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The term includes both the circulation of the well known, high temperature vent waters near the ridge crests, and the much lower temperature, diffuse flow of water through sediments and buried basalts further from the ridge crests. The former circulation type is sometimes termed "active", and the later "passive". In both cases the principle is the same: cold dense seawater sinks into the basalt of the seafloor and is heated at depth whereupon it rises back to the rock-ocean water interface due to its lesser density. The heat source for the active vents is the newly formed basalt, and, for the highest temperature vents, the underlying magma chamber. The heat source for the passive vents is the still-cooling older basalts. Heat flow studies of the seafloor suggest that basalts within the oceanic crust take millions of years to completely cool as they continue to support passive hydrothermal circulation systems.
Hydrothermal circulation is not limited to ocean ridge environments. The source water for geysers and hot springs is heated groundwater convecting below and lateral to the hot water vent. Hydrothermal circulating convection cells exist any place an anomalous source of heat, such as an intruding magma or volcanic vent, comes into contact with the groundwater system.
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