The Great Basin region in the western United States contains active geothermal systems, large epithermal Au-Ag deposits, and world-class Carlin-type gold deposits. Temperature profiles, fluid inclusion studies, and isotopic evidence suggest that modern and fossil hydrothermal systems associated with gold mineralization share many common features, including the absence of a clear magmatic fluid source, discharge areas restricted to fault zones, and remarkably high temperatures (>200 °C) at shallow depths (200–1500 m). While the plumbing of these systems varies, geochemical and isotopic data collected at the Dixie Valley and Beowawe geothermal systems suggest that fluid circulation along fault zones was relatively deep (>5 km) and comprised of relatively unexchanged Pleistocene meteoric water with small (<2.5‰) shifts from the meteoric water line (MWL). Many fossil ore-forming systems were also dominated by meteoric water, but usually exhibit δ18O fluid-rock interactions with larger shifts of 5‰–20‰ from the MWL.

Here we present a suite of two-dimensional regional (100 km) and local (40–50 km) scale hydrologic models that we have used to study the plumbing of modern and Tertiary hydrothermal systems of the Great Basin. Geologically and geophysically consistent cross sections were used to generate somewhat idealized hydrogeologic models for these systems that include the most important faults, aquifers, and confining units in their approximate configurations. Multiple constraints were used, including enthalpy, δ18O, silica compositions of fluids and/or rocks, groundwater residence times, fluid inclusion homogenization temperatures, and apatite fission track anomalies.

Our results suggest that these hydrothermal systems were driven by natural thermal convection along anisotropic, subvertical faults connected in many cases at depth by permeable aquifers within favorable lithostratigraphic horizons. Those with minimal fluid δ18O shifts are restricted to high-permeability fault zones and relatively small-scale (~5 km), single-pass flow systems (e.g., Beowawe). Those with intermediate to large isotopic shifts (e.g., epithermal and Carlin-type Au) had larger-scale (~15 km) loop convection cells with a greater component of flow through marine sedimentary rocks at lower water/rock ratios and greater endowments of gold. Enthalpy calculations constrain the duration of Carlin-type gold systems to probably <200 k.y. Shallow heat flow gradients and fluid silica concentrations suggest that the duration of the modern Beowawe system is <5 k.y. However, fluid flow at Beowawe during the Quaternary must have been episodic with a net duration of ~200 k.y. to account for the amount of silica in the sinter deposits.

In the Carlin trend, fluid circulation extended down into Paleozoic siliciclastic rocks, which afforded more mixing with isotopically enriched higher enthalpy fluids. Computed fission track ages along the Carlin trend included the convective effects, and ranged between 91.6 and 35.3 Ma. Older fission track ages occurred in zones of groundwater recharge, and the younger ages occurred in discharge areas. This is largely consistent with fission track ages reported in recent studies.

We found that either an amagmatic system with more permeable faults (10−11 m2) or a magmatic system with less permeable faults (10−13 m2) could account for the published isotopic and thermal data along the Carlin trend systems. Localized high heat flow beneath the Muleshoe fault was needed to match fluid inclusion temperatures at Mule Canyon. However, both magmatic and amagmatic scenarios require the existence of deep, permeable faults to bring hot fluids to the near surface.

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