It has become increasingly common for geologists to drill through 100 m or more of cover in search for buried mineral deposits. Geochemistry is one tool applied to this search, using a variety of approaches, including selective leaching of soils to extract the mobile component of elements, and the measurement of inorganic and organic gases. This paper provides an overview of some of the work carried out by the project Deep-Penetrating Geochemistry, sponsored by the Canadian Mining Industry Research Organization (CAMIRO), and supported by 26 Canadian and international companies and by the Ontario Geological Survey and the Canadian Geological Survey. The objective was to provide the mining industry with information relating to processes that may form anomalies at surface over buried deposits and to provide comparative data on methods used to detect these anomalies.
Phase I of the project considered the theoretical and experimental framework for the movement of material from deeply buried deposits to the surface; much of this information has come from research on the containment of buried nuclear waste. In arid or semi-arid terrain, with a thick vadose zone, advective transport, which is the mass transfer of groundwater or air along with their dissolved or gaseous constituents, is the only known viable means of moving elements to the surface; diffusion of ions in water or gases in air is orders of magnitude slower. Examples of advective transport are pumping of mineralized groundwater to the surface during seismic activity and the extraction of air plus gas by barometric pumping. Both mechanisms require fractured rock and the interpretation of the derived anomalies requires consideration of neotectonic structures. In wetter climates, where water lies close to the surface, a variety of mechanisms have been proposed for creating anomalies at the surface. Diffusion-based models again suffer from slow rates of migration. Electrochemical models show a cathodic zone at the top of a buried sulphide conductor. Cations are attracted to the cathode, rather than to the surface, yet metals that most commonly migrate as cations are found to form anomalies at the surface.
Phase II of the CAMIRO study involved field studies at ten test sites. The test sites included buried porphyry deposits in northern Chile, a gold–copper deposit in the Carlin district of Nevada, and volcanogenic massive sulphide bodies covered by glacial sediments in the Abitibi greenstone belt of Ontario. In all cases anomalies were found in soils above buried mineralization. It is suggested that anomaly formation is an episodic and cyclic process, in which batches of metal in water-soluble form are introduced and the metal is then progressively incorporated with time into the secondary minerals of soil. Selective leaches have been developed to dissolve specific phases in the soil to detect these anomalies. We have compared the results for five selective leaches that are available from commercial laboratories: deionized water, ammonium acetate, hydroxylamine hydrochloride, Enzyme Leach and Mobile Metal Ion (MMI) plus one non-selective decomposition, aqua regia. In addition, the Institute of Geophysical and Geochemical Exploration laboratory in China has supplied data for four sequential selective leaches: water-extractable, adsorbed, organic-bound and iron- and manganese-bound. The weakest leaches dissolve mainly the most recently introduced metals that remain in water-soluble form. Other leaches dissolve specific secondary minerals, such as carbonates, or iron and manganese oxides, which contain the introduced metals. The usefulness of leaches that dissolve secondary minerals depends on the ratio of introduced (exogenic) metal that the minerals contain relative to that of endogenic origin derived from the primary minerals of soils. Our results indicate that this ratio is variable from site to site, so that there is no universal ‘best’ leach for dissolving secondary minerals in exploration surveys. For the test sites in Chile and Nevada, anomalies may have formed incrementally over a period of a million years or more, which permitted metals of exogenic origin to become incorporated into many secondary minerals. For these sites, some anomalies can be detected by aqua regia, although the anomaly/background contrast is less than for selective leaches. For the test sites in Ontario, only a few thousand years have elapsed since glacial sediments were deposited to conceal mineralization. Over this short period, metal of exogenic origin has been incorporated into only the most labile of secondary minerals and it is the leaches that dissolve these labile minerals that can successfully identify anomalies. At the two sites where the most detailed studies have been carried out, the Spence deposit in Chile and Cross Lake near Timmins, we have found that the optimum sampling depth in soils is critical to detecting anomalies.