Abstract

During Eocene time, 37 to 49 m.y. ago, a series of large hydrothermal systems was developed around a group of epizonal granite plutons in the Idaho batholith. These systems involved deep and extensive circulation of fluids derived from low-δ18O (∼−16) and low-δD (∼−120) meteoric waters. Water-rock interactions occurred at temperatures of 150 to 400 °C, lowering the 18O/16O and D/H ratios in the surrounding Mesozoic rocks (tonalite, granodiorite, and granite), such that the feldspar δ18O and biotite δD values became as low as −8.2 and −176, respectively. These values contrast markedly with the primary isotopic compositions of +9.3 ± 1.5 and −70 ± 5, respectively. Widespread propylitization of the Mesozoic plutonic rocks accompanied these isotopic exchange effects. Systematic mapping shows that anomalous δD and δ18O values occur over more than 15,000 km2, indicating the extensive lateral dimensions of the ancient circulating systems. The former zones of intense hydrothermal activity are marked by low-18O zones, which were mapped in the vicinity of the margins of several Eocene plutons (for example, at Rocky Bar) and also within a giant (5- to 20-km wide, 60- to 40-km diam) ring zone that surrounds the Sawtooth Mountains. The latter anomaly is coincident with the high-permeability ring fracture zone of an Eocene caldera system. Most of the ore deposits in the southern half of the Idaho batholith are epithermal and mesothermal Au-Ag veins that are located near the periphery of the low-18O zones (that is, near the outermost δ18O = 8 isopleth). This association links these deposits with the Tertiary hydrothermal activity and has great potential as an exploration tool in the heavily forested region. Evidence is presented that the Eocene ground-water circulation pattern was affected over large lateral distances (25 to 50 km) and great depths (5 to 7 km). These conclusions, together with the indications that large amounts of water (> 7,000 km3) were involved in some systems and that the circulation patterns probably are related to caldera ring structures, may be of particular importance in geothermal exploration and exploitation of analogous modern systems. For example, the “fossil” hydrothermal activity mapped in the Idaho batholith may be characteristic of deep-level fluid circulation in geothermal systems such as Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. In such regions, the major zones of hydrothermal activity seem to be principally associated with either (1) the caldera ring zones or (2) the central plutons (resurgent domes).

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