Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Submarine Volcanism
Mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems

Hydrothermal systems at mid-ocean ridges

Black smokers were first discovered at 21oN along the East Pacific Rise in 1979. Since then, hydrothermal vents have been found at many points along the Earth's mid-ocean spreading ridges. They are important for many reasons, including global fluxes of elements, deposits of economically-valuable minerals, and diverse assemblages of previously unknown animals and bacteria that are supported by the chemically-rich waters emanating from the vents. 

The fluids are derived from seawater that circulates through the brittle upper ocean crust. When the fluids become heated by the magma chamber at the mid-ocean ridge they become buoyant and vent at the sea floor much like geysers do on land. While circulating, the fluids react with the surrounding rocks and pick up metals and volatiles. When the hot water contacts cold seawater, minerals precipitate to form the black "smoke" and build chimneys. Dissolved elements are transported in a buoyant plume that rises above the vent site and may take years to dissipate.


Tiburon sampling hydrothermal vent fluids for gas analysis in front of a clump of Riftia tubeworms. The NESCA site (stands for Northern Escanaba Trough) on the Gorda Ridge was first sampled in 1988. We returned to the NESCA vents in 2000 and 2002 (see cruise log book pages for Tiburon dives 197, 449, 452) to see what changes in temperature and chemistry had occurred over the years. 
Photo © MBARI 2000

West Mata eruption
MBARI YouTube video:
"Snow-blower" hydrothermal vents, from our dive on the April 2011 eruption at Axial Volcano

Our research on hydrothermal systems at mid-ocean ridges

Sulfide tonnage at Endeavour Ridge calculated from AUV bathymetry

ENDEAVOUR RIDGE - Hydrothermal sulfide deposits that form on the seafloor are often located by the detection of hydrothermal plumes in the water column, followed by exploration with deep-towed cameras, side-scan sonar imaging, and finally by visual surveys using remotely-operated vehicle or occupied submersible. Hydrothermal plume detection, however, is ineffective for finding hydrothermally-inactive sulfide deposits, which may represent a significant amount of the total sulfide accumulation on the seafloor, even in hydrothermally active settings. Here, we present results from recent high-resolution, autonomous underwater vehicle-based mapping of the hydrothermally-active Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Analysis of the ridge bathymetry resulted in the location of 581 individual sulfide deposits along 24 km of ridge length. Hydrothermal deposits were distinguished from volcanic and tectonic features based on the characteristics of their surface morphology, such as shape and slope angles. Volume calculations for each deposit results in a total volume of 372,500 m3 of hydrothermal sulfide–sulfate–silica material, for an equivalent mass of ∼1.2 Mt of hydrothermal material on the seafloor within the ridge's axial valley, assuming a density of 3.1 g/cm3. Much of this total volume is from previously undocumented inactive deposits outside the main active vent fields. Based on minimum ages of sulfide deposition, the deposits accumulated at a maximum rate of ∼400 t/yr, with a depositional efficiency (proportion of hydrothermal material that accumulates on the seafloor to the total amount hydrothermally mobilized and transported to the seafloor) of ∼5%. The calculated sulfide tonnage represents a four-fold increase over previous sulfide estimates for the Endeavour Segment that were based largely on accumulations from within the active fields. These results suggest that recent global seafloor sulfide resource estimates, which were based mostly on the sizes and distribution of hydrothermally-active deposits, maybe similarly underestimating the amount of sulfide along the global submarine neovolcanic zones.

Reference: Jamieson, J.W., D.A. Clague, M.D. Hannington (2014) Hydrothermal sulfide accumulation along the Endeavour Segment, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 395: 136-148. doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2014.03.035 [Article]

Hydrothermal venting history at Endeavour Ridge

ENDEAVOUR RIDGE - Forty-nine hydrothermal sulfide-sulfate rock samples from the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, northeastern Pacific Ocean, were dated by measuring the decay of 226Ra (half-life of 1600 years) in hydrothermal barite to provide a history of hydrothermal venting at the site over the past 6000 years. This dating method is effective for samples ranging in age from ∼200 to 20,000 years old and effectively bridges an age gap between shorter- and longer-lived U-series dating techniques for hydrothermal deposits. Results show that hydrothermal venting at the active High Rise, Sasquatch, and Main Endeavour fields began at least 850, 1450, and 2300 years ago, respectively. Barite ages of other inactive deposits on the axial valley floor are between ∼1200 and ∼2200 years old, indicating past widespread hydrothermal venting outside of the currently active vent fields. Samples from the half-graben on the eastern slope of the axial valley range in age from ∼1700 to ∼2925 years, and a single sample from outside the axial valley, near the westernmost valley fault scarp is ∼5850 ± 205 years old. The spatial relationship between hydrothermal venting and normal faulting suggests a temporal relationship, with progressive younging of sulfide deposits from the edges of the axial valley toward the center of the rift. These relationships are consistent with the inward migration of normal faulting toward the center of the valley over time and a minimum age of onset of hydrothermal activity in this region of 5850 years.

Reference: Jamieson, J.W., M.D. Hannington, D.A. Clague, D.S. Kelley, J.R. Delaney, J.F. Holden, M.K. Tivey, L.E. Kimpe (2013) Sulfide geochronology along the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. Geochem., Geophys., Geosyst., 14(7): 2084–2099. doi:10.1002/ggge.20133. [Abstract] [Article]

Endeavour Ridge Integrated Study Site

ENDEAVOUR RIDGE - Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge is one of three Integrated Study Sites for the Ridge 2000 Program. It is a remarkable, dynamic environment hosting five major hydrothermal fields, numerous smaller fields, and myriad diffuse-flow sites; magma chambers underlie all fields. Over 800 individual extinct and active chimneys have been documented within the central ~ 15 km portion of the ridge, with some edifices reaching 50 m across and up to 45 m tall. Fluid flow is focused along faults within the rift zone, and seismically active faults along the western axial valley wall have been used by both magmas and upwelling hydrothermal fluids. There is significant chemical heterogeneity in basalt compositions within the axial rift valley, with the greatest diversity occurring near the base of the western axial valley wall where normal, transitional, and enriched type mid-ocean ridge basalts occur within tens of meters of each other. Endeavour is the only site where seismic intensity has been linked directly to heat flux at the individual vent field scale. Installation of the world's first high-power and high-bandwidth cabled observatory at Endeavour via NEPTUNE Canada ensures that new discoveries along the Juan de Fuca Ridge will continue into the future.

Reference: Kelley, D.S., S.M. Carbotte, D.W. Caress, D.A. Clague, J.R. Delaney, J.B. Gill, H. Hadaway, J.F. Holden, E.E.E. Hooft, J.P. Kellogg, M.D. Lilley, M. Stoermer, D. Toomey, R. Weekly, and W.S.D. Wilcock (2012) Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge: One of the most remarkable places on Earth. Oceanography 25(1):44–61, doi:10.5670/oceanog.2012.03. [Article]

Hydrothermal deposits

BLANCO FRACTURE ZONE - A Tiburon ROV dive within the East Blanco Depression (EBD) increased the mapped extent of a known hydrothermal field by an order of magnitude. In addition, a unique opal-CT (cristobalite-tridymite)-hematite mound was discovered, and mineralized sediments and rock were collected and analyzed. Silica-hematite mounds have not previously been found on the deep ocean floor. The light-weight rock of the porous mound consists predominantly of opal-CT and hematite filaments, rods, and strands, and averages 77.8% SiO2 and 11.8% Fe2O3. The hematite and opal-CT precipitated from a low-temperature (>115o C), strongly oxidized, silica- and iron-rich, sulfur-poor hydrothermal fluid; a bacterial mat provided the framework for precipitation. Samples collected from a volcaniclastic rock outcrop consist primarily of quartz with lesser plagioclase, smectite, pyroxene, and sulfides; SiO2 content averages 72.5%. Formation of these quartz-rich samples is best explained by cooling in an up-flow zone of silica-rich hydrothermal fluids within a low permeability system. Opal-A, opal-CT, and quartz mineralization found in different places within the EBD hydrothermal field likely reflects decreasing silica saturation and increasing temperature of the mineralizing fluid with increasing silica crystallinity. Six push cores recovered gravel, coarse sand, and mud mineralized variously by Fe or Mn oxides, silica, and sulfides. Total rare-earth element concentrations are low for both the rock and push core samples. Ce and Eu anomalies reflect high and low temperature hydrothermal components and detrital phases. A remarkable variety of types of mineralization occur within the EBD field, yet a consistent suite of elements is enriched (relative to basalt and unmineralized cores) in all samples analyzed: Ag, Au, S, Mo, Hg, As, Sb, Sr, and U; most samples are also enriched in Cu, Pb, Cd, and Zn. On the basis of these element enrichments, the EBD hydrothermal field might best be described as a base- and precious-metal-bearing, silica- Fe-oxide-barite deposit. Such deposits are commonly spatially and temporally associated with volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) ores. A plot of data for pathfinder elements shows a large hot spot at the northwestern margin of the field, which may mark a region where moderate to high temperature sulfide deposits are forming at depth; further exploration of the hydrothermal field to the northwest is warranted.

Reference: Hein, J.R., D.A. Clague, R.A. Koski, R.W. Embley, R.E. Dunham (2008) Metalliferous sediment and a silca-hematite deposit within the Blanco Fracture Zone, Northeast Pacific, Marine Georesources and Geotechnology, 26:317–339.

Subsurface conditions

GORDA RIDGE - We report here the first compositional data for fluids from the Sea Cliff hydrothermal field, northern Gorda Ridge, collected in 2000, 2002, and 2004. An unusual aspect of this site is its location ~2.6 km east of the axis of spreading, leading to speculation since its discovery in 1988 that this may be an “older” hydrothermal field, as it occurs on crust that the spreading rate would predict to be ~100,000 years old. Our results suggest this hydrothermal system is being driven by subsurface magma, as evidenced by (1) elevated 3He/heat ratios, (2) relatively high concentrations of He, and (3) chloride contents less than seawater in the hydrothermal fluids. The measured fluid temperatures were ≤308°C, but we infer they were >400°C at depth. In spite of these elevated temperatures, the fluids exiting from these vents are clear, a consequence of extremely low transition metal concentrations. We attribute the low transition metal contents to loss of these metals below the seafloor, most likely as a result of the slightly elevated pH of the fluids. Neither the fluid compositions nor the setting provides evidence that buried sediments and/or organic matter are responsible for raising the fluid pH. Our favored explanation for the elevated pH is that calcite, deposited as a vein-filling mineral at this site, perhaps when it was closer to the axis and a hydrothermal downflow zone, is currently being dissolved by the hydrothermal fluids. This hypothesis is supported by our geochemical modeling results that suggest the fluids are close to saturation with calcite at in situ conditions. Elevated fluid pH is observed at a number of hydrothermal sites on the global mid-ocean ridge system, and the reason for this has not been well understood. Dissolution of previously deposited calcite may be a heretofore unrecognized mechanism that can explain these observations. Finally, our data suggest the compositions of these fluids are unchanged from 2002 to 2004 and are consistent with water column observations first made at this site in 1985. We therefore interpret the Sea Cliff site to be another hydrothermal area marked by long-term stability in fluid compositions and temperatures.

Reference: Von Damm, K. L., C. M. Parker, M. D. Lilley, D. A. Clague, R. A. Zierenberg, E. J. Olson, and J. S. McClain (2006), Chemistry of vent fluids and its implications for subsurface conditions at Sea Cliff hydrothermal field, Gorda Ridge, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 7, Q05005, doi:10.1029/2005GC001034[Article]

Stability and complexity

GORDA RIDGE – The composition and temperature of vent fluids sampled with ROV Tiburon from the active hydrothermal system in Escanaba Trough, Gorda Ridge in 2000 and 2002 remain unchanged from the only time this field was previously sampled, in 1988. Ocean Drilling Project (ODP) Leg 169 drilled nine bore holes at this site in 1996, some within meters of the vents, yet this disturbance has not impacted the measured compositions or temperatures of the fluids exiting at the seafloor. The fluids have maximum measured temperatures of 218°C and contain ~20% more chloride than local ambient seawater. Our interpretation is that the fluid compositions are generated by supercritical phase separation of seawater, with much of the water-rock reaction occurring within the ~400m thick sedimentary section that overlies the basalt at this site. The ODP drilling results provide information on the mineralogy and composition of materials below the seafloor, as well as direct constraints not typically available on the physical conditions occurring below the seafloor hydrothermal system. Calculations utilizing geochemical modeling software suggest the fluids are close to saturation with a suite of minerals found subsurface, suggesting equilibrium between the fluids and substrate. These results provide an explanation for why the fluids have remained chemically stable for 14 yrs. The pore water data from drilling suggest that the hydrology and chemistry of the hydrothermal system are much more complex within the sediment cover than would be expected from the surface manifestations of the hydrothermal system. While the pore waters have chloride contents both greater and less than the local seawater, only fluids with higher chloride contents vent at the seafloor. Our calculations suggest that at the current conditions the “brines” (fluids with chlorinity greater than seawater) are actually less dense than the “vapors” (fluids with chlorinity less than seawater). These density relationships may provide an explanation for why the “brines” are now venting preferentially to the “vapors,” a situation opposite to what is usually observed or inferred.

Reference: Von Damm, K.L., C.M. Parker, R.A. Zierenberg, M.D. Lilley, E.J. Olson, D.A. Clague and J.S. McClain (2005) The Escanaba Trough, Gorda Ridge hydrothermal system: Temporal stability and subseafloor complexity, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 69:21, 4971-4984. [Abstract] [Article]

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Last updated: Apr. 11, 2014