Hydrothermal vent distribution along the East Pacific Rise crest (9°09?–54?N) and its relationship to magmatic and tectonic processes on fast-spreading mid-ocean ridges Academic Article uri icon


  • Using the near-bottom ARGO imaging system, we visually and acoustically surveyed the narrow (< 200 m wide) axial zone of the fast-spreading East Pacific Rise (EPR) along 83 km of its length (9-degrees-09’-54’N), discovered the Venture Hydrothermal Fields, and systematically mapped the distribution of hundreds of hydrothermal features relative to other fine-scale volcanic and tectonic features of the ridge crest. The survey encompasses most of a 2nd order ridge segment and includes at least ten 4th order (5-15 km) segments defined by bends or small lateral offsets of the ridge crest or axis (Devals). 4th order segmentation of the ridge crest is clearly expressed in the high-resolution ARGO data by the fine-scale behavior of the ridge axis and by changes in the characteristics of the axial zone (axial lava age, extent of fissuring, axial morphology and structure, etc.) across segment boundaries. The distribution and along-strike variability of hydrothermal features corresponds closely to the morphotectonic/structural segmentation of the ridge. On the 2nd order scale, we find that high T hydrothermal activity correlates with: (1) shallowing of the axial magma chamber (AMC) reflector to depths < 1.7 km beneath the ridge axis; and, (2) with the presence of a well-developed axial summit caldera (ASC). Previous work refers to this feature as an axial summit graben (ASG); however, the extent of volcanic collapse along the ASG revealed by the ARGO survey adds to evidence that on fast-spreading ridges it is an elongate volcanic caldera rather than a tectonic graben, and supports the introduction of “axial summit caldera” as a more accurate descriptor. All but 1 of the 45 active high T vent features identified with ARGO are located within 20 m of the margins of the ASC. Despite the significant extent of our track coverage outside the ASC, no important signs of venting were seen beyond the axial zone. On the 4th order scale, the abundance and distribution of hydrothermal features changes across 4th order segment boundaries. We find that high T vents are most abundant where: (1) the ASC is very narrow (40-70 m), (2) the AMC reflector is most shallow (< 1.55 km beneath the axial zone), and (3) the axial lavas are youngest and least fissured. To explain the observed distribution of vent activity, a two-layer model of ridge crest hydrothermal flow is proposed in which 3-D circulation at lower T in the volcanic section is superimposed on top of axis-parallel high T circulation through the sheeted dike complex. In the model, circulation parallel to the ridge axis is segmented at the 4th order scale by variations in thermal structure and crustal permeability which are directly associated with the spacing of recent dike intrusions along strike and with cracking down into the sheeted dikes, especially along the margins of the ASC. Based on ratios between numbers of active high T vents and inactive sulfide deposits along particular 4th order segments, and on corresponding volcanic and tectonic characteristics of these segments, we suggest that the individual 4th order segments are in different phases of a volcanic-hydrothermal-tectonic cycle that begins with fissure eruptions, soon followed by magma drainback/drainage and accompanying gravitational collapse, possible development of an ASC, and onset of hydrothermal activity. The hydrothermal activity may wax and continue for up to several hundred years where an ASC is present. The latest phase in the cycle is extensive tectonic fissuring, widening of the ASC by mass wasting along its margins, and waning of hydrothermal activity. In the ARGO area, where full spreading rates are 11 cm/yr, the entire cycle takes less than approximately 1000 years, and the tectonic phase does not develop where the time interval between eruptions is significantly less than 1000 years.

publication date

  • June 1991