Protracted Magmatic-Hydrothermal History of the Río Blanco-Los Bronces District, Central Chile: Development of World's Greatest Known Concentration of Copper
Juan Carlos Toro, Javier Ortúzar, Jorge Zamorano, Patricio Cuadra, Juan Hermosilla, Cristian Spröhnle, 2012. "Protracted Magmatic-Hydrothermal History of the Río Blanco-Los Bronces District, Central Chile: Development of World's Greatest Known Concentration of Copper", 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 Río Blanco-Los Bronces copper-molybdenum porphyry district in the late Miocene to early Pliocene magmatic arc of central Chile is currently being mined by state mining company CODELCO (Río Blanco) and Anglo American Sur (Los Bronces). Combined annual production in 2011 was nearly 450,000 metric tons (t) of copper plus by-product molybdenum. With Anglo American's recent high-grade discoveries in the district (3.7 billion tons (Bt) grading 0.7% Cu at San Enrique-Monolito, and 4.5 Bt grading 0.9% Cu at Los Sulfatos) adding more than 65 Mt of fine copper to the mineral inventory, the district now ranks as the world's largest by contained metal, with more than 200 Mt of copper.
Volcanic and volcaniclastic rocks of the Abanico and Farellones Formations represent premineralization host rocks ranging in age between 22.7 ± 0.4 and 16.8 ± 0.3 Ma (U-Pb dating of zircons). The bulk of the copper-molybdenum porphyry endowment is related to evolution of the San Francisco batholith, a large (200 km2) granodiorite-dominated complex with U-Pb zircon ages between 16.4 ± 0.2 to 8.4 ± 0.2 Ma.
Three geologic domains are defined in the district on the basis of rock types, structural breaks, and age determinations: the Los Piches-Ortiga block in the west, the San Manuel-El Plomo block in the center, and the Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos block in the east. These geologic domains are younger progressively to the east, with most of the known copper endowment on the easternmost (Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos) block. Intrusive and hydrothermal activity in the Los Piches-Ortiga block spanned ∼ 2.5 m.y., from 14.8 ± 0.1 to 12.3 ± 0.1 Ma. Although these events apparently did not produce high-grade copper deposits, silver-bearing veins associated with a high sulfidation hydrothermal system are present in the block. To the east, in the San Manuel-El Plomo block, a series of magmatic-hydrothermal systems developed during a ∼ 3-m.y. period between 10.8 ± 0.1 and 7.7 ± 0.1 Ma. These events also apparently failed to generate high-grade copper systems. Magmatic-hydrothermal activity in the eastern Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos block, hosting virtually all of the copper endowment recognized in the district, spanned a ∼ 4-m.y. period from 8.2 ± 0.5 to 4.31 ± 0.05 Ma.
Copper endowment in the district is associated with vertically continuous breccia bodies and quartz-veinstockworked porphyries. Hydrothermal assemblages follow a characteristic vertical and lateral zonation pattern. Remnants of high sulfidation and/or advanced argillic assemblages (quartz-enargite-tennantite-galenasphalerite-gypsum-anhydrite with dumortierite-pyrophyllite-alunite) and peripheral sericite-illite reflect preservation of shallow levels, whereas K-silicate alteration assemblages (biotite-K-feldspar-albite) are present in association with chalcopyrite-bornite and chalcopyrite-pyrite at depth. Between the mineralized bodies, a distal assemblage of hydrothermal chlorite-epidote-specularite-pyrite predominates. At Río Blanco-Los Bronces, igneous and/or hydrothermal- and hydrothermal-cemented breccias developed in intimate association with porphyry phases. At shallow depths, the hydrothermal breccia cement generally comprises quartz-sericitetourmaline, and contains pyrite > chalcopyrite/molybdenite. At deeper levels the breccia cement is predominantly biotite-K-feldspar containing bornite-chalcopyrite-molybdenite. These progressively grade outward into chalcopyrite-pyrite-dominated zones and ultimately to pyrite-dominated zones. Within the Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos block, the upper presence of the K-silicate assemblage varies from ∼ 3,000 m above sea level (a.s.l.) in the poorly telescoped northern area (Río Blanco), to ∼ 4,000 m a.s.l in the highly telescoped southern area (Los Sulfatos). These differences may reflect varying rates of synmineral structural exhumation, or varying depth of porphyry emplacement along the Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos structural corridor.
Key factors contributing to the copper productivity in the district are considered to reflect both far-field tectonic conditions, and district-scale structural controls. Following the last significant phase of volcanism documented in the district (∼ 16.8 Ma), a temporally discrete period of peak compression and rapid exhumation, between ∼ 6 to 3 Ma, affected the central Chilean Andes. This period of uplift relates to flat-slab subduction of sea floor containing the Juan Fernandez Ridge into the Chile Trench and overlaps part of the emplacement history of the Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos block (8.2–4.31 Ma). The lack of contemporaneous volcanism and concomitant tectonic uplift are interpreted to reflect a state of increased horizontal crustal compression due to shear coupling of the downgoing slab. By suppressing volcanism, these conditions are considered to promote the retention of magma in the deep crustal environment, where higher pressures promote greater solubility of magmatic volatiles and higher temperatures may promote longer lived magma chambers by slowing fractionation processes. Under such conditions, the potential is enhanced for increased amounts of metals and volatiles by addition of fresh batches of magma to the deep magma chamber. At the district scale, closely spaced (2 km) structures that control the position of the porphyry and breccia bodies in the Río Blanco-Los Bronces-Los Sulfatos block appear to have focused long-lived, multistage magmatic-hydrothermal activity within a narrow structural corridor, contributing to the development of large, high-grade porphyry/breccia systems.
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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.