Quantifying Ridge Flank Hydrothermal Alteration on the Juan de Fuca Ridge: IODP Expedition 327

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Ocean and Earth Science


The formation of ocean crust is an integral component of the plate tectonic cycle, repaving the ocean floor continuously (the oldest ocean floor today is 180 Myr). The ocean crust is composed of igneous rocks that form along a chain of underwater volcanoes called the mid ocean ridges. Mid ocean ridges are located at the edges of plate boundaries where two tectonic plates move away from each other, allowing the mantle to upwell beneath the ridge and partially melt. New ocean crust forms and moves away from the ridge and eventually will be subducted back into the mantle. The ocean crust is also the largest aquifer on Earth, with seawater percolating down into the volcanic crust through fractures and becoming heated and chemically reacted in a process called hydrothermal circulation. Near the mid ocean ridges, heat from the crystallising magma drives this circulation and modifies the chemistry of fluids that exit the crust at black smoker chimneys. On the ridge flanks, hydrothermal circulation is driven by the cooling of the crust as it ages. Hydrothermal fluid temperatures are considerably lower during ridge flank circulation (10's oC) and the chemical changes smaller, but the volume of fluid circulation is far greater. Consequently, ridge flank circulation represents a larger proportion of the chemical fluxes from hydrothermal circulation into the oceans and quantifying these fluxes is important for understanding global geochemical cycles.

Direct sampling of ridge flank hydrothermal fluids is difficult because they are generally diffuse and the geographical area where they are present is too large to map extensively. Indirect sampling of the ridge flank hydrothermal system is possible by studying the crustal rocks the fluids have reacted with and circulated through. Hydrothermal alteration of the ocean crust manifests as replacement of primary igneous minerals and as secondary minerals filling open porosity (fractures, vesicles). The distribution, composition and relative timing of secondary hydrothermal minerals within the rock provide the only direct insight into the processes operating in the subsurface during the circulation of seawater.

In this project we will investigate ridge flank hydrothermal circulation through the Juan de Fuca Ridge Flank using samples recovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (Expedition 327). The Juan de Fuca plate is located in the NE Pacific, and formed at Juan de Fuca Ridge at a spreading rate of 30 mm/yr. The seafloor in this area is characterised by lava flows overlain by sediments, abyssal hill topography, high angle faulting and basement outcrops. The Juan de Fuca Ridge Flank experiences unusually high sedimentation rates because of the abundant supply of young glacial sediments from the North American continental margin, creating hydrologically and thermally isolated young (1 Ma) ocean crust. The Juan de Fuca Ridge Flank has been the focus of a decadal program of ODP/IODP drilling, with 12 ODP/IODP drill sites located along both ridge perpendicular and ridge parallel transects, ranging from 0.6 to 3.6 Ma.

Being able to map out the patterns of low temperature alteration in the sections of crust that are available to us will allow an overall characterization of the effects of fluid flow through the oceanic crust. A representative range of alteration types, flow types, and other features will be sampled so that the maximum possible combinations of geologic features are accounted for. Chemical analyses of powered whole rock samples will determine how changed the basalt is as a result of hydrothermal alteration. Measurements of the levels of oxidised iron (Fe3+) will give an indication of the past conditions of alteration. Isotopic analyses document the signature that the hydrothermal fluids have imparted to the ridge flank and allow determination of the fluid origin.

Planned Impact

The research that we propose will be greatly beneficial for the active research community working on the Juan de Fuca Ridge Flank hydrogeological processes, and those scientists researching the global impacts of ridge flank hydrothermal circulation. The project will make significant ground in quantifying the contribution of low temperature hydrothermal fluids to global geochemical cycles.

Benefits to: IODP
This research will contribute to two proposed objectives in the new science plan for IODP: 'Decipher the record of seawater-rock exchange and quantify its role in global geochemical cycles' and 'Understanding the physical and chemical limits to life in the subseafloor'. The following goals specific to IODP Expedition 327 will also be addressed: 'establish links between fluid circulation, alteration, and geomicrobial processes'. The aims of Expedition 327 are part of a two decade experimental program, which aims to address 'formation-scale hydrogeologic properties (transmission and storage) within oceanic crust'. This work will provide the essential geological background for these primary scientific goals. Our research will be published in peer-reviewed journals and will contribute to the ongoing exposure of IODP as an internationally recognised leader in scientific research.

Benefits to: Academic Researchers
The proposed research will contribute to the characterization of low temperature alteration in the upper oceanic crust, and will be of interest to a wide range of scientific disciplines. This will benefit the work of marine hydrogeologists by providing an thorough understanding of the host rock that represents the largest aquifer on Earth. The distribution and magnitude of alteration types will help microbiologists to estimate the subseafloor microbial biomass production and infer the extent of life within the deep biosphere. The magnitude and distribution of low temperature hydrothermal fluid fluxes will be used by geochemists concerned with constraining global geochemical cycles.

Benefits to: Public
This work will contribute to important topical global questions that address the processes affecting Earth's ancient climate and limits of life in extreme environments. Subseafloor research is particularly appealing to the general public as it utilizes innovative technologies in order to venture into unexplored frontiers, generating images of spectacular seafloor features and better understanding of the dynamic nature of ocean crust.

How does the proposed research generate impact?
The Juan de Fuca Ridge Flank provides a unique "natural observatory" for ridge flank processes, as highlighted by the decade long investment by ODP/IODP that has installed several subseafloor observatories within the boreholes, which are connected to the Neptune Canada array. This is a regional scale underwater ocean observatory network that will allow real-time observation of subseafloor processes. Despite this, the geological and geochemical characterisation of the ocean basement in this region is poor. This study will provide a substantial effort in updating this knowledge gap. Understanding and quantifying ridge flank hydrothermal circulation in this region will allow the extrapolation to a global scale where ridge flanks cover much of the Earths surface.

What will be done (pathway to impact)?
To make sure that our research is of benefit to other academic researchers, and to meet the publication obligations of IODP, our research will be published in peer reviewed journals within 5 years of sailing on IODP Expedition 327. This research will be presented at relevant conferences, and during public engagement events. We will seek to engage, inform, and inspire the wider public through participation in University Open Day events, inclusion of this project on the NOCS Geochemistry Group webpages, IODP and University of Southampton press releases, and publishing results in articles accessible to the wider public.


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Harris, M. (2014) Laser ablation MC-ICP-MS U/Pb geochronology of ocean basement calcium carbonate veins in EOS Transactions of the American Geophysical Union

Description Oxidation of the upper oceanic crust occurs very early in the lifetime of an oceanic plate.
Exploitation Route In PhD - needs publication
Sectors Environment