Melt supply variations to a magma-poor ultra-slow spreading ridge (Southwest Indian Ridge 61° to 69°E)

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Abstract

[1] The Southwest Indian Ridge (SWIR) to the east of the Melville Fracture zone receives anomalously low volumes of melt on average. However, a small number of ridge segments appear to receive more melt than this regional average. We use off-axis bathymetry, gravity, and magnetic data to show that this melt distribution pattern, quite distinct from what is observed at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR), has been a characteristic of the easternmost SWIR for at least the past 10 myr. We also show that segments of the easternmost SWIR are substantially shorter lived than most segments of the MAR. Melt distribution in our SWIR study area is therefore both more focused and more variable in time than at the MAR. We tentatively propose a mechanism by which strong and transient melt-focusing events could be initiated by a localized increase in the volume of melt supplied by the melting mantle to the base of the axial lithosphere, causing thermal thinning of this lithosphere and along-axis melt migration. These two processes may combine to effectively focus larger volumes of melt toward the center of future thick crust segments. Rapid melt extraction by dikes that feed large volcanic constructions on the seafloor, followed by tectonic disruption of these volcanic constructions by deep-reaching faults, may then cool the axial lithosphere back to its original thickness and end the melt-focusing events. The easternmost SWIR is also characterized by a common departure from isostatic compensation of seafloor topography and by a pronounced asymmetry of crustal thickness and seafloor relief between the two ridge flanks. At the faster spreading MAR, similar characteristics are found near the ends of ridge segments. We propose that spreading at the ultra-slow SWIR during periods when the melt supply is low (i.e., most of the time for the easternmost SWIR) is dominated by large offset asymmetric normal faulting, with significant flexural uplift of the footwalls. Faults face either north or south, and changes in fault polarity are frequent, both along axis and along flow lines (i.e., with time). Producing large faults and maintaining high uncompensated reliefs require the axial lithosphere to be thick, a predictable characteristic for this ultra-slow ridge, which has an anomalously low regionally averaged melt supply.

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