Crustal Processes of the Mid-Ocean Ridge

Science  03 Jul 1981:
Vol. 213, Issue 4503, pp. 31-40
DOI: 10.1126/science.213.4503.31


Independent geological and geophysical investigations of the Mid-Ocean Ridge system have begun to focus on the nature of the magma chamber system underlying its central axis. Thermal models predict the existence of a steady-state chamber beneath a thin crustal lid ranging in thickness from 2 to 13 kilometers. The only aspect of the system that these models fail to account for is the extremely slow spreading rates. Seismological studies reveal the existence of a low-velocity zone beneath segments of the East Pacific Rise, which is thought to correspond to a chamber system having a half-width of approximately 5 to 10 kilometers. These estimates compare favorably with those derived separately through petrological investigations of deep-sea drilling results, various sampling programs, and field and laboratory studies of ophiolites. The chamber is thought to be wing-shaped and to remain continuously open; it is thought to be fed from the center while simultaneously solidifying at the sides as spreading carries the two halves apart. Progressive fractionation occurs by crystal settling coupled with repeated replenishment and magma mixing in an open steady-state system. Near-bottom studies reveal that the zone of extrusion above the chamber is narrow, but its eruptive history is cyclic in nature, in conflict with the predictions of a steady-state model. On-bottom gravity data at 21°N on the East Pacific Rise reveal a negative gravity anomaly that may be related to the uppermost part of the chamber. The anomaly is only 2 kilometers wide and 1 kilometer below the sea floor. This feature may be associated with a short-term upper magma reservoir. The cyclic volcanic activity is directly related to the active phase of hydrothermal circulation responsible for the observed negative thermal anomaly. The volume of water associated with this circulation is equal to the entire ocean volume passing through the accretion zone approximately every 8 million years. This is about 0.5 percent of the world's rivers, but the effective transport rates of elements are comparable to those of rivers in that anomalies for individual elements are frequently between 100 and 1000 times the average river composition. The degree of subsurface dilution determines the final exit temperature and composition of the hydrothermal fluids, ranging from manganese domination at extreme dilution to iron at intermediate levels to sulfide deposition when low dilution occurs. The discovery of massive sulfide deposits on the East Pacific Rise is destined to have a profound impact on our understanding of ore-forming processes. Whether it will have any economic significance remains to be seen.