Lava erupts into cold sea water on the ocean floor at mid-ocean ridges (at depths of 2,500 m and greater), and the resulting flows make up the upper part of the global oceanic crust1. Interactions between heated sea water and molten basaltic lava could exert significant control on the dynamics of lava flows and on their chemistry. But it has been thought that heating sea water at pressures of several hundred bars cannot produce significant amounts of vapour2,3,4,5 and that a thick crust of chilled glass on the exterior of lava flows minimizes the interaction of lava with sea water. Here we present evidence to the contrary, and show that bubbles of vaporized sea water often rise through the base of lava flows and collect beneath the chilled upper crust. These bubbles of steam at magmatic temperatures may interact both chemically and physically with flowing lava, which could influence our understanding of deep-sea volcanic processes and oceanic crustal construction more generally6. We infer that vapour formation plays an important role in creating the collapse features that characterize much of the upper oceanic crust and may accordingly contribute to the measured low seismic velocities in this layer.
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We thank the Deep Submergence Operations Group, and Alvin and R/V Atlantis crews at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for assistance in collecting these data. We also thank I. Jonasson for pointing out similar features on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. M. Smith, W. Chadwick, D. Clague, T. Gregg, M. Tivey and S. Humphris provided discussions and comments on the manuscript. J. E. Dixon and J. Fink provided reviews. J.R.C. was supported in part by internal funds of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. W.I.R. publishes with permission of the Director, US Geological Survey. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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