Letter | Published:

Hybrid shallow on-axis and deep off-axis hydrothermal circulation at fast-spreading ridges

Nature volume 508, pages 508512 (24 April 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Hydrothermal flow at oceanic spreading centres accounts for about ten per cent of all heat flux in the oceans1,2 and controls the thermal structure of young oceanic plates. It also influences ocean and crustal chemistry, provides a basis for chemosynthetic ecosystems, and has formed massive sulphide ore deposits throughout Earth’s history. Despite this, how and under what conditions heat is extracted, in particular from the lower crust, remains largely unclear. Here we present high-resolution, whole-crust, two- and three-dimensional simulations of hydrothermal flow beneath fast-spreading ridges that predict the existence of two interacting flow components, controlled by different physical mechanisms, that merge above the melt lens to feed ridge-centred vent sites. Shallow on-axis flow structures develop owing to the thermodynamic properties of water, whereas deeper off-axis flow is strongly shaped by crustal permeability, particularly the brittle–ductile transition. About 60 per cent of the discharging fluid mass is replenished on-axis by warm (up to 300 degrees Celsius) recharge flow surrounding the hot thermal plumes, and the remaining 40 per cent or so occurs as colder and broader recharge up to several kilometres away from the axis that feeds hot (500–700 degrees Celsius) deep-rooted off-axis flow towards the ridge. Despite its lower contribution to the total mass flux, this deep off-axis flow carries about 70 per cent of the thermal energy released at the ridge axis. This combination of two flow components explains the seismically determined thermal structure of the crust and reconciles previously incompatible models favouring either shallower on-axis3,4,5 or deeper off-axis hydrothermal circulation6,7,8.

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Acknowledgements

We thank reviewers T. Driesner and P. Johnson for comments that led to more insights into hydrothermal energy transport and improved the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. GEOMAR, Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Wischhofstraße 1-3, 24148 Kiel, Germany

    • Jörg Hasenclever
    • , Lars H. Rüpke
    • , Karthik Iyer
    • , Sven Petersen
    •  & Colin W. Devey
  2. Department of Geosciences and Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED), University of Oslo, PO Box 1048, Blindern, 0316 Oslo, Norway

    • Sonja Theissen-Krah
  3. Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK

    • Jason P. Morgan

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Contributions

J.H. and J.P.M. developed the 3D numerical model. J.H. carried out the 3D simulations, did the post-processing and designed the figures. 2D simulations were done by S.T.-K. and J.H. (using the 2D model developed by S.T.-K., L.H.R., K.I. and J.P.M.). J.H. and L.H.R. wrote the initial manuscript, to which J.P.M., S.T.-K., K.I., S.P. and C.W.D. contributed geological and thermodynamic implications. Figures and text were edited and improved by all authors. All authors discussed the results and implications at all stages of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jörg Hasenclever.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13174

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