Marine Cold Seeps: Background and Recent Advances

  • Erwin SuessEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology book series (HHLM)


Marine cold seeps are windows into different depth levels of the submerged geosphere. Subduction zones and organic-rich passive margins host most of the world’s cold seeps. The source of seep fluids ranges from 10s of meters (groundwater aquifers) to 10s of km (subducted oceanic plates) below the seafloor. Seeps transport dissolved and gaseous compounds upward and sustain oasis-type ecosystems at the seafloor. Hereby the single most important reaction is anoxic oxidation of methane (AOM) by Archaea. Subsequent reactions involve sulfur biogeochemistry and carbonate mineral precipitation generating an association of methane, metazoans, microbes, and minerals – a biogeochemical footprint. Currently 100s of cold seeps are known globally. Elucidating function, structure, and composition of the characteristic association are high-priority topics of cold seep research. Ancient seep sites are identified with increasing frequency as the libraries of biomarkers and fossilized microbial bodies grow aided by their fortuitous preservation as they become encased in carbonate precipitates. Seep footprints provide clues as to source depth, fluid-sediment/rock interaction during ascent, lifetime, and cyclicity of seepage events. The Gulf of Mexico, the Black Sea, and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea are sites of classic and ongoing seep studies.



This contribution is an expanded and updated version of earlier publications (Suess 2010, 2014) by Springer Science+Business Media New York, 2003. I thank editors and publication staff for permission to use these previously published materials from which all illustrations are updated and/or redrawn to accommodate major advances in marine cold seep research. One last time, many thanks to Zona Bolton-Suess who helped – not just with the intricacies of the English language – but provided encouragement, genuine interest, and sustained support in my scientific pursuits. I acknowledge the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, for the courtesy appointment extended to me and the associated use of facilities.


  1. Beal EJ, House CH, Orphan VJ (2009) Manganese- and iron-dependent marine methane oxidation. Science 325:184–187CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Boetius A et al (2000) A marine consortium apparently mediating anaerobic oxidation of methane. Nature 407:623–626CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bohrmann G, Jørgensen BB (eds) (2010) Proceeding of the 9th international conferences on gas in marine sediments. Geo-Mar Lett 30(3/4)Google Scholar
  4. Bohrmann G, Greinert J, Suess E, Torres ME (1998) Authigenic carbonates from the Cascadia subduction zone and their relation to gas hydrate stability. Geology 26:647–650CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brazelton et al (2010) Archaea and bacteria with surprising micro-diversity show shifts in dominance over 1,000-year time scales in hydrothermal chimneys. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107(4):1612–1617CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Buerk D, Klaucke I, Sahling H, Weinrebe W (2010) Morpho-acoustic variability of cold seeps on the continental slope offshore Nicaragua: result of fluid flow interaction with sedimentary processes. Mar Geol 275:53–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Campbell KA (2006) Hydrocarbon seep and hydrothermal vent palaeo-environments: past developments and future research directions. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 232:362–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Capozzi R, Negri A, Reitner J, Taviani M (eds) (2015) Carbonate conduits linked to hydrocarbon-enriched fluid escape. Mar Pet Geol 66(3):497–652Google Scholar
  9. Crémière A, Bayon G, Ponzevera E, Pierre C (2013) Paleo-environmental controls on cold seep carbonate authigenesis in the sea of Marmara. Earth Planet Sci Lett 376:200–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Crémière A et al (2016) Timescales of methane seepage on the Norwegian margin following collapse of the Scandinavian ice sheet. Nat Commun 7:11509. Scholar
  11. Dählmann A, de Lange G (2003) Fluid-sediment interactions at eassten Mediterranean mud volcanoes: a stable isotope study from ODP leg 160. Earth Planet Sci Lett 212:377–391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. De Batist M, Khlystov O (eds) (2012) Proceedings of the 10th international conference on gas in marine sediments. Listvyanka. Geo-Mar Lett SI 32(5/6)Google Scholar
  13. Derkachev AN et al (2015) Manifestation of carbonate–barite mineralization around methane seeps in the sea of Okhotsk (western slope of Kuril Basin). Oceanology 55(3):390–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dijkstra N, Slomp CP, Behrends T (2016) Vivianite is a key sink for phosphorus in sediments of the landsort deep, an intermittently anoxic deep basin in the Baltic Sea. Chem Geol 438:58–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dupré S et al (2015) Tectonic and sedimentary controls on widespread gas emissions in the sea of Marmara: results from systematic, shipborne multibeam echo sounder water column imaging. J Geophys Res Solid Earth.
  16. Egger M et al (2015) Iron-mediated anaerobic oxidation of methane in brackish coastal sediments. Environ Sci Technol 49:277–283CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Feng D, Chen D (2015) Authigenic carbonates from an active cold seep of the northern South China Sea: new insights into fluid sources and past seepage activity. Deep-Sea Res II 122:74–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Feng D et al (2010) U-Th dating of cold-seep carbonates: an initial comparison. Deep Sea Res II 57:2055–2060CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Feng D et al (2016) A carbonate-based proxy for sulfate-driven anaerobic oxidation of methane. Geology 44:999–1002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fouchet et al (2009) Structure and diversity of cold seep ecosystems. Oceanography 22:92–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Freundt A et al (2014) Volatile (H2O, CO2, Cl, S) budget of the central American subduction zone. Int J Earth Sci 103:2101–2127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gallardo AH, Marui A (2006) Submarine groundwater discharge: an outlook of recent advances and current knowledge. Geo-Mar Lett 26:102–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Greinert J, Bialas J, Lewis K, Suess E (eds) (2010) Methane seeps at the Hikurangi margin, New Zealand. Mar Geol 272.
  24. Han X et al (2008) Jiulong methane reef: microbial mediation of seep carbonates in the South China Sea. Mar Geol 249:243–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Han X et al (2014) Methane release events and environmental conditions at the upper continental slope of the South China Sea: constraints from seep carbonates. Int J Earth Sci 103:1873–1887CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Heeschen KU et al (2011) Quantifying in-situ gas hydrates at active seep sites in the eastern Black Sea using pressure coring technique. Biogeosciences 8:3555–3565CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hensen C et al (2015) Strike-slip faults mediate the rise of crustal-derived fluids and mud volcanism in the deep sea. Geology 43:339–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Himmler T et al (2016) Seep-carbonate lamination controlled by cyclic particle flux. Nature Sci Rpt 6:37439. Scholar
  29. Hüpers A, Kopf AJ (2012) Effect of smectite dehydration on pore water geochemistry in the shallow subduction zone: an experimental approach. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 13. ISSN: 1525-2027
  30. James RH et al (2016) Effects of climate change on methane emissions from seafloor sediments in the Arctic Ocean: a review. Limnol Oceanogr 61:S283–S299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Judd AG, Hovland M (2007) Submarine fluid flow, the impact on geology, biology, and the marine environment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, pp 475Google Scholar
  32. Kastner M et al (2014) Fluid origins, thermal regimes, and fluid and solute fluxes in the fore-arc of subduction zones. In: Stein R et al (eds) Developments in Marine Geology, vol 7. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 671–733Google Scholar
  33. Kelemen PB (2011) Rates and mechanisms of mineral carbonation in peridotite: natural processes and recipes for enhanced, in situ CO2 capture and storage. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 39:545–576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kelley DS et al (2005) A serpentinite-hosted ecosystem: the Lost City hydrothermal field. Science 307:1428–1434CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Klaucke I et al (2012) Sidescan sonar imagery of widespread fossil and active cold seeps along the central Chilean continental margin. Geo-Mar Lett 32:489–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Koch S et al (2015) Gas-controlled seafloor doming. Geology 43(7):571–574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Krause S et al (2012) Microbial nucleation of Mg-rich dolomite in exopolymeric substances under anoxic modern seawater salinity: new insight into an old enigma. Geology 40(7):587–590CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kutterolf S et al (2008) Lifetime and cyclicity of fluid venting at forearc mound structures determined by tephrostratigraphy and radiometric dating of authigenic carbonates. Geology 36:707–710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Leefmann T (2008) Miniaturized biosignature analysis reveals implications for the formation of cold seep carbonates at hydrate ridge (off Oregon USA). Biogeosciences 5:731–738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Liebetrau V et al (2014) Authigenic carbonate archives of mound and slide related fluid venting at the central American Forearc: geochemical and mineralogical insights. Int J Earth Sci 103:1845–1872CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lu Y et al (2015) Cold seep status archived in authigenic carbonates: mineralogical and isotopic evidence from northern South China Sea. Deep Sea Res II 122:95–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Matsumoto R, Borowski WS (2000) Gas hydrate estimates from newly determined oxygen isotopic fractionation αGH-IW and δ18O anomalies of the interstitial waters: leg 164, Blake Ridge. In: Paull CK, Matsumoto R, Wallace PJ, Dillon WP (eds) Proceedings of the Ocean Drilling Program, vol 164 Scientific Results, Texas A&M University, College Station TX, pp 59–66Google Scholar
  43. Meschede M (2003) The Costa Rica convergent margin: a textbook example for the process of subduction erosion. N Jb Geol Paläont Abh 230:409–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Monnin C et al (2014) Fluid chemistry of the low temperature hyper-alkaline hydrothermal system of Prony Bay (New Caledonia). Biogeosciences 11:5687–5706. Scholar
  45. Moore GF et al (2007) Three-dimensional splay fault geometry and implications for tsunami generation. Science 318:1128–1131CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Mottl MJ et al (2004) Chemistry of springs across the Mariana forearc shows progressive devolatilization of the subducting plate. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68:4915–4933CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Naudts L et al (2006) Geological and morphological setting of 2778 methane seeps in the Dnepr paleo-delta, northwestern Black Sea. Mar Geol 227:177–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Olu-Le et al (2004) Cold seep communities in the deep eastern Mediterranean Sea: composition, symbiosis and spatial distribution on mud volcanoes. Deep Sea Res I 51:1915–1936CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Palandri JL, Reed MD (2004) Geochemical models of metasomatism in ultramafic systems: Serpentinization, rodingitization, and sea floor carbonate chimney precipitation. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68(5):1115–1133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pape T et al (2008) Marine methane biogeochemistry of the Black Sea: a review. In: Dilek Y, Furnes H, Muehlenbachs K (eds) Links between geological processes, microbial activities and evolution of life, vol 4. Springer, Berlin. Heidelberg New York, pp 281–311. ISBN: 978-1-4020-8305-1 (Print) 978-1-4020-8306-8 (Online)Google Scholar
  51. Peckmann J, Geodert JL (eds) (2005) Geobiology of ancient and modern methane-seeps. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimat Palaeoecol 227 (special issue)Google Scholar
  52. Phrampus BJ, Hornbach MJ (2012) Recent changes to the Gulf stream causing widespread gas hydrate destabilization. Nature 290:527–530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Pierre C, Mascle J, Imbert P (eds) (2014) Contributions from the 11th international conferencs on gas in marine sediments. Nice 2011, Geo-Mar Lett 34 (2/3)Google Scholar
  54. Postec A et al (2015) Microbial diversity in a submarine carbonate edifice from the serpentinizing hydrothermal system of the Prony Bay (New Caledonia) over a 6-year period. Front Microbiol 6:857–876. Scholar
  55. Prouty NG et al (2016) Insights into methane dynamics from analysis of authigenic carbonates and chemosynthetic mussels at newly-discovered Atlantic Margin seeps. Earth Planet Sci Lett 449:332–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ranero CR, von Huene R (2000) Subduction erosion along the middle America convergent margin. Nature 404:748–752CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Ranero CR et al (2008) Hydrogeological system of erosional convergent margins and its influence on tectonics and interplate seismogenesis. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 9(3). Scholar
  58. Rehder G et al. (2009) Controls on methane bubble dissolution inside and outside the hydrate stability field from open ocean field experiments and numerical modeling. Mar Chem.
  59. Riedinger N et al (2014) An inorganic geochemical argument for coupled anaerobic oxidation of methane and iron reduction in marine sediments. Geobiology.
  60. Roberts HR (ed) (2010) Gulf of Mexico cold seeps. Deep Sea Res II 57(21/23):1835–2060Google Scholar
  61. Rodellas V et al (2017) Using the radium quartet to quantify submarine groundwater discharge and pore water exchange. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 196:58–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Römer M et al (2014) First evidence of widespread active methane seepage in the Southern Ocean, off the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. Earth Planet Sci Lett 403:166–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rossel PE et al (2011) Factors controlling the distribution of anaerobic methanotrophic communities in marine environments: evidence from intact polar membrane lipids. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 75:164–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rüpke LH, Phipps-Morgan J, Hort M, Connolly JAD (2004) Serpentine and the subduction zone water cycle. Earth Planet Sci Lett 223:17–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Saffer DM, Kopf AJ (2016) Boron desorption and fractionation in subduction zone Fore Arcs: implications for the sources and transport of deep fluids. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 17:4992–5008CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Sahling H et al (2016) Massive asphalt deposits, oil seepage, and gas venting support abundant chemosynthetic communities at the Campeche Knolls, southern Gulf of Mexico. Biogeosciences 13:4491–4512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Sassen R et al (2004) Free hydrocarbon gas, gas hydrate and authigenic minerals in chemosynthetic communities of the northern Gulf of Mexico continental slope: relation to microbial process. Chem Geol 205:195–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Schneider von Deimling J et al (2011) Quantification of seep-related methane gas emissions at Tommeliten, North Sea. Cont Shelf Res 31:867–878CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Schoell DW, von Huene R (2007) Crustal recycling at modern subduction zones applied to the past -issues of growth and preservation of continental basement crust, mantle geochemistry, and supercontinent reconstruction. Geol Soc America Mem 200:9–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Shakhova N et al (2015) The East Siberian Arctic Shelf: towards further assessment of permafrost-related methane fluxes and role of sea ice. Phil Trans R Soc A 373:2014.0451. Scholar
  71. Shakirov RB et al (2005) Classification of anomalous methane fields in the Sea of Okhotsk. Polar Meteorol Glaciol 90:50–56Google Scholar
  72. Shank TM et al (2011) Exploration of the Anaximander mud volcanoes. In: Bell KLC, Fuller A (eds) New frontiers in ocean exploration. Oceanography 24:22–23Google Scholar
  73. Sivan O et al (2014) Iron oxides stimulate sulfate-driven anaerobic methane oxidation in seeps. Proc Natl Acad Sci 111:4139–4147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Skarke A (2014) Widespread methane leakage from the sea floor on the northern US Atlantic margin. Nature Geosci 7:657–661CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. van der Straaten F et al (2012) Tracing the effects of high-pressure metasomatic fluids and seawater alteration in blueschist-facies overprinted eclogites: implications for subduction channel processes. Chem Geol 292/293:69–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Suess E (2010) Marine cold seeps. In: Timmis KN (ed) Handbook of hydrocarbon and lipid microbiology, vol 1(Part 3). Springer, pp 187–203. Scholar
  77. Suess E (2014) Marine cold seeps and their manifestations: geological control, biogeochemical criteria and environmental conditions. Intl J Earth Sci 103:1889–1916CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Teichert BMA et al (2003) U-Th systematics and ages of authigenic carbonates from hydrate ridge, Cascadia margin: recorders of fluid flow variations. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 67:3845–3857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Teichert BMA, Bohrmann G, Suess E (2005) Chemoherms on hydrate ridge – unique microbially-mediated carbonate build-ups growing into the water column. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 227:67–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Tong HP et al (2013) Authigenic carbonates from seeps on the northern continental slope of the South China Sea: new insights into fluid sources and geochronology. Mar Petrol Geol 43:260–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Tong HP et al (2016) Diagenetic alteration affecting δ18O, δ13C and 87Sr/86Sr signatures of carbonates: a case study on cretaceous seep deposits from Yarlung-Zangbo Suture Zone, Tibet, China. Chem Geol 444:71–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Vanreusel A et al (2009) Biodiversity of cold seep ecosystems along the European margins. Oceanography 22:110–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wallmann K et al. (2018) Gas hydrate dissociation off Svalbard induced by isostatic rebound rather than global warming. Nat. Commu 9:83.
  84. Watanabe Y et al (2008) U-Th dating of carbonate nodules from methane seeps off Joetsu, eastern margin of Japan Sea. Earth Planet Sci Lett 272:89–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Weber TC et al (2014) Acoustic estimates of methane gas flux from the seabed in a 6000 km2 region in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 15:1911–1925. Scholar
  86. Westbrook GK, Reston TJ (2002) The accretionary complex of the Mediterranean ridge: tectonics, fluid flow and the formation of brine lakes – an introduction. Mar Geol 186:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Westbrook GK et al (1995) Three brine lakes discovered in the seafloor of the eastern Mediterranean. EOS Trans Am Geophys Union 76:313–318Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marine BiogeochemistryGEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research KielKielGermany
  2. 2.College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

Personalised recommendations