Instantaneous rock transformations in the deep crust driven by reactive fluid flow


Fluid–rock interactions are a fundamental component of geodynamic processes. They link mass and energy transfer with large-scale tectonic deformation and drive mineral deposit formation, carbon sequestration and rheological changes of the lithosphere. Spatial evidence indicates that fluid–rock interactions operate on length scales that range from the grain boundary to tectonic plates, but the timescales of regional fluid–rock interactions remain essentially unconstrained. Here we present observations from an exceptionally well-exposed fossil hydrothermal system from an ophiolite sequence in northern Norway that we use to inform a multielement advection–diffusion–reaction transport model. We calculated the velocity of the fluid-driven reaction fronts and found that they can propagate at up to 10 cm per year, equivalent to the fastest tectonic plate motion and mid-ocean-ridge spreading rates. Propagation through the low-permeability rocks of the mid-crust is facilitated by a transient, reaction-induced permeability increase. We conclude that large-scale fluid-mediated rock transformations in continental collision and subduction zones occur on timescales of tens of years when reactive fluids are present. We infer that natural carbon sequestration, ore deposit formation and transient and long-term petrophysical changes of the crust proceed instantaneously, from a geological perspective.

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Fig. 1: Characteristic durations and scales of geological processes.
Fig. 2: Ophiolite obduction and alteration.
Fig. 3: Mineral replacement during serpentinite alteration.
Fig. 4: Outcrop lithium isotope distribution and fluid reservoir compositional evolution.

Data availability

The authors declare that all the necessary data supporting the findings of this study are available in the article and its Supplementary Information files. Any further data are available from the corresponding authors upon request.

Code availability

The MATLAB reactive transport code is available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.


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We thank M. Amini, V. Lai and D. Weiss for help with lithium concentration measurements, M. Raudsepp, E. Czech and A. Harrison for the X-ray diffraction analysis, and P. Späthe for the thin-section preparation. This work significantly benefitted from discussions with B. Jamtveit, G. Dipple, A. Putnis and O. Plümper. Fieldwork was supported by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Independent Study Award and by a NASA Astrobiology Institute grant (NNA15BB02A) to M.T. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft financially supported this research through grant JO 349/5–1. Parts of this research were undertaken using electron microscopy instrumentation at the John de Laeter Centre, Curtin University (ARC LE140100150).

Author information

A.B. designed the study, conducted the fieldwork with M.T. and performed the petrography and chemical analyses. T.M. conducted the bulk rock analyses of the lithium concentration and isotopes. A.B., Y.Y.P., J.C.V. and T.J. developed the model and A.B. wrote the manuscript with important contributions from all the co-authors.

Correspondence to A. Beinlich or T. John.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Field relationships in outcrop.

a, The investigated soapstone reaction selvage around a central fracture in serpentinite. The fracture now contains mostly talc together with minor magnesite and dolomite. The red-brown color of the soapstone is caused by a thin (~2 mm) weathering layer. b, Composite image showing details of sample locations along the sampling traverse with respect to the fracture and soapstone–serpentinite reaction interface. Note that this image is not to scale due to distortion effects. Distances between samples and the fracture and reaction front have been measured in the field. The location of the least altered serpentinite sample Lin_31 is outside the image, 2.4 m from the reaction front on the left hand side. The picture was taken during fieldwork 2013 and kindly provided by Harrison Lisabeth.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Local equilibrium thermodynamic model of bulk system composition.

a, Relation between the bulk rock major element composition and pore fluid carbon concentration. b, Measured bulk rock composition of sample Lin_30b (Supplementary Table 2) compared with the modeled bulk rock composition at pore fluid carbon concentration of 0.44 wt%. c, Modeled total mineral abundance variation for the bulk system composition shown in Extended Data Fig. 2a. d, Measured bulk rock phase proportions of sample Lin_30b (Supplementary Table 1) compared with the modeled bulk rock phase proportions at pore fluid carbon concentration of 0.44 wt%.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Modeled system phase composition.

Plots showing the mineral compositional evolution with increasing pore fluid carbon concentration. Note that the model predicts the absence of quartz from the alteration assemblage consistent with the sample composition.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Modeled system component distribution.

Plots showing the modeled distribution of major elements among the mineral phases for different pore fluid carbon concentrations.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Conceptual lithium concentration and isotope ratio evolution of the alteration fluid reservoir.

Incipient carbonation of the lowermost part of the ophiolite upon alteration fluid accumulation below the basal thrust results in lithium isotope release due to replacement of serpentinite by secondary soapstone. The different colors depict distinct time steps from early (t1) to late (t5) and show the lithium concentration and isotope ratio (δ7Li) evolution. Pore fluid from the uppermost part of the basal sedimentary schist laterally drains into ophiolite internal fractures, driving the formation of soapstone alteration selvages (see also Figs. 2b and 4b,c). Lateral fluid advection will have only a small effect on the lithium isotope composition. The model fit to the duration obtained from the carbon reactive transport simulation defines the characteristic diffusion length scale of 11 m and thus constrains the thickness of the drainage layer (y) to ~2.1 m below the basal thrust.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1–4 and Tables 1–4.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Compilation of durations of common geological processes.

Source Data Fig. 3

Measured mineral abundances across the carbonation front (Fig. 3b) and modelled antigorite abundances for different alteration durations (Fig. 3c).

Source Data Fig. 4

Modelled δ7Li fluid composition and measured δ7Li bulk rock composition.

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Beinlich, A., John, T., Vrijmoed, J.C. et al. Instantaneous rock transformations in the deep crust driven by reactive fluid flow. Nat. Geosci. (2020).

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