The permeability of continental crust is so highly variable that it is often considered to defy systematic characterization. However, despite this variability, some order has been gleaned from globally compiled data. What accounts for the apparent coherence of mean permeability in the continental crust (and permeability–depth relations) on a very large scale? Here we argue that large-scale crustal permeability adjusts to accommodate rates of internal and external forcing. In the deeper crust, internal forcing – fluxes induced by metamorphism, magmatism, and mantle degassing – is dominant, whereas in the shallow crust, external forcing – the vigor of the hydrologic cycle – is a primary control. Crustal petrologists have long recognized the likelihood of a causal relation between fluid flux and permeability in the deep, ductile crust, where fluid pressures are typically near-lithostatic. It is less obvious that such a relation should pertain in the relatively cool, brittle upper crust, where near-hydrostatic fluid pressures are the norm. We use first-order calculations and numerical modeling to explore the hypothesis that upper-crustal permeability is influenced by the magnitude of external fluid sources, much as lower-crustal permeability is influenced by the magnitude of internal fluid sources. We compare model-generated permeability structures with various observations of crustal permeability.
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