18 December 2009

What is the Seafloor Like Under the Gulf of Mexico? Surprisingly, Scientists Know Little

Posted by Michael McFadden

Image from NOAAYesterday I attended a town hall meeting, “Emerging Research Opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico Region.” The purpose of the meeting was to develop cross-disciplinary unification in what are the important tectonic, magmatic, and sedimentological issues in the Gulf.

About 15 people attended the meeting, which I found surprising until I heard an interesting comment from meeting convener Dennis Harry of Colorado State University. “Government funding agencies have ignored the Gulf of Mexico for so long that we don’t really have a community,” he said.

The main issue of discussion involved applying for a grant to study the basin structures of the Gulf of Mexico through NSF’s planned successor to the MARGINS program. MARGINS’ main goal was to understand the complex interactions that govern continental margins, and the successor to that program will likely have the same focus. But how to couch the Gulf of Mexico as a structural region worth studying? “We need to find an element of pizzazz,” said one meeting attendee.  “Something that shows that the region is a good case study for processes found elsewhere but is unique enough to not be passed up in favor of passive margins on the East coast.”

So, what is unique about the region? Meeting participants thought that perhaps they could get funding support if they couched their projects under the framework of what scientists can learn from old rifted margins. Plus, “there is a huge magnetic anomaly in the western Gulf that is not in the eastern Gulf,” Harry said. “Perhaps we can show that the transition along the seafloor from volcanics to non-volcanics is something worth studying? I mean, are we dealing with oceanic or continental crust? We don’t even know.”

I was struck by how everyone agreed that we knew far too little about a region in our own backyard. One attendee lamented that scientists knew more about the East Pacific Rise than they did about seafloor of the Gulf. Another commented that scientists need to break the government stereotype that the Gulf is only about oil exploration. But how to sell the science to the right people?

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer