Heat flow in the western abyssal plain of the Gulf of Mexico: Implications for thermal evolution of the old oceanic lithosphere

S. Nagihara, J. G. Sclater, J. D. Phillips, E. W. Behrens, T. Lewis, L. A. Lawver, Y. Nakamura, J. Garcia-Abdeslem, A. E. Maxwell

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23 Scopus citations


The seafloor depth of an oceanic basin reflects the average temperature of the lithosphere. Thus the western abyssal plain of the Gulf of Mexico, which has tectonically subsided much (> 1 km) deeper than other basins of comparable ages (late Jurassic), should be underlain by an anomalously cold lithosphere. In order to examine this hypothesis, we made suites of high-accuracy heat flow measurements at 10 sites along a line connecting Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) sites 90 and 91 in the Sigsbee abyssal plain. The new heat flow sites were initially surveyed by 3.5-kHz echo sounding, 4-channel seismic reflection, seismic refraction with eight ocean bottom seismometers, and nine piston cores. We occupied a total of 48 heat flow stations along the seismic survey line (3 to 6 at each site), including 28 where we measured in situ thermal conductivities over the practical depth interval (4 m) of the new multioutrigger bow heat flow probe. We determined the heat flow associated with the lithosphere by correcting the values measured at the seafloor (41 to 45 mW/m2) for (1) the thermal effect of the sedimentation and (2) the additional heat from the radioactive elements within the sediments. The sedimentation history, required for the first, was reconstructed at each heat flow site based on ages and thicknesses of the major seismic stratigraphical sequences, age data from the DSDP cores, 3.5-kHz subbottom reflectors, and correlation of turbidite units found in the piston cores. Radiogenic heat production was measured for 55 sediment samples from four DSDP holes in the gulf, whose age ranged from present to Early Cretaceous (0.83 μW/m3 on the average). This provided the correction for the second. The effects of these two secondary factors approximately cancel one another. The lithospheric heat flow under the abyssal plain thus estimated ranges from 40 to 47 mW/m2. These heat flow values are among the lowest in the Mesozoic ocean basins where highly reliable data (45 to 55 mW/m2) have been reported. Therefore the lithosphere under the gulf seems indeed colder than that under other old ocean basins. However, it is not as cold as expected from the large tectonic subsidence. The inconsistency between the depth and heat flow may imply an anomaly in the regional thermal isostasy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2895-2913
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 10 1996


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