During opening of a new ocean, magma intrudes into the surrounding sedimentary basins. Heat provided by the intrusions matures the host rock, creating metamorphic aureoles potentially releasing large amounts of hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons may migrate to the seafloor in hydrothermal vent complexes in sufficient volumes to trigger global warming, e.g., during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Mound structures at the top of buried hydrothermal vent complexes observed in seismic data off Norway were previously interpreted as sediment volcanoes, and the amount of released hydrocarbon was estimated based on this interpretation. Here, we present new geophysical and geochemical data from the Gulf of California suggesting that such mound structures could in fact be edifices constructed by the growth of black smoker–type chimneys rather than sediment volcanoes. We have evidence for two buried and one active hydrothermal vent systems outside the rift axis. The active vent releases fluids of several hundred degrees Celsius containing abundant methane, mid-ocean ridge basalt–type helium, and precipitating solids up to 300 m high into the water column. Our observations challenge the idea that methane is emitted slowly from rift-related vents. The association of large amounts of methane with hydrothermal fluids that enter the water column at high pressure and temperature provides an efficient mechanism to transport hydrocarbons into the water column and atmosphere, lending support to the hypothesis that rapid climate change such as during the PETM can be triggered by magmatic intrusions into organic-rich sedimentary basins.

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