Global Rates of Free Hydrogen (H2) Production by Serpentinization and other Abiogenic Processes within Young Ocean Crust
The main conclusion of this dissertation is that global H2 production within young ocean crust (<10 Mya) is higher than currently recognized, in part because current estimates of H2 production accompanying the serpentinization of peridotite may be too low (Chapter 2) and in part because a number of abiogenic H2-producing processes have heretofore gone unquantified (Chapter 3). The importance of free H2 to a range of geochemical processes makes the quantitative understanding of H2 production advanced in this dissertation pertinent to an array of open research questions across the geosciences (e.g. the origin and evolution of life and the oxidation of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans).
The first component of this dissertation (Chapter 2) examines H2 produced within young ocean crust [e.g. near the mid-ocean ridge (MOR)] by serpentinization. In the presence of water, olivine-rich rocks (peridotites) undergo serpentinization (hydration) at temperatures of up to ~500°C but only produce H2 at temperatures up to ~350°C. A simple analytical model is presented that mechanistically ties the process to seafloor spreading and explicitly accounts for the importance of temperature in H2 formation. The model suggests that H2 production increases with the rate of seafloor spreading and the net thickness of serpentinized peridotite (S-P) in a column of lithosphere. The model is applied globally to the MOR using conservative estimates for the net thickness of lithospheric S-P, our least certain model input. Despite the large uncertainties surrounding the amount of serpentinized peridotite within oceanic crust, conservative model parameters suggest a magnitude of H2 production (~1012 moles H2/y) that is larger than the most widely cited previous estimates (~1011 although previous estimates range from 1010-1012 moles H2/y). Certain model relationships are also consistent with what has been established through field studies, for example that the highest H2 fluxes (moles H2/km2 seafloor) are produced near slower-spreading ridges (<20 mm/y). Other modeled relationships are new and represent testable predictions. Principal among these is that about half of the H2 produced globally is produced off-axis beneath faster-spreading seafloor (>20 mm/y), a region where only one measurement of H2 has been made thus far and is ripe for future investigation.
In the second part of this dissertation (Chapter 3), I construct the first budget for free H2 in young ocean crust that quantifies and compares all currently recognized H2 sources and H2 sinks. First global estimates of budget components are proposed in instances where previous estimate(s) could not be located provided that the literature on that specific budget component was not too sparse to do so. Results suggest that the nine known H2 sources, listed in order of quantitative importance, are: Crystallization (6x1012 moles H2/y or 61% of total H2 production), serpentinization (2x1012 moles H2/y or 21%), magmatic degassing (7x1011 moles H2/y or 7%), lava-seawater interaction (5x1011 moles H2/y or 5%), low-temperature alteration of basalt (5x1011 moles H2/y or 5%), high-temperature alteration of basalt (3x1010 moles H2/y or <1%), catalysis (3x108 moles H2/y or <<1%), radiolysis (2x108 moles H2/y or <<1%), and pyrite formation (3x106 moles H2/y or <<1%). Next we consider two well-known H2 sinks, H2 lost to the ocean and H2 occluded within rock minerals, and our analysis suggests that both are of similar size (both are 6x1011 moles H2/y). Budgeting results suggest a large difference between H2 sources (total production = 1x1013 moles H2/y) and H2 sinks (total losses = 1x1011 moles H2/y). Assuming this large difference represents H2 consumed by microbes (total consumption = 9x1011 moles H2/y), we explore rates of primary production by the chemosynthetic, sub-seafloor biosphere. Although the numbers presented require further examination and future modifications, the analysis suggests that the sub-seafloor H2 budget is similar to the sub-seafloor CH4 budget in the sense that globally significant quantities of both of these reduced gases are produced beneath the seafloor but never escape the seafloor due to microbial consumption.
The third and final component of this dissertation (Chapter 4) explores the self-organization of barchan sand dune fields. In nature, barchan dunes typically exist as members of larger dune fields that display striking, enigmatic structures that cannot be readily explained by examining the dynamics at the scale of single dunes, or by appealing to patterns in external forcing. To explore the possibility that observed structures emerge spontaneously as a collective result of many dunes interacting with each other, we built a numerical model that treats barchans as discrete entities that interact with one another according to simplified rules derived from theoretical and numerical work, and from field observations: Dunes exchange sand through the fluxes that leak from the downwind side of each dune and are captured on their upstream sides; when dunes become sufficiently large, small dunes are born on their downwind sides (“calving”); and when dunes collide directly enough, they merge. Results show that these relatively simple interactions provide potential explanations for a range of field-scale phenomena including isolated patches of dunes and heterogeneous arrangements of similarly sized dunes in denser fields. The results also suggest that (1) dune field characteristics depend on the sand flux fed into the upwind boundary, although (2) moving downwind, the system approaches a common attracting state in which the memory of the upwind conditions vanishes. This work supports the hypothesis that calving exerts a first order control on field-scale phenomena; it prevents individual dunes from growing without bound, as single-dune analyses suggest, and allows the formation of roughly realistic, persistent dune field patterns.
Barchan Sand Dunes
Free Hydrogen Production
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