Wetland Losses Related to Fault Movement and Hydrocarbon Production, Southeastern Texas Coast


  • William A. White
  • Robert A. Morton


Coastal erosion, remote sensing, coastal wetlands, salt marsh, land subsidence


Time series analyses of surface fault activity and nearby hydrocarbon production from the southeastern Texas coast show a high correlation among volume of produced fluids, timing of fault activation, rates of subsidence, and rates of wetland loss. Greater subsidence on the downthrown sides of faults contributes to more frequent flooding and generally wetter conditions, which are commonly reflected by changes in plant communities (e.g., Spartina patens to Spartina alterniflora) or progressive transformation of emergent vegetation to open water. Since the 1930s and 1950s, approximately 5,000 hectares of marsh habitat has been lost as a result of subsidence associated with faulting. Marshes have expanded locally along faults where hydrophytic vegetation has spread into former upland areas.

Fault traces are linear to curvilinear and are visible because elevation differences across fault s alter soil hydrology and vegetation. Fault length s range from 1 to 13.4 km and average 3.8 km. Seventy-five percent of the faults visible on recent aerial photographs are not visible on photographs taken in the 1930's, indicating relatively recent fault movement. At least 80%of the surface faults correlate with  extrapolated subsurface faults; the correlation increases to more than 90% when certain assumptions are made to compensate for mismatches in direction of displacement. Coastal wetlands loss in Texas associated with hydrocarbon extraction will likely increase where production in mature fields is prolonged without fluid reinjection.