Abstract

As many as 1,340 small craters per square kilometre cover the sea floor of Norton Sound in the northeastern Bering Sea. The craters are circular pits, 1 to 10 m in diameter and less than 1 m deep, observed on sonographs over 20,000 km2 of northern Norton Sound sea floor. Craters typically are associated with acoustic anomalies, near-surface peaty mud, and gas-charged sediment.

The peaty mud is a thick (>1.5 m), nonmarine pre-Holocene deposit that is now covered by a 1- to 3-m-thick layer of Holocene marine mud in the area of the craters. The peaty mud (2% to 8% organic carbon) contains abundant biogenic methane [C1/(C2 + C3) = 256 to 7,669] with carbon isotope (δ13C) values of −69‰ to −75‰- Decomposition of organic debris in the peaty mud apparently charges the mud with gas. The peaty and gassy zones attenuate sound waves and cause acoustic anomalies on high-resolution seismic profiles in the area with craters.

The craters are forming now, as shown by the disruption of modern ice gouges by the craters. In the absence of storms, the gas apparently is trapped in the peaty mud in a saturated state by the cover of Holocene mud. Periodically, possibly during storms, the gas escapes through the thin Holocene cover and forms craters.

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