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Ocean Asphalt Patch a Deep-Seep Mystery

Scientists exploring the deep sea in the Gulf of Mexico have discovered seeps that resemble a paved road. Seeps are places where oil and other hydrocarbons bubble up from under the seabed. But these seeps, discovered by researchers with Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, are covered in asphalt.

The seeps were found along salt domes that lie about two miles down in the southern Gulf of Mexico. Deep sea cameras revealed about 20 salt domes that had collapsed or broken apart. Along the edges were large patches of asphalt, or hardened tar. Scientists photographed them and took samples; they say the material is similar to asphalt pavement, and was probably squeezed out of the seabed like lava.

Oil seeps have been found in most of the world's oceans, but none with hardened material like this, according to a paper in this week's issue of the journal Science. The scientists also found communities of tube worms, mussels, clams and shrimp living on or near the asphalt. These animals are similar to ones living near deep sea vents, and live off of the chemicals emitted from the vents and seeps.

The asphalt deposits are the result of a violent expulsion of hydrocarbons, and indicate untapped deep-water oil reserves. Scientists had thought the region was relatively stable, but this discovery of underwater "volcanoes" shows "how much more there is to learn about the deep sea," says Texas A&M researcher Ian MacDonald. "The abundance of animal life is more proof of the adaptability of marine organisms."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

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