Fifty acoustically positioned samples of fresh basalt were collected by the submersible Alvin from the median valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge during the French American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study (FAMOUS) in the summer of 1974. The samples show regular compositional variations from the center of the rift valley (central lava flows) out to the rift valley walls (flank lava flows). The central lava samples show higher ratios of olivine relative to clinopyroxene and plagioclase phenocrysts and contain chrome spinel. Glasses of the flank lava samples are enriched in SiO2, TiO2, K2O, H2O, and FeO/MgO relative to central lava samples.

Studies of the thickness of palagonite and manganese crusts indicate that the flank lava flows are considerably younger than the inferred spreading age of the crust on which they occur. Flank lavas are generally older than central lavas, but notable exceptions occur.

The composition of the flank lava glass can be derived by the removal of approximately 29 wt percent of analyzed phenocrysts (in the ratio 5.7 plagioclase, 2.5 olivine, 1.8 clinopyroxene) from the central lava glass. In addition, other processes (possibly involving volatile transfer) must enrich the flank lavas in K2O, TiO2, and H2O.

A model is proposed whereby this crystal fractionation occurs in a shallow, narrow (6-km-wide) magma chamber underlying the median valley. The chamber is compositionally zoned, and central lavas are fed from dikes tapping its hotter axial zone, whereas flank lavas are fed from the cooler, differentiated melt on the margins. The nature of the chemical variations in the lavas permits an estimate of the composition and thickness of the cumulates forming at the base of the chamber.

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