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Formation of gold deposits: a metamorphic devolatilization model

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Abstract

A metamorphic devolatilization model can explain the enrichment, segregation, timing, distribution and character of many goldfields such as those found in Archean greenstone belts, slate-belts and other gold-only provinces. In this genetic model, hydrated and carbonated greenschist facies rocks, particularly metabasic rocks, are devolatilized primarily across the greenschist–amphibolite facies boundary in an orogenic setting. Devolatilization operates on the scale of individual mineral grains, extracting not just H2O and CO2 but also S and, in turn, Au. Elevated gold in solution is achieved by complexing with reduced S, and by H2CO3 weak acid buffering near the optimal fluid pH for gold solubility (the buffering is more important than being at the point of maximum gold solubility). Low salinity ensures low base metal concentrations in the auriferous metamorphic fluid. Migration of this fluid upwards is via shear zones and/or into hydraulic fracture zones in rocks of low tensile strength. The geometry of the shear zones dictates the kilometre-scale fluid migration paths and the degree of fluid focusing into small enough volumes to form economic accumulations of gold. Deposition of gold from solution necessitates breakdown of the gold–thiosulphide complex and is especially facilitated by fluid reduction in contact with reduced carbon-bearing host rocks and/or by sulphidation of wallrocks to generate iron-bearing sulphide and precipitated gold. As such, black slate, carbon seams, banded iron formation, tholeiitic basalt, magnetite-bearing diorite and differentiated tholeiitic dolerite sills are some of the important hosts to major goldfields. Gold deposition is accompanied by carbonation, sulphidation and muscovite/biotite alteration where the host rock is of suitable bulk composition. The correlation of major gold deposits with rock type, even when the gold is primarily in veins, argues for rock-dominated depositional systems, not fluid-dominated ones. As a consequence, a general role in gold deposition for fluid mixing, temperature decrease and/or fluid pressure decrease and boiling is unlikely, although such effects may be involved locally. Several geological features that are recorded at gold-only deposits today reflect subsequent modifications superimposed upon the products of this generic metamorphic devolatilization process. Overprinting by higher-grade metamorphism and deformation, and/or (palaeo)-weathering may provide many of the most-obvious features of goldfields including their mineralogy, geochemistry, geometry, small-scale timing features, geophysical response and even mesoscopic gold distribution.

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