Serpentinization and heat generation: Constraints from Lost City and Rainbow hydrothermal systems

Douglas E. Allen, W. E. Seyfried

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196 Scopus citations


The discovery of ultramafic hosted hydrothermal systems at Rainbow (36°N MAR) and Lost City, a vent site approximately 15 km west of the MAR at 30°N, provides unique perspectives on chemical and heat-generating processes associated with serpentinization at a range of chemical and physical conditions. Heat balance calculations together with constraints imposed by geochemical modeling indicate that significant changes in temperature are not likely to occur at either vent system as a result of the exothermic nature of olivine hydrolysis. At Rainbow, the relatively high temperatures in subseafloor reaction zones (in excess of 400°C), which must be linked to magmatic processes, inhibit olivine hydrolysis, effectively precluding mineralization-induced heating effects. Geochemical modeling of the Lost City vent fluids indicates temperatures in excess of those measured (40-75°C). The relatively high subseafloor temperatures (∼ 200 ± 50°C) requires conductive cooling of the fluids on ascent to the seafloor-a scenario in keeping with the mineralization of chimney structures actually observed. Although the intermediate temperatures predicted for subseafloor reaction zones at Lost City could be expected to enhance olivine to serpentine conversion, dissolved Cl, K/Cl and Na/Cl ratios of the Lost City vent fluids are virtually unchanged from seawater values and indicate little hydration of olivine, which is a necessary condition for exothermic heat generation by serpentinization. Apparently the fluid/rock mass ratio is too high or fluid residence times too low for this to occur to any significant extent. Thus, in spite of the off-axis location of the Lost City vents and apparent lack of a localized heat source, mineralization reactions likely play an insignificant role in accounting for hydrothermal circulation. It is more likely that tectonic processes associated with the slow spreading MAR, permit access of seawater to relatively deep and still hot lithospheric units and/or near axis magmatic heat sources, before venting. Additional chemical and physical (temperature, flow rate) data for Lost City and similar hydrothermal systems are needed to test key elements of the proposed model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1347-1354
Number of pages8
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 15 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Jeff Alt for his assistance as associate editor and his helpful comments on the manuscript. Comments by Sue Humphries, Pat Shanks, Wolfgang Bach and an anonymous reviewer greatly improved the paper. This research was supported through NSF grants OCE9911471 and OCE0221031.


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