Exploring the relationship between crustal permeability and hydrothermal venting at mid-ocean ridges using numerical models

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Virginia Tech

Hydrothermal systems associated with oceanic spreading centers account for a quarter of Earth's total heat flux and one third of the heat flux through the ocean floor. Circulation of seawater through these systems alters both the crust and the circulating fluid, impacting global geochemical cycles. The warm vent fluids rich in nutrients support a wide variety of unique biological communities. Thus, understanding hydrothermal processes at oceanic spreading centers is important to provide insight into thermal and biogeochemical processes. In this dissertation I present the results of numerical modeling efforts for mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems. In the three manuscripts presented, permeability emerges as a key controlling factor for hydrothermal venting. In the first manuscript, I use 2-D numerical models to find that the distribution of permeability in the crust controls fluid velocity as well as the amount of mixing between hot hydrothermal fluids and cold seawater. This, in turn, effects the temperature and composition of fluids emerging on the surface. For the second manuscript, I construct single-pass 1-D models to show that a sudden increase in permeability caused due to magmatic or seismic events in the seafloor causes a sharp rise in the fluid output of the system. This, in conjunction with steep thermal gradients close to the surface, results in a rapid increase of venting temperatures. In the third manuscript, I develop a particle tracking model to study fluid trajectories in the subsurface. The results show that permeability distribution in the subsurface governs fluid paths and consequently, the residence time of fluids in the crust. Based on the work presented in this document, I conclude that permeability distribution, both local and field scale, exerts a major control on hydrothermal circulation in the subsurface and on the temperature and composition of venting fluids on the surface.

Hydrothermal Systems, Mid ocean ridges, numerical modeling, permeability