Alexandra M Padilla –
Thomas C Weber –
University of New Hampshire
24 Colovos Road
Durham, NH, 03824

Frank Kinnaman –
David L Valentine –
University of California – Santa Barbara
Webb Hall
Santa Barbara, CA, 93106

Popular version of paper 2aAO5
Presented Wednesday morning, June 9, 2021
180th ASA Meeting, Acoustics in Focus

Researchers have been studying the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, in the form of bubbles from different regions of the ocean’s seafloor for decades to understand its impact on global climate change and ocean acidification (Kessler, 2014). One region, the Coal Oil Point (COP) seep field, is a well-studied natural hydrocarbon (e.g., oil droplets and methane gas bubbles) seep site, known for its prolific hydrocarbon activity (Figure 1; Hornafius et al., 1999). Researchers that have studied the COP seep field have observed both spatial and temporal changes in the gas flow in the area, that has been thought to be linked to external processes such as tides (Boles et al., 2001) and offshore oil production from oil rigs within the seep field (Quigley et al., 1999).

Figure 1. Video of methane gas bubbles rising through the ocean’s water column within the COP seep field.

In recent years, an oil platform within the COP seep field, known as Platform Holly, has become inactive and decommissioned, and there has been a resurgence in natural hydrocarbon seepage activity in the vicinity of the platform based on anecdotal observations. This led a group  from UNH and UCSB to map the hydrocarbon activity in the COP seep field (Padilla et al., 2019), where we were able to identify a large patch of high seepage activity near Platform Holly (Figure 2). The shut-in at Platform Holly provided us with the opportunity to deploy a long-term acoustic monitoring system to study both the spatial and temporal changes in hydrocarbon gas flow in the region and to assess how it is affected by external processes.

Figure 2. a) Acoustic map of natural hydrocarbon activity within the COP seep field (Padilla et al., 2019). b) Zoomed in acoustic map near Platform Holly. c) Image of Platform Holly.

We mounted a split-beam echosounder, at a depth of approximately 8 m  below the sea surface, on one of Platform Holly’s cross beams. The echosounder was programmed to emit an acoustic signal every 10 seconds and has been collecting acoustic data since early September 2019, providing us with more than a year’s worth of acoustic data to process and analyze (Figure 3). The acoustic signal emitted by the echosounder interacts with scatterers in the water column, mostly methane gas bubbles in our case, and measures the target strength of these scatterers. The target strength represents how strong a scatterer scatters sound back towards the echosounder (for more information of acoustics and gas bubbles, see article by Weber, 2016).

Figure 3. Acoustic observations of hydrocarbon activity (ranges between 10-140 m) west of Platform Holly as a function of range from the echosounder and time. Warm and cool colors represent high and low target strength, which correspond, roughly, to high and low seepage activity, respectively.

The acoustic measurements, shown in Figure 3, indicate that there are temporal changes in the location and the target strength of the hydrocarbons in the region; however, it does not tell us how the amount of gas flow of these hydrocarbons is changing with time. Exploiting the split-beam capability of the echosounder, allowed us to track the position of scatterers in the acoustic data, so we can identify and classify different hydrocarbon structure types (Figure 4) and use the appropriate mathematical equations to convert acoustic measurements into gas flow. This will allow us to track changes in gas flow of hydrocarbons near Platform Holly and learn more about how gas flow is affected by external processing, like tides, storms, and earthquakes.

Figure 4. a) Acoustic observations of hydrocarbon activity. b) Acoustic classification map of different hydrocarbon structure types.

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