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Researchers Map Layers of Lava Flows Beneath North Atlantic; New Technique to Further Oil Exploration

Location of seismic profiles across the North Atlantic. Click to enlarge.

Scientists have mapped the layers of once molten rock that lie beneath the North Atlantic Ocean and which measure more than eight miles thick in some locations. The research, reported in the journal Nature, provides a better understanding of what may have happened during the break-up of continents to form new mid-ocean ridges. The same volcanic activity in the North Atlantic may also have caused the subsequent release of massive volumes of greenhouse gases which led to a spike in global temperatures 55 million years ago.

The scientists, led by Professor Robert White, FRS at the University of Cambridge (UK), also developed a new method of seeing through the thick lava flows beneath the seafloor to the sediments and structures beneath. The technique is now being employed to further oil exploration of the area which was previously restricted by the inability to image through the lava flows.

The research was funded by a university-industry research group, which included Cambridge and Liverpool Universities, Schlumberger Cambridge Research Ltd and Badley Geoscience Ltd, with major funding input from WesternGeco, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Department of Trade and Industry, and eight oil companies.

When a continent breaks apart, as Greenland and Northwest Europe did 55 million years ago, it is sometimes accompanied by a massive outburst of volcanic activity due to a hot spot in the mantle that lies beneath the crust of the earth. When the North Atlantic broke open, it produced 1–2 million cubic miles (5–10 million cubic kilometers) of molten rock which extended across 300,000 square miles (one million square kilometers). Most of the volcanic rock is now underwater and buried by more recent sediments. However, the edge of this huge volcanic region is visible on land in a few places including the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

For the first time scientists mapped the huge quantities of molten rock in the North Atlantic. The rock had been injected into the crust of the earth at a depth of 5–10 miles (10–20 kilometers) beneath the surface along the line of the continental breakup 55 million years ago. Using seismic methods, they were able to map the layers of lava flows both near the surface and deep into the earth.

There is a considerable controversy at present as to whether the large scale volcanism was caused by abnormally hot mantle deep in the earth (a hot spot) or whether it was caused by some other means, such as a compositional change in the mantle that mean it could more easily be melted. The researchers demonstrate in this paper that the volcanic activity requires a temperature anomaly, supporting the hot spot model.

Additionally, the scientists hope that a better understanding of what happened 55 million years ago will also provide insight into the changes that occur to the atmosphere and biosphere during volcanic activity.

At the time of the break-up of the North Atlantic 55 million years ago there was a very sudden increase in global temperatures: in fact the earth has never been as hot since then, although the global warming that humans are now causing is likely to take the earth back to the same high temperatures as existed for a short period then.

The increases in global temperatures are thought to have been caused by a massive release of methane from under the seabed – methane is almost 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. A better understanding of volcanism and the underlying hot spot will help us understand how such activity might have triggered the methane release and subsequent global warming.

—Professor Robert White

The researchers’ findings also have implications for oil exploration in the region. Large volumes of oil have already been discovered (and are being extracted) in the sediments under the seabed between the Shetland Islands and the Faroe Islands. If these same sediments extend westward towards the Faroe Islands, as geological models suggest they do, there may be more oil to be found.

Conventional exploration techniques have not been able to penetrate the thick layers of lava flows that poured over them at the time the North Atlantic broke open. Techniques developed in conjunction with the mapping research enable the penetration of the molten rock layer to the sediments and structures that lie beneath them.


  • R. S. White, et. al.; Lower-crustal intrusion on the North Atlantic continental margin; Nature 452, 460-464 (27 March 2008) | DOI: 10.1038/nature06687



Sort of ironic there. Geological research furthering insight into past global warming event to be used for exploration/exploitation of yet untapped oil reserves.

Great sort of choice there.


If we are smart (and the jury is still out on this one) we will use all the renewable energy that we can and save all fossil fuels for the distant future.








All the more reason to counter the drillers with rapid adoption of non-food feedstock biofuels. The technology is available, now a consensus to *implement* is the call to action. Green hesitancy and wavering about absolute efficiencies gives the petros more reason to claim renewables "not ready yet" and justification to drill the entire Northern Hemisphere.

As Al Gore likes to say, "The debate is over!"


With an oil steadily above 100$ there are going to drill any single square feet of this earth, mark my words


Oil, NG, etc. should only be used to make plastic products that at end of life, easily sequester at the local dump.


The faster we can drill the oil out of the ground the better. Everyone should be able to afford a V8 powered 4x4.


so how much methane was released?.. if we can figure that out it would be good to validate the models.. that is desperately needed.


There are methane clathrates that just lie off the coasts of the continents created from the presence of methane and the pressure and temperature. Some estimates put it at about 3 times the equivalent of oil in terms of barrels of oil equivalent.

Clathrates can release methane from pressures changes and seaquakes to warming aka global warming.

In an global warming event, the oceans would stagnate and an anoxic events would take place. Temperatures would rise in the oceans. Eventually a point would be reached where the methane would be released in certain parts of the world creating massive positive feedback. As the oceans turn anoxic, sulfer algae become dominent as things start dying off. As the oceans fill up with dead things, the carbon is sequestered. In swallow seas, this is the process by which some geologists believe that oil reserves got created. As the carbon levels go down, the greenhouse effect is lowered. Life gets to evolve again.

This scenario is believed to have been part of what happened in the Permanian extinction event. That combined with some massive volcanism events led to a massive die off of life in the oceans as well as the land. It may have had a role in other extinction events as well like the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Anoxic events are believed to be triggered at CO2 levels 3 times the pre-industrial co2 levels.

Harvey D


It is difficult to agree on what was the pre-industrial CO2 level. Many Ice core specialists believe that the average was 278 ppm with an increase of only 7 ppm between 800 AD and 1800 AD but others found much wider variations of 160 ppm to 700 ppm.

Assuming that 278 ppm is about correct; that the present level is about 384 ppm and that the yearly increase since 1958 is about 1.5 ppm; it would take about 370 years to triple from 278 ppm to 834 ppm. That should happen in (1958 + 370) = year 2328. Our 4-year politicians will have a hard time selling this one.


Harvey D,

The addition of carbon to the atmosphere is not exactly linear due to increasing industrialization and to the degradation of sinks. I doubt very much that at the present rate of increases it would take until 2328. It would most likely be far sooner. Russian/American scientists have estimated for example that the permafrost contains about 1000 Gt of stored CO2. Can't remember if it was the equivalent amount from methane or it's actually the amount of carbon but it's still a staggering amount. And it wouldn't take alot to unlock that.

Anyway the amounts of CO2 that I remember that anoxic events have taken place is in 900 range which was said to be about triple the pre-industrial. Exact figures were not given.


From what I understand, it is the rate of change that is the big thing. We are taking carbon that was put away over a long period and releasing it again in a very short period. If the tundra and permafrost thaw and give off CO2 and methane, it will be even faster.

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