How to Build a Black Smoker Chimney

By Tivey, Margaret Kingston | Oceanus, Fall-Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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How to Build a Black Smoker Chimney


Tivey, Margaret Kingston, Oceanus


The Formation of Mineral Deposits At Mid-Ocean Ridges

Diving along the mid-ocean ridge at 21 [degrees] N on the East Pacific Rise, scientists within the deep submersible Alvin peered through their tiny portholes two decades ago to see an astonishing sight: Clouds of billowing black "smoke" rising rapidly from the tops of tall rocky "chimneys." The "smoke" consisted of dark, fine-grained particles suspended in plumes of hot fluid, and the "chimneys" were made of minerals that were rich in metals. Using specially designed fluid bottles and temperature probes, Alvin took samples of these black smoker chimneys, as well as the 350 [degrees] C fluids venting from them. Since then, scientists have observed and sampled numerous active vent sites along portions of the mid-ocean ridge in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and in back arc basins in the Pacific Ocean. It has become abundantly clear that these high-temperature seafloor hydrothermal systems are the analogs to systems that created some of the world's economically valuable mineral deposits, including some that have been mined on land. In Cyprus and Oman, for example, ore deposits of millions of tons are found in ophiolites, portions of ancient seafloor thrust onto land by tectonic forces.

Scientists can gain much insight into hydrothermal processes through detailed studies of these exposed areas of fossil systems, but only by investigating active systems can they simultaneously examine hydrothermal fluids and the corresponding mineral deposits created by them. By analyzing these fluids and deposits, we have been able to formulate models to explain how submarine mineral deposits, from seafloor chimneys to great subseafloor depths, are initiated and how they grow in their early stages.

One of the most fascinating aspects of black smoker chimneys is how rapidly they form. They have been measured to grow (after upper parts of the chimneys are razed by sampling) as fast as 30 centimeters per day. Examination of young chimney samples, under the microscope and by X-ray diffraction, revealed that the earliest stage in the creation of a black smoker chimney wall involves precipitation of a ring of a mineral called anhydrite. The ring forms around a jet of 350 [degrees] C fluid, which exits the seafloor at velocities of between 1 and 5 meters per second. Anhydrite, or calcium sulfate (CaS[O.sub.4]), is an unusual mineral because it is more soluble in seawater at low temperatures than at high temperatures. Seawater contains both dissolved [Ca.sup.2+] and S[[O.sub.4].sup.2-] ions, and when it is heated to 150 [degrees] C or greater, the ions combine and anhydrite precipitates. Hydrothermal fluids contain little or no sulfate, so the origin of the sulfate in the precipitated anhydrite is seawater. Calcium, however, is present in both seawater and hydrothermal fluid. That made it more difficult at first to determine whether the initial anhydrite chimney wall formed solely from seawater that was heated by hydrothermal fluids, or from the mixing of cold, sulfate-rich seawater with hot, calcium-rich hydrothermal fluid.

Strontium, which is present in seawater and hydrothermal fluid, was used to investigate this problem. Strontium has the same charge as calcium and a number of different, easily measurable isotopes. (Isotopes are elements having the same number of protons in their nuclei, but different numbers of neutrons. Thus they share chemical properties but have slightly different physical properties.) Strontium can readily take the place of calcium in the crystalline lattice that forms when anhydrite precipitates. The concentration of strontium, as well as the ratio of two of its isotopes, strontium 87 and strontium 86, were measured in both vent fluid and in seawater. Because the ratio of strontium 87 to strontium 86 is higher in seawater than in hydrothermal fluid, it is possible to determine whether the source of the strontium (substituting for calcium in newly formed anhydrite grains) is seawater or vent fluid.

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