Field and geochronologic studies of Neogene sedimentary basins in northeastern Nevada document the paleogeographic and geologic evolution of this region and the effects on major mineral deposits. The broad area that includes the four middle Miocene basins studied—Chimney, Ivanhoe, Carlin, and Elko, from west to east—was an upland that underwent prolonged middle Tertiary exposure and moderate erosion. All four basins began to retain sediments at ca. 16 Ma. Eruption of volcanic flows in the Chimney and Ivanhoe basins produced short-lived (ca. 2 Ma), lacustrine-dominated basins before the dams failed and the streams drained to the southwest. In contrast, early, high-angle, normal faulting induced fluvial to lacustrine sedimentation in the Carlin and Elko basins, and volcanic flows further blocked drainage in the Carlin basin until the basin drained at ca. 14.5 Ma. The Elko basin, with continued synsedimentary faulting, retained sediments until ca. 9.8 Ma and then drained west into the Carlin basin. Sediment buildup in all basins progressively buried existing highlands and created a subdued landscape.
Relatively minor post-sedimentation extension produced early north-northwest–striking normal faults with variable amounts of offset, and later east-northeast–striking normal faults with up to several kilometers of vertical and left-lateral offset. The earlier faults are more pronounced east of the Tuscarora Mountains, possibly reflecting a hanging-wall influence related to uplift of the Ruby Mountains-East Humboldt core complex on the east side of the Elko basin. The later faults are concentrated along the north-northwest–trending northern Nevada rift west of the Tuscarora Mountains. The area west of the rift contains major tilted horsts and alluvium-filled grabens, and differential extension between this more highly extended region and the less extended area to the east produced the intervening east-northeast–striking faults.
The Humboldt River drainage system formed as the four basins became integrated after ca. 9.8 Ma. Flow was into northwestern Nevada, the site of active normal faulting and graben formation. This faulting lowered the base level of the river and induced substantial erosion in upstream regions. Erosion preferentially removed the poorly consolidated Miocene sediments, progressively reexposed the pre-middle Miocene highlands, and transported the sediments to downstream basins. Thus, some ranges in the upstream region are exhumed older highlands rather than newly formed horsts. In addition, the drainage system evolution indicates that northern Nevada has become progressively lower than central Nevada since the middle Miocene.
Mineral belts with large Eocene gold deposits are exposed in uplands and concealed beneath Neogene basin units in the study area. Also, numerous epithermal hot-spring deposits formed at and near the paleosurface in the Chimney, Ivanhoe, and Carlin basins as those basins were forming. The Neogene geologic and landscape evolution had variable effects on all of these deposits, including uplift, weathering, supergene enrichment, erosion, and burial, depending on the events at any particular deposit. As such, this study documents the importance of evaluating post-mineralization processes at both regional and local scales when exploring for or evaluating the diverse mineral deposits in this area and other parts of the Basin and Range region.