All existing bench and tunnel vein and fault structural data with identified mineral infill, acquired in Chuquicamata, were georeferenced, digitized, and, according to their mineralogy, assigned to one or more of the major alteration events developed between 35 and 31 Ma. Veins and faults were separated into two main stages: (1) the late magmatic and potassic stage that comprises the background potassic and the propylitic alteration and (2) the hydrothermal stage composed by early (intense potassic), main (principal and late sericite; hydrothermal stages H1 through H4), and late (advanced argillic alteration) hydrothermal events. The spatial distribution of the propylitic to late-hydrothermal events that plotted within the major fault framework indicate these had either permeable or impermeable (±barrier) behavior through time. The area of the deposit was divided into 600 square grids measuring 100 × 100 m, and a stress orientation analysis was carried out for every propylitic to late-hydrothermal alteration event. The analysis indicates that the local principal horizontal stress (σH) trajectories are nonlinear and noncoaxial through the successive alteration events, differing from the previous and following stages, and in the majority of cases do not coincide with the approximate east-northeast orientation of the inferred tectonic far-field stress orientation. The differences between the stress trajectories, away from the far-field stress orientation throughout the evolution of the system, are considered to be principally related to the dynamic variations experienced by the stress components, such as thermal-magmatic stresses linked to temperature fluctuations due to cooling or heating by progressive igneous/hydrothermal activity and/or elastic, overburden-related stresses associated with reaccommodations developed during uplift and erosion. The estimated stresses resulting after erosional unroofing and decreasing temperature indicate that the maximum horizontal stress varied as the system evolved from the commonly accepted depth of emplacement of ~6 km. During the late magmatic, background potassic, and intense potassic stages, the calculated differential stress was contractional, decreasing to an isotropic state at the contraction-extension stress reversal that hosted the main hydrothermal H1 through H3 events, to finally become extensional at the shallow late-hydrothermal event. The most significant mineralization occurred at the time of stress reversal, coincidental with the sericite and quartz-sericite events (H1-H4), associated with hydrothermal fluid accumulation, overpressuring, and multiple-orientated hydraulic fracture development.
The Chuquicamata study suggests that the local stress control involved in the emplacement of porphyry copper systems is fundamentally related to variable and progressive heat energy release, associated with igneous and hydrothermal activity, and to the elastic stresses derived from uplift and unloading, rather than to a constant far-field tectonic stress. The continuous local stress fluctuations led to bulk stress readjustments and cyclical stress-fluid interactions for local fault reactivation, damage zone modification, brecciation, permeability creation/destruction, and fluid focusing, as well as the discharge of hydrothermal fluids throughout the evolution of the system.