The dynamics of mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems: Splitting plumes and fluctuating vent temperatures

Institute of Isotope Geochemistry and Mineral Resources, ETH Zurich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland; Department of Earth Science & Engineering, Imperial College London, RSM Building, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2AZ
Earth and Planetary Science Letters 01/2006; DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2006.02.044

ABSTRACT We present new, accurate numerical simulations of 2D models resembling hydrothermal systems active in the high-permeability axial plane of mid-ocean ridges and show that fluid flow patterns are much more irregular and convection much more unstable than reported in previous simulation studies. First, we observe the splitting of hot, rising plumes. This phenomenon is caused by the viscous instability at the interface between hot, low-viscosity fluid and cold, high-viscosity fluid. This process, known as Taylor–Saffman fingering could potentially explain the sudden extinguishing of black smokers. Second, our simulations show that for relatively moderate permeabilities, convection is unsteady resulting in transiently varying vent temperatures. The amplitude of these fluctuations typically is 40 °C with a period of decades or less, depending on the permeability. Although externally imposed events such as dike injections are possible mechanisms, they are not required to explain temperature variations observed in natural systems. Our results also offer a simple explanation of how seismic events cause fluctuating temperatures: Earthquake-induced permeability-increase shifts the hydrothermal system to the unsteady regime with accompanying fluctuating vent temperatures. We demonstrate that realistic modelling of these high-Rayleigh number convection systems does not only require the use of real fluid properties, but also the use of higher order numerical methods capable of handling high-resolution meshes. Less accurate numerical solutions smear out sharp advection fronts and thereby artificially stabilize the system.

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