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Open-File Report 2006-1280 Abstract

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Metallogeny of the Great Basin: Crustal Evolution, Fluid Flow, and Ore Deposits

By Albert H. Hofstra and Alan R. Wallace


The Great Basin physiographic province in the Western United States contains a diverse assortment of world-class ore deposits. It currently (2006) is the world’s second leading producer of gold, contains large silver and base metal (Cu, Zn, Pb, Mo, W) deposits, a variety of other important metallic (Fe, Ni, Be, REE’s, Hg, PGE) and industrial mineral (diatomite, barite, perlite, kaolinite, gallium) resources, as well as petroleum and geothermal energy resources. Ore deposits are most numerous and largest in size in linear mineral belts with complex geology.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists are in the final year of a research project initiated in the fall of 2001 to increase understanding of relations between crustal evolution, fluid flow, and ore deposits in the Great Basin. Because of its substantial past and current mineral production, this region has been the focus of numerous investigations over the past century and is the site of ongoing research by industry, academia, and state agencies. A variety of geoinformatic tools was used to organize, reinterpret, and display, in space and time, the large amounts of geologic, geophysical, geochemical, and hydrologic information deemed pertinent to this problem. This information, in combination with concentrated research on (1) critical aspects of the geologic history, (2) an area in northern Nevada that encompasses the major mineral belts, and (3) important mining districts and deposits, is producing new insights about the interplay between key tectonic events, hydrothermal fluid flow, and ore genesis in mineral belts.

The results suggest that the Archean to Holocene history of the Great Basin was punctuated by several tectonic events that caused fluids of different origins (sea water, basinal brine, meteoric water, metamorphic water, magmatic water) to move through the crust. Basement faults reactivated during these events localized deformation, sedimentation, magmatism, and hydrothermal fluid flow in overlying rocks to form mineral belts that contain ore deposits of different types and ages that are locally superimposed (demonstrating inheritance). Fluid flow in these systems also was influenced by the distribution of permeable lithologies and paleotopographic highs and lows. Hydrothermal fluids evolved from their initial chemistries towards compositions that reflect the ƒO2 and ƒS2 buffering capacity of, and the ligands and metals present in, the rocks (±older mineralization) through which they moved. In northern Nevada, where gold deposits are relatively common, carbonaceous, pyritic strata buffered fluids of diverse origins to H2S-rich compositions so they could transport gold repeatedly over Paleozoic-Cenozoic time (convergent evolution). Ore formed where metal-laden fluids encountered effective physicochemical traps. Maps of Neogene basin fill and erosion surfaces identify areas where preexisting ore deposits have been progressively exposed or concealed. Comparisons with analogous terrains and deposit types in other parts of the world provide global context.

The initial findings and some of the databases, geologic maps, sections, reconstructions, hydrogeologic models, topical syntheses, regional overviews, short courses, field guides, and deposit comparisons produced by project staff and associated managers, contractors, and collaborators have been presented in numerous abstracts, symposia, USGS publications, and professional journals over the last 5 years (see the extensive bibliography). Notable among these was the 2005 Geological Society of Nevada symposium in Reno, Nevada, and the 2005 Geological Society of America annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, where project results were presented to audiences from around the nation and world. The final results of the project will be submitted for publication in 2007 to appropriate USGS and professional journals. A special issue of GEOSPHERE, scheduled for publication in 2007, will be devoted to the results of this project and related work. This special issue will reach an international audience and be available worldwide on the internet.

Much of the research for this project has concentrated on areas that will receive the focused attention of the mining industry in the future. As such, the data and interpretations generated by this project have direct use for land-use managers in Federal, State, and local agencies. Improved hydrogeologic models developed by this project will considerably enhance ongoing and future water resource investigations in the region. The increased understanding of when, where, and how hydrothermal systems produce significant economic deposits has direct uses for mineral exploration and for future USGS mineral resource assessments in the Great Basin and other parts of the world. logo