Thermohaline convection associated with salt domes has the potential to drive significant fluid flow and mass and heat transport in continental margins, but previous studies of fluid flow associated with salt structures have focused on continental settings or deep flow systems of importance to petroleum exploration. Motivated by recent geophysical and geochemical observations that suggest a convective pattern to near-seafloor pore fluid flow in the northern Gulf of Mexico (GoMex), we devise numerical models that fully couple thermal and chemical processes to quantify the effects of salt geometry and seafloor relief on fluid flow beneath the seafloor. Steady-state models that ignore halite dissolution demonstrate that seafloor relief plays an important role in the evolution of shallow geothermal convection cells and that salt at depth can contribute a thermal component to this convection. The inclusion of faults causes significant, but highly localized, increases in flow rates at seafloor discharge zones. Transient models that include halite dissolution show the evolution of flow during brine formation from early salt-driven convection to later geothermal convection, characteristics of which are controlled by the interplay of seafloor relief and salt geometry. Predicted flow rates are on the order of a few millimeters per year or less for homogeneous sediments with a permeability of 10−15 m2, comparable to compaction-driven flow rates. Sediment permeabilities likely fall below 10−15 m2 at depth in the GoMex basin, but such thermohaline convection can drive pervasive mass transport across the seafloor, affecting sediment diagenesis in shallow sediments. In more permeable settings, such flow could affect methane hydrate stability, seafloor chemosynthetic communities, and the longevity of fluid seeps.
Additional publication details
Salt tectonics and shallow subseafloor fluid convection: Models of coupled fluid-heat-salt transport
Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center