Tectonics of the East Pacific rise : studies of faulting characteristics and magnetic and gravity anomalies
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LocationEast Pacific Rise
The global mid-ocean ridge system is one of the most striking geological features on the surface of the Earth. In this system, the East Pacific Rise (EPR) is the fastest spreading ridge and is thus considered as the most active magmatically among the plate boundaries. In January and February of 1988, an extensive survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was conducted along the EPR between 9°05' and 9°55'N to study the crustal structure of the axial region. This thesis, the result of that cruise, comprises four main topics: (1) characterization of normal faulting from Sea Beam bathymetric data, (2) application of mechanical models to explore the hypothesis that buoyancy arising from crustal magma chambers and gravitational spreading of the upper crust are the principal processes leading to the initiation and development of normal faults, (3) investigation of seafloor magnetization anomalies to constrain upper crustal structure, and (4) analysis of gravity anomalies to examine possible correlations between observed variations in seafloor manifestations of volcanism and deformation and underlying structure. Thus, each topic focuses on different levels of the mid-ocean ridge. Together with the results of seismic and other observations, the findings are woven into a better understanding of the tectonic processes and structure of fastspreading mid-ocean ridges. First, to understand the characteristics of normal faults at fast-spreading ridges, we utilized swaths of Sea Beam bathymetry and estimated the distribution and geometry of normal fault zones using the slope of the seafloor as the criterion for a faulted surface. In our survey area, nonnal fault activity begins 2-8 km off-axis and continues at least to 30-40 km from the axis, as indicated by an increase in the total and average throws of normal fault zones versus distance from the axis. There appears to be no significant difference in the plan-view area of inward- and outward-facing nonnal fault zones. The distance from the rise axis to the nearest large-offset fault zone (throw > 20 m) on either side of the axis is approximately symmetric to the north of 9°23'N, but the midpoint between nearest largeoffset fault zones is offset 2-3 km to the west of the bathymetric axis to the south of 9°23'N. The continued growth of nonnal fault zones suggests that significant extensional stress persists to greater distances from the axis than previously thought and that the rise axis possesses a finite strength. The argument that the rise axis has finite strength is consistent with recent evidence for solidified axial dikes along magmatically active portions of the EPR from near-bottom seismic refraction experiments, which suggests that, while eruption of magma at the rise axis weakens the axis, the persistence of such weak zones is short-lived and the emplacement zones at any given time are localized along the axis. We examined how the presence of a low-density, low-strength magma chamber within the crust and gravitational spreading of a mechanically strong upper crust over an underlying substrate contribute to the fonnation of faults at a fast spreading mid-ocean ridge by comparing the predicted stress field with the observed pattern of normal fault zones. We employed boundary element methods to incorporate buoyancy and gravitational spreading as body forces in an elastic medium, and we detennined stress and strain fields for a variety of rise axis conditions and a range of possible sets of material properties for different parts of the mid-ocean ridge. Our results show that the strength of the rise axis is one of the most crucial factors governing the near-axis stress field. If the rise axis is mechanically weak, the maximum extensional stress from buoyancy occurs at shallow depth off the rise axis. A weak rise axis may result from recent magmatism such as the intrusion of dikes into the upper crust. On the other hand, if the rise axis is mechanically strong, which may result after solidification and cooling of the dike zone, the maximum surface extensional stress occurs on the rise axis. However, the reduction in size of a magma chamber that would accompany cessation of dike injection would lead to less buoyancy and thus a lower likelihood of stress levels sufficient for faulting. For a given set of material strengths and a given magnitude of buoyancy force, the flexural rigidity of the upper crust plays an important role in detennining if a zone of extension will develop off axis and, if so, the position and horizontal extent of that zone. A thin or mechanically weak upper crust is more likely to develop a zone of extension than one that is thick or mechanically strong. The stress field resulting from gravitational spreading is similarly affected by the strength of the rise axis. While buoyancy can explain a consistent distance at which normal faults initiate off-axis, gravitational spreading can account for continued activity on normal faults to a greater distance from the axis than can buoyancy. The existence of a magma lens can play an important role in reducing the magnitude of the stress field for a weak rise axis, as the crust above the magma lens can slide and thus relieve the thickness-averaged extensional stress. Next, we inverted surface ship measurements of the scalar magnetic field along the EPR between 9°10' and 9°50'N. We examined whether the axial magnetization high, which increases in amplitude to the south in our area, can best be explained by variations in the thickness or in the magnetization intensity of the source layer. The variation in axial magnetization is too large to be explained solely by the variations in the depth to the top of the axial magma chamber indicated by reflection seismology. For a magnetic source layer that is 500 or 750 m thick, the observed along-axis variations in FeO and Ti02 explain only 36 and 60%, respectively, of the total variance of axial magnetization anomalies. Therefore, a combination of variations in magnetic layer thickness and in intensity of magnetization (by variations in the FeO and Ti02 contents of the source rock or by other mechanisms) is needed to explain the along-axis variation of axial magnetization. In addition to the increase in amplitude to the south, the axial magnetization high exhibits at least three marked changes in magnitude and offsets in its along-axis linearity ('magnetic devals') (at 9°25', 9°37', and 9°45'N) which appear to be related to boundaries or offsets between the segments of the axial summit caldera (ASC). Because the amplitudes of the axial magnetization anomalies are highest at the midpoints of the ASC segments, we speculate that midpoints of the ASC segments are the loci of more frequent lava eruptions, and the seafloor basalts at the midpoints are thus younger and more magnetic, than at the segment ends. The magnetization shows distinct short-wavelength (~ 5 km) banding to the north of 9°25'N over a region that does not appear to have been affected by an overlapping spreading center. Among the possible explanations for these off-axis magnetization anomalies are short geomagnetic reversal events within the Brunhes epoch, variations in the paleointensity of the Earth's field, variations in the magnetization intensity of the source rock due to variability in the magmatic supply, and variations in the degree of hydrothermal alteration at the rise axis. On the basis of comparisons of forward models and observations, short geomagnetic reversal events appear to be the most likely explanation of these anomalies. The analysis of sea-surface gravity field measurements shows an axial residual mantle Bouguer gravity anomaly too large to be explained by the anomalous temperature of the mantle or by changes in the thickness of the crust. The broad axial residual gravity low is interpreted as a signal arising largely from the upper mantle, presumably by presence of partial melt along the rise axis. A northward increase in the width of the low implies a greater melt fraction in the region to the north than to the south, especially on the Pacific plate side. The residual gravity anomaly also shows several short-wavelength local lows along the axis (e.g., 9°21', 9°32', and 9°42'N) which correlate with along-axis variations in axial magnetization and tomographic images of mid-crustal seismic velocities. Along axis the local lows have an amplitude of 1.5-3 mGal and appear at a nearly regular spacing (10- 15 km). Across the axis, however, the local lows show a greater variation (3-5 mGal), suggesting that there is an additional gravity anomaly signal arising from a low-density structure that is approximately continuous along the axis. The anomalous masses producing the local lows are interpreted as zones of relatively high melt concentration, formed within the crust by recent replenishment of magma from the upper mantle, that are surrounded by a region of lesser melt concentration corresponding to the low-velocity volume imaged by seismic tomography. If the zone of high melt concentration are modeled as circular rods of radius 1 km, along-axis length 10 km, and center of mass 2.25 km below the seafloor, density contrasts of 200-350 kg/m3 are needed to match the observed anomalies. For larger anomalous mass volumes, the density contrasts would be lower. The findings of this study support the hypothesis that the axis of the EPR can be divided into segments 10-15 km in length, with each segment defmed by the locus and timing of most recent emplacement of magma in the axial crust. The segments in the study area appear to be in different phases of a magmatic cycle, but the period of such a magmatic cycle is not known. By this view, the discrete emplacement of magma bodies gives rise to along-axis variations in crustal structure manifested as short-wavelength residual gravity anomalies and magnetic devals. Another consequence of a rise axis at which magma is emplaced at discrete locations is that the mechanical strength of the axial upper crust varies with position along the axis and over time. During active magmatism, the rise axis acts as a weak zone and the buoyancy of the axial magma chamber and surrounding low-velocity volume can lead to initiation of off-axis normal faulting. However, for a long segment of the rise bounded by transform faults, the axis will have sections with a solidified rucial injection zone as well as sections undergoing active magmatism, and thus the rise overall may appear to have finite strength. If such a finitestrength ridge axis is subject to significant extensional stress as a result of gravitational spreading, mantle convective tractions, or differential cooling, then continued normal fault activity would extend over a broad region to distances of at least several tens of kilometers from the spreading axis.
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution February 1995
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