Crustal Permeability

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Steve Ingebritsen, USGS, Menlo Park, CA, United States and Tom Gleeson, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Existing data and models support a distinction between the hydrodynamics of the brittle upper crust, where topography, permeability contrasts, and magmatic heat sources dominate patterns of flow and externally derived (meteoric) fluids are common, and the ductile lower crust, dominated by devolatilization reactions and internally derived fluids. The permeability structure of the uppermost (~<1 km) crust is highly heterogeneous, and controls include primary lithology, porosity, rheology, geochemistry, and tectonic and time-temperature histories of the rocks. Systematic permeability differences among original lithologies persist to contact-metamorphic depths of 3-10 km, but are not evident at regional-metamorphic depths of 10-30+ km – presumably because, at such depths, metamorphic textures become largely independent of the original lithology. Permeability can vary in time as well as space, and its temporal evolution may be gradual or abrupt: streamflow responses to moderate to large earthquakes demonstrate that dynamic stresses can instantaneously change permeability by factors of up to 20 on a regional scale, whereas a 10-fold decrease in the permeability of a package of shale in a compacting basin may require 107years. Temporal variation is enhanced by strong chemical and thermal disequilibrium; thus lab experiments involving hydrothermal flow in crystalline rocks under pressure, temperature, and chemistry gradients often result in 10-fold permeability decreases over daily to sub-annual time scales. Recent research on enhanced geothermal reservoirs, ore-forming systems, and the hydrologic effects of earthquakes consistently shows that shear dislocation caused by tectonic forcing or fluid injection can increase near-to intermediate-field permeability by factors of 100 to 1000. Nonetheless, considering permeability as static parameter is often a reasonable assumption for low-temperature hydrogeologic investigations with time scales of days to decades.