Fluids in accretionary prisms


  • J. Casey Moore,

  • Peter Vrolijk


Accretionary prisms are composed of initially saturated sediments caught in subduction zone tectonism. As sediments deform, fluid pressures rise and fluid is expelled, resembling a saturated sponge being tectonically squeezed. Fluid flow from the accretionary prism feeds surface biological cases, precipitates and dissolves minerals, and causes temperature and geochemical anomalies. Structural and metamorphic features are affected at all scales by fluid pressures or fluid flow in accretionary prisms. Accordingly, this dynamic tectonic environment provides an accessible model for fluid/rock interactions occurring at greater crustal depths. Porosity reduction and to a lesser degree mineral dehydration and the breakdown of sedimentary organic matter provide the fluids expelled from accretionary prisms. Mature hydrocarbons expulsed along prism faults indicate deep sources and many tens of kilometers of lateral transport of fluids. Many faults cutting accretionary prisms expel fluids fresher than seawater, presumably generated by dehydration of clay minerals at depth. Models of fluid flow from accretionary prisms use Darcy's law with matrix and fractures/faults being assigned different permeabilities. Fluid pressures in accretionary prisms are commonly high but range from hydrostatic to lithostatic. Matrix or intergranular permeability ranges from less than 10−20 m² to 10−13 m². Fracture permeability probably exceeds 10−12 m². A global estimate of fluid flux into accretionary prisms suggests they recycle the oceans every 500 m.y. Fluid flow out of accretionary prisms occurs by distributed flow through intergranular permeability and along zones of focused flow, typically faults. Focused fluid flow is 3 to 4 orders of magnitude faster than distributed flow, probably representing the mean differences in permeability along these respective expulsion paths. During the geological evolution of accretionary prisms, distributed flow through pore spaces decreases as a result of consolidation and cementation, whereas flow along fracture systems becomes dominant. Although thrust faults are most common in the compressional environment of accretionary prisms, normal and strike-slip faults are efficient fluid drains, because they are easier to dilate. Observations from both modern and ancient prisms suggest episodic fluid flow which is probably coupled to episodic fault displacement and ultimately to the earthquake cycle.