Geologic Overview of the Escondida Porphyry Copper District, Northern Chile
Miguel Hervé, Richard H. Sillitoe, Chilong Wong, Patricio Fernández, Francisco Crignola, Marco Ipinza, Felipe Urzúa, 2012. "Geologic Overview of the Escondida Porphyry Copper District, Northern Chile", Geology and Genesis of Major Copper Deposits and Districts of the World: A Tribute to Richard H. Sillitoe, Jeffrey W. Hedenquist, Michael Harris, Francisco Camus
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The giant Escondida district in northern Chile, discovered in 1981, includes the major porphyry copper deposits at Escondida-Escondida Este, Escondida Norte-Zaldívar, Pampa Escondida, and two small deposits (the Escondida cluster), besides the Chimborazo deposit. The district contains at least 144 million metric tons (Mt) of copper. The Escondida district is part of the middle Eocene to early Oligocene porphyry copper belt, which follows the trench-parallel Domeyko fault system, a product of the Incaic transpressional tectonic phase. At the district scale, the major N-striking Portezuelo-Panadero oblique-reverse fault juxtaposes latest Carboniferous to Early Permian igneous basement with an andesitic volcanic sequence of late Paleocene to early Eocene age, both of which host the porphyry copper mineralization. Immediately before and during porphyry copper formation, a thick siliciclastic sequence with andesitic volcanic products intercalated toward the top (San Carlos strata) filled a deep basin, generated by clockwise rigid-block rotation, within the confines of the Escondida cluster. The presence of these volcanic rocks suggests that an eruptive center was still active within the confines of the Escondida cluster when deposit formation began.
The deposits are all centered on multiphase biotite granodiorite porphyry stocks, which were predated by dioritic to monzodioritic precursors and closely associated with volumetrically minor, but commonly high-grade, magmatic-hydrothermal breccias. The earliest porphyry phases consistently host the highest grade mineralization. Alteration-mineralization zoning is well developed: potassic and overprinted gray sericite assemblages containing chalcopyrite and bornite at depth; more pyritic chlorite-sericite and sericitic zones at intermediate levels; and shallow advanced argillic developments, the remnants of former lithocaps that could have attained 200 km2 in total extent. The latter are associated with high-sulfidation, copper-bearing sulfide mineralization, much of it in enargite-rich, massive sulfide veins. The Escondida and Escondida Norte-Zaldí-var deposits, formed at ∼ 38 to 36 Ma, are profoundly telescoped, whereas the earlier (∼ 41 Ma) Chimborazo and later (∼ 36–34 Ma) Escondida Este and Pampa Escondida deposits display only minor telescoping, suggesting that maximal Incaic uplift and erosion took place from 38 to 36 Ma.
The Portezuelo-Panadero and subsidiary longitudinal faults in the district—inverted normal structures that formerly delimited the eastern side of a Mesozoic backarc basin—were subjected to sinistral transpression prior to deposit formation (pre-41 Ma), which gave rise to the clockwise block rotation responsible for generation and initial synorogenic filling of the San Carlos depocenter. The Escondida district was then subjected to transient dextral transpression during emplacement of the NNE- to NE-oriented porphyry copper intrusions and associated alteration and mineralization (∼ 38–34.5 Ma). This dextral regime had waned by the time that a N-trending, late mineral rhyolite porphyry was emplaced at Escondida Este and was replaced by transient sinistral transpression during end-stage formation of NW-striking, high and intermediate sulfidation, massive sulfide veins and phreatic breccia dikes. Since 41 Ma, the faults in the district have undergone no appreciable displacement because none of the porphyry copper deposits shows significant lateral or vertical offset.
Renewed uplift and denudation characterized the late Oligocene to early Miocene, during which the extensive former lithocap was largely stripped and incorporated as detritus in a thick piedmont gravel sequence. Development of hematitic leached capping and attendant chalcocite enrichment zones, along with subsidiary oxide copper ore, was active beneath the topographic prominences at Escondida, Escondida Norte-Zaldívar, and, to a lesser degree, Chimborazo from ∼ 18 to 14 Ma, but supergene activity was much less important at the topographically lower, gravel-covered Pampa Escondida deposit. After ∼ 14 Ma, supergene processes were soon curtailed by the onset of hyperaridity throughout much of northern Chile.
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Geology and Genesis of Major Copper Deposits and Districts of the World: A Tribute to Richard H. Sillitoe
It has been recognized for the past century that copper deposits, in common with those of many other metals, are heterogeneously concentrated in Earth’s upper crust, resulting in areally restricted copper provinces that were generated during several discrete metallogenic epochs over time intervals of up to several hundred million years. Various segments of circum-Pacific magmatic arcs, for example, have total contained copper contents that differ by two orders of magnitude. Each metallogenic epoch introduced its own deposit type(s), of which porphyry copper (and related skarn), followed by sediment-hosted stratiform copper and then iron oxide copper-gold (IOCG), are globally preeminent. Nonetheless, genesis of the copper provinces remains somewhat enigmatic and a topic of ongoing debate.
A variety of deposit-scale geometric and geologic features and factors strongly influence the size and/or grade of porphyry copper, sediment-hosted stratiform copper, and/or IOCG deposits. For example, development of major porphyry copper deposits/districts is favored by the presence of clustered alteration-mineralization centers, mafic or massive carbonate host rocks, voluminous magmatic-hydrothermal breccias, low sulfidation-state core zones conducive to copper deposition as bornite ± digenite, hypogene and supergene sulfide enrichment, and mineralized skarn formation, coupled with lack of serious dilution by late, low-grade porphyry intrusions and breccias. Furthermore, the copper endowment of all deposit types undoubtedly benefits from optimization of the ore-forming processes involved.
Tectonic setting also plays a fundamental role in copper metallogeny. Contractional tectonomagmatic belts, created by flat-slab subduction or, less commonly, arc-continent collision and characterized by crustal thickening and high rates of uplift and exhumation, appear to host most large, high-grade hypogene porphyry copper deposits. Such mature arc crust also undergoes mafic magma input during porphyry copper formation. The premier sediment-hosted stratiform copper provinces were formed in cratonic or hinterland extensional sedimentary basins that subsequently underwent tectonic inversion. The IOCG deposits were generated in association with extension/transtension and felsic intrusions, the latter apparently triggered by deep-seated mafic magmas in either intracratonic or subduction settings. The radically different exhumation rates characteristic of these various tectonic settings account well for the secular distribution of copper deposit types, in particular the youthfulness of most porphyry relative to sediment-hosted stratiform and IOCG deposits. Notwithstanding the importance of these deposit-scale geologic, regional tectonic, and erosion-rate criteria for effective copper deposit formation and preservation, they seem inadequate to explain the localization of premier copper provinces, such as the central Andes, southwestern North America, and Central African Copperbelt, in which different deposit types were generated during several discrete epochs. By the same token, the paucity of copper mineralization in some apparently similar geologic settings elsewhere also remains unexplained.
It is proposed here that major copper provinces occur where restricted segments of the lithosphere were predisposed to upper-crustal copper concentration throughout long intervals of Earth history. This predisposition was most likely gained during oxidation and copper introduction by subduction-derived fluids, containing metals and volatiles extracted from hydrated basalts and sediments in downgoing slabs. As a result, superjacent lithospheric mantle and lowermost crust were metasomatized as well as gaining cupriferous sulfide-bearing cumulates during magmatic differentiation—processes that rendered them fertile for tapping during subsequent subduction-or, uncommonly, intraplate extension-related magmatic events to generate porphyry copper and IOCG districts or belts. The fertile lithosphere beneath some accretionary orogens became incorporated during earlier collisional events, commonly during Precambrian times. Relatively oxidized crustal profiles—as opposed to those dominated by reduced, sedimentary material—are also required for effective formation of all major copper deposits. Large sedimentary basins underlain by or adjoining oxidized and potentially copper-anomalous crust and filled initially by immature redbed strata containing magmatic arc-derived detritus provide optimal sites for large-scale, sediment-hosted stratiform copper mineralization. Translithospheric fault zones, acting as giant plumbing systems, commonly played a key role in localizing all types of major copper deposits, districts, and belts. These proposals address the long-debated concept of metal inheritance in terms of the fundamental role played by subduction-metasomatized mantle lithosphere and lowermost crust in global copper metallogeny.