll of green plants and as complexes of valence two iron are
contained in hemoglobin and cytochrome. But many items regarding this assumed molecular
fossil remain unconsidered. First of all, in no oils even traces of iron and magnesium complexes
have been found, but only vanadium and nickel ones.

The discovery of oil, deep in the Baltic Shield, may be considered a decisive factor in the
hundred year old debate about the biogenic or abiogenic origin of oil. This discovery was made
in deep wells that were drilled in the central part of the crystalline Baltic Shield, on the
initiative of T. Gold.


Boiko, G.E. Prognosis of the presence of oil and gas from genetic indices. Kiev, 1982. 252 pp.
Eigenson, A.S. On quantitative study of formation of technogenic and natural hydrocarbon
systems using methods of mathematical modelling. Khimiya i tekhnologiya Topliv i Masel.
1990, No 9, pp. 3-8, No 12, pp. 19-254; 1991, No 5, pp. 1-26.

See complete text, with introduction by T. Gold, in Earth Sciences History (Fall 1997). Publ:
History of Earth Sciences Society, Troy, New York.

Depth Effects of Petroleum

Thomas Gold

September 1996

"Chirality" or Mirror Symmetry of Oils

The word "chirality" refers to the type of symmetry that the left hand has to the right hand. It
can also be expressed as a mirror symmetry and an object possessing chirality will not be
identical with its mirror image, instead it will have the sense of the chirality reversed. Two
dimensional objects cannot possess chirality since looking at them from one side will make
them identical with their mirror images seen from the other side. Three dimensions are
necessary before chiral symmetry can come into play.

Molecules that are composed of four or more atoms may possess chirality, meaning that the
same arrangements of the positions of the components of the molecule can be achieved in two
different ways, one being the precise mirror image of the other. In chemistry this is important,
since any given chiral molecule will act differently depending on the chirality of the partner in a
reaction. However, the overall rule applies strictly: if you were to replace each molecule in a
chemical system with one of the opposite chirality, then all the reactions would proceed exactly
the same way. In other words chemical reactions do not favor one chirality over another.

A right-handed screw remains a right-handed screw from which ever side you look at it. Its
mirror image is a left-handed screw. Complex molecules can exist in the two forms, one looking
like the mirror image of the other. If they are in a liquid, tumbling around arbitrarily, they will
still affect light traveling through the liquid and in fact plane polarized light may have the axis
of its polarization rotated by the action of these molecules. If the right-handed and the left
handed molecules are equally represented, there will be no net effect. However, if one type
predominates over the other, then there will be an effect, which is in practice often readily
observable. It is in liquids that this type of observation is important, because there is no long-
range effect that would cause many of one kind to dominate over the optical path. A liquid
containing equal numbers of each (to within the statistical expectation, if they had the same
probability of being generated) would then be referred to as "racemic." A non-racemic liquid
then requires an explanation for the preference of one sense of chirality over the other.

In biology, this is provided by saying that all these molecules were built up in a system that
traces back to the very beginning of biology, and in all the evolution it has not changed the
chirality on which it hit (with a 50/50 chance) in the first place. This may be the right
explanation, but some people have doubted that this effect would really have prevented all
digressions. It is clear, however, that on the Earth all amino acids that make up the proteins,
rotate light in the left-handed sense. In principle we could suppose that some other planet had
the same life forms as we have here, with everything working in just the same way, but in
which all the amino acids were right-handed, and the opposite handedness to ours here applied
also to each of the other complex molecules with which they may interact.
Figure 1 shows the rotation of plane polarized light passing through the oil. Different
components of the oil as selected by the temperature at which they boil (boiling point
fractions) show either a right-handed or a left-handed rotation. At deeper levels in the same
petroleum bearing area, these effects are totally absent.

Non-racemic mixtures of chiral molecules occur naturally on Earth only in relation to biological
activity. Figure 1, above (and many others like it that exist), show that oils acquire a non-
racemic nature as they get from deep to shallower levels. I ascribe this to the presence of
bacterial activity, which introduces a variety of non-racemic substances. It is only the amino
acids that are all left-handers here, but the bacteria produce many other substances also, each
of which will be a non-racemic mix, right-handed or left-handed. It is for this reason that the
graph shows some components of the oil causing a left-handed rotation of the light, while other
components show a right-handed one.

At deeper and hotter levels, these effects have completely disappeared, and I presume that
this is due to the temperature there being too high for the particular set of microorganisms that
produce the non-racemic additions. There may be many other microorganisms that can
withstand higher temperatures, and they may be plentiful at the deeper levels, but they may
be types that do not deliver significant amounts of chiral molecules to the fluid.

Sir Robert Robinson, who investigated the chemistry of natural petroleum in some detail, noted
that the deeper one goes, the fewer are the signs of anything biological in the oil. This is clearly
a case in point, but there are several others.

The complete absence of any optical rotation at the deeper levels is itself a strong argument
against a biological derivation of the oil. If any oil could be generated from plant and animal
debris, it would be very unlikely to be so accurately racemic; nor can one think that initially
non-racemic oil lost this property by being exposed to a higher temperature for a long time.
The boiling point fractions that show chirality go up to 240 °C and some even to 320 °C. It is
clear that these temperatures have not destroyed the chiral molecules, even though they are
temperatures much higher than those at the deep levels from which strictly racemic oil is

The presence of non-racemic oil has in the past been taken to prove a biological origin of the
oil. Now when one sees to high accuracy the absence of such effects at deeper levels, the
argument is reversed. The origin of oil must be strictly racemic, and it is only contamination by
certain types of microbes, that can live only at the shallower and cooler levels, that has made
the oil non-racemic.
It should be noted that different sources of natural petroleum all show a preference for one or
other chirality at shallower levels, but in detail the sign and magnitude of effects are different.
One has to presume that this represents differences in the microbial activity.

Carbon Isotope Ratio Depending on Depth

Similar indications concerning microbial life in oil are given by the distribution of the ratio of the
two stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-12 and Carbon-13, dependent on the depth from which
the oil was obtained, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2, "The Galimov Curve." The carbon isotope ratio as a function of depth from the
surface is shown for many different locations and in a variety of containment rocks. The ratio
follows a similar pattern indicating that a fractionation process is occurring and that this
process is most effective at the shallowest levels.

The isotope ratio is given in parts per thousand from a norm (pdb) negative values representing
a depletion of the heavy isotope (Galimov, 1969).

The Russian carbon-isotope investigator Galimov has assembled many measurements of the
carbon isotope ratios in oils from different levels. A clear depth dependence emerges, quite
independent of the nature of the containment rocks or their ages, and, as we shall see, a
depth-dependent microbial alteration must be invoked.

If methane is diffusing upwards through the ground as one would expect, then the diffusion
speeds of the methane with the heavier carbon atom will be a little slower than that of the
lighter one. The comparison of the molecular weight would be 16 to 17. Diffusion speeds will be
changed quite markedly, in fact by approximately three percent.

If we were to simulate the diffusion effects that would be present in nature, we might, for
example, take a vertical glass tube and fill it with very fine sand. If we connected a source of
methane of a certain ratio of its carbon isotopes to the bottom of that tube, then we would
expect that after turning on the supply, we would first see the lighter methane arrive at the
top. If we leave the system running, then the heavier molecules will also make their way up
through it, and eventually a steady condition will be reached in which just as many of the two
types of molecules will emerge on top per unit time, as were in the mix that was fed in at the
bottom. There would be no selection effect according to the molecular weight.

If we were to look in detail how this could happen, we would find that at the bottom of the tube,
the heavier molecule will become progressively enriched in this flow, until this enrichment will
just compensate for the lower diffusion speed. This means that if we were to take out a certain
amount of the mixed gas from the lower levels, (for example by a tube out of the side of the
column) in a way that does not select in favor of either isotope, we would be taking out a mix
enriched in the heavy isotope, and therefore the gas that is left to stream up the column will
show a depletion of the heavy isotope. But at levels above that from which we removed some
gas, the same process will occur, only now it will start with a lower ratio of the heavy to the
light isotope. Some way up in the diffusion column, we could again take some gas away with
the result that the gas entering the next higher section would be further depleted in the heavy
isotope. We could set all this up in such a way that at each removal point gas is taken out at a
steady rate, and a steady flow pattern will result. Now the output of gas at the top will have a
different isotopic ratio from that which was put in at the bottom. The number of stages in this
process can be arbitrarily large, and the isotopic selection (called "fractionation") can also be
made arbitrarily large. Only the larger we make the number of stages, the more gas will have
been withdrawn, and the quantity of gas which arrives at the top of the column per unit time
will diminish.

How can this apply to the diffusion of methane from depth towards the surface of the Earth?
Upward diffusion would certainly occur; but what are the side channels of this diffusion column
that take away the components that have become enriched in the heavy isotope?

There may well be several mechanisms that take away non selectivity some gas from various
levels in the natural diffusion column. The most evident mechanism is the conversion of
methane to CO2, with oxygen available from the rocks. This process occurs mainly by bacterial
action that can reduce sulfates and highly oxidized iron and use the oxygen so gained to turn
methane into CO2 and water, or it may use atmospheric oxygen at shallow levels where this is
available in groundwater. The CO2 may either emerge on the surface, bringing up an excess of
the heavy carbon isotope, or it may form carbonates by combining with calcium or magnesium
oxides. Results of both these processes have been observed. Carbonate pore filling cements
are frequently seen in hydrocarbon areas, as is also the emission of CO2 at the surface. On this
basis, the CO2 derived from any particular level in the diffusion column will contain a higher
proportion of the heavier isotope than the gas continuing up in the column. The CO2 molecule is
too heavy (molecular mass 44 or 45) to suffer significant fractionation, and what emerges at
the top will contain the isotopic mix derived from various levels in the methane column from
which it originated. All the time as some methane is taken over to CO 2, the remaining methane
in the column above will have a greater deficiency of the heavy isotope. The next step of
removal will thus start with a greater deficiency of the heavy isotope, and the CO2 produced
higher in the column will reflect that. A part of the carbon isotope ratios as a function of depth
should therefore show the carbon-13 deficiency in the methane increasing with height in the
column, and at each level, the CO2 will also become depleted in the heavy isotope, but at each
level it will show less depletion than the methane. This has been seen in several locations, and
Figure 3 gives a particularly accurate observation of the effect.
Figure 3 shows isotope measurements in the same vertical column in methane and of co-
existing CO2. Both components are progressively depleted from deep to shallower levels. The
CO2 tracking the methane quite accurately but with the methane depleted in the heavy isotope
by some 40 points per thousand (from Galimov et al., 1983).

The Galimov Curve indicates a more rapid fractionation, the shallower the level of the
measurement. This can be ascribed to atmospheric oxygen carried in the groundwater, that
allows a more rapid oxidation of methane by bacterial action. Since the CO 2 cannot suffer
significant fractionation, it is clear that its carbon must have derived from the methane.

It used to be assumed that fractionation depleting the heavy isotope occurred mainly or only
by the preferential absorption of the light isotope of surface plants, and that the greater
depletion seen in methane than in CO2 certified that the methane had derived from buried
biological materials. But if that had been the relevant fractionation mechanism without the
diffusive separation discussed here, then there should be no change with depth in the column,
nor could one expect the parallel tracking seen in Figure 3. A fractionation by plants favoring
the light isotope is certainly commonly seen, but plants do not have any way of selecting in
favor of one isotope except by the difference in speed of diffusion processes through
membranes. The process discussed here can and evidently does produce a much greater
degree of fractionation than occurs in the carbon uptake of plants (a deviation of nearly 90
parts per thousand from a standard norm, compared with plants that generally fractionate 20
to 30 parts per thousand).


Galimov, E.M. (1969) Isotopic composition of carbon in gases of the crust. Internat. Geology
Rev. v. 11, no 10, 1092-1104.

Galimov, E.M and Kvenvolden, K.A. (1983) Concentrations and carbon isotopic compositions of
CH4 and CO2 in gas from sediments of the Blake Outer Ridge, Deep Sea Drilling Project Leg 76:
Initial Reports of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, v. 76, p. 403-407.

On the Association of Petroleum with Helium and with Biological Molecules

Thomas Gold
July 1992

The regional and local association of terrestrial natural petroleum with helium has been clearly
verified in thousands of locations.

So has the association of petroleum with specifically biological molecules.

An origin of petroleum from sedimentary biological materials could not account for the helium
association, as no chemical interaction exists that would cause biological materials to
concentrate the noble gas. But equally, the association of petroleum with biological molecules
("biomarkers") cannot be doubted, and has been explained as arising from the origin of
hydrocarbons from biological deposits. This creates a paradox.

The only circumstance I could see that would account for the hydrocarbon-helium association,
was that the hydrocarbons have ascended from deep levels far below any sediments, from
materials similar to those of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, which were a major
component of the materials that formed the Earth. After all, we know that hydrocarbons of non-
biological origin are common on many other planetary bodies, and must have had such a
derivation there. At the high temperatures and pressures to which these materials will be
subjected at depth, some components will be liquefied and, being less dense than the rocks,
buoyancy forces will drive them upwards. On the long pathways of their ascent they will wash
up any trace gases in the rocks, helium being a major component among these.

With this explanation for the helium association, the presence of biological molecules in all oils
could no longer be regarded as due to an origin in biological debris. The association with
biological molecules would have to be due to the existence of a truly gigantic quantity of
subterranean micro-biological life, which had been so pervasive that it had produced the
biological components seen in all oils. This would be in accord with the opinion of the chemist
Sir Robert Robinson:

Actually it cannot be too strongly emphasized that petroleum does not present
the composition picture expected from modified biogenic products, and all the
arguments from the constituents of ancient oils fit equally well, or better, with
the conception of a primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bio-products have
been added. (1963)

These considerations prompted me to write the paper: "THE DEEP, HOT BIOSPHERE", (Proc Nat.
Ac. Sci. July 1992). In this I suggested that sub-surface microbiology is so widespread that
every oil-bearing region has been subjected to biological alteration, down to the deepest wells
from which oils have been extracted. The microbial life forms involved must then be
hyperthermophilic, living at temperatures up to 120°C, possibly as much as 150°C. The
quantities in terms of mass or volume would be comparable with all the surface life we know.
This would solve the sharp paradox that had split petroleum geology into two camps, and had
stymied progress of the discussion of the origin of petroleum for many decades.

Earthquakes, Gases, and Earthquake Prediction

Thomas Gold


Many reports about earthquakes have suggested that the escape of gases was a major effect,
both before, during and after the quakes.
The modern theory has it that some subterranean forces, of unknown origin, gradually build up
strains in the crustal rocks, up to the breaking point. The earthquake is then supposed to
denote the moment of fracture of that rock.

Many features of earthquakes seem to have no explanation in this theory.

Why would there be many occasions of multiple large quakes over a period of a few days to
months? Would the rock not break in all the locations in which it is already stressed to near
breaking point, at the time it is violently shaken? Why would the ground shake sometimes for
periods longer than a minute? Why would quakes cause tsunamis, the massive ocean waves? A
brief tremor, however fierce, would not have such an effect. Perhaps the modern earthquake
research had omitted the consideration of effects due to the sudden movements and the rapid
large changes of volume that gases may cause. We shall therefore discuss the huge eruptions
that have brought up diamonds, and we might well ask whether there may not be smaller ones
much more frequently. Are they the initiating events for earthquakes as well as for volcanic

Eye-witness accounts strongly suggest that gas eruptions are the initiating events, but in
modern times not much attention is paid to such information, because it is considered too
uncertain. Instead the effects that can be measured with accuracy, such as a gradual increase
of the strains in rocks and the relation of this to earthquakes, has now become the main
subject of research in this field in the US. The overriding importance of this research would lie
in finding a method for the prediction of earthquakes, but no such method has so far been

One city has been successfully evacuated two hours before a massive earthquake, and thereby
probably many thousands of lives were saved. This was the city of Haicheng in China, in
February of 1975. That prediction was based almost entirely on gas-related phenomena. (See
the description in "Eye-witness Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes," this Web site.)

In the modern geological literature the movement of gases in the crust is rarely considered.
Perhaps this is still due to the widespread misconception that no pore-spaces could exist
deeper than about 10 km. Even when a most violent volcanic gas explosion has occurred, this
is often discussed as due to gases that have come out of solution as the lava is exposed to
lower pressure. Why would one not consider that a massive bubble of gas had entered the lava
channel and raced to the top?

Diamonds, a very pure form of carbon, tell us quite a detailed story about the physical and
chemical conditions in the earth, below about 150 km, and this information bears on the origin
of petroleum. Chemical theory and the experience in making artificial diamonds, show that
high pressures of the order of 45 kilobars are needed to produce this dense crystal. Such
pressures are found in the Earth only at a depth of 150 kilometers or more, and it is somewhere
at such depths that natural diamonds must have been formed. The temperature there exceeds

The geologic situation in which diamonds occur shows that unusual gigantic eruptions were
involved. Although many diamonds are found dispersed in river gravels, the only concentrated
deposits are in the rare "pseudovolcanic" structures called "kimberlite pipes." These are deep,
vertical shafts, usually filled with a mixture of rock types, including the diamond-bearing rock
called kimberlite (Figure 1). Most of the known kimberlite pipes are in South Africa and Siberia,
but there are some in North America, in Australia, and probably also in Brazil, where they may
be well hidden under younger sediments.
Figure 1. Model of a Kimberlite pipe (from K.G. Cox, 1978).

The model is based on several South African pipes which have been exposed at various levels
by erosion, not only on the one near the town of Kimberley, which gave this formation its
name. The model was devised by J.B. Hawthorne of DeBeers Consolidated Mines, Ltd.

"The diamond pipes serve as a window that gives us a look into the Earth. There is probably no
other group of rocks that originated from even remotely as great a depth as have these"
(Kennedy and Nordly, 1968).

The pressure and temperature at a depth of 150 or 200 kilometers are in the right range for
carbon to crystallize as diamond. But how did the carbon become concentrated? We cannot
reasonably suppose that concentrations of large pieces of pure carbon were formed in the
outer mantle by the diffusion through the rock of the dispersed individual carbon atoms.

Minerals of high purity are usually formed in the Earth by a process that involves the flow of
some liquid through cracks and pore spaces in the rock. In some particular circumstance of
pressure, temperature or chemical surroundings, a component of such a fluid precipitates, and
thus builds up a concentrated deposit in the pore spaces. We then have to suppose that a fluid
containing carbon, percolated through rock spaces and precipitated concentrated carbon. Veins
of diamond would then be built up in these pore spaces, and a later eruption might bring
fragments to the surface. What are the fluids that could be responsible for precipitating and
concentrating the carbon?
The mere existence of the diamonds at these depths proves that unoxidized carbon exists
there. The two types of fluids that one may consider for the concentration process would be
carbon dioxide and methane, the latter possibly associated with heavier hydrocarbon
molecules also. Tiny pore spaces in diamonds have been analyzed and found to contain small
amounts of highly compressed gases, among which the carbon-containing ones were both
carbon dioxide and methane (Melton and Giardini, 1974). It is clear, therefore, that not only
unoxidized carbon, namely the diamond itself, but also methane, can exist down there.
Thermodynamic calculations have shown that both these gases are stable in the upper mantle
at diamond forming depth, and either could be responsible. The following indications would
seem to favor methane. Methane is generally much more abundant in the crust than CO2, and
appears to be streaming up from deeper levels. Secondly, of the gases contained in diamonds,
nitrogen is by far the most abundant. One has to judge that nitrogen had something to do with
the deposition of the diamond.

It follows that pore spaces in which fluids can flow exist at these depths, and that
mineralization processes, leading to great concentrations of certain substances, can be active
there, just as they are at shallower levels. Fluid pressures equaling the rock pressures seem to
be widespread, at least in the crust and outer mantle, and this is a matter of great significance,
both for the chemical processes and for the methods of ascent of fluids to the surface.

The existence of the kimberlite pipes shows that high concentrations of gas can build up, and
have been building up, and these concentrations can explode a hole through 150 kilometers of
overlying dense rock. Quite large bubbles of high-pressure gas must have been assembled to
do this, and only an inhomogeneous mantle containing volatile-rich materials could be

A gas eruption, rather than a volcanic transport to the surface, is required to maintain the
diamonds. The stable form of carbon at low pressures is graphite, but if diamonds are cooled
sufficiently rapidly as they are brought to lower pressures, they are maintained as unstable but
super-cooled crystals. At surface temperatures, they are then effectively stable. We see that
the evidence from the diamonds is very simple and clear. Unoxidized carbon can and does exist
in the outer mantle. It can be brought up without becoming oxidized; it is associated with a
variety of hydrocarbon molecules, both within inclusions in diamond and also in other materials
brought up in the eruptions. Volatile-rich regions exist in the mantle, so that high pressure gas
bubbles become assembled there that can force their way violently through all the overlying
rocks. This clearly shows that the Earth has an unmixed, inhomogeneous mantle, and that
there is a high concentration of carbonaceous material in many areas of the globe.

I am presenting here a selection of eye-witness accounts of major quakes, showing that gases,
and in particular combustible gases are frequently in evidence.

The great earthquake series in New Madrid (Mid Mississippi) in 1811 - 1812

The report by contains the following items:

On the 16th day of December, 1811, at two o'clock in the morning, the
inhabitants of New Madrid were aroused from their slumbers by a deep rumbling
noise like many thunders in the distance, accompanied with a violent vibratory or
oscillating movement of the earth from the southwest to the northeast, so violent
at times that men, women, and children caught hold of the nearest objects to
prevent falling to the ground.

It was dangerous to stay in their dwellings, for fear they might fall and bury them
in their ruins; it was dangerous to be out in the open air, for large trees would be
breaking off their tops by the violence of the shocks, and continually falling to
the earth, or the earth itself opening in dark, yawning chasms, or fissures, and
belching forth muddy water, large lumps of blue clay, coal, and sand, and when
the violence of the shocks were over, moaned and slept, again gathering power
for a more violent commotion.
On this day twenty-eight distinct shocks were counted, all coming from the
southwest and passing to the northeast, while the fissures would run in an
opposite direction, or from the northwest to the southeast.

On a small river called the Pemiseo at that time stood a mill owned by a Mr.
Riddle. This river ran a southeast course, and probably was either a tributary of
the St. Francis or lost itself in those swamps. This river blew up for a distance of
nearly fifty miles, the bed entirely destroyed, the mill swallowed up in the ruins,
and an orchard of ten acres of bearing apple trees, also belonging to Mr. Riddle,
nearly ruined. The earth, in these explosions, would open in fissures from forty to
eighty rods in length and from three to five feet in width; their depth none knew,
as no one had strength of nerve sufficient to fathom them, and the sand and
earth would slide in or water run in, and soon partially fill them up.

Large forest trees which stood in the track of these chasms would be split from
root to branch, the courses of streams changed, the bottoms of lakes be pushed
up from beneath and form dry land, dry land blow up, settle down, and form
lakes of dark, muddy water.

One family, in their efforts to reach the highlands by a road they all were well
acquainted with, unexpectedly came to the borders of an extensive lake; the
land had sunk, and water had flowed over it or gushed up out of the earth and
formed a new lake. The opposite shore they felt confident could not be far
distant, and they traveled on in tepid water, from twelve to forty inches in depth,
of a temperature of 100 degrees, or over blood heat, at times of a warmth to be
uncomfortable, for the distance of four or five miles, and reached the highlands
in safety.

On the 8th of February, 1812, the day on which the severest shocks took place,
the shocks seemed to go in waves, like the waves of the sea, throwing down
brick chimnies level with the ground and two brick dwellings in New Madrid, and
yet, with all its desolating effects, but one person was thought to have been lost
in these commotions.

The morning after the first shock, as some men were crossing the Mississippi,
they saw a black substance floating on the river, in strips four or five rods in
breadth by twelve or fourteen rods in length, resembling soot from some
immense chimney, or the cinders from some gigantic stove-pipe. It was so thick
that the water could not be seen under it. On the Kentucky side of the river there
empties into the Mississippi river two small streams, one called the Obine, the
other the Forked Deer. Lieutenant Robinson, a recruiting officer in the United
States army, visited that part of Kentucky lying between those two rivers in
1812, and states that he found numberless little mounds thrown up in the earth,
and where a stick or a broken limb of a tree lay across these mounds they were
all burnt in two pieces, which went to prove to the people that these commotions
were caused by some internal action of fire.

About four miles above Paducah, on the Ohio River, on the Illinois side, on a post-
oak flat, a large circular basin was formed, more than one hundred feet in
diameter, by the sinking of the earth, how deep no one can tell, as the tall
stately post-oaks sank below the tops of the tallest trees. The sink filled with
water, and continues so to this time. The general appearance of the country
where the most violent shocks took place was fearfully changed, and many farms
were ruined.

After reading this and several reports about other earthquakes that are quite similar, I find it
very hard to understand how there can be any opposition to the notion that the eruption of
gases is connected with earthquakes, and possibly a major cause of them. I know of no way in
which an area of land could suddenly sink by tens of feet, except by the release of large
amounts of gases whose pressure had previously held open a large total volume of pore-spaces
in the underlying rocks.

The same consideration applies to the creation of the earthquake-related ocean waves called
tsunamis. A rapid and very large change in some volume is necessary to set up these waves,
and that volumetric change has to be of a magnitude similar to the volume of ocean water that
has been displaced to make either the negative or the positive phase of the great wave. Again
sinking of an area of ocean floor due to the sudden escape of gases would be a possibility as
would the rapid expansion of gases that make their way from the ocean floor to the surface.
There are various reports of violent bubbling of areas of the ocean, and even of flames
emerging out of the water.

Another feature of earthquakes that seems incompatible with the theory of shear strain in the
rocks reaching breaking point are the deep source earthquakes. Earthquakes are known at
depths down to 700 kilometers, and the pressure there is so great that sudden fracture cannot
occur. The friction between two masses that slide against each other would be so great that
this would far exceed any mechanical breaking strength of any rock. Any movement at such
depths would occur only as a gradual adjustment proceeding in step with the driving force that
causes the movement. This implied that another process must be going on down there and
finding the answer to that may also then explain the features of shallower earthquakes that
have so far remained unexplained, but that appear in seismic investigation quite similar to the
deep ones.

We have two recent examples: on June 8, 1994, a very large earthquake registering 8.2
emanated from 600 kilometers below Bolivia. Not far away in time and space, in 1970, there
was a powerful deep earthquake in Colombia.

The southern island arc of Indonesia and its continuation into Burma and the mountains of
southern China is a very long belt that shows many features that show themselves along the
whole length. Earthquakes make clear that it is related to an underlying structure of very large
dimensions. The two other features that follow this same arc all the way are active volcanoes
and the commercial production of oil and gas. While the belt was defined by the frequent
occurrence of small quakes, it is also the region of the highest frequency of large quakes. In the
75 years between 1897 and 1972, there were ten earthquakes of magnitude eight or larger
along this belt. There are no signs of a progressive shift of some land masses against others,
and the rock stress situation is surely totally different in the folded mountains of Burma as in
the volcanic island arc of Indonesia.

There are other features of earthquakes that have also to be considered. There are places that
are distinctive "earthquake spots." There is a spot in northern Norway where for a long time
one could almost be guaranteed to feel an earthquake in any 24 hour period. These were weak
earthquakes, not much above the level at which one could feel them, but there was no faultline
that was slipping, no accumulation of any deformation of the surface, it just kept shaking in an
area that was about 12 kilometers across. A very similar story comes from two places in the
United States, one is on the western tip of Flathead Lake in Montana, the other is in Arkansas,
near the small town of Enola. Both of those have been active in recent times, and the one in
Arkansas is known to have been active some 80 years ago.

Another earthquake spot is on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, most interestingly just
in a large meteorite impact structure ("astrobleme") called Charlevoix. The large meteorite
struck there some 350 million years ago, and detailed evidence of this impact has been
obtained. Despite the length of time that has elapsed since then, it seems that even now the
area has not settled down and some activity is still clearly centered there. Some earthquakes
that can be felt occur there every few days, and microquakes are registered extremely
frequently. In this case, the proximity to the major faultline of the St. Lawrence River
complicates the discussion somewhat but, nevertheless, the concentration of the seismic
activity to the 30 mile diameter impact area is quite evident.
Such spots clearly need a different explanation from that of plates shearing against each other.
Possibly the explanation has to do with gases forcing their way up and causing fractures in the
rock to open and shut repeatedly.

We have investigated in some detail the Arkansas and the Charlevoix spots, and in the course
of this discovered that they both contain a most intriguing feature which has shed further light
on this type of occurrence. This is the presence of clusters of earth mounds that stand abruptly
out of the alluvial plain. From a few feet to 40 feet in height and up to 200 feet or so in the
horizontal dimensions, they are composed internally just of the clay and sand of the local
alluvium, and no good reason has been offered to account for their origin.

The association in both areas of these strange mounds with locally concentrated seismic
activity cannot reasonably be ascribed to chance. While such mounds do occur elsewhere,
dense clusters of them are extremely rare, and an explanation for them is required. One cannot
argue that the shaking of the ground of the earthquakes would itself cause what appears to be
a substantial extrusion from below.

A class of a much larger type of feature is known and referred to as "mud volcano." It is also
strongly related to earthquake activity. Mud volcanoes are mountains that are in the general
shape of a volcano, sometimes but not always with an open hole on top and with steep sides
sloping down to the plain below. The sides are made of rock debris, which presumably was
ejected at the top as a mixture of such debris with water. Huge fields of mud volcanoes exist in
several areas of the globe. The best known ones and the largest are in Azerbaijan on the north
slopes of the Caucasus. Large eruptions of individual mud volcanoes are common there and the
gases that propel the eruption are usually flammable and become ignited at the time,
presumably by electrostatic sparks resulting from the friction of fast moving rock grains.
Flames to a height of two kilometers have been photographed from one mud volcano whose
orifice measures 120 meters across.

The gases coming out of mud volcanoes have often quite unusual composition and contain
elements that are known to be at a high concentration in the mantle of the earth and at a
much lower concentration in the sediments and in the outer crust. They clearly represent a
very different chemical environment from that of the sedimentary cover.

The mounds on the earthquake spots in Enola, Arkansas and in Charlevoix on the St. Lawrence
River, can be attributed to the same class of phenomenon as mud volcanoes, only on a much
smaller scale.

Gases that stream up out of cracks during earthquakes are also frequently flammable. In the
collection of eyewitness reports, flames are frequently a feature. Also in recent times, the great
earthquake in San Francisco in 1906 was accompanied by large fires, and it was said at the
time that this was due to the fracture of gas pipes in the ground. That may well have been the
case; however flames were also seen on hills nearby that had no gas pipes and also on roads
and fields in nearby San Jose. The Armenian earthquake of 1990 showed a line of burnt bushes
along a visible faultline.

Large vertical displacements of areas of land can be understood if a mass of gas had previously
held open pore spaces in the rocks below, and thereby raised the ground, and if these pore
spaces had suddenly made connections to the surface and rapidly exhausted the gas. Such
volumetric changes occurring in a matter of seconds can then account for the large tsunamis
and for the flames often seen in earthquakes. As methane appears to be the most common gas
in the rocks, it would seem reasonable to expect that methane would be the principal gas
responsible, just as it is known in the case of mud volcanoes. The mud volcanoes merely show
the locations in which earthquakes and gas eruptions are particularly frequent, and locations in
which large amounts of underground mud have been generated by the frequent agitation of
ground water in some fine-grained alluvial sediments.

Can the emission of gases be used for precursory information?

There were two observations before the earthquake at Loma Prieta on October 17, 1989 that
seemed to be gas related and are clearly just prior to the earthquake (Reimer, 1990 and Fraser-
Smith, 1989). But these observations were made for different purposes, unrelated to
earthquake research, and yet they constitute the best earthquake-predictive observations. One
was the observation of the amount of helium in a shallow well, which showed a sharp increase
a day before the quake (Figure 2). I suppose that this represented an increased flow of gases
upwards through the rocks, that had gathered up the helium that had accumulated in the

Figure 2. From Reimer, 1990.

The other observation was that of a low radio frequency noise that is not normally present, also
seen just before the quake (Figure 3); I attribute this to the interruption and reconnection of
earth currents normally flowing in the groundwater, as these current paths are interrupted and
re-connected by the bubbles of insulating gases that stream through the pores of the rock.
Would these and other gas-related precursory effects not form the best line of earthquake
investigation, to devise the most important of all, a predictive capability?
Figure 3. From Fraser-Smith, 1989.

The eye-witness stories of the past are all ignored or not even known to the present
investigators; they are certainly not mentioned much in the modern earthquake literature. See
the related documentation describing historical accounts of many large quakes (in "Eye-witness
Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes," this Web site).


Cox, K. G. (1978). Kimberlite pipes. Scientific American 238 (4).

Fraser-Smith, A.C. et al. (1989). STAR Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.

Kennedy, G.C. and Nordly, B.E. (1968). The genesis of diamond deposits Econ. Geol. 63, 495-

Melton, C.E. and Giardini, A.A. (1974). The composition and significance of gas released from
natural diamonds from Africa and Brazil. Amer. Mineralogist 59, 775-782.

Reimer, G.M. (1990). Helium increase. Nature, 347, 342.

Eye-witness Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes

Thomas Gold


To show how common the gas related effects have been in reports of earthquakes of the past, I
am giving here a list of such reports. I do not believe that the individual authors had much
information about other such reports, and therefore these reports can be taken to be free from
suggestive influences.

I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Steven Soter for his library researches that found the samples
given here and many more like these.

Norcia and Aquila (Italy), 14 January and 2 February 1703

"In Aquila and Norcia, and in other places . . . the earth was here and there observed to split in
cracks, from which streamed the evil odors of sulfur and bitumen; and men in Aquila most
worthy of trust write that in many places after the earthquake sulfur and fire issued from the
opened earth." (Quoted by Galli, 1911)

Lisbon, 1 November 1755

". . . we began to hear a rumbling noise, like that of carriages, which increased to such a
degree as to equal the noise of the loudest cannon; and immediately we felt the first shock,
which was succeeded by a second and a third; on which, as on the forth, I saw several light
flames of fire issuing from the sides of the mountains, resembling that which may be observed
on the kindling of coal. . . . I observed from one of the hills called the Fojo, near the beach of
Adraga [near Colares], that there issued a great quantity of smoke, very thick, but not very
black/ which still increased with the fourth shock, and after continued to issue in a greater or
less degree. Just as we heard the subterraneous rumblings, we observed it would burst forth at
the Fojo; for the quantity of smoke was always proportional to the subterraneous noise."
(Stoqueler, 1756)

Komarom (Hungary), 28 June 1763

"Ruptures in the soil originated in thousands of places. From almost all of them water and
quicksand were emitted together with flames and stinking smoke. . . . The river Danube began
to rise . . . and the water appeared to be steaming as though boiling. It had a sulphurous smell.
The majority of the ruptures occurred near the river bank and from some of them flames
emerged alternately with the sand and smoke. Fertö Lake, 100 km west of Komarom, began to
rumble and foam very intensely. . . . Flames as big as a barrel were seen over the river itself.
Many horned cattle perished in the terrible stinking vapour that came from the earth. . . . At the
bank of another smaller river, the Vag, red-colored flames rushed up from the ruptures,
followed by sulphurous waters. . . . At some places the waters that came from the earth were
distinctly black. The water of the river Bag appeared to be boiling." (Quoted by Rethly, 1952)

Lima, 30 March 1828

Water in the bay "hissed as if hot iron was immersed in it," bubbles and dead fish rose to the
surface, and the anchor chain of HMS Volage was partially fused while lying in the mud on the
bottom. (Bagnold, 1829)

(The anchor chain is reported to be on display in the London Navy Museum.)

Owens Valley (California), 26 March 1872

"People living near Independence . . . said [that] at every succeeding shock they could plainly
see in a hundred places at once, bursting forth from the rifted rocks great sheets of flames
apparently thirty or forty feet in length, and which would coil and lap about a moment and then
disappear." (San Francisco Chronicle, 2 April 1872)

"Immediately following the great shock, men whose judgment and veracity is beyond question,
while sitting on the ground near the Eclipse mine, saw sheets of flame on the rocky sides of the
Inyo mountains but a half a mile distant. These flames, observed in several places, waved to
and fro apparently clear of the ground, like vast torches; they continued for only a few
minutes." (Inyo Independent, 20 April 1872)

Sonora (Mexico), 3 May 1887

"Another effect of the earthquake which terrified the frightened inhabitants of these places,
was the fire upon all the mountains around the epicenter and even some situated in the
territory of Arizona, among others the ridge of San Jose. Some of these, it is said, continued in
flames for many days." (Aquilera, 1920)

Swabia (Southern Germany), 16 November 1911

The following are from among the many eyewitness accounts quoted by Schmidt and Mack

"We saw a sea of flames, gas-like and not electrical in nature, shoot up out of the paved market
street. The height of the flames I can estimate at 8 to 12 cm; it was like when you pour
petroleum or alcohol on the ground and light it."

"I observed very precisely how a bright fire, which had a bluish color, came out of the ground in
the meadow. Its height was about 80 cm. . . . The first was present not only in the meadow but
also in the whole surroundings of our house."

"Some people in the streets . . . noticed that for a while before the quake and particularly after
it an evil stuffy air made breathing almost impossible."

Rumania, 10 November 1940

The following are phrases used in eyewitness accounts collected by Demetrescu and Petrescu

". . . a thick layer like a translucid gas above the surface of the soil . . . irregular gas fires . . .
flames in rhythm with the movements of the soil . . . flashes like lightning from the floor to the
summit of Mt Tampa . . . flames issuing from rocks, which crumbled, with flashes also issuing
from non-wooded mountainsides."

Sungpan-Pingwu (China), 16, 22, and 23 August 1976

"From March of 1976, various large anomalies were observed over a broad region. . . . At the
Wanchia commune of Chungching County, outbursts of natural gas from rock fissures ignited
and were difficult to extinguish even by dumping dirt over the fissures. . . . Chu Chieh Cho, of
the Provincial Seismological Bureau, related personally seeing a fireball 75 km from the
epicenter on the night of 21 July while in the company of three professional seismologists.

The San Francisco Earthquake

The earthquake that destroyed parts of San Francisco and virtually all of Santa Rosa occurred
at 5:12 a.m. on 18 April 1906. It was most intense perhaps a hundred kilometers north of San
Francisco. We will here list some excerpts from the numerous reports, all indicating violent gas
emission from the ground, gases that contained the poisonous hydrogen sulphide and gases
that were frequently flammable. It is the earthquake for with the most detailed reports exist,
and which shows every type of phenomenon that we have noted in other cases.

(a) Effects in Air

An extensive list of noises heard at the time of the shock, compiled from witnesses by Lawson
and others (1908), includes the following: From Santa Rosa, "Heard noises in SW; then felt
breeze; then felt shock". From Cotati, "Sound as of a strong wind before the shock". From Point
Reyes Station, "Heard roar, then felt wind on my face". From Calistoga, "A rushing noise before
the shock came". From Pescadero, "Noise as of wind preceded the shock". And from Mount
Hamilton, "Sound as of flight of birds simultaneously with shock".

Other clear evidence for gas is given by a report published on 23 April in the Santa Rosa
Democrat-Republican (the first newspaper to appear after the devastation). It said:

J.B. Doda, who came over from Fort Ross on Monday, reports that the earthquake caused
immense cracks in the earth there, from which strong gases are emitted which make men and
cattle sick.

Also, according to Edgar Larkin (1906), who collected a great many accounts, the odour of
hydrogen sulphide was noted in the area of Sausalito. He also reported that sulfurous odors
were pungent in Napa County during the night of the 17th and 18th before the upheaval, and
lasted all day. . . . From many of the letters it is clear that the entire region north and east of
San Francisco is saturated with gases of sulfur origin. . . .

In Santa Rosa, according to Lawson and others (1908), a strong smell of sulphur had been
noticed two days before the earthquake by one Charles Kobes. Since during an earthquake
eight years previously, "sulfur fumes came up from under his house which almost drove his
family from home", the recurrence of this phenomenon on 16 April 1906 caused Kobes to tell
his family that there would be another earthquake.

(b) Effects in Water

Numerous indications of hydrogen sulphide in bodies of water were reported. According to

Larkin (1906), "creeks became milky in several places as if gas escaped from the water".
Hydrogen sulfide bubbling through water is known to give it a milky appearance. Another
report in the San Jose Herald of 2 May 1906 states that in Monterey Bay, on the day of the
quake, there were thousands of strange fish floating on the water a few miles offshore, none of
which were known to old fishermen on the boat. Similar reports of massive fish kills at times of
earthquakes, especially of bottom-dwelling fish, are known from Japan, in some cases also
associated with the description of milkiness of the water. Again, hydrogen sulphide, which is
highly toxic to fish, seems a likely explanation, and in each case it is bottom dwelling fish which
are not normally caught that are the chief victims.

(c) Anomalous Animal Behaviour

Strange animal behaviour preceding earthquakes is well documented in many parts of the
world. Dogs, pigs, horses, cows and many other animals seem to show signs of restlessness or
extreme disturbance prior to major earthquakes, and I would attribute this to their ability to
smell the outflow of ground gases much more readily than humans and to be altogether much
more concerned about smells. In San Francisco the major reports of this nature concerned the
behaviour of dogs (Lawson et al., 1908), which are reported to have been howling during the
night preceding the earthquake.

(d) Earthquake Lights

Again, as in many other earthquakes, there are many reports of flames issuing from the
ground, either seen close-by or seen as a glow of light in the distance. In fact, while it was
reported that the great fire, which was initiated by the earthquake, was in part caused by
broken gas mains in the streets of San Francisco, this may not have been the major cause.
There are numerous reports of flames seen in neighboring areas where no gas mains existed.
Thus, George Madeira, a veteran mining engineer from Healdsburg, reports in the Santa Rosa
Republican for 4 April 1910:

While investigating the natural phenomena of the seismic disturbance of April 18, 1906, I
visited the mountain ranch of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, a mile and one-half northeast of Cazadero.
They stated that for two night preceding the earthquake they "had seen small streams of
lightning running along the ground". Their attention was called to the phenomenon by the
incessant barking of their dog.

Here, evidently some 30 hours before the shock, earthquake lights were reported in what was
soon to be the epicentral region.

During the earthquake itself there were more such accounts, like that of J.E. Houser, and
engineer in San Jose, California, quoted by Larkin (1906):

This report included the following:

We could see down Alameda Street ablaze with fire, it being of a beautiful rainbow color, but
faint. We passed out into the street and met a man who asked, "Did you see the fire in Alameda
Street?" An hour later a friend told me that the ground all around was a blaze of fire.

(e) Explosive Noises (Brontides)

According to George Madeira in a letter written on 5 May 1908, as quoted by Alippi (1911),

Explosions much resembling the discharge of heavy guns have for the past two years been
heard at intervals in the West and Middle Coast range of mountains, particularly in Marin,
Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Heavy detonations and rumblings were heard near the base
of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, during the winter months and previous to the great earthquake
which destroyed San Francisco and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County April 18th, 1906, and have
been heard at stated times up to this writing.

Some of these later explosions evidently accompanied earthquake aftershocks.

(f) Visible Waves

The phenomenon of slowly rolling waves, like the waves at sea, was reported from many places
in the San Francisco earthquake. Lawson and others (1908) list over twenty such accounts
distributed geographically from the vicinity of Eureka to Visalia, a distance of more than 600
kilometres. Several of these accounts explicitly compare the ground motion observed to that of
waves in the ocean. Similar accounts are also in descriptions of other earthquakes, especially
that in Lisbon. These waves were discussed by John Michell (1761), a brilliant scientist of the
18th century. What he presumed was happening was that soft alluvial deposits can be bent and
do not fracture as readily as the hard rock beneath. If a great mass of gas suddenly comes from
cracks in the rock, it may lift up this carpet and in that case, gravity waves quite similar to the
waves in the ocean would be set up.

Can Earthquakes Be Predicted?

We see that these descriptions make major earthquakes look much like violent eruptions, quite
similar to gas eruptions from volcanoes or mud volcanoes. The airborne noises, the flames, the
air pollution are all similar, and while most of the intense effects take place at the time of the
quake, some of the effects occur as precursors and cannot therefore be ascribed to secondary
effects of the mechanical deformation of the ground. It seems very strange that in all the
attempts to predict earthquakes, no gas observations are included. Highly accurate
measurements of the distortion of the ground represent the main effort, since the current
theory has earthquakes resulting from a gradually augmenting stress in the rocks until they
reach the breaking strain and the earthquake occurs. It is therefore supposed that one can
measure the building up of the stress by the slight deformation prior to a quake. However, as a
means to predicting earthquakes, this method has been entirely unsuccessful. The ground does
distort on occasions, but not by any unusual amount before an earthquake.

The evacuation of Haicheng two hours before a devastating quake is an example of a

successful prediction, and it was based mainly on gas effects such as a cloud of warmer air and
fog developing above the known faultline, strange and nauseating smells and changes in
groundwater levels. The same effects have been mentioned in very many of the ancient

Gases can indeed have a lot to do with earthquakes. A large volume of gas entering the crust
of the Earth from deeper levels and at a high pressure, will greatly change the mechanical
properties of the rock. Pore-spaces will be inflated, and the overburden weight of the rock will
be effectively relieved by the pressure of the gas. The great weight of the overburden would
normally have resulted in high internal friction, opposing any slippage at all but the shallowest
levels. But with gas effectively bearing the overburden, slippage can occur much more easily.
Much smaller values of stress in the rock will then be sufficient to cause a quake.

The absence of high stresses along the San Andreas fault was indeed a surprise to the
investigators, when they had a chance to make such measurements in the deep well drilled at
Cajon Pass in Southern California. They also failed to find there the extra heat that the known
past slippage should have left behind, had it taken place without gas levitation.

When gas has invaded an area of the crust, it generally shows some emission at the surface
that can be observed, and that results in the various effects mentioned. Of course the gases
that were in the pore-spaces to start with are pushed up first, before the "new" gas has got to
the surface. This brings up smells which cause surprise or consternation among many animals;
it brings up more carbon-dioxide and less oxygen than air has normally, and this drives animals
out of burrows; it brings up humidity and temperature of the sub-surface and thus frequently
makes a fog. This contains more of the heavy CO2 molecule than the average air, and can
therefore make a warmer cloud that stays on the ground instead of rising rapidly. Radioactive
gases that are normally generated in the ground make a prominent appearance as they are
flushed from the ground.

These signs should be taken to mean that the rock underneath has now suddenly lost much of
its strength, and even small stresses will allow it to break. There was no particular build-up of
stress prior to the quake, and measurements of this are therefore useless as predictors. The
sudden event was the gas invasion that weakened the rock, and it is on this that a prediction
method has to be based. During earthquakes and after, a lot more gas escape can usually be
observed, and by then the deep source gas may have made its way to the surface. This is often
combustible, probably mainly methane as this is in most common gas in deep rocks, and it
often catches fire.

In China, in Japan, in the Soviet Union, much more attention is paid to gas phenomena. Japan
even has a "Laboratory of Earthquake Chemistry." The US is far behind in this field, not because
it does not have the technology, but just because it took a wrong choice some time ago, and
now does not wish to change course. But the citizens of earthquake-prone regions will be more
concerned with obtaining a warning than to be party to a scientific controversy. Sub-surface
gas observations are simple and comparatively inexpensive, such as changes in groundwater
levels in water wells, or changes in gas pressure above a water table. It is high time that
California and the Central Mississippi region obtained the knowledge and experience in this
field that will be necessary to establish a meaningful prediction service. Instrumentation
operated by scientists is one aspect of this; public earthquake education and a reporting
network is another, to assure the widest possible coverage for the observation of the many
phenomena that may be relevant for predictions. One wonders how many such observations go
unreported because their relation to earthquakes is not generally known.

Alippi, T. (1911). The 1952 Fort Yuma earthquake—two additional accounts. Seismol. Soc. Amer.
Bull. 68, 1761-1762.

Aquilera, J.G. (1920). The Sonora Earthquake of 1887. Seismol. Soc. Amer. Bull. 10, 31-44.

Bagnold, T. (1829). Extraordinary Effect of an Earthquake at Lima, 1828. Quart. J. Soc. Lit. Art
27, 429-430.

Demetrescu, G. and Petrescu, G. (1941). Sur les phénomènes lumineux qui ont accompagné le
tremblement de terre de Roumanie de 10 Novembre 1940. Acad. Roumaine Bull. Sec. Sci. 23,

Galli, I. (1911). Raccolta e classificazione di fenomeni luminosi osservati nei terremoti. Bol. Soc.
Sismol. Ital. 14, 221-447.

Larkin, E.L. (1906). The great San Francisco earthquake. Open Court 20, 393-406.

Lawson, A.C., et al. (1908). the California Earthquake of April 18, 1906. Carnegie Institution,
Washington, D.C.

Michell, J. (1761). Conjectures concerning the cause, and observations upon the Phaenomena,
of Earthquakes. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. 51, 566-634.

Rethly, A. (1952). A Kárpámedencék Földrengesei 445-1918. Academic Publishing House:


Schmidt, A. and Mack, K. (1913). Das Süddeutesches Erdbeben vom 16 November 1911. Württ,
Jahrbücher f. Statist. u. Landeskde., Jahrg. 1912, Heft I, 96-139.

Stoqueler, Mr. (1756). Observations, Made at Colares, on the Earthquake at Lisbon, of the 1st of
November 1755, by Mr. Stoqueler, Consul of Hamburg. Phil Trans. Roy. Soc. 49, 413-418.

The Deep, Hot Biosphere

Thomas Gold

July 1992

Abstract: (Subject: microbiology)

There are strong indications that microbial life is widespread at depth in the crust of the Earth,
just as such life has been identified in numerous ocean vents. This life is not dependent on
solar energy and photosynthesis for its primary energy supply, and it is essentially independent
of the surface circumstances. Its energy supply comes from chemical sources, due to fluids that
migrate upwards from deeper levels in the Earth. In mass and volume it may be comparable
with all surface life.

Such microbial life may account for the presence of biological molecules in all carbonaceous
materials in the outer crust, and the inference that these materials must have derived from
biological deposits accumulated at the surface is therefore not necessarily valid.
Subsurface life may be widespread among the planetary bodies of our solar system, since
many of them have equally suitable conditions below, while having totally inhospitable
surfaces. One may even speculate that such life may be widely disseminated in the universe,
since planetary type bodies with similar sub-surface conditions may be common as solitary
objects in space, as well as in other solar-type systems.

We are familiar with two domains of life on the Earth: the surface of the land and the body of
the oceans. Both domains share the same energy source: namely sunlight, used in the process
of photosynthesis in green plants and micro–organisms. In this process the molecules of water
and of CO2 are dissociated, and the products of this then provide chemical energy that supports
all the other forms of life. Most of this energy is made available through the recombination of
carbon and hydrogen compounds concentrated in the plants, with the oxygen that became
distributed into the atmosphere and oceans by the same photosynthetic process. The end
product is again largely water and CO2, thereby closing the cycle.

This was the general concept about life and the sources of its energy until approximately
twelve years ago, when another domain of life was discovered (1). This new domain, the
"ocean vents", found first in some small regions of the ocean floor, but now found to be
widespread (2), proved to have an energy supply for its life that was totally independent of
sunlight and all surface energy sources. There the energy for life was derived from chemical
processes, combining fluids - liquids and gasses - that came up continuously from cracks in the
ocean floor, with substances available in the local rocks and in the ocean water. Such sources
of chemical energy still exist on the Earth, because the materials here have never been able to
reach the condition of the lowest chemical energy. The Earth formed by the accumulation of
solid materials, condensed in a variety of circumstances from a gaseous nebula surrounding
the sun. Much of this material had never been hot after its condensation, and it contained
substances that would be liquid or gaseous when heated. In the interior of the Earth, heat is
liberated by radioactivity, by compression, and by gravitational sorting; and this caused partial
liquefaction and gasification. As liquids, gases and solids make new contacts, chemical
processes can take place that represent, in general, an approach to a lower chemical energy
condition. Some of the energy so liberated will increase the heating of the locality, and this in
turn will liberate more fluids there, and so accelerate the processes that release more heat. Hot
regions will become hotter, and chemical activity will be further stimulated there. This may
contribute to, or account for the active and hot regions in the Earth's crust that are so sharply

Where such liquids or gases stream up to higher levels into different chemical surroundings,
they will continue to represent a chemical disequilibrium and therefore a potential energy
source. There will often be circumstances where chemical reactions with surrounding materials
might be possible and would release energy; but where the temperature is too low for the
activation of the reactions. This is just the circumstance where biology can successfully draw
on chemical energy. The life in the ocean vents is one example of this. There it is bacterial life
that provides the first stage in the process of drawing on this form of chemical energy: for
example, methane and hydrogen is oxidized to CO2 and water, with oxygen available from local
sulfates and metal oxides. Hydrogen sulfide is also frequently present, and leads to the
production of water and metal sulfides; there may be many other reactions of which we are not
yet aware. Of all the forms of life that we now know, bacteria appear to represent the one that
can most readily utilize energy from a great variety of chemical sources.

How widespread is life based on such internal energy sources of the Earth? Are the ocean vents
the sole representatives of this? Or do they merely represent the examples that were
discovered first? After all, the discovery of these is recent, and we may well expect that other
locations that are harder to investigate would have escaped detection so far.

Bacteria can live at higher temperatures than any other known organisms; 110 °C has been
verified, and some biologists consider that the upper temperature limit may be as high as 150
°C (providing always that the pressure is sufficient to raise the boiling point of water above this
There can be little doubt that venting of liquids and gases from areas of the Earth's mantle
beneath the crust is not limited to a few cracks in the ocean floor. Indeed fossilized "dead"
ocean vents have already been discovered (3), showing that the phenomenon is widespread
and occurred in different geologic epochs. A similar supply of fluids seems to be widespread
also in land areas, where it is much harder to investigate; but it has been noted that many
areas of basement rocks contain methane and other hydrocarbons. This has been seen in
numerous mining and tunnelling operations for a long time. Major fault-lines have been noted
to be high-spots of hydrocarbon seepage (4). Hydrocarbons have also been encountered in
deep drilling in basement rocks, as in the Soviet superdeep well in the Kola peninsula and in
the pilot hole of the German Continental Deep Drilling Project (KTB). The large quantities of
methane hydrates (methane-water ices) found in many areas of the ocean floor, and thought to
contain more methane than all other known methane deposits (5,6), suggest a widely
distributed methane supply from below.

In land areas, deep in the rocks, it would be much harder to discover and investigate biological
activity than in the ocean vents,. The pore-spaces in the rocks are quite sufficient to
accommodate bacterial life, and the rocks themselves may contain many of the chemicals that
can be nutrients together with the ascending fluids. But, of course, there would be no space for
larger life forms. Just as bacterial life in the ocean vents would not have been discovered had
the secondary larger life forms not drawn attention to it, so any active bacterial life deep in the
solid crust could have gone largely unnoticed.

The remains of bacteria in the form of molecules - "hopanoids" (derived from hopanes) - a
material coming from bacterial cell-walls, have however been found in all of the several
hundred samples of oil, coal and kerogen (distributed carbonaceous material in the crust)
examined by by Ourisson et. al. (7). These authors note the widespread or apparently
ubiquitous presence of these molecules in the sedimentary rocks, and they give an estimate of
the total quantity as of the order of 1013 or 1014 tons, more than the estimated 1012 tons of
organic carbon in all living organisms on or near the surface. They also note the virtually
identical pattern of the chromatogram of these molecules in oil and in coal. Further they note
that some of the molecules most commonly used to identify the presence of biological material
in petroleum, such as pristane and phytane, are not necessarily derived from plant chlorophyll
as is commonly believed, but could well be products of the same bacterial cultures as those
that gave rise to the hopanoids. The presence of these bio-molecules can therefore not be
taken to prove a derivation of the bulk substance from surface biological debris.

What are the depths to which active bacterial life may have penetrated? Could bacteria get
down into the deep rocks? Would this represent just a minor branch of all the surface biological
activity, or could it be comparable with it in the total amount of chemical processing caused by
it? How important would such life have been for the chemical evolution of the crust of the

An upper limit of the temperature of 110 to 150 °C would place a limit to the depth of between
5 and 10 kilometers in most areas of the crust. The mere question of access to such depths for
bacteria would be no problem. Even just the rate of growth of bacterial colonies along cracks
and pore spaces in which the requisite nutrients are available, would take them down in a few
thousand years - a very small fraction of the time spans available. In fact, fluid movements in
pore spaces would provide still much faster transport. The tidal pumping of ground water alone
would be sufficient to distribute bacteria down to 10 km in less than a thousand years. Probably
longer times would have been required to allow for the adaptation to the high temperatures.

The total pore-space available in the land areas of the Earth down to 5 kilometer depth can be
estimated as 2 x 1022 cm3, (taking 3% porosity as an average value). If material of the density
of water fills these pore spaces, then this would represent a mass of 2 x 10 16 tons. What
fraction of this might be bacterial mass? If it were 1% or 2 x1014 tons, it would still be
equivalent to a layer of the order of 1 1/2 meter thickness of living material if spread out over
all of the land surface. This would indeed be more than the existing surface flora and fauna. We
do not know at present how to make a realistic estimate of the subterranean mass of material
now living, but all that can be said is that one must consider it possible that it is comparable to
all the living mass at the surface.
Together with this consideration would go the consideration of the cumulative amount of
chemical activity that could be ascribed to this deep biosphere, and with that the importance it
may have had for the chemical evolution of the crust, the oceans and atmosphere, and the
development of the surface biology.

The remarkable degree of chemical selection leading to concentrated deposits of certain

minerals has long been an enigma. How can processes in the crust lead to the production of a
nugget of gold or a crystal of galena, when the refining process had to concentrate these
materials by a factor of more than 1011 from the original elemental mix? How much of the
concentrated metal minerals found have so far been explained satisfactorily? What energy
sources were available to produce such large local decreases of entropy, and how was the
necessary energy applied? Is this not a field where the complexity of carbon chemistry and
biology, with their ability to be highly selective and to mediate chemical processes, may have
had a much larger share than had previously been thought? It is characteristic, after all, for
biology to generate important local decreases of entropy at the expense of energy absorbed
and entropy rejected elsewhere.

If there exists this deep, hot biosphere, it will become a central item in the discussion of many,
or indeed most, branches of the Earth sciences. How much of the biological imprint of material
in the sediments is due to surface life and how much to life at depth? Do the biological
molecules of petroleum and coal indicate now merely the additions from the deep biosphere to
materials of primordial origin, rather than indicate a biological origin of the bulk of the
substances themselves? *

*Sir Robert Robinson, after studying the composition of natural petroleum, considered this
possibility as likely. He wrote: "Actually it cannot be too strongly emphasized that petroleum
does not present the composition picture expected from modified biogenic products, and all the
arguments from the constituents of ancient oils fit equally well, or better, with the conception
of a primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bio-products have been added" (8). Although
there has been much detailed work since, demonstrating the variety of biological molecules
that exist in most petroleum, none of this can make the distinction between the two opposing
viewpoints. This work was frequently cited to support the bio-origin theory rather than the bio-
addition, as a widespread microbiology at depth was not put under consideration.

Many deductions that are firmly in the geological thinking of the present time may have to be
reconsidered, if there is indeed such an abundance of life at depth.

One cannot discuss these possibilities without connecting them with the questions of the origin
of life. Photosynthesis is an extremely complex process which must lie some considerable way
down on the path of evolution. Energy sources that were simpler to tap had to sustain life for
all the time from its origin to the perfection of the photosynthetic process. Presumably these
were chemical energy sources, provided by the substances of the Earth. Now one will want to
examine whether these were perhaps the same as the chemical energy sources providing the
life in the ocean vents, and possibly the bacterial life in the rocks about which we are
speculating here.

The rocks that have hydrogen, methane and other fluids percolating upwards would seem to be
the most favorable locations for the first generation of self-replicating systems (9). Deep in the
rocks the temperature, pressure, and chemical surroundings are constant for geologically long
periods of time and, therefore, no rapid response to changing circumstances is needed. Ionizing
radiations are low and unchanging. No defense is needed against all the photochemical
changes induced by ultraviolet light or even by the broad spectrum of visible sunlight.

Bacteriologists have speculated that since a large sub-group of archaebacteria - the most
primitive and judged to be the most ancient bacteria - are thermophiles, this may indicate that
primitive life evolved at such high temperatures in the first place (10). If it did, and if the
archaebacteria are the earliest forms of bacteria, evolved at some depth in the rocks, they may
have spread laterally at depth, and they may have evolved and progressed upwards to survive
at lower temperatures nearer the surface. Some combination of lateral spread at depth and
spread over the surface with subsequent re-adaptation to the conditions at depth will have
allowed them to populate all the deep areas that provided suitable conditions to support such
life. Of course now, when the surface is replete with bacteria of all kinds, it may be difficult to
unravel the evolution in each of the domains.

If the deep, hot biosphere of microbial life exists in the rocks as well as at the ocean vents,
what would be the consequences? Could we expect to have seen any evidence already?

Many reports have been published in recent times, describing the discovery of bacteria in deep
locations where they were not expected. The most striking example is the discovery deep in
the granitic rock of Sweden. While drilling to a depth of 6.7 kilometers in an ancient meteorite
impact crater called the "Siljan Ring", very large quantities of a fine-grained magnetite were
encountered. Magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide, exists normally in the granite in the form of
large crystals (~1 millimeter) and at a low mean concentration. What was found was quite
different from this. Grains in the micron size range were found in a thick sludge or paste, with a
liquid binder which was a light oil. This was seen first at a time when the drilling fluid was
water, with only occasional small additions of a plant oil as a lubricant. This sludge contained
oil to the complete exclusion of water, and the oil was largely a simple, light, hydrogen
saturated petroleum, completely different from plant oils. (It is worth noting that no sediments
of any kind had been encountered in the drilling, but only granitic and igneous rock). The
magnetic grains were not only particularly small, but also had a different trace element content
from the coarse magnetite grains in the granite. Neither the magnetite nor the oil had a simple
explanation in terms of the material of the formation or of any of the drilling additives. The
quantities of this sludge found in this first discovery were not small -- 60 kilograms of it filled a
drillpipe to the almost complete exclusion of the water-based drilling fluid. Later a pump
pumped up 15 tons of a similar oil, together with about 12 tons of the magnetite (11). Similar
oil-magnetite pastes have been reported in several other oil drilling operations, and
microorganisms have been identified that mediate the reduction of local ferric iron of the
formation to the lesser oxidized magnetite, using the hydrocarbons as the reducing agent (12-

Later, when oil-based drilling fluid had been in use for several months, it was discovered that
this had become loaded with many tons - at least 15 and possibly 30 - of this fine-grained
magnetite. It became clear that there was a phenomenon that occurred on a large scale, and
that was a major process in the rocks at a depth of between 5.5 and 6.7 kilometers.

It is very difficult to see how concentrations of this material could occur without bacterial
action; and indeed samples of it taken from a depth of 4 km or deeper, have allowed several
strains of previously unknown thermophilic, anaerobic bacteria to be cultured.*

*Dr. U. Szewzyk at the National Bacteriological Laboratory (Sweden) has cultured several
strains of anaerobic, thermophilic bacteria from samples taken below 4,000 m in the Gravberg
borehole , Siljan Ring, Central Sweden. Personal communication. Also Dr. K. Pedersen at the
Department of Marine Biology of the University of Göteborg, reports: "Deep ground water
microbiology in Swedish granitic rock" (15).

It will therefore be worthwhile to search for the presence of microorganisms in many other
deep locations in the rocks where chemical energy is known to be available. The obvious
location for this are the deep oil or gas wells. Bacterial cultures can be attempted from samples
taken with the necessary precautions (maintenance of temperature, pressure, exclusion of
oxygen) and using culturing media similar to the local chemical surroundings at the places of

Although it had often been said that the presence of bacteria in oil can be identified by the
chemical signs of "biodegradation" of that oil, we believe that this is misleading. Oil showing
none of the known signs of "biodegradation" may still be coming from a region rich in bacterial
life, and the oil may still have gained biological molecules from this, without however having
suffered any other changes. The reason for this is that microbial attack at depth is likely to be
limited by the availability of oxygen and not by that of hydrocarbons; and in that case it seems
to be the general rule that bacteria would use first the light hydrocarbons, the molecules from
methane to pentane, before attacking any of the heavier hydrocarbons. If the light
hydrocarbons are present in sufficient quantity to exhaust the locally available oxygen sources
(iron oxides, sulfates, and perhaps other oxides with sufficiently low oxygen binding energy),
then the liquid oils will not suffer any biodegradation. Under these circumstances, which are
probably common at depth in petroleum provinces, oil will then commonly exist with additions
of biomolecules, and yet without any signs of biodegradation. It is the finding of apparently
undegraded oil that nevertheless contained biomolecules, that had been considered as the
most compelling evidence for a biological origin of the oil itself. This consideration would no
longer be valid, and a non-biological origin for the bulk of the terrestrial hydrocarbons, just as
for all the abundant hydrocarbons on the other planetary bodies, then seems probable. This is
one example where the recognition of the existence of abundant micobial life at depth may
change major considerations in geology and geochemistry.

Where we find "biodegraded" oil, it must have been subjected to conditions of greater
availability of oxygen and lesser availability of the hydrocarbon gases; presumably, this occurs
generally nearer the surface where atmospheric oxygen is available in ground-water and where
the concentration of the light hydrocarbons is low, as these are gases at the low ambient

It may be that we shall find a simple general rule to apply: that microbial life exists in all the
locations where microbes can survive; that would mean all the locations that have a chemical
energy supply and that are at a temperature below the maximum one to which microbes can
adapt. There would be no locations on the Earth that have been protected from "infection" for
the long periods of geologic time.

Chemical energy must be available, but it must not be liberated spontaneously without the
intervention of the organisms. That means we have to be concerned with regions in which the
chemical processes that can release energy would not run spontaneously; the temperature
must be below the activation temperature for the reactions, or a set of reactions must be
involved that give out energy on completion, but that require intermediate steps which absorb

Research on the deep microbial life would allow one to judge the extent of it on the Earth, and
with that one can expect to gain an insight into the extent to which microbial activity has
contributed to the chemical evolution of the crust and its various mineral deposits. Prospecting
techniques for minerals and for petroleum may be improved. The derivation of petroleum is a
subject of great economic importance, and new information may profoundly influence the
prospecting techniques and the estimates of the quantities of petroleum and natural gas that
remain to be discovered.

The other planetary bodies in our solar system do not have favorable circumstances for surface
life. The numerous bodies that have solid surfaces all have conditions of atmospheric pressure
and temperature unfavorable for the presence of liquid water. Mars, deemed the least
unfavorable in this respect, has been investigated (by the Viking landers) and no indications of
any biological activity has been found. With this, it seemed that there was little or no chance of
finding any other life in the solar system.

With the possibility of sub-surface life, the outlook is quite different. Many planetary bodies will
have temperature and pressure regimes in their interiors that would allow liquid water to exist.
Hydrocarbons clearly are plentiful not only on all the gaseous major planets, but also on the
solid bodies: the large satellites, numerous asteroids, the planet Pluto, comets and meteorites;
and there is every reason to believe that hydrocarbon compounds were incorporated in all of
the planetary bodies at their formation. The circumstances in the interior of most of the solid
planetary bodies will not be too different from those at a depth of a few kilometers in the Earth.
The depth at which similar pressures and temperatures will be reached will be deeper, as the
bodies are smaller than the Earth; but this fact itself does not constitute any handicap for
microbial life. If in fact such life originated at depth in the Earth, there are at least ten other
planetary bodies in our solar system that would have had a similar chance for originating
microbial life.

Could the space program ever discover this? Is there a possibility of finding life of an
independent origin on some of the other planetary bodies?

We shall have to see whether microorganisms exist at depths on the Moon, on Mars, in the
asteroids, and in the satellites of the major planets. Such investigations may become central to
that great question of the origin of life, and with that they may become a central subject in
future space programs.

There is a chance that an independent origin could indeed be identified by a number of criteria
- the discovery of opposite chiral asymmetries (50-50 chance in case of an independent origin,
while the observation of the same chirality in just one other case would be uninformative); a
different choice of basic molecules, or any of the criteria that have been used to show that all
terrestrial life has one common origin. (Incidentally, as has often been discussed, this does not
imply that there has been only one occurrence leading to an origin of life: if there had been
several, the most successful would have supplanted all others and after that there would be no
possibility for a fresh start in competition with evolved biology.)

It is difficult to foresee at the present time that the space program could proceed to the
sophistication and power to perform very deep drilling operations on distant planets. However,
there are other options. Deep rifts, such as the Valley Marinera on Mars, expose terrain that
was at one time several kilometers below the surface. Samples from there, from the massive
landslides in that valley, could be returned to Earth and analyzed for chemical evidence that
living materials have existed there in the past. Similarly, one may sample lunar craters that
have exposed deep materials fairly late in the lunar history; or deep rifts and young craters on
any of the other solid planetary bodies.

Recognizing that even the seemingly most inhospitable bodies may harbor life, care would now
be necessary to avoid contamination by terrestrial organisms. Manned expeditions, whatever
other difficulties there might be with them, can certainly not be kept sterile, and would
therefore spoil such researches for all future times. Only very clean unmanned space vehicles
going to planetary bodies that have not previously been visited by contaminated vehicles
would qualify to bring back meaningful samples of a biology that resembles that of the Earth.

If life was restricted to the proximity of the surface of planetary bodies, then "panspermia", the
transport of living material through space over astronomical distances, would be very
improbable, as such living material would have to remain viable in a dormant form for very
long times; and in most of the suggested forms of panspermia, it would not be protected
sufficiently well against the cumulative effects of the cosmic rays. Meteoritic impacts could well
have exploded large chunks of rock from one planet and such chunks may have escaped
complete vaporization and excessive heating both during expulsion from one body and
accretion on another. But unless the living organisms were deep inside of a rock, so as to be
shielded by many meters of solids from the cosmic ray bombardment of space, there would be
little chance of transferring functional living materials. Panspermia becomes a much more
realistic possibility if there is abundant life at depth in the planetary bodies. There would have
been a vastly greater number of opportunities for a transfer between planets in earlier epochs,
when the rates of bombardment were much higher than they are now.

Meteorites are being collected at the present time that are thought to have derived from Mars
(16) and indeed are found to contain carbonaceous material. Can one find traces of biological
substances in them?

The surface life on the Earth, based on photosynthesis for its overall energy supply, may be
just one strange branch of life, an adaptation specific to a planet that happened to have such
favorable circumstances on its surface as would occur only very rarely: a favorable
atmosphere, a suitable distance from an illuminating star, a mix of water and rock surface, etc.
The deep, chemically supplied life, however, may be very common in the universe.
Astronomical considerations make it seem probable that planetary-sized, cold bodies have
formed in many locations from the materials of molecular clouds, even in the absence of a
central star, and such objects may be widespread and common in our and in other galaxies. It
is therefore a possibility that they mostly support this or similar forms of life. Panspermia not
only over interplanetary but over interstellar distances would then be a possibility, and it would
take the form of the distribution from one body carrying active living forms for indefinite
periods of time and in a protected environment, to another body capable of supporting similar

There is one further consideration that needs to be mentioned: the upper temperature limit of
bacterial life may well be in the region of 120 to 150 °C. But the availability of chemical energy
sources will go down to much greater depths and much higher temperatures. Many chemical
mixtures will not spontaneously run down to chemical equilibrium until temperatures more in
the neighborhood of a 1000 °C are reached. Therefore, underneath the type of biosphere which
we have discussed here, there will generally lie a large domain that is too hot for the bacterial
life we know, but that is nevertheless capable of supporting other systematic chemical
processing systems that can mediate those energy reactions. Could there be such higher
temperature systems that act in a way similar to life, even if we may not identify them as life?
Perhaps their chemistry would not be based on carbon, like the life forms we know; the element
silicon comes to mind as an element that can also form molecules of some complexity, and
frequently with a higher temperature stability than similar carbon-based molecules. Perhaps
there are chemical systems that lack some of the properties we use in our present definition of
life. Self-replication is a property possessed by simple crystal growth: it is only when self-
replication is associated with an adaptive capability that the complex forms develop that we
identify as life. In the case of unfamiliar circumstances and materials we may fail to recognize
these properties.

There is a lot of distance between plain crystallography and life. It is the bridging of this
distance that forms the central piece of the theories of the origin of life. Should we perhaps
look at this deeper, hotter domain to find the clues? This is a region where the conditions have
remained constant for the longest periods, and where the chemical energy sources have
perhaps been most plentuful. Thermodynamics teaches us that a high degree of organization
can develop only where there is a supply of energy; but we do not yet understand whether the
availability of energy will itself promote the formation of such organized systems.

Cairns-Smith (17), writing about the origin of life, has pointed out that once self-replicating
adaptive systems have formed, they may well adapt gradually and change to a totally different
chemistry. The chemistry of life we now know need not be the one associated with its essential
origin. Thus if a higher temperature life (or pre-life) exists, based on a different chemistry, it
may still have an evolutionary relationship with ours, and one cannot presume to know in which
sense such an evolution may have taken place.


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2. Brooks, J.M., Wiesenburg, D.A., Roberts, H., Carney, R.S., MacDonald, I.R., Fisher, C.R.,
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71, 1772-1773.

3. Haymon, R.M., Koski, R.A., Sinclair, C. (1984) SCIENCE 223,1407-1409.

4. Jones, V. T. and Drozd, R. J.: Bull. (1983) A.A.P.G. 67, 6, 932-952.

5. Kvenvolden, K. (1988) Chem. Geol. 71, 41-51.

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7. Ourisson, G., Albrecht, P. & Rohmer, M. (1984) Sci. Am 251 2.

8. Robinson, R. (1963) Nature (London) 199, 113-114.

9. Corliss, J. B., Baross, J. A., Hoffman, S.E. (1981) in Oceanologica Acta No. SP, p 59-69.

10. Woese, C. R. (1987) Microbial Review 51, 221-271.

11. Gold, T. (1991) Oil and Gas Journal, 89, 76-78.

12. Lovley, D. R., Stolz, J.F., Nord, Jr., G.L., Phillips, E.J.P. (1987) Nature (London) 330, 252-254.

13. Sparks, N. C. H., Mann, S., Bazylinski, D.A., Lovley, D.R., Jannasch, H.W., Frankel, R.B. (1990)
Earth & Plan. Sci. Letters, 98, 14-22.

14. Saunders, D. F., Burson, K. R., & Thompson, C.K. (1990) AAPG 75, 3, 389-408.

15. Pedersen, K. (1989) Deep Ground Water Microbiology in Swedish Granitic Rock (Swed.
Nuclear Fuel Waste Manage. Co., Stockholm), Tech. Rep. 89-23.

16. Wright, I.P., Grady, M.M. & Pillinger, C.T. (1989) Nature (London) 340, 220-222.

17. Cairns-Smith, A. G. (1971) The Life Puzzle. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh.

Return to top of page.

Life on other Planets

Thomas Gold

May 1997

Meteorites have been collected from the ice fields of Antarctica and several of them appear to
have come from Mars. Trace element ratios such as the sequence of noble gases from neon to
xenon, as well as the rather unusual nitrogen isotopic ratio of the Martian atmosphere, are so
specific that it seems very improbable that any other body would match this so closely. Some
of these meteorites contain unoxidized carbon, some of it in the form of hydrocarbons similar
to molecules that are commonly found in petroleum on the Earth. One of the Martian carbon-
bearing meteorites, denoted ALH84001, was analyzed and gave an indication that microbial
activity had taken place in this material. Detailed examination made it seem very improbable
that this evidence was due to contamination in Antarctica, but rather that the biological imprint
had been present in the interior of the stone before it fell to the Earth.

For an object to be shot off from Mars into an orbit that could eventually end on the Earth, a
very large meteorite impact on Mars would have to have been responsible. There are many
large impact craters on Mars, so that this does not seem improbable. But in a large impact,
most of the material excavated and possibly propelled to a high velocity, will have come from a
considerable depth, and the contribution made by surface or near-surface materials is likely to
be a very small one. In that case the past surface conditions on Mars are not significant factors
for the evaluation of the evidence provided by this meteorite.

Mars, like the Earth, will have internal heat sources, and temperatures will be increasing with
depth. Water is so common on planetary bodies that it seems almost certain it will be present
in large quantity also on Mars, and there must then be a depth range in which it is liquid. If the
surface temperature has decreased over geologic times, the depth range of liquid water would
have moved a little lower. The surface itself and a thin layer below are cold, so that any water
coming up from deeper levels would generally not spill over the surface, but freeze in the
rocks. Very little would reach the surface; in contrast to the circumstances on the Earth, where
a surface temperature above the freezing point of water allowed all the ocean water to come
up and spill over the surface. Small amounts of water vapor have indeed been detected in the
Martian atmosphere.

The surface materials will have had a very different chemical history on the Earth as on Mars;
but below the surface there will be somewhat similar materials on the two bodies, as
represented by a mix of the meteorites, the left-over debris of planetary formation.

A comparison of the Martian meteorites with terrestrial sub-surface materials may then be
meaningful. Temperatures and pressures will generally increase with depth, but at different
rates on the different bodies, rates that are not yet known for Mars.

The Widespread Presence of Hydrocarbons in the Solar System and in the Universe

The stability of hydrocarbon molecules against thermal dissociation is greatly increased by

pressure, an effect frequently ignored in the Western petroleum literature. This has been
studied by several thermodynamicists in the USSR., and the conclusion they reached was that
on Earth there could be hydrocarbon molecules at a depth of as much as 300 km, at a
temperature of 1,000°C and a pressure of 100 kilobar. In the Western literature no oils are
expected to exist at deeper levels than 10 km, and hence a supply of petroleum from below
seemed impossible.

Of all the materials in the crust, the hydrocarbons (natural petroleum liquids and gases) appear
to be the carriers of a large fraction of the element carbon, percolating to the surface in
thousands of locations. Once in our oxidizing atmosphere they would rapidly be converted to
CO2. Atmospheric-oceanic CO2, which the plants use for their carbon, would be depleted in a
small fraction of geologic time, chiefly by the deposition of carbonate rocks. A source of carbon
must be provided by the interior of the Earth, throughout all of the time that carbonates have
been laid down, and the geologic record shows this to have occurred in all geologic epochs.

Similar outgassing processes seem to have occurred on many other planetary bodies. Jupiter,
Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have hydrocarbons in their massive atmospheres. Titan, a
satellite of Saturn, has a substantial atmosphere in which the hydrocarbons methane and
ethane seem to play a role similar to that of water on Earth, forming clouds and probably rain,
and as with water here, there must be evaporation from lakes or oceans on Titan to resupply
the clouds. In addition to methane and ethane, a number of other hydrocarbon molecules are
identified spectroscopically, and they are quite similar to the range of molecules in terrestrial
natural petroleum.

Many of the asteroids, the small planetary objects in orbits between Mars and Jupiter, have a
surface reflectance resembling that of solid hydrocarbons. Also, interplanetary dust grains have
been captured and analyzed with great skill and have shown the larger hydrocarbon molecules
[polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] to be present in them. Also, the molecular clouds in the
galaxy, out of which solar systems like ours will have formed, contain carbon, the fourth most
abundant element, largely as hydrocarbons. The meteorites show us a group called
carbonaceous chondrites, containing a few percent of their mass in heavy hydrocarbon

The Hydrocarbon Association with Helium and with Biological Materials

When it was widely believed that natural petroleum had derived from very large deposits of
plant and animal debris in the sedimentary cover of the crust, this seemed to provide the
explanation for the existence of many specifically biological molecules found in all the oils. But
not only biological molecules show a strong association with hydrocarbons, the noble gas
helium is also seen closely associated with hydrocarbons all over the world. All commercial
helium is produced from oil and gas wells. Although the literature contains hundreds of
examples of this association, no mechanism has been suggested that would explain how it
could have arisen.

Helium, being chemically quite inert, could not have been concentrated by plants or by any
chemical action. This association of hydrocarbons with helium and with biological molecules is
seen not only in major oil and gas fields, but also in the seepage of gases in many locations on
the Earth's surface. Why would helium come up preferentially in petroleum-bearing zones?

The only possibility for concentrating helium is a purely mechanical action, a pump. Some
pumping action must have driven helium specifically to the hydrocarbons area. But why and

The only solution to this puzzle that I have been able to see, would require a very deep origin of
the hydrocarbons, a depth of 100 kilometers or more, where the temperature and pressure
would liquefy some components of the solid hydrocarbons that were present in the building
materials of the Earth. Buoyancy forces relative to the higher density rocks would drive these
liquids upwards. On their long pathways through the fractures in the rocks, caused and held
open by the fluid pressure, they would force up helium atoms that constantly accumulate from
the radioactive decay of the widely distributed radioactive elements uranium and thorium. This
pumping action enriches the hydrocarbons with helium. If hydrocarbons are the most abundant
fluids coming up from great depths, then they would be the ones that pump up the most

But if the hydrocarbons come from great depth, they will not be of biological origin (just as they
are not of biological origin on the other planetary bodies mentioned). The explanation of the
biological molecules as coming from plant debris is then not valid. How then can the presence
of biological molecules found in all oils be explained?

The only way I could see of solving this puzzle was to suggest that a widespread microbiology
exists down to moderate depths, including the depths of all oil wells (a depth of about 8 km).
Such microbiology could provide the oils with all the biological molecules that are seen; in fact
several of them can only be produced by microbiology.

The viewpoint that the main components of petroleum formed at depth and without the
intervention of biology, from materials incorporated in the Earth at its formation, has been
vigorously pursued in Russia [Soviet Union] since the days of Mendeleev, who wrote an
important paper on the analysis of petroleum and concluded that it all came from deep down in
the Earth.

Several hundred publications exist that support this viewpoint, some indeed present strong
evidence for it. Sir Robert Robinson, a Nobel Laureate, made detailed studies of natural
petroleum, and he concluded:

Actually it cannot be too strongly emphasized that petroleum does not present
the composition picture expected from modified biogenic products, and all the
arguments from the constituents of ancient oils fit equally well, or better, with
the conception of a primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bio-products have
been added. (1963)

"A primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bio-products have been added" is a good summary
of the position presented here. If there was much microbial life below, and a good food supply
for it, then this might have far-reaching consequences, not only for petroleum geology but also
for many aspects of the evolution of the crust, and possibly for biology and the evolution of life.

These considerations prompted me to write the paper: "THE DEEP, HOT BIOSPHERE", (Proc Nat.
Ac. Sci. July 1992). The microbial life forms involved must then be hyperthermophilic, living at
temperatures up to 120°C, possibly as much as 150°C. And the quantities, in terms of mass or
volume, would have to be comparable with all the surface life we know. This would solve the
sharp paradox that had split petroleum geology into two camps and had stymied progress of
the discussion of the origin of petroleum for many decades.

What Energy Sources Would There be for Such Life?

Microbial life could only flourish if there was a supply of the element carbon and a chemical
energy source, a "food" for them. The heat that surrounds each microbe can supply no energy;
energy can be derived only from the flow of heat from a hot body to a colder one, and the
microbes in the rocks are far too small for any temperature differences across their bodies to
arise. ("You can sit in a hot tub as much as you like, but you will still need to eat.")
Hydrocarbons are a chemical energy source, but only in the presence of oxygen, so that it
becomes possible for the microbiology to mediate the energy-giving process of oxidizing them.
On the surface of the Earth this is easy, the atmosphere provides virtually unlimited amounts of
free oxygen. But where is the oxygen deep down in the pores of the rocks where we find oil?

The rocks contain oxygen in abundance, only most of it is bound too tightly, and it would take
more energy to free this oxygen than could be obtained by the oxidation of the hydrocarbons.
There are just a few commonly occurring substances in the rocks that have sufficiently loosely
bound oxygen to allow the oxidation of hydrocarbons to be an energy source. Highly oxidized
iron is one of them, sulfates (oxidized sulfur compounds) are another. Microorganisms can then
feed on the combination of hydrocarbons with some oxygen they can take off these
substances. One must then expect to see the accumulation at least of the solid end- products
of some or all of these processes in hydrocarbon-rich areas.

Search for Life on Other Planetary Bodies

The search for sub-surface life on other planetary solid bodies such as the Moon, Mars, and
many asteroids and satellites of the major planets, will now become a high priority item in
planetary research. The surface conditions on the other solid planetary bodies are all quite
different from those we have here, where the conditions are remarkably favorable for the
development of surface life. But the sub-surface conditions will be similar to ours on most of
these bodies, though depth dependence of pressure and temperature will be different. The
possibility of developing life in them may then be not too different from the circumstances
here. Hydrocarbons on them are known, and sub-surface liquid water can be expected on many
of them. The rocks will contain some oxidized components that will serve as oxygen donors.
The scene would be set for the existence of microbiology there. The recommendations I made
specifically for Mars (in the paper mentioned above) included the search for evidence of
microbial life in the carbonaceous Martian meteorites that had been found in Antarctica (a
search that is still in progress now). For future interplanetary missions that could return a
sample back to Earth, I thought that it would be best to go to locations where material is
exposed now, that must once have been at some depth. The outstanding case is the floor of
the deep "Vallis Marineris," where massive landslides have exposed material that must once
have been at a depth well into the liquid water domain.

What are the Solid Products of this Microbial Activity?

The liquid or gaseous products will generally escape in short times and would not be
maintained in a small meteorite on a long space flight. Where iron oxides served as the oxygen
donors, the end product will be iron in a less oxidized state in which it is magnetic. Magnetite is
the most common form. A further removal of oxygen, such as the step to metallic iron, requires
more energy than is available in the reaction. Where sulfur oxides were the oxygen donors, one
must expect to see just sulfur or unoxidized sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide or
metal sulfides. The product of the oxidation of the hydrocarbons will be carbon dioxide and
water, and in many rocks this will react with oxides of calcium or magnesium to make solid
carbonates. Those are the carbonate cements that fill up small pore spaces, and must have
been transported by a liquid before precipitating.

Hydrocarbon-rich Areas on Earth

Magnetite and sulfur or metal sulfides are often seen in great concentration in hydrocarbon-rich
areas on Earth, as are carbonate cements that fills cracks and pore spaces in the rocks. The
isotopic composition of their carbon suggests that the ultimate derivation was from the
oxidation of methane. The clearest example of this of which I am aware (but not the first) was
the discovery of many tons of highly concentrated grains of magnetite, together with
isotopically anomalous carbonate cements and with crude oil, all at great depth in two
boreholes in Sweden. From these same boreholes and depths, previously unknown microbes
were sampled and successfully cultured by the Swedish National Bacteriological Laboratory.
These microbes could be cultured only in the circumstances that prevailed at the depth from
which they were collected, namely a temperature of around 60°C and an absence of free
oxygen, making a contamination by surface microbes very improbable. By now many locations
are known in which oil, magnetic iron compounds, sulfides, and carbonate cements are found
together. In regions not bearing hydrocarbons, a close association of these three solids is not

Sub-surface Life on Mars Discovered?

Microbial life on Mars could be dependent on the same processes as we have discussed for sub-
surface life here. Highly oxidized iron is abundant on Mars, and very small-grained magnetite
can then be expected to be one of the accumulated residues of microbial processes; so can iron
sulfide and methane-derived carbonates. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the large
molecules that might remain in a rock that originally contained crude oil but then was exposed
for millions of years to the high vacuum of space. All these substances have been found in the
discovery meteorite, closely packaged to each other, and this by itself would make a strong
case for the microbial interpretation. In addition, there are small objects seen under scanning
electron microscopy that may well be fossils of microbes. While the last item by itself would not
be conclusive evidence, the combination of this together with oil and the three residue
products make a strong case for the microbial explanation. It is true that each step can occur
without biological intervention, but the chance of finding by chance the evidence for all three
solids in a small volume, together with hydrocarbons, seems to be very low. Many terrestrial oil
and gas wells show just such an association (but an association with helium also, which the
meteorite could not have transported through space).

Past Life Fed by Photosynthesis on Mars?

A planetary surface without photosynthesis is in any case inhospitable for life. It is only the
immense energy supply that photosynthesis provides here that may favor surface life over
chemically fed life at depth. In all other respects such as radiation environment, temperature
variation, and evaporation of liquids, the surface is less hospitable than the sub-surface.

It does not seem probable that Mars ever had surface life based on the energy supply of
photosynthesis. Not only would a temperature regime be required that would maintain liquid
water on the surface, but also a sufficient atmospheric pressure would be needed to prevent
rapid evaporation of water and subsequent deposition as ice at the poles. The atmosphere
would also have to be such as to prevent the continual loss of water, through dissociation by
sunlight and the subsequent loss of hydrogen to space. A substantial atmosphere would also be
required to protect the surface from the destructive ionizing radiations from the Sun and from
space, more so because of the absence of a protective magnetic field. The small force of
gravity on Mars is not likely to have maintained a sufficiently massive atmosphere that would
satisfy all these requirements.

Origin of Life: Many Independent Beginnings or Panspermia?

Does microbial life evolve spontaneously in all locations that are favorable (reminiscent of pre-
Pasteur views, but with an enormously longer evolutionary time scale)? Have all such
independent origins of life a similar basic chemistry? Is panspermia, the transportation of living
systems between different host bodies, a real possibility? These will be the important
If on another planetary body we were to find a type of biology that used quite different basic
steps of chemistry, outside the range of the variants we have observed here, then we would
judge this to represent an independent origin (though even then not with complete certainty).
We would then be led to believe that some variants of life arise with high probability in many
other favorable locations. But if we saw life forms with a similar basic chemistry, could we then
make a distinction between panspermia and a very closely parallel evolution? Perhaps our
chemistry is the only one that could work to make functional organisms, so no other would be
found; or perhaps ours is one of a small number of possible ones, and for this reason would be
likely to be discovered elsewhere.

The Significance of Chirality or "Mirror Symmetry"

But even in the cases of a similar chemistry, there would still be a possibility of deciding
between parallel evolution from independent beginnings, and a distribution of life from one
source, such as panspermia would provide. This arises from the property of "chirality," the
symmetry that the right hand has to the left hand, or that a right-handed screw has to a left-
handed one. Chirality implies that an object is different from its mirror image, no matter from
which side you look at it. (Remember, a right-handed screw is a right-handed screw from
whichever side you look at it; but it is seen as a left-handed screw in a mirror.) Two-dimensional
objects do not posses chirality; the outline of the right hand drawn on a sheet of paper will
become the outline of the left hand if observed from the other side of the paper.

In chemistry, molecules can possess chirality if they are composed of four or more atoms. To
visualize this, consider first three atoms, positioned at the corners of a triangle of three
unequal sides. This is necessarily a two dimensional object and cannot possess chirality; it will
look like its mirror image when it is turned over. But if a fourth point is added, out of the plane
of the triangle, and identified by being (say) farther from any of the three points than these are
from each other, then the object possesses chirality: No direction of viewing can make it look
like its mirror image.

Chirality assumes a particular importance in relation to biology. While there are many chiral
molecules in inanimate matter, in each case the two forms are present in equal numbers to
within random statistical expectation. Inanimate chemistry has no preference for the right-
handed or the left-handed form of any molecule. All chemical processes will be accurately the
same in any grouping of different chiral molecules, as they would be for another such grouping
of the same molecules, but with each of the first set replaced by its chiral opposite. Now, it is a
remarkable fact that in all terrestrial biology the molecules that are concerned with the basic
steps of genetics and that determine the construction of next generation of the organism,
represent a choice of one chirality over the opposite one. For example, if you were to select any
one of the chiral amino acid molecules that make up proteins, it will show the same chirality,
whether it comes from a microbe, an insect, a fish, a plant or an elephant. The usual
explanation for this is that there is a common origin of all terrestrial biology; the first
beginnings involved an even chance for the choice of the chirality, but after that all that
followed in all of evolution continued in that same pattern. Possibly this is the right explanation,
but many scientists, including the great chemist Linus Pauling, have expressed doubts whether
a single beginning could have enforced such a strict rule throughout all the diverse branches of
evolution that followed. Perhaps genetic material is transferred occasionally between different
species, so that there is much more interaction and more coherency in the evolution of the
different species than we have yet recognized. If such interaction is beneficial to one or other
of the species, this would tend to enforce a common pattern.

But whatever the correct explanation may be for this remarkable fact, we clearly have a large
example in front of us. For this reason we will be inclined to attribute any observation of a large
asymmetry (non-racemic chiral substances) of this nature that we might find on another
planetary body as arising also from living systems. The search for such an effect will be one
aspect of the search for life on other bodies. Transparent liquids like water or oils have been
very useful for finding biological materials, even in small concentrations, since any such
asymmetry causes plane polarized light to suffer a rotation of its plane of polarization, with the
sense of this rotation depending on the sense of the chiral molecule involved. In the absence of
biological materials no such rotation has been found. Liquids, or liquids derived from their
frozen forms such as ices or bitumens, can be examined for any asymmetry in the content of
chiral molecules. Possibly the massive ice covers of several satellites of major planets are good
candidates for such an examination.

But the examination of chirality also offers the possibility of distinguishing between an origin of
life that is common with ours and one that derived from an independent beginning.

If we found the same basic chemistry in biological molecules of another planetary body as the
one we have here, we would investigate whether the molecules there had the same chirality as
ours. If they had the opposite one, we would immediately know a lot more: We would then
conclude that life, using the same basic chemistry, had a good probability of arising
independently on other bodies that had similar sub-surface conditions as our planet. If,
however, we found the same chirality there, all we could say is that they might derive from the
same evolution as ours, or that an independent origin favoring the same basic chemistry, had
hit (with a 50-50 chance) on the same chirality as ours. Panspermia could be responsible, but
we could not know for sure.

If we repeated such observations on yet another planetary body and obtained the same result,
we would conclude that the probability was beginning to point towards a common origin, since
an independent origin would have given a chance of only one in four of providing the same
sense in three independent cases. The investigations of yet more planetary bodies would then
become essential for resolving the issue.

Galactic Panspermia?

Are there bodies of planetary sizes that exist in abundance in the spaces between the stars?
We would not have discovered them even if they were so numerous that their combined
masses were an appreciable fraction of the total masses of all the stars. Molecular clouds may
well be forming such objects constantly , and only a fraction would come to be associated with
a star. Perhaps the frequent motion of such objects through the outer reaches of our solar
system are the causes of the large perturbations that comets seem to suffer, and that bring
them occasionally into the inner part of the solar system where they become evident to us.
Such objects could contain and maintain for billions of years an active internal microbial life,
just as seems to be the case on the Earth. Panspermia across galactic distances would then be
a possibility, through impacts spalling off pieces like our Martian meteorite, when such an
object had come, perchance, into the vicinity of a planetary system. In this case there would be
no dependence on dormant life for long periods, nor on any long term resistance to the
damage of cosmic rays, two problems that have made other galactic scale panspermia
proposals seem improbable.

The Origin of Life

From the investigation of microbial life on other bodies of our solar system we may then be
able to come closer to an answer to the basic questions of the origin of life. The microbes that
are able to withstand the highest temperatures, and that therefore can live at the deepest
levels, are found to be a very early type, judged by their genetic make-up. This may suggest
that their early appearance and the evolution following them occurred underground, in the
favorable circumstances of having a constant food supply, no problems of temperature
changes, no radiation hazards, and minimal difficulty resulting from the evaporation of water.
The deep life seems to be the best candidate for the early evolution.

It has been said that "nature abhors a vacuum." But what nature also abhors is free energy. All
of biology is just a device for degrading energy available from chemical sources, and on the
surface from the great temperature differential between the hot surface of the Sun and the
cold of space. Perhaps biology is just a branch of thermodynamics, and there is no sudden
beginning of life, but a gradual systematic development towards more and more efficient ways
of degrading energy. The step to photosynthesis was no doubt a difficult one to achieve, and
much evolution must have preceded it. The chemical energy available in a planetary body is
then most likely to have been the first energy source, and surface creatures like the elephants
and the tigers and humans and all, feeding indirectly on solar energy, are just a specific
adaptation of that life to the strangely favorable circumstances on the surface of our planet.


Gold, T. 1993. The origin of methane in the crust of the Earth. In: The Future of Energy Gases,
D. G. Howell (Ed.). USGS Professional Paper 1570. US Government Printing Office, Washington,
890 p.

Gold, T. 1992. The deep, hot biosphere. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 89:6045-6049.

McKay, D.S, et al. 1996. Search for past life on Mars: Possible relic biogenic activity in martian
meteorite ALH84001. Science 273:924-930.

Nikonov, V.F. 1969. Relation of helium to petroleum hydrocarbons. Dokl. Akad. Nauk SSSR,
Earth Sci. Sect. 188:199-201.

Wright, I.P., M.M. Grady, and C.T. Pillinger. 1989. Organic materials in a martian meteorite.
Nature 340:220-222.

Metal Ores and Hydrocarbons

Thomas Gold

June 1994

The association of various metal ore deposits with hydrocarbons is a vast subject, but as yet
very few people have worked on it. Many such associations have been seen, but as people did
not recognize the possibility that hydrocarbons could come up from great depth, they could not
see any reason for these effects. And people do not write papers to say they do not understand
what they see.

The general problems about concentrated mineral deposits are the following:

1.) The Earth formed by the collection of solids, mostly small grains, that had the elements
pretty much mixed up. There may have been some layers that had a little more of this or that,
but except for iron and nickel, there were no "clean" substances in this infall. We judge this
from the great array of meteorites which are samples of the various contributions the Earth
received. Many detailed trace element and isotope ratios show that this is true.

What processes would single out a particular element and cause a deposition in a location
which represents a concentration by a factor of one million or more from the original mix? A
fluid that moved through a large amount of the mix, and picked up in solution the particular
substance, and then shed it from solution as a result of changing circumstances such as
temperature, pressure, ph, or the picking up into the solution of another substance that
decreased the solubility of the first. All attempts at explanation assume processes of this kind
and this seems inevitable. Water is generally considered the basic fluid, usually with aggressive
contaminants like salts. But when it comes to the arithmetic of these processes, there is
frequently serious trouble. Many metals , especially the heavy metals, are just not sufficiently
soluble in brines. or in any aqueous fluids. The excerpt from Krauskopf (appended here) refers
to this difficulty. Many other authors have also noted it.

In my view hydrocarbons come towards the surface from depths between 150 and 300 km.
They therefore leach through a very large amount of rock as they are driven up by buoyancy
forces. Effective leaching requires powerful pumping action to drive fluids though fine pores
and for a large distance: fluids coming up from great depth have of course this advantage. By
comparison surface waters running through some crustal rocks have an incomparably smaller
driving force. The leaching has to be due to fluids that originate at depth, because only those
have the pressure differentials that are required for effective leaching.

2.) Which fluids have the capability to take into solution such substances as heavy metals or
metal compounds?

At high pressures and temperatures many metals will form organometallics, that means
molecules that combine metal atoms with such elements as carbon and hydrogen, possibly
with some nitrogen and oxygen also. Most organometallic compounds are soluble in
hydrocarbon oils. Such oils, being forced through the rocks, will have a chance to combine with
metals in the rocks to make organometallic compounds. In turn those that are soluble in the
oils can then be transported by that same flow. This will be so also for many metals that have
very low solubilities in aqueous liquids.

3.) What process can be so selective that it will deposit one metal ore in one location and
another often nearby? What liquid stream will just leach out copper from the rocks, while
another nearby stream will leach out zinc? Or why platinum here and gold there?

The hydrocarbon flow, on the way up, will make a large array of molecules, in detail depending
on such things as the carbon-hydrogen ratio, the ratio to other elements like nitrogen and
oxygen, the catalytic action of specific minerals in the rocks, and the pressure-temperature
regime it finds on the way. Among those molecules may be a class that is particularly
favourable for forming a particular organometallic compound with one metal, another class
with another. The great diversity of hydrocarbon molecules is thus the reason for the selectivity
in the metal deposits. Certain groups of metals occur in close association, presumably because
there exists a hydrocarbon stream there, and similar hydrocarbons that were abundant in that
location have selected that group because these respond similarly. Thus lead and zinc are
found together, gold and silver, etc.

When these metal-laden streams come nearer to the surface, and reach lower pressures and
temperatures, many of the compounds become unstable (many carbon compounds are stable
at a high pressure only, like diamond). Also bacterial action may destroy them, as the bacteria
will preferentially remove the hydrocarbon components. In this way the naked metal atoms

The close association of gold with carbon is well recorded in the literature. Conventional
wisdom gives no hint of an explanation either for the association with carbon, or even for the
occurrence of metallic gold altogether. It seems that carbon is an essential component in the
laying down of gold. The gold miners of olden days knew this very well, and followed the "black
leader", a trail of carbon black that led frequently to a gold deposit.

It is interesting that the other substance that is commonly associated with gold is silicon
dioxide. Silicon is in the same column, two below carbon, in Mendeleev's table of the elements
and it has very similar properties. It will form oils that are quite similar to hydrocarbon oils, but
frequently with higher thermal stability. I do not know (and possibly no one knows) whether at
high temperatures and pressures, it will form silicon-metallic compounds, analogous to
organometallics. An argument in favour of this would be the occurrence of gold in quartz veins
rather than in quartz deposits, suggesting a common migration path. Mercury, found as the
sulfide cinnabar, is often together with oil and tar.

Many metals will of course make sulfides, if sulfur is available. Thus mercury may come up in a
gas stream as mercury vapor or as dimethyl-mercury, but have enough sulfur to be turned into
cinnabar. It is the same for many other metals, they would not resist being turned into the
sulfide. For mercury it is particularly clear that it has come from great depths, as it is strongly
associated with helium, in particular with helium high in helium-3, which is the marker for
primordial helium, caught in the formation process of the Earth, and not merely derived from
the radioactivity of uranium and thorium.

In the drilling in the Siljan Ring structure in Sweden, large quantities of magnetite were found.
Some twelve tons of a mix of very fine grained magnetite and natural petroleum were pumped
up from one wellbore, and some kilograms of a similar paste were pulled up on the drillstring in
a second hole. At the deeper levels, below 5 km, the magnetite paste impeded the drilling
operation in both holes. It appears that it was this same paste that prevented any substantial
inflow into the wellbores, necessary for any commercial production. Investigations by
laboratories including that of the Danish Geological Survey, showed the oil to be an ordinary
type of crude, somewhat biodegraded. In the second hole no drilling fluids were introduced that
could possibly have resulted in the oils seen.

The origin of such clean, concentrated magnetite and its very small grain size, much of it in the
micron size range, certainly present a puzzle. Moreover the entire Siljan Ring structure
displayed a positive magnetic anomaly, quite accurately centered in the ring. It therefore
seems very likely that this same magnetite paste was the source for the magnetic anomaly,
and that it was present in sufficiently large amount to account for it. If this is considered a
possibility, then one may well wonder whether the various other large magnetite deposits of
Sweden have a similar origin.

The only clues we have about the origin of the Siljan magnetite come from the detailed trace
element and isotope observations of it. Neutron activation analysis (done by the Los Alamos
National Laboratory) showed a substantially different admixture of trace elements from the
local granite or the much larger magnetite grains in it. For example the paste magnetite
contained only 1/30th of the amount of Mg-27 as the magnetic grains of the granite; 1/7th of
the Na-24; but 100 times as much Zn-65 (there is a commercial zinc mine in the region); 10
times as much Ba-131 and Ba-139; less than 1/10th the amount of Nd-148. Several other
equally large differences were found. It does not seem probable that any iron oxide in the local
granite can be the origin of the magnetite paste: no processes are known that could have
separated these elements so sharply. One may therefore consider the possibility that all this
magnetite has been brought up as an organometallic from a totally different chemical domain
such as the mantle. It would be most illuminating to analyze some of the other magnetite
deposits of Sweden for similar anomalies.

From Introduction to Geochemistry, Konrad B. Krauskopt, McGraw Hill, 1982, p. 395.

This is similar to the question we tried to answer in the last section, as to the minimum
concentration of metal in a magmatic gas that would be significant for the formation of ore
deposits. We proceed in the same way, using rough numbers to establish a limit of
reasonableness. Suppose, for example, that an ore solution carried 10-7 g/liter of zinc. To
deposit 1 ton of metal would require a minimum of 1010 cubic meters of solution, approximately
the volume of water carried to the sea each year by the Hudson River (average flow
approximately 10,000 sec-ft). Such a solution traversing a vein at a rate of 10 ft 3/sec could
deposit 1 ton of zinc in a thousand years, provided that all the dissolved zinc precipitates. The
amount of water and the amount of time seem excessive, by comparison with scanty data on
the flow of hot springs and on the geologic times required for the formation of ore bodies. Thus
10-7 g/liter can be taken as an absolute minimum, below which the concentration of metal is too
small to be of interest. For most purposes a somewhat larger figure, say 10 -5 g/liter, is a more
reasonable minimum.

By this criterion the solubility of ZnS is barely high enough to be of interest at a temperature of
200° and a pH as low as 5. The calculated solubilities of the sulfides of some other common
metals (Mn, Fe, Co, Pb) have a similar order of the amounts of metal that can be carried by hot
sulfide solutions seem far too small, except for a few metals under the most favorable assumed
conditions, to account for the origin of ore deposits. This is the long-standing difficulty with the
classical hydrothermal hypothesis.
Thomas Gold (1920 – 2004)
Biographical Information

Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at Cornell University;

founder and for 20 years director of Cornell Center for Radiophysics and Space Research.

Fellow, Royal Society (London)

Member, National Academy of Sciences (US)
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Member, American Philosophical Society
Fellow, American Geophysical Union
Honorary Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge
Gold Medal, Royal Astronomical Society (UK)
Doctor of Science, Cambridge University
Honorary M.A. Harvard University

Previous employment:
John L. Wetherill Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University; Chairman, Department of
Assistant Vice President for Research, Cornell University
Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy, Harvard University
Chief Assistant to British Astronomer Royal
Lecturer in advanced physics, Cambridge University
Radar development work, British Admiralty during World War II

280 publications in various fields of science, including cosmology, mechanism of mammalian

hearing, nature of pulsars as rotating neutron stars, aspects of solar system research, origin of
planetary hydrocarbons. For 7 years a member of the President's Space Science Panel (US).

Invited Lectureships:

Vanuxem Lecture, Princeton University

Welch Lecture, University of Toronto
Milne Lecture, Oxford University