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Keywords:

  • mid-ocean ridge;
  • convection;
  • magma;
  • plate tectonics;
  • active flow;
  • volcanism

Seismic tomography of the asthenosphere beneath mid-ocean ridges has produced images of wave speed and anisotropy that are asymmetric across the ridge axis. These features have been interpreted as resulting from an asymmetric distribution of upwelling and melting. Using computational models of coupled magma/mantle dynamics beneath mid-ocean ridges, I show that such asymmetry should be expected if buoyancy forces contribute to mantle upwelling beneath ridges. The sole source of buoyancy considered here is the dynamic retention of less dense magma within the pores of the mantle matrix. Through a scaling analysis and comparison with a suite of simulations, I derive a quantitative prediction of the contribution of such buoyancy to upwelling; this prediction of convective vigor is based on parameters that, for the Earth, can be constrained through natural observations and experiments. I show how the width of the melting region and the crustal thickness, as well as the susceptibility to asymmetric upwelling, are related to convective vigor. I consider three causes of symmetry breaking: gradients in mantle potential temperature and composition and ridge migration. I also report that in numerical experiments performed for this study, the fluid dynamical instability associated with porosity/shear band formation is not observed to occur.