Channelized fluid flow in oceanic crust reconciles heat-flow and permeability data

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Hydrothermal fluid circulation within the sea floor profoundly influences the physical, chemical and biological state of the crust and the oceans. Circulation within ridge flanks (in crust more than 1 Myr old) results in greater heat loss1,2,3 and fluid flux4 than that at ridge crests and persists for millions of years, thereby altering the composition of the crust and overlying ocean5,6. Fluid flow in oceanic crust is, however, limited by the extent and nature of the rock's permeability7. Here we demonstrate that the global data set of borehole permeability measurements in uppermost oceanic crust7,8,9 defines a trend with age that is consistent with changes in seismic velocity10,11. This trend—which indicates that fluid flow should be greatly reduced in crust older than a few million years—would appear to be inconsistent with heat-flow observations, which on average indicate significant advective heat loss in crust up to 65 Myr old3. But our calculations, based on a lateral flow model, suggest that regional-scale permeabilities are much higher than have been measured in boreholes. These results can be reconciled if most of the fluid flow in the upper crust is channelized through a small volume of rock, influencing the geometry of convection and the nature of fluid–rock interaction.

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Figure 1: Bulk properties within uppermost oceanic crust, and heat loss versus crustal age.
Figure 2: Conceptual model and calculations for lateral fluid flow through upper oceanic crust.


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This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the United States Science Support Program to the Ocean Drilling Program. We thank C. Stein for suggestions, and P. Stauffer, J. Stein and E. Giambalvo for discussions that improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to A. T. Fisher.

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