Arc magmas globally are H2O-Cl-S–rich and moderately oxidized (ΔFMQ = +1 to +2) relative to most other mantle-derived magmas (ΔFMQ ≤ 0). Their relatively high oxidation state limits the extent to which sulfide phases separate from the magma, which would otherwise tend to deplete the melt in chalcophile elements such as Cu (highly siderophile elements such as Au and especially platinum-group elements are depleted by even small amounts of sulfide segregation). As these magmas rise into the crust and begin to crystallize, they will reach volatile saturation, and a hydrous, saline, S-rich, moderately oxidized fluid is released, into which chalcophile and any remaining siderophile metals (as well as many other water-soluble elements) will strongly partition. This magmatic-hydrothermal fluid phase has the potential to form ore deposits (most commonly porphyry Cu ± Mo ± Au deposits) if its metal load is precipitated in economic concentrations, but there are many steps along the way that must be successfully negotiated before this can occur. This paper seeks to identify the main steps along the path from magma genesis to hydrothermal mineral precipitation that affect the chances of forming an ore deposit (defined as an economically mineable resource) and attempts to estimate the probability of achieving each step. The cumulative probability of forming a large porphyry Cu deposit at any given time in an arc magmatic system (i.e., a single batholith-linked volcanoplutonic complex) is estimated to be ~0.001%, and less than 1/10 of these deposits will be uplifted and exposed at shallow enough depths to mine economically (0.0001%). Continued uplift and erosion in active convergent tectonic regimes rapidly remove these upper-crustal deposits from the geological record, such that the probability of finding them in older arc systems decreases further with age, to the point that porphyry Cu deposits are almost nonexistent in Precambrian rocks.
A key finding of this paper is that most volcanoplutonic arcs above subduction zones are prospective for porphyry ore formation, with probabilities only falling to low values at late stages of magmatic-hydrothermal fluid exsolution, focusing, and metal deposition. This is in part because of the high threshold required in terms of grade and tonnage for a deposit to be considered economic. Thus, the probability of forming a porphyry-type system in any given arc segment is relatively high, but the probability that it will be a large economic deposit is low, dictated to a large extent by mineral economics and metal prices.