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Alteration of the oceanic lithosphere and its implications for seafloor processes

Wolfgang Bach1 and Gretchen L. Früh-Green2

Three-quarters of the global magmatism and 1/4th of the global heat loss are

associated with tectono-magmatic and hydrothermal processes governing ocean

lithosphere accretion and its aging from ridge to trench. Hydrothermal reactions

between seawater and oceanic lithosphere under zeolite- to granulite-facies

conditions are linked with magmatic and deformation processes but differ in

nature relative to spreading rates. Fast spreading ridges with frequent eruptions

have telescoped metamorphic gradients and short-lived hydrothermal systems.

The less magmatically-robust slow-spreading ridges are commonly cut by

normal faults that expose ultramafic rocks on the seafloor and sustain long-lived

hydrothermal systems with distinct vent fauna and fluid compositions.

Key words: ocean crust, water-rock interactions, geochemical fluxes, hydrothermal


1 Geoscience Department, University of Bremen, 28359

Bremen, Germany, E-mail:

2 Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology, ETH Zürich, CH-

8092 Zürich, Switzerland, E-mail:

Both are corresponding authors

They also determine geophysical and mineralogical properties of the oceanic lithosphere. The stability of serpentine and other hydrous phases determines the release of water in subduction zones. . affects the composition of hydrothermal solutions. with the degree of mass transfer being minimal to extensive. In submarine arc and back-arc hydrothermal settings located above subduction zones. Hydrothermal circulation and interaction between seawater and the oceanic lithosphere are fundamental in controlling the composition of both seawater and the subducting oceanic plate. This. or 11 TW (=Terawatts). magmatism and deformation between various geotectonic settings. This is particularly relevant for volcanically starved mid-ocean ridge segments. while highlighting some of the key differences in crustal architecture. Fluid circulation within the crust is largely thermally driven and accounts for ¼ of the total global heat loss.INTRODUCTION Approximately 3 km2 of new seafloor is created annually along the >60. making arc-associated vent systems chemically and biologically distinct from their mid-ocean ridge counterparts. where serpentinized mantle peridotite are denuded at the seafloor.000 km long global network of mid-ocean ridges and back-arc spreading centers. We discuss some of the principal processes controlling water-rock interaction in submarine hydrothermal systems. 2003).to granulite-facies. in turn.and volatile-rich magmas form as a consequence of the water flux into the mantle wedge. silica. with profound consequences for the mechanical behavior during aging and subduction. This crust interacts with seawater throughout much of its lifetime (the average age of ocean crust is 60 million years). Metamorphic conditions range from zeolite. These processes play a critical role in regulating global heat and mass fluxes (German and Von Damm.

However. where melt supply is able to keep up with extension at the divergent plate boundary. melt supply does not always keep up with plate separation.STRUCTURE OF THE OCEANIC LITHOSPHERE Results of numerous oceanographic investigations and the ocean drilling programs (ODP and IODP) over the past three decades have changed the long-held view that the entire ocean crust is uniform in architecture and thickness. extending from the Arctic Ocean. The principle of a uniform crust. and is commonly referred to as the “Penrose ophiolite model” or “Penrose-type crust”. At these slow spreading ridges. diabase (sheeted dike complex) and gabbro. This model is generally applicable for crust formed at fast spreading ridges. is based on early geophysical data and comparisons with ophiolites. and have led to the recognition of fundamental differences in crustal accretion and alteration processes related to spreading rates (Figure 1). characterized by a “layer-cake” structure of basalt. it cannot be applied to much of the crust formed at oceanic ridges spreading at less than 40 mm yr–1 and which comprise nearly 50% of the global mid-ocean ridge system. such as the East Pacific Rise. which is accommodated by significant tectonic extension. Recent investigations have shown that ultraslow spreading ridges. along the entire Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) and into the SW Indian Ocean (SWIR). with spreading rates of <20 mm yr–1. with large variations in crustal thickness along ridge segments. defined during a Penrose conference and published in Geotimes in 1972. Differences in melt volumes and focusing of melts are reflected by discontinuous volcanic centers separated by long stretches of avolcanic or melt- . have unique morphologies consisting of linked avolcanic and volcanic accretionary segments.

45 potential core complexes. 2006) and MAR (Smith et al. such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. 2009... in which the principal unit of accretion appears to be emplacement of mantle blocks onto the seafloor (Dick et al. rock types. In these environments. Similarly. 2008). Core complexes have been found everywhere along segments at the SWIR (Cannat et al.starved segments. some less than 25 km apart. and form along long-lived detachment (normal) faults during phases of extensive tectonic extension. are characterized by rugged topographies. 1995).. with characteristic abyssal hill morphologies. deformation and degree of alteration that reflect strong temporal and spatial variations in tectonic and magmatic processes (Figure 1). These dome-shaped massifs are referred to as oceanic core complexes. for a recent review).. a high degree of segmentation and considerable heterogeneities in crustal thickness.5 km) and with arched upper surfaces marked by distinctive spreading-direction-parallel corrugations and finer scale striations. dome-like massifs with exceptional relief (>2. while other portions of the segments are highly heterogeneous with attenuated or missing volcanic crust and with gabbroic intrusions trapped in partially serpentinized lithospheric mantle (Figure 1). The modern view of ocean crust at slow spreading ridges is that some portions of segments may consist of more uniform. commonly associated with asymmetric spreading.. 2003). 2008). Recent studies have imaged broad. . are scattered along two segments (Smith et al. Penrose-like crust.. between 13° and 15°N on the MAR. slow-spreading ridges. For example. Detachment faults remove the basaltic upper crust and expose plutonic and upper mantle sequences from depths >6 km onto the seafloor in the footwalls (see Blackman et al. in analogue to metamorphic core complexes on the continents. serpentinized mantle peridotite and lower crustal plutonic rocks may represent 20-25% of the seafloor exposed through faulting (Cannat et al.

where gabbroic rocks are volumetrically variable and interdispersed with serpentinized peridotites. melt generation and migration.. 2006). Geochemical and microstructural studies indicate a complex mutual interaction between the gabbroic and ultramafic rocks at temperatures <500°C and significant mass transfer during high strain deformation (Escartin et al.. the Moho may not represent the crust-mantle boundary but may be a serpentinization front. strain localization. Detachment faulting and channeled fluid flow Oceanic core complexes and their exposed detachment faults represent tectonic windows that provide access to deep-seated rocks and allow studies of mantle flow. In these environments. In heterogeneous sections of the oceanic lithosphere. Talc in particular may be influential in lubricating and softening mylonitic shear zones and can lead to strain localization and focused hydrothermal circulation for up to a few million years (McCaig et al. 2007).The depth and spatial extent of serpentinization of oceanic peridotites has direct implications for the interpretation of seismic velocities and may influence where geophysicists estimate the position of the Mohorovičić discontinuity (Moho).. such as talc. Serpentinization processes . may be critical to the development of detachment faults and may enhance unroofing during seafloor spreading (Escartin et al. 2003. Boschi et al. The presence of mechanically weak minerals. and alteration. crystal-plastic to cataclastic deformation mark the zones of detachment faulting.. 2003). serpentine and chlorite. extensive talc-amphibole-chlorite metasomatism as well as heterogeneous.

it has been known that serpentinization results in the generation of H2-rich fluids and native metals. and typically incorporates >10 weight % H2O into the rocks. reduction leads to formation of FeNi alloys found in serpentinites. as brucite dissolves away (Snow and Dick. geochemical and biological importance for the global marine system and for subduction zone processes.. and changes in mineralogy and rheology that directly affect the strength and physical properties of the mantle. 2004. when olivine breakdown reactions to produce serpentine + magnetite are thermodynamically stable or below ~350° where serpentine + brucite + magnetite are stable (Früh-Green et al. Serpentinization involves solid solutions and metastable reactions governed by local variations in the activities of elements such as Si. S. Thermodynamic constraints on phase equilibrium predict that serpentinization will commence once the shallow mantle sequences have cooled below 400-425°C. in which interaction with seawater has significant geophysical. 2004). Hydrogen is released due to production of magnetite during olivine hydration. a decrease in bulk density. and C (Allen and Seyfried. the dominant mineral in the oceanic mantle. 2009). Since the earliest experimental studies of serpentines and studies of Alpine peridotites and ultramafic rocks in ophiolites. global geochemical fluxes by acting as a sink for H2O. and the seismic velocities.Mantle-dominated lithosphere is a highly reactive chemical and thermal system. B. and a number of studies indicate that these alloys may act as . Commonly. 1995). Fe. McCollom and Bach.. C and a source of Ca to hydrothermal fluids (Früh-Green et al. Hydration reactions are accompanied by a 20-40% increase in volume. Serpentinization processes also have major consequences for long- term. Cl. U. Ca. Mg. Serpentinization involves hydration of olivine. Seafloor weathering of serpentinites acts as a source of Mg to the oceans. the magnetic and gravity signatures. 2003).

where brittle fractures and greater degrees of advective mass transport result in a transition to an open system of seawater infiltration and higher fluid/ratios. fluid compositions and redox conditions.. Progressive serpentinization reactions and veining continues until exposure on the seafloor. temperature and degree of seawater penetration into the lithosphere and will be influenced by bulk protolith compositions. Early stages of high temperature seawater-mantle-gabbro interaction can also result in replacement of serpentine by talc-tremolite-chlorite assemblages to form fault rocks characteristic of detachment faults (Boschi et al. The production of H2 and CH4 during serpentinization is important in sustaining diverse microbial communities in subsurface and near-vent environments and may be significant for the existence of a deep biosphere (Kelley et al. and structure (e. The bulk volume of alteration is recorded by pseudomorphic mesh textures replacing olivine and bastite textures replacing pyroxene. The mineral assemblages and textures of oceanic serpentinites typically record progressive. cataclastic fault zones). Pervasive serpentinization is likely to be restricted to the shallow lithosphere at depths <2 km... 2005). Recent studies of serpentinites associated with detachment faults and core complexes indicate that serpentinization reactions in the footwall may initiate at depths of 4-6 km (Andreani et al. . 2007). The products and sequence of serpentinization reactions depend on the depth. morphologies and textures that document local differences in formation mechanisms..g. detachment faults. 2007).. 2006). static hydration reactions that take place under a wide range of temperatures. Serpentinization is also accompanied by multiple generations of veins with a variety of vein-filling minerals.catalysts for the reduction of CO or CO2 to form abiotic methane and other hydrocarbons. lithospheric depths. stress regimes and fluid infiltration (Andreani et al. the presence or absence of magmatic intrusions and/or trapped gabbroic melts.

but may be tied more to extensional faults at slow spreading ridges (Wilcock and Delaney. 1996). Circulation is controlled by magmatic diking at fast spreading ridges. It is commonly assumed that temperatures between 420 and 450°C are the maximum temperatures in the axial hydrothermal convection cells because of the rapid increase in the specific volume of the fluid above 400˚C. 1995. while in slow spread crust. tectonic and hydrothermal processes. In both settings. while they are large and long-lived at slow spreading ridges. more heterogeneous and extensive alteration is tied to ductile or brittle deformation in normal faults or to serpentinization processes in peridotite-dominated domains (Alt. and we do not yet understand the mechanism by which heat is mined to drive mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems. The nature of the magmatic-hydrothermal interface in the oceanic crust is very poorly known. 2003). Fast spread crust commonly shows progressive. Escartin et al.AXIAL HYDROTHERMAL SYSTEMS During crustal accretion processes. a conceptual model . These differences are expressed in the style of seawater-rock interaction that can be observed in deep drill holes within the ocean crust and in ophiolites. the balance between magmatic heat input and hydrothermal cooling balance is determined by the complex interplay between magmatic. static alteration controlled by fractures and microcracks. Hydrothermal systems on the seafloor tend to be small in size and short-lived at fast spreading ridges. in which hydrothermal convection of seawater plays an important role. Hydrothermal alteration and mineralization patterns in ocean crust and ophiolite crust share both similarities and significant differences.

the leaching zones near the sheeted dike-gabbro transition and in the deep upflow zones show abundant epidosites (base-metal depleted and Ca-metasomatized rocks). 1985). The conceptual model therefore is that black smoker vent fluids rise up from the root zones to the seafloor fairly rapidly and undergo cooling (adiabatic and conductively) by a few tens of degrees... 1995).that divides a hydrothermal system into a recharge zone. Humphris and Cann. and a discharge (or upflow) zone can be applicable (Alt. In ophiolites. a reaction (or root) zone. a rock type that has as yet not been recovered from in situ mid-ocean ridge sections (e. TAG One of the largest and best-studied seafloor hydrothermal systems is the TAG hydrothermal mound at the MAR 26°N (Humphris at al. It has been suggested that alteration patterns and styles in most ophiolite sections resemble forearc crust more than mid-ocean ridge crust (Gillis and Banerjee 2000). however.g. Alt. Another commonality is the development of large sulfide deposits that form within the upper crust and at the seafloor due to heating of circulating seawater by crystallizing magmas and leaching of metals from the basement (e.g.. 1991)... the Ocean . It also appears that greenschist-facies metamorphism is more pervasive in the sheeted dikes and upper gabbros in ophiolites. 2001). The upper greenschist-facies to lower amphibolite-facies mineral assemblages found in the lower sheeted dike complex in the deepest drill hole in ocean crust (ODP Hole 504B in the eastern equatorial Pacific) are consistent with a thermodynamic assessment of mineral-fluid equilibrium on the basis of vent fluid geochemistry (Bowers et al. In 1994. 1995). 1995). The presence of epidosites and changes in Sr and O isotope compositions provide evidence that fluid fluxes were greater in ophiolite sections. The chemical composition of hydrothermal vent fluids implies temperatures of fluid-rock interaction around 420 to 440˚C (Seyfried et al.

TAG is one of the largest sulfide deposits know in the oceans (4 Mio tons of sulfide with 30. In the shallow and permeable parts of the system. fluid compositions and type of hydrothermal deposits. with extensive massive brecciated pyrite ores at the top of the deposits. forming a structural framework during periods of high-temperature activity. progressively grading into silica- anhydrite breccias that overlie an inner silica-pyrite-chlorite stockwork zone (Figure 2). the Saldahna field (36°N). Logatchev (15°N) and Ashadze (13°N).000 tons of Cu) and is similar in size to ancient sulfide deposits in ophiolites.. The upflow zone of hydrothermal fluids is zoned vertically and horizontally. a dominance of breccias and a distinct mineralogical zonation. followed by periods of inactivity in which anhydrite dissolves and causes the structure to collapse (Humphris et al.. Drilling revealed a complex internal stratigraphy. such as the Troodos massif on Cyprus (Humphris at al. all of which are very similar to massive sulfide deposits in ophiolites. 1995). These hydrothermal systems vary in venting temperature. mixing between hot hydrothermal fluids and seawater lead to precipitation of anhydrite and pyrite. but are characterized by high concentrations of H2 and CH4 . five known active hydrothermal systems along the northern MAR are hosted in serpentinized peridotites with interdispersed gabbroic rocks and are located close to ridge discontinuities and segment ends: the Rainbow (36°N). which hosts active black and white smoker complexes.000-60. The chlorite zone develops where upwelling hydrothermal solution mix with seawater that is entrained into the upflow zone.Drilling Program drilled several holes into the 200 m diameter and 50 m high sulfide mound. Serpentinite-hosted systems To date. Anhydrite plays a major role in the construction of the deposits and is precipitated through conductive heating of small amounts of entrained seawater. 1995). and the Lost City field (30°N).

The Rainbow. 2008).attributed to seawater interaction and serpentinization processes (Charlou et al. Kelley et al. The Lost City hydrothermal field is located on 1-1. 2005. High heat and fluid output. making it the largest vent field yet discovered in terms of heat flux. The fluids are up to 91°C and are depleted in metals and CO2. Logatchev and Ashadze fields are high- temperature (black smoker) systems with sulfide deposits deposited from low pH and Fe-rich fluids. high pH (from 9 to 11) fluids emanating from faults in serpentinite-dominated basement rocks exit on the seafloor. 2008). This implies that seawater bicarbonate carried with recharge fluids is largely removed. as well as the formation of sulfide deposits and high CO2 concentrations in the fluids. but have high concentrations of H2 and CH4 (and other low molecular weight hydrocarbons) that serve as important energy sources for anaerobic microorganisms within the porous chimney walls (Kelley et al. 15 km west of the MAR axis and is distinctly different than all other known marine hydrothermal systems (Figure 3). Stable isotope and radiocarbon measurements on methane venting at Lost City have demonstrated that it is ultimately derived abiotically from mantle CO2 as opposed to seawater bicarbonate.. Low to moderate temperature serpentinization reactions plays a key role in the production of high pH fluids and thus has important consequences for the . 2005).. before the abiotic reactions that form methane occur (Proskurowski et al..5 my old serpentinized mantle rocks. At Lost City up to 60m high carbonate- brucite structures have formed where clear. 2001). suggest that hydrothermal circulation in these high temperature systems is likely driven by yet-to-be-detected crystallizing magma bodies within the lithospheric mantle.. Proskurowski et al. Heat output of Rainbow has been estimated to be 1-5 GW (Thurnherr and Richard. presumably in carbonate minerals. 2002..

Likewise. while in low- temperature ridge flank systems. 1999). alkalis. SiO2. Elderfield and Schulz. is added to the oceans by magmatic degassing along mid-ocean ridges. and sulfate. The hydrothermal systems associated with these hydrologically active ridge flanks are low-temperature (<65°C). U. In general. for example. P. alkali elements are leached from the rocks by seawater- derived fluids in high-temperature axial hydrothermal processes.sequestration of CO2 from seawater – an area of research that has stimulated considerable interest in industry and science communities. The remaining heat is transported off-axis in ridge flank crust up to roughly 65 million years in age. Carbon dioxide. This axial heat flux is only a small fraction of the total oceanic hydrothermal heat flux of 11 TW. but ridge flank alteration constitutes a sink of CO2 that is of about the same order of magnitude (1-2 x1012 moles/yr. 1994). base metals. but removal essentially becomes complete at temperatures above 100°C. the ocean crust is either a source or a sink for the elements dissolved in the oceans. The budget of Mg – one of the major cations in seawater – can only be explained when both types of hydrothermal circulation are considered (Mottl and Wheat. 1991. Alt and Teagle. producing lower zeolite-facies alteration in the rocks. OCEAN-CRUST EXCHANGE From heat and geochemical budgets. one can derive that on the order of 1-4 TW of heat is extracted from the ridges to the oceans (Sleep. The fluids become enriched in Ca. 1996). and sulfide but depleted in Mg. On the order of several 1013 kg of seawater are fluxed through on-axis hydrothermal systems per year. Mg is lost from seawater during interaction with ocean crust at all temperatures. they are lost from the circulating seawater to the .

continental margins and ridge flanks. forearcs. Hydrous minerals (smectites. These organisms can thrive wherever reduced compounds. SEAFLOOR VENTS AND LIFE The discovery of hydrothermal vents in the deep sea more than 30 years ago led to the now well-established recognition that geological processes along mid-ocean ridges support rich and diverse chemosynthetic ecosystems at the seafloor. at the seafloor. The basis of the food web in the deep oceans is chemosynthetic microorganisms that derive metabolic energy from the enzymatic catalysis of redox reactions. Microorganisms can . and marine sediments where essentially all life depends directly or indirectly on photosynthetic energy. backarc basins. zeolites) and carbonates form in these ridge flanks systems and slowly seal the crust. submarine arc volcanoes. Magma degassing and reactions between seawater and lithosphere support chemosynthetic ecosystems in many submarine geotectonic settings. What all these environments have in common are high energy potentials in form of redox disequilibria (Figure 4). The net effect here is that the crust is a prominent sink for alkali elements. In contrast to the ocean surface. and in particle plumes originating from vent sites in the deep sea. water column.ocean crust. which also becomes increasingly insulated from the oceans by accumulation of sediments. vent communities are fuelled by chemical energy from the deep Earth. intraplate volcanoes. and oxidants mix within the ocean crust. released by magma degassing or water–rock interactions. Both sediments and alteration minerals provide an important source of water and CO2 in subduction zones. such as mid-ocean ridges. and other elements like boron and uranium.

microbial communities of archaea and bacteria are supported by such hydrogen-rich vent fluids (Kelley et al. Geochemical energy is also released where H2 is generated by hydrolysis during reaction of water with reduced Fe (or other metals) in basaltic glass or in Fe-rich minerals such as olivine. The authors thank the numerous scientists who have contributed their knowledge to this subject. respectively. methanogens or sulfate reducers.also mine energy from solids such as rocks. and aging of the oceanic lithosphere. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This contribution summarizes decades of research by the scientific community dedicated to studies of mid-ocean ridge processes. which to a large extent was conducted under the auspices of InterRidge and its individual country programs. 2008). WB acknowledges support by the DFG-Research . Vent microorganisms can use this geochemical energy in a wide range of aerobic and anaerobic processes. chemosynthesis is now recognized to play a role in bare-rock systems of the deep ocean (Edwards et al. We also acknowledge the ocean drilling programs ODP and IODP and the participating scientists who have contributed greatly to a shift in paradigms and a better understanding of the formation. Even at sites remote from spreading axes and thermal vents. and these systems may gain insights into early metabolic pathways on Earth (Martin et al. many of which have not been fully explored to date. volcanic glass and sulfide minerals deposited at hydrothermal vents. In serpentinizing environments. most of which could not be directly cited here. 2005). such as at Lost City.. Dissolved H2 generated this way can be combined with CO2 or SO42. 2005). We thank Mathilde Cannat and Håkon Austrheim for helpful comments..

1992). sill-like melt lens 1-2 km beneath the ridge axis that grades downward into a partially crystallized mush zone. 2006). where magma budgets are lower. Detachment faults may intersect the crystallizing magma bodies and their feeder dikes and can channel high temperature fluids to feed large black smoker vent fields (dark red arrows). tectonic and alteration processes along ridge segments. Much of the magma rising through this mantle section crystallizes at depth and forms variably sized gabbroic bodies. The relative volumes of melt and crystal mush vary along axis (b).. Serpentinization progresses as the mantle sections are uplifted and . In contrast. (a) Robust magmatism at fast spreading ridges produces a relatively homogeneous. Fluid circulation is limited to the crystallized upper crust and focused fluid circulation (dark red arrows) produce hydrothermal vent fields along the ridge axis. (c) Layered crust forms where magma supply is high. especially near axis discontinuities (modified from Sinton and Detrick. slow spreading ridges are characterized by variations in magmatic. GFG acknowledges years of support by the SNF to conduct studies of serpentinization and the Lost City hydrothermal system. whereas detachment faults develop during tectonic extension.Center/Excellence in the cluster ‘The Ocean in the Earth System’. FIGURE CAPTIONS Figure 1: Conceptual models of tectono-magmatic and alteration processes associated with differences in spreading rates and based on geophysical and petrological constraints. layered crust. Melts extracted from rising asthenosphere feed a narrow. and result in exposing mantle-dominated lithosphere to the seafloor (modified from Boschi et al. which is surrounded by a transitional zone of solidified by still hot gabbroic rock.

University of Washington). The basement underneath TAG reveals a vertical and concentric zoning typical of hydrothermal upflow zones. as seen at the Lost City vent field at the crest of the Atlantis Massif. with arrays of short strike slip and oblique faults. Modified from Humphris et al. Figure 3: Examples of (a) hydrothermal sulfide deposits and 360°C black smoker vents driven by magmatic activity (Logatchev hydrothermal field)(©marum) and (b) carbonate-brucite structures forming at moderate temperature (40-90°C) from high pH. metal-poor fluids emanating from serpentinized mantle peridotites at Lost City (courtesy of D. 1995). . (1995). are common at segments ends and contribute to a thick lithosphere. alkaline hydrothermal fluids derived from serpentinization reactions (blue arrows).oceanic core complexes develop. Figure 2: A schematic cross section through the TAG hydrothermal mound and the underlying stockwork zone. (d) Along-strike variations in magma supply at slow spreading ridges are reflected by segment centers with relatively continuous. Late normal faults and mass wasting can focus low temperature. Ultramafic rocks and serpentinization. Kelley.S. as inferred from seismic data (modified from Cannat et al. layered magmatic crust that becomes thinner and discontinuous toward magma-poor segment ends.. with a silicified and sulfidized central part and chloritized peripheral zones.

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