Geochemical orientation surveys were completed over covered Carlin-type gold deposits in the Cortez mine area with the expressed aim of identifying and evaluating exploration methods to discover Au ore under transported alluvial cover in Nevada. Orientation tests were designed to assess the utility of geochemical applications at various scales of exploration, both drill targets at the deposit scale and “footprints” associated with deposits at the district scale.

Detailed surveys were completed over the covered Gap deposit, located adjacent to the giant Pipeline deposit. Both Carlin-type gold mineralization and earlier, spatially associated, base metal skarn mineralization at Gap were located by soils, soil gas, and vegetation. Loam soils at 6- to 12-cm depth provided a consistent and uniformly available sample medium. Gold ore under 10 m of cover in the northern portion of the Gap deposit was readily detected by analysis of Au by fire assay and ultra trace aqua regia methods in the −80 mesh fraction of these loam soils. Arsenic anomalies occur over the northern end and over the main ore zone at Gap, where there is 25 to 50 m of alluvial cover. Zinc concentrations in soil show the most coherent spatial relationship with underlying Au ore. Tests of MMI-B and Enzyme Leach selective leaches did not result in significant enhancement of the anomalies relative to aqua regia. CO2 and O2 in soil gas indicate faults and underlying mineralized carbonates at Gap, where weathering reactions likely generated CO2 from acid reaction with carbonate. Elevated Au and As in mixed sagebrush and shadscale occur over most ore zones, with the highest Au concentrations over the main ore zone rather than the shallowly buried northern zone. Like soils, elevated Zn in vegetation shows the most coherent spatial relationship with underlying ore.

Assays from 1,859 drill holes show a 4- to 5-km2 “footprint” at the basin gravel-bedrock unconformity centered on the Pipeline Carlin-type gold deposit, where samples of basal alluvium provide a large, coherent >50 ppb Au anomaly. Enriched As, Tl, K, and F in alkaline groundwater sampled from monitoring wells surrounding the Pipeline open pit provide a ≥5-km2 hydrogeochemical footprint. Higher As and Tl concentrations occur down gradient from Pipeline indicating Carlin-type Au mineralization is the source of the enrichment.

The surface metal anomalies are consistent with upward migration of metals through fractured alluvial cover. Likely metal transport mechanisms include barometric pumping of gases or seismic pumping of groundwater. Upward diffusion of metals through the thick vadose zones in northern Nevada is not a viable process. Surface anomalies over Gap and other deposits appear to be mature and may have developed over millions of years. In such mature anomalies, much of the metal that migrated from underlying bedrock is probably hosted in resistant secondary minerals, which are more readily dissolved by aqua regia than by various selective leaches.

Sampling of soil gas and soils is appropriate at the drill target scale. Vegetation should be sampled when consistent soils are not available. Sample spacing should be adjusted according to “real-time” soil gas readings in order to increase sampling density over fracture zones. The patterns of >50 ppb Au for both the top of bedrock and base of alluvium at Pipeline provide useful templates for comparison with other drilling programs through cover. Groundwater is an effective and under-utilized reconnaissance-scale sample medium. Gold is likely to be soluble in neutral to alkaline groundwater in Nevada, and could provide a direct indicator of blind covered ore.

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