Asphalt holds our roads together (somewhat), smells really nice and has more than 100 household uses. And I honestly don’t care one bit about it, at least the kind we use on our streets, walkways and such. But I read some pieces about naturally occurring asphalt ponds and mass extinction causing underwater asphalt volcanoes and suddenly asphalt got a little sexier.
Pitch Lake in Trinidad is the largest deposit of naturally occurring asphalt in the world. Covering almost 40 hectares and reported to be more than 75 feet deep, the lake was “discovered” in 1595 by Sir Walter Raleigh, who used some of the asphalt to seal his pirate ship.
The asphalt has been used for hundreds of years on various local projects and to pave some New York streets as it is very high quality asphalt.
Pitch Lake is located at the intersection of two faults, which forces up oil from a deep deposit. “The lighter elements in the oil evaporated, leaving behind the heavier asphalt. Bacterial action on the asphalt at low pressures creates petroleum in asphalt,” and microbial life has been discovered that lives in this lake, pushing the boundary for where life can exist and thrive to the extreme.
Recently, a chain of underwater asphalt volcanoes were discovered off the coast of California and there are strong indications they were responsible for a mass marine extinction event more than 40,000 years ago. A 600-square-mile dead zone still exists around these volcanoes as some of them are still releasing 40,000-year-old methane.
Researchers at University of California-Santa Barbara discovered these undersea volcanoes, the largest of which rises 20 meters above the seabed. It is the first time that asphalt volcanoes have been identified in the area, though several were discovered first in 2003 in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers say the volcanoes formed as sticky hydrocarbons seeped from the seabed around 40,000 years ago.
It is very possible that Saturn’s moon Titan contains vast seas of liquid hydrocarbons composed much like the asphaltic material in Pitch Lake . These are the first stable bodies of surface liquid found off Earth, and if they are anything like Pitch Lake, they may also contain alien microbial life as well as all the asphalt we could ever need.
Jeff Moore is a data reporter at The Daily Reporter. For more “heavy” asphalt reading, he suggests this article.