The formation of porphyry copper deposits requires a focused flux of magmatic fluid, expelled from a large reservoir of water-, metal-, and sulfur-rich magma. The dimensions of this usually hidden magma reservoir are difficult to determine but can be constrained by combining geophysical observations with thermal constraints and the mass balance imposed by the chemical enrichment of elements in the deposit. Here we show that an internally consistent scenario can be derived for the world-class Cu-Mo-Au deposit at Bingham Canyon (Utah, United States), which quantifies the essential characteristics, approximate dimension, and temporal evolution of a large pluton that generated the deposit.

The mineralized district shows a distinct WSW-ENE–striking magnetic anomaly indicating a large intrusive body underlying the sedimentary host rocks of the Oquirrh Mountains. Modeling the deep body by geomagnetic methods is possible because of the high contrast in magnetic susceptibility between sedimentary host rocks and intrusive rocks and because a former volcanic edifice is largely eroded. Additional constraints from drilled geology and district-wide outcropping rocks, including partial demagnetization by hydrothermal alteration on the mine scale, restrict the range of possible solutions to a broadly laccolith-shaped intrusion with a volume of approximately 1,400 to 3,000 km3. From the roof of the laccolith, several smaller subvolcanic stocks and dikes protrude to the present surface, of which a major one is hosting the Bingham Canyon deposit. The roof of the laccolith probably lies between 2 and 3.5 km below the bottom of the present open-pit mine, and the average thickness of the laccolith is constrained between 2 and 3.5 km.

Thermal modeling, using pluton dimensions derived from the geologic and geomagnetic modeling, indicates that a single laccolith with a magma volume of ~2,000 km3 beneath Bingham would have solidified within about 230,000 years or less. Comparison of the thermal models with published high-precision geochronologic data and petrologic constraints suggests a scenario in which about 1,000 km3 of magma was encapsulated by inward crystallization of the pluton after the preore equigranular monzonite stocks solidified and extrusive volcanism was probably terminated. This encapsulated reservoir was close to water saturation and contained approximately 150 billion metric tons (Gt) of magmatic water for subsequent closed-system fractionation and eventual fluid expulsion driving porphyry copper mineralization.

Chemical mass balance shows that the known metal endowment and mapped mass of vein quartz within the deposit can be advected and precipitated by a fluid mass that is slightly smaller than the available 150 Gt of water. A conservative estimate indicates that 115 Gt of water is sufficient to precipitate all the quartz associated with successive Cu-Au-and Mo-stage veins as well as their barren precursors. According to our thermal model, approximately 250 km3 of quartz monzonite magma with a temperature of about 690°C remained partially liquid some 215,000 years after initial intrusion of the laccolith. At that point, it expelled almost simultaneously the quartz monzonite porphyry and the main mass of accumulated fluid, generating most of the vein quartz in the quenched porphyry and the adjacent older rocks. Petrographic evidence indicates that the ore metals precipitated near the end of individual pulses of quartz veining that followed recurrent but waning pulses of porphyry intrusion. Considering published experimental solubility data as well as ore metal contents in fluid inclusions, a small fraction of the available fluid mass is sufficient to transport and precipitate all the ore metals after an initial fluid pulse precipitated most of the quartz. However, the total amount of sulfur present in the deposit, which includes Cu and Mo sulfides as well as a major addition of pyrite, would be facilitated by addition of a mafic magma input into the residual magma chamber that contained the evolved felsic magma. This magmatic injection probably triggered the emplacement of the mineralized porphyries, consistent with the more mafic composition of some of the latest porphyry dikes and the CO2-rich nature of ore-related fluid inclusions.

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