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Geological Society of America Bulletin

Relation of Metal Provinces in Western America to Subduction of Oceanic Lithosphere


Geological Society of America Bulletin 1972;83, no. 3;813-818 doi: 10.1130/0016-7606(1972)83[813:ROMPIW]2.0.CO;2

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Note s an d Discussions


Institute de Investigations Geolbgicas, Agustinas 785,Casilla 10465, Santiago, Chile

Relatio n

o f Metal Provinces in Western America to

Subduction of Oceanic Lithosphere


In the orogenic belts of western North and South America, metal provinces are aligned approximately parallel to the continental margins, and, despite irregularities, a general pattern of provinces comprises the following sequence from west to east: Fe; Cu (with some Au and Mo); Pb, Zn, and Ag; and in some regions Sn or Mo. The genesis of these metal provinces is attributed to the release of metals or associations of metals from basaltic oceanic crust and pelagic sediments during partial melting at progressively deeper levels on sub- duction zones which dipped eastward beneath the continent; the metals subsequently as- cended as components of calc-alkaline magma. Initially, the metals were released from the mantle at the East Pacific Rise, transported to the margins of the Pacific basin and thrust beneath the continental margins by the process of sea-floor spreading. This model surmounts the problem of envisaging the existence in the crust or upper mantle of long, narrow zones characterized by a concentration of an in- dividual metal or association of metals. In the context of this model, possible ex- planations may be advanced for several features of the distribution in both space and time of metal provinces in western America, including:

the occurrence of multiple metallogenic epochs within a given metal province; the difference in age of the dominant metallogenic epoch from one region to another; and the concentration or scarcity of metal deposits in certain regions.

INTRODUCTION The origin of metal provinces and the source of their contained metals are controversial topics, and even recently, satisfactory solutions to the problems were still apparently lacking (Krauskopf, 1967). Attention was focused on

these fundamental questions by Noble (1970), who accurately delimited the metal provinces of the western United States. He considered metal provinces to reflect primitive heter- ogeneities of metal distribution in the under- lying upper mantle, and to have been little influenced by continental crustal structures or processes. Whereas the proposal that the continental crust played only a minor role in the formation of metal deposits of magmatic affiliation in western America is accepted by the writer, the notion that the mantle distribu- tion of metals is directly reflected in the sur- face configuration of metal provinces merits reconsideration in the light of the recently formulated theory of lithosphere plate tectonics (Isacks and others 1968; Le Pichon, 1968; Morgan, 1968). This theory implies that active orogens, such as the Andean Cordillera, which lie parallel to compressive plate junctures, are not underlain by an immobile column of mantle material, but by a mantle through which a cold, inclined slab of oceanic lith- osphere is constantly sinking (Fig. 1). The classical theory of geosynclinal develop- ment has been reinterpreted in terms of plate tectonics (Dewey and Bird, 1970). In view of the close interrelation between orogenic development and ore deposition (for example, Bilibin, 1968), it should prove instructive to apply the concepts of plate tectonics to interpretations of metallogenesis. The model presented here attempts to explain the origin and distribution of metal provinces in western North and South America in terms of the theory of plate tectonics.

METAL PROVINCES IN WESTERN AMERICA In the western United States, Noble (1970) recognized an over-all change in the metal- content of ore deposits eastward from the

Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 83, p. 813-818, 1 fig., March 1972



Lithospheric away fromocean plate rise moving







Zone of

cole- alkaline intrusive and volcanic rocks MOHO


A diagrammatic representation of the

generalized sequence of metal provinces in western

Figure 1.

continental margin, in the sequence Hg, Cu, Au, Ag, W, Pb, and Mo. Although this pattern of metal provinces cannot be exactly duplicated in other parts of western North and South America, similar transverse changes in the metal contents of ore deposits are nonetheless evident. In British Columbia, Brown (1969) demon- strated the sequence Fe, Cu, Mo, Zn, and Pb from west to east. In Peru, Bellido and others (1969) described a discontinuous Fe province

along the Pacific littoral, followed eastward by

a Cu province with some Au, a polymetallic

province dominated by Pb, Zn, Ag, and Cu,

and still farther east a less important province

in which Au, Pb, Cu, and Sn are the principal

metals of economic interest. The Fe and Cu provinces can be recognized farther south in Chile (Ruiz and Ericksen, 1962; Ruiz and others, 1965), and the Pb, Zn, Ag, and Cu province extends southward into the Altiplano



America in the context of a plate tectonics-subduction model.

of western Bolivia (Ahlfeld, 1967) and western Argentina (Stoll, 1964, 1965). The porphyry copper deposits in the Cu province of Chile and Peru possess important quantities of Mo, and, in Chile, Au deposits are located in the western part of the Cu province. The easternmost polymetallic province in Peru, in which Sn is a component metal, continuessouthward into the Bolivian Sn-W province (Ahlfeld, 1967; Stoll, 1965). In Ecuador and Colombia, the smaller number of known ore deposits renders metal provinces less easy to define, but it can be appreciated that a western Cu province (with some Mo and Au) is flanked landward by a Pb-Zn province, which in Ecuador possesses important quantities of Ag (Goossens, 1969; Singewald, 1950); these two provinces are apparently northward extensions of the Cu and Pb, Zn, Ag, and Cu provinces of Peru. In Mexico, Noble (1970) recognized a change eastward in the dominant metal in ore deposits,



from Cu to Ag to Pb, and Gabelman and Krusiewski (1968) depicted a Pacific coastal Fe province, followed to the east by a Au-Cu province and still farther east by a province containing Cu, Pb, Zn, and Ag. Differences in the sequence of metal prov- inces eastward from different parts of the Pacific continental margin of America are ap- parent, but the similarities are considered sufficiently striking to indicate a general pattern from Fe, to Cu with some Au and Mo, to Pb, Zn, and Ag, and perhaps finally to Sn or Mo.

ORIGIN OF METAL PROVINCES It is proposed that post-Paleozoic metal provinces in western North and South America are related to subduction zones which were active beneath the western American continen- tal margin at times during the Mesozoic and early and middle Cenozoic (for example, At- water, 1970; Hamilton, 1969), and that are still active beneath Central America, the Andean Cordillera, the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington, and the Alaskan Peninsula. It is further proposed that much of the metals contained in post-Paleozoic magmatogene ore deposits in western America were derived from the mantle at the East Pacific Rise and its predecessors, and associated with basic mag- matism. From the ocean rise, the metals were carried toward the margins of the Pacific Ocean basin as components of basaltic-gabbroic oceanic crust and overlying pelagic sediments, and thrust beneath the continents along inclined Benioff zones. Metals were released from the underthrust oceanic crust and sed- iments during partial melting, and incorporated in ascending bodies of calc-alkaline magma. The metals attained high crustal levels as components of the magmas, finally to be con- centrated in fluid phases associated with the roof-zones of intrusive masses and also with comagmatic extrusive rocks (Fig. 1). Evidence for derivation of metals from the mantle at ocean rises is provided by the occurrence of anomalously high concentrations of metals in pelagic sediments on the crests and flanks of the East Pacific Rise and other ocean rises (Bostrom and Peterson, 1969; Bostrom and others, 1969). Brines and sed- iments rich in metals are also found along an active divergent plate margin in the Red Sea (Degens and Ross, 1969). The cupriferous pyrite deposits of Cyprus correspond to metal

concentrations in layer 2 of the oceanic crust, in the context of Cass' (1968) interpretation of the Troodos ophiolite complex as part of the ocean rise system in the Tethys Ocean. Noble (1970) explained the close spatial association of metal deposits and igneous rocks

in the western United States

metals rose from the mantle along the same conduits as those previously utilized by bodies of magma. However, mineralogical and age- determination studies of porphyry copper, porphyry molybdenum, and magmatic-hydro- thermal Pb-Zn deposits have shown that min- eralization and alteration possess a close tem- poral, as well as spatial, relation to igneous rocks (Fournier, 1967; Livingston and others, 1968; Laughlin and others, 1969; Ohmoto and others, 1966). Therefore, the metals contained in these types of ore deposits were more likely emplaced as integral parts of calc-alkaline magmas, a conclusion supported by exper- imental studies of Burnham (1967). In view of the apparent close genetic tie between igneous rocks and spatially related ore deposits, the landward change in the metals characterizing western American metal prov- inces is considered to be analogous to the systematic increase in the potash-to-silica ratios of andesitic volcanic rocks landward from the circum-Pacific continental margin; the increase is apparently unrelated to crustal composition and thickness, and dependent on the depth of the underlying Benioff zone (Dickinson, 1968). Also, comparable variations in potash content have been documented for post-Paleozoic calc-alkaline volcanic and in- trusive rocks in western North America (Moore, 1959, 1962; Bateman and Dodge, 1970). These transverse changes in the com- positions of calc-alkaline igneous rocks and metal deposits are visualized as being dependent on processes of partial melting on an underlying subduction zone, as proposed for compositional changes in andesitic volcanic rocks by Dickin- son (1968). Recent workers (for example, Oxburgh and Turcotte, 1970) have envisaged the attainment of melting temperatures by frictional heating due to slippage on a sub- duction zone. Such volumes of poorly con- solidated sediments as escaped being scraped off and added to the continental margin would melt at the lowest temperatures, followed at greater depths and higher temperatures by the lowest melting fractions of the basaltic- gabbroic oceanic crust (Oxburgh and Turcotte,

by proposing that



1970). It is here proposed that products of partial fusion at shallow depths on a subduction zone may be enriched in Fe and Cu (with some Au and Mo), giving way at deeper levels to a predominance of Pb, Zn, and Ag, and possibly at the deepest levels to Sn or Mo (Fig. 1). The relative narrowness and notable north- south orientation of the long axes of the metal provinces would seem to support their depend- ence on processes of partial melting, since the thermal regime on a subduction zone might be expected to possess similar longitudinal con- tinuity and to undergo relatively abrupt transverse changes. On the other hand, it is difficult to visualize the existence, parallel to the continental margin, of a series of long, narrow zones in the upper mantle, each enriched in an individual metal or metal association, as demanded by existing theories for the mantle-derivation of metals. A similar problem is encountered by theories in support of a crustal origin for the metals in western American metal provinces. The concept of the dependence of metal provinces on partial melting on zones of sub- duction is further supported by the existence of a similar, though more complicated, series of metal provinces in the northern Appala- chians (Gabelman, 1968), where orogenic evolution included the operation of subduc- tion zones (Bird and Dewey, 1970).

DISCUSSION Several problematic features of the spatial and temporal distribution of metal provinces are considered to be explicable in terms of the above model:

In view of the rektive permanency of com- pressive plate junctures, ore deposits assignable to more than one metallogenic epoch might be expected in a single metal province. Good examples of this phenomenon would seem to be the Sn province of Bolivia, where Sn deposition has taken place in late Triassic, Miocene, Pliocene and possibly Pleistocene times (Tur- neaure, 1971), and the Cu province of Chile, in which copper deposits range in age from Jurassic to Pliocene. Regions with particularly high concentra- tions of ore deposits, such as southern British Columbia, the southwest United States and southern Peru-northern Chile—in the case of Cu deposits—might be thought of as zones beneath which higher than normal quantities of metals were subducted, due to a rapid rate of

sea-floor spreading, or to an above-average rate of volcanism and metal-production on the cor- responding segment of ocean rise, or, more fundamentally, to an inhomogeneous distribu- tion of metals in the upper mantle beneath the ocean rise (Sillitoe, in prep.).

In British Columbia, Brown (1969) described

two broad east-trending zones character- ized by a paucity of ore deposits; these zones cut across the longitudinal metal provinces and tectonic units. It might be suggested that such zones face lengths of ocean rise along which metal production has been consistently low. Similarly, the restriction of important Sn mineralization in western South America to the Bolivian Sn province may reflect a con- centration of Sn in the upper mantle beneath the East Pacific Rise over the latitudes spanned by Bolivia.

A decrease in age of the most productive

period of mineralization southward from British Columbia through the western United States to Mexico, noted by Noble (1970), may reflect a similar, though of course earlier, migration of the main episode of metal produc- tion at the ocean rise. This brief consideration of the possibility of relating metal provinces to activity on under- lying zones of subduction indicates that basic research in economic geology should be directed toward the world ocean rise system and the oceanic crust, in an attempt to assess the viabil- ity of some of the suggestions advanced above.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I am grateful to Professor Konrad B. Kraus- kopf and Dr. James W. Stewart for reading the manuscript.

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