Accretion mode of oceanic ridges governed by axial mechanical strength


Oceanic spreading ridges exhibit structural changes as a function of spreading rate, mantle temperature and the balance of tectonic and magmatic accretion. The role that these or other processes have in governing the overall shape of oceanic ridges is unclear. Here, we use laboratory experiments to simulate ridge spreading in colloidal aqueous dispersions whose rheology evolves from purely viscous to elastic and brittle when placed in contact with a saline water solution. We find that ridge shape becomes increasingly linear with spreading rate until reaching a minimum tortuosity. This behaviour is predicted by the axial failure parameter ΠF, a dimensionless number describing the balance of brittle and plastic failure of axial lithosphere. Slow-spreading, fault-dominated and fast-spreading, fluid intrusion-dominated ridges on Earth and in the laboratory are separated by the same critical ΠF value, suggesting that the axial failure mode governs ridge geometry. Values of ΠF can also be calculated for different mantle temperatures and applied to other planets or the early Earth. For higher mantle temperatures during the Archaean, our results preclude the predicted formation of large tectonic plates at high spreading velocity.

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Fig. 1: MORs on Earth.
Fig. 2: MORs in the laboratory.
Fig. 3: Values of LD scaled by Zc relative to the axial failure parameter.
Fig. 4: Spreading rate versus predicted values of ΠF.


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A.L.R.S. was supported by the NSF under the EAR GeoPRISMS programme (grant no. EAR-1456664). E.M. was supported during early phases of this work by NSF grant no. OISE-0757920. The experiments in FAST were supported by grants to A.D. from PNP-INSU and the French ANR ‘PTECTO’ (ANR-09-BLAN-0142). The authors would like to thank M. Behn, and M. Maia for fruitful discussions.

Author information

E.M. and A.D. initiated the project and conceived the experimental procedure. A.L.R.S. and E.M. carried out the laboratory experiments. A.L.R.S. and L.P. measured the fluid’s mechanical properties. A.D. determined the scaling laws. A.A., L.A. and R.P. designed and constructed the experimental apparatus. A.A. wrote the control software. A.L.R.S., E.M. and A.D. treated the data and wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to A. L. R. Sibrant.

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Evolution of a mid-ocean ridge in the laboratory for V = 10 mm min–1

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Sibrant, A.L.R., Mittelstaedt, E., Davaille, A. et al. Accretion mode of oceanic ridges governed by axial mechanical strength. Nature Geosci 11, 274–279 (2018).

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