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Seismic identification of along-axis hydrothermal flow on the East Pacific Rise


Hydrothermal circulation at the axis of mid-ocean ridges affects the chemistry of the lithosphere and overlying ocean, supports chemosynthetic biological communities and is responsible for significant heat transfer from the lithosphere to the ocean1,2,3. It is commonly thought that flow in these systems is oriented across the ridge axis, with recharge occurring along off-axis faults4,5,6, but the structure and scale of hydrothermal systems are usually inferred from thermal and geochemical models constrained by the geophysical setting7,8,9, rather than direct observations. The presence of microearthquakes may shed light on hydrothermal pathways by revealing zones of thermal cracking where cold sea water extracts heat from hot crustal rocks, as well as regions where magmatic and tectonic stresses create fractures that increase porosity and permeability. Here we show that hypocentres beneath a well-studied hydrothermal vent field on the East Pacific Rise cluster in a vertical pipe-like zone near a small axial discontinuity, and in a band that lies directly above the axial magma chamber. The location of the shallow pipe-like cluster relative to the distribution and temperature of hydrothermal vents along this section of the ridge suggests that hydrothermal recharge may be concentrated there as a consequence of the permeability generated by tectonic fracturing. Furthermore, we interpret the band of seismicity above the magma chamber as a zone of hydrothermal cracking, which suggests that hydrothermal circulation may be strongly aligned along the ridge axis. We conclude that models that suggest that hydrothermal cells are oriented across-axis, with diffuse off-axis recharge zones, may not apply to the fast-spreading East Pacific Rise.

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Figure 1: Bathymetric site map showing earthquake epicentres.
Figure 2: Along-axis cross-sections of seismicity.
Figure 3: Across-axis cross-sections of seismicity.
Figure 4: Cartoon illustrating proposed hydrothermal cell structure.


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M.T. thanks S. Carbotte for discussions. We thank the captain, crew and science party of the RV Keldysh and RV Atlantis. M.T. thanks J. Cameron, A. M. Sagalevitch, Disney and Walden Media for making initial OBS deployment possible. This work was supported by the NSF.

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Correspondence to M. Tolstoy.

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This file contains Supplementary Discussion; Supplementary Figures 1-7 with Legends and Supplementary Notes. The Supplementary Discussion contains one paragraph discussion of the temporal variability and temperature data shown in Supplementary Figures 4 and 5. The Supplementary Notes contain the grant number that supported the work, and the LDEO contribution number. (PDF 8924 kb)

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Tolstoy, M., Waldhauser, F., Bohnenstiehl, D. et al. Seismic identification of along-axis hydrothermal flow on the East Pacific Rise. Nature 451, 181–184 (2008).

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