Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalts (MORB), Oceanic Crust and Ophiolites

1- Oceanic crust and ophiolites

  • The oceanic crust (made of basalts) is formed on mid-ocean ridges. MORB = Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalt.
  • This is the main site of volcanic activity on Earth, and the most abundant igneous rock! But most of it is underwater…
  • Occasionally, slivers of oceanic crust are tectonically emplaced on continents (in convergence zone): ophiolites. They occur in early convergence stages (“obduction”, ex. in Oman), and are subsequently deformed and metamorphosed (typically to blueschists) in collision wedges (peri-Tethyan orogeny, from the Alps to Himalaya).
  • Most of the ophiolites belong to the peri-tethyan system.

2-  Structure of the oceanic crust

A “typical” oceanic crust (or ophiolitic sequence) is made of four layers:
  • Layer 1 is pelagic sediments
  • Layer 2 is made of basaltic pillows, and their feeder dykes (“sheeted complex”).
  • Layer 3 is made of gabbros, some of them with a cumulative texture. Occasional “plagiogranites” (diorites to trondjhemites) are found, evidencing differenciation (fractional crystallization ?).
  • Layer 4 is the peridotitic mantle, the top of it being peridotite cumulates (dunite), above “normal” mantle lherzolites or harzburgites, possibly with evidences for melting.

3-     Petrology

Mostly tholeitic basalts. Although they are chemically slightly oversaturated (quartz-normative), they typically are olivine-bearing (evidence for crystallization and incomplete crystals separation!).

Differenciation (FC?) is demonstrated by major elements trends, consistent with the formation of Ol, Pg and Px.

This corresponds more or less to the observed petrologic sequence (dunites – gabbros), and to the predicted evolution on a Di-An-Fo diagram (more or less – the diagram predicts Ol-anorthosites which are not observed. Remember, however: it is a simplified system for Mg-rich end members…).

4-      Origin of MOR magmas

A molten zone is (seismically) observed under the ridges.
Petrology, geochemistry, field evidences (melt veinelets in peridotites) suggest melting of the mantle, immediately below the ridge (shallow melting of a Pg- or Sp-peridotite).

Source and diversity of sources in the oceanic crust

Several types of MORB are observed: Normal, and enriched (N-MORB, E-MORB). E-MORB are richer in LREE and incompatible elements in general.

This suggests several distinct sources; the deeper mantle, regarded as more enriched, is a good candidate for the source of E-MORBs.

Probably minor influx of E-MORB type in a dominantly N type magma chamber at the ridge. Mixing between the two more or less efficient (the more melt, the more efficient – so fast ridges are more mixed, see below).

NB- See paper by Schilling (to be presented by John-Michael. Also see the mantle melting paper (Pearce), presented by Jaco.

5-  Fast and slow spreading ridges, HOT and LOT types

Fast Slow
No axial valley, high “domes”, overlapping spreading centers, smooth.
Deep axial valley, irregular topography, narrow ridge.
Limited extension, lateral grabens
Important extension, axial graben
Oceanic crust thickness
Complete, basalts-gabbros-dunites-harzburgites
Incomplete, discontinous gabbro intrusions or basaltic pillows on lherzolite substratum
Peridotite type
Melt fraction

Fast spreading correlates with high degree of melting, yielding lots of basalts and strongly depleting the residual mantle, which becomes harzburgitic. Slow spreading .. is the reverse situation !

Two extreme cases, Harburgite Ophiolite Type and Lherzolite Ophiolite Type.