Salty Matters

The Blog is written by me, John Warren. Once every three or four weeks or so I will post an article or two on an evaporite topic that has piqued my interest. On the Saltwork Publications webpage (under "the Works") there is a growing library of pdfs and epubs based on these blogs. These articles on the website have much higher resolution extractable graphics in than in the blog. There is also a link to this set of pdfs and epubs on the home page (www.saltworkconsultants.com).

Salt Dissolution (5 of 5): Metals and saltflow-focused fluids

John Warren - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

 

Introduction

Most subsurface evaporites ultimately dissolve and, through their ongoing dissolution and alteration, can create conditions suitable for metal enrichment and entrapment in subsurface settings ranging from the burial diagenetic through to the metamorphic and igneous realms. This article looks at a few examples tied to halokinesis, a more comprehensive set of examples and more detailed discussion is given in Chapters 15 and 16 in Warren (2016). Because most, if not all, of any precursor salt mass that helped form these metalliferous deposits via dissolution, has gone, the resulting metal and other accumulations tend to be at or near the edges of salt basins, or in areas where most or all of the actual salts are long gone (typically via complete subsurface dissolution or metamorphic transformation, so that only breccias, weld and indicator mineral suites remain).

A lack of a direct co-occurrence with evaporite salts is perhaps why the metal-evaporite association is not recognised by some in the economic geology community. The significance of disappearing salt masses in focusing and enhancing metal precipitation, via the creation of chloride-rich and sulphate-rich brines, may not be evident without the conceptual tools needed to recognise the former presence of evaporites, post-salt halokinetic structural geometries, and meta-evaporite mineral associations.

The various ore tonnage-grade plots in Warren (2016), shows that many metal accumulations with an evaporite association tend to plot at the larger end of their respective deposit groupings.



Evaporite dissolution helps create "prepared ground."

I am not saying all large metal accumulations require evaporites or the highly-saline subsurface fluids that they can generate. Although, some recent papers do argue for a widespread role of evaporites in a Pb-Zn association (Fusswinkel et al., 2013; Wilkinson et al., 2009) and in sedimentary redbed copper deposits (Rose, 1976; Hitzman et al., 2010).

Typically, the conceptualisation of an evaporite in the economic geology literature is as a bedded evaporite and brine source (Figure 1). Likewise, this article and the relevant chapters in Warren (2016) detail a number of megagiant ore deposits where dissolving evaporite bodies have contributed in some way to a metal accumulation (Table 1). However this current article, like Warren 2016) focuses on the mechanisms and indicators tied to a halokinetic-ore association. Halokinesis is an aspect of evaporites that is not widely discussed in the field of ore deposit models.


Not all sediment-associated ore deposits are associated with evaporites. Only in those ore deposits classified as anorogenic and/or continental margin can subsurface evaporite masses can be involved in the same unusual concentration and alteration conditions that lead to the creation of metalliferous ore deposits (evaporite associations are indicated by E in Figure 2). At other times and locations hydrothermal mineral salts, especially anhydrite (CaSO4)which can supply sulphur as it dissolves, can be an integral part of the ore accumulation, but their occurrence may be unrelated to aridity. Hydrothermal anhydrite and other burial/magmatic hydrothermal salts tend to form in high salinity conditions inherent to the ore-forming environment and not necessarily to the presence of precursor evaporites; as in the formation of carbonatites (e.g. Afrikanda and Bayan Obo; Wu, 2008), or pegmatites and some IOCG deposits (hydrothermal anhydrite is indicated by HA in Figure 2). In some such hot subsurface settings the role of any nearby buried true” evaporite may be, via its dissolution or alteration, to aid in the creation of highly-saline high-temperature basinal brines (Chapter 16; Warren, 2016). According to whether the resulting brines are chloride or sulphate-rich, they can act as either enhanced metal carriers or fixers.

The role of evaporites creating metalliferous ores is two-fold; 1) In solution (halite-dominant precursor) they can act as chloride-rich metal carriers and 2) Locally, asCaSO4 beds or masses alter and disintegrate, their dissolution products, especially if trapped, can supply sulphur (mostly via bacteriogenic or thermogenic H2S). Dissolutional interfaces set up chemical interfaces that act as foci during brine mixing so manufacturing conditions suitable for precipitation of metal sulphides or native elements. As a consequence, most evaporite-associated ore systems tend to epigenetic, rather than syngenetic. Subsurface salt beds and masses are merely the solid part of a sizeable ionic recycling system, dissolved metals are another part, and zones of mixing between the two are typically sites where metal sulphides tend to gather.

At the world-scale, both evaporite and ore systems are driven by plate tectonics. Halite-dominated sequences, deposited in the drawdown basin centres, tend to dissolve in burial, and so supply chloride ions to the brine system. Salt beds that are thick enough tend to flow and thus focus the upward and centripetal passage of basinal and hydrothermal fluid flows. Dissolving gypsum or anhydrite beds, typically deposited higher on the basin platform or diagenetically accumulated along salt dissolution edges and salt welds (touchdowns) can supply sulphur, via bacterial or thermochemical sulphate reduction, while simultaneously focusing the subsalt metalliferous brine flows into the precipitation interface.

When the chemistries of the dissolving salt beds and the metal carriers interact so that redox fronts, salinity contrasts, and other precipitative interfaces are set up, an ore deposit can form. Thus, in base and precious metal exploration in evaporitic terranes, we are ultimately searching for those parts of a subsurface ionic cycling system where the salt dissolution, salt beds and metal systems have interacted to create economic levels of metalliferous precipitates.

Modelling

Conceptually, this evaporite-related notion of regional fluid flow in a sedimentary/metasedimentary host is somewhat different to the internal process and local mineralised halo models that dominate our understanding of those world-class ore deposits related to the interior workings of igneous systems. The latter is known as an orthomagmatic system where internal igneous processes of fractional crystallisation and liquid immiscibility largely control ore formation. Ores are deposited in an evolving framework of world-scale tectonics and magmatism across time, from Archaean greenstones to those of present-day sialic plate tectonism. Examples, where buried evaporites have been assimilated into a magma chamber, are discussed chapter 16 in Warren, 2016. Then there are the various ore deposits that are external to (paramagmatic) or unrelated to the emplacement of igneous bodies (nonmagmatic). In both cases, the mineralisation is typically part of an ongoing long-term sedimentary burial history, tied to dissolving and flowing salt masses and associated hydrothermal circulation.

Evidence for hydrothermally-induced low-moderate temperature mineralisation is often best preserved in textures in the hydrothermally altered rock matrix, typically located outside the actual ore deposit (in its hydrothermal alteration halo). From the hydrothermal fluid perspective, one should see the role of evaporites and metal sulphides as each contributing its part to a larger scale “mineral systems” paradigm; much in the same way as, in a petroleum system, the integration of concepts of source, carrier, seal and trap are fundamental requirements to understand and predict economic oil and gas accumulations.

This holistic ore systems approach is not fully encompassed in some economic geology studies that use sequence stratigraphic sedimentological approaches for ore deposit prediction in greenschist terrains (Ruffel et al. 1998; Wilkinson and Dunster, 1996). In my opinion, this approach can shift the interpretation paradigm too far into the depositional realm. The problem with classic sequence stratigraphic criteria, when trying to understand ore genesis, is that sequence stratigraphy does not handle well the concept of a mobile ephemeral subsurface salt body that climbs the stratigraphy via autochthonous and allochthonous process sets (halokinesis). As the salt flows, it dissolves and so brings with it the associated epigenetic influences of brine-driven diagenesis and metasomatism.

Current sequence stratigraphic paradigms in the economic geology realm are dominated by the assumption that the geometry of the units in the depositional system, and associated fault characteristics, are relatively static within the buried sediment prism. Yet, in terms of most sediment-hosted hypersaline ore deposits, what is most important in understanding the metal-evaporite association is the understanding of; 1) Evaporite dissolution and halokinesis, 2) Migration of subsurface fluids, 3) Creation of shallower or lateral-flow redox fronts along with, 4) Opening and closing of fault/shear focused fluid conduits, typically tied to, the coming and going of bedded and halokinetic salts. These factors, rather than primary sediment wedge geometries, are the dominant controls as the mineralising system passes from the diagenetic into the metamorphic realm.

It is interesting that in a benchmark paper, discussing and classifying the world’s ore deposits in a plate-tectonic-time framework, Groves et al., (2007) list almost all the major ore categories shown in Figure 2b as belonging to the group of “...sediment-hosted deposits of non-diagnostic or variable geodynamic setting.” Into this category, they place all stratiform to stratabound sediment-hosted deposits with variable proportions of Pb, Zn, Cu (including Zambian Copper belt, Kupferschiefer and SedEx deposits). They go on to note (p. 26) that, although there is general agreement that the majority of these various deposits formed during active crustal extension, either in intracratonic rift basins or passive margin sediment hosts, there is considerable controversy concerning their broader scale tectonic setting at the time of mineralisation and the driving force for hydrothermal fluid flow at the time of their mineralisation.

Perhaps this lack of model specificity in the varied interpretations of sediment-hosted deposits reflects the fact that one piece of significant information is missing from many ore genesis models. Namely, that the greater majority of these poorly classified sediment-hosted deposits sat atop, or adjacent to, or beneath, what were once thick evaporite sequences (Table 1). In many cases, the salt mass is long gone. It was the dissolution of these salt masses, either bedded or halokinetic-allochthonous, that focused much of the ore-fluid flow in the sedimentary-diagenetic realm. The loss of salt as the basin sediments passed from the low temperature diagenetic into the metamorphic realm, and as the metalliferous fluid flow was focused into permeable conduits about, below or above the dissolving and retreating, or flowing salt edges, is how salt-related ore deposits form.

This is why the majority of these salt-aided deposits tend to occur outside salt basins that retain substantial salt masses still in the diagenetic realm. The deposits are a response to the dissolution and flow of evaporites, or the residual seawater bitterns created in underlying and subjacent settings as the salt beds were deposited, not to the presence of actual undissolved primary evaporite masses. As we see in Proterozoic and Archaean meta-evaporites and most Precambrian evaporite associations, the original salt mass is long gone from the hosting succession, via varying combinations of halokinesis, dissolution and metasomatism (Warren, 2016, Chapter 13; Salt Matters blog, August 28, 2016).

Ore deposits of Precambrian tend to be linked to evaporite alteration products and residues and rarely preserve actual sedimentary salts (other than local remains of minor hydrothermal anhydrite). In younger Phanerozoic deposits, such as Kupferschiefer, the Atlantis II deep and Dzhezkazgan, portions of actual salt (brine source) can remain in the more deeply buried parts of the basin.

Metal sulphide precipitates are not rare or unique in the subsurface diagenetic fluid milieu, what is essential in the prediction of ore-grade levels of metal sulphide buildups is understanding where and why the metal precipitation system is focused into particular structurally-controlled positions and encompass time frame/fluid volumes sufficient to build an ore deposit.

That is, evaporite-associated ore deposits are no more than ancient subsurface hydrology-specific associations where the precipitation system was stable enough, for long enough, to allow higher, ore-grade levels of metals sulphides to accumulate from carrier brines at particularly favourable and stable chemical and temperature interfaces. As such, metal precipitation sites are part of an ore-forming process set, spread across the epigenetic and syngenetic realms (Table 1). They are part of the regional evolution of the fluid plumbing from the time of deposition, into burial, and on into the realm of metamorphic transformation. This means to understand the ore system tied an evaporite-entraining system holistically; one must integrate local ore paragenesis with various aspects of the basin-scale geology, sedimentology, sequence stratigraphy, diagenetic-metamorphic-igneous facies, fluid flow conduits and structural evolution of the evaporitic basin.

Metals with a halokinetic focus

To illustrate the importance of salt dissolution tied to halokinetic fluid focusing I have chosen two well-known deposits, one is a stratiform redbed copper association (Corocoro deposit), the other a SedEx style Pb-Zn deposit (McArthur River or HYC deposit)

Corocoro and other sandstone-hosted deposits of the Central Andes

Stratabound deposits of copper (±Ag), hosted by variably-dipping continental clastic sedimentary rocks, occur in Central Andean intermontane basins and are known to postdate compressive deformation/uplift events in the region (Flint, 1986, 1989). The deposits are relatively small with variable host-rock depositional ages and include; Negra Huanusha, central Peru (Permo-Triassic); Caleta Coloso, northern Chile (Lower Cretaceous); Corocoro, northwestern Bolivia (Oligo-Miocene); San Bartolo, northern Chile (Oligo-Miocene); and Yasyamayo, northwestern Argentina (Miocene-Pliocene).


The Corocoro area has produced the largest amount of copper in these Andean examples, something like 7.8 million tonnes of copper at a grade of 7.1% (Cox et al., 2007). The location of mineralisation is controlled by structurally-focused redox fronts in bedded sediment hosts, which abut a steeply-dipping translatent thrust fault (Figure 3). Deposits are irregular, usually elongate lenses of native metal, sulphides, and their oxidation products. Typically, deposits are hosted in alluvial fan and playa sandstones or conglomerate facies that also contain abundant gypsum and lesser halite. The undersides of some copper sheets at Corocoro even preserve mudcrack polygons and bed-parallel burrow traces (Savrda et al., 2006). Ore mimicry of mudcracks is not a feature controlled by on-for-one-replacement of organic material deposited in a sandstone; rather it is following pre-existing permeability/redox contrasts.

Corocoro deposits have been mined sporadically since they were first exploited by the local Indians, prior to the Spanish invasion in the 16th century and were largely exhausted in half a century of more intense mining operations that began in 1873 (Figure 3). Sandstone and conglomerate matrices show evidence of bleaching and leaching of the original redbed host with numerous red-greybed redox interfaces visible in the mined sequences. Ore minerals (dominantly native copper) are secondary fills within secondary intergranular pores created by the dissolution of earlier carbonate and sulphate masses and intergranular cement. Twelve grey sandstone beds, which were host to the long worked-out native copper ores, occur within a stratigraphic thickness of 60 m, in a unit known as the Ramos Member that still hosts abundant CaSO4 as gypsum (Figure 3).

Ores are stratabound, but not necessarily stratiform, and the larger masses of native copper are typically shallower and present as vein fills. Sometimes the copper pseudomorphs large orthogonal-ended aragonite prisms, which can be several centimetres across. There are two main styles of mineralization; 1) Ore minerals as a matrix to stratiform detrital silicates, typically low dipping and commonly highlighting primary sedimentary structures, such as cross stratification, 2) Ores in stacked channelized sand bodies, that show steep dips in structurally complex and folded zones with local brecciation (Figure 3). Native copper commonly fills thin laterally extensive sheets in tectonic fractures in the limbs of tight folds. Ljunggren and Meyer (1964) interpreted these folded diagenetic sheets of copper as a remobilization products precipitated during deformation of earlier matrix-pore filling copper.

Critical factors in Corocoro ore genesis include (Flint, 1989; Aliva-Salinas, 1990): 1) Stratigraphic association of evaporites, organic-rich lacustrine mudstones, clastic reservoir rocks, and orogenic, igneous provenance areas for both basin-fill sediments and metals; and 2) Intrabasinal evolution of metal-mobilising saline brines derived from the buried and dissolving lacustrine evaporites that flush volcaniclastics, volcanics and feldspathic sediments. The same saline diagenetic fluids also caused the dissolution of early, framework-supporting cement and large aragonite prisms, all now pseudomorphed by native copper. Avila-Salinas (1990) notes the presence of a salt-cored décollement and its likely tie to some of the highly saline sodium chloride brines found at depth in the vicinity of the Toledo Mine (Figure 3b)

The ore-hosting clastic horizons are consistently located in the highly gypsiferous Vetas Member of the Ramos Formation, which was deposited as redbeds in braidplains or fluviodeltaic playa margins centripetal to the edges of saline evaporitic lakes that were accumulating gypsum and halite (Figure 4; Flint, 1989). Abundant gypsum is still present in the Ramos Member as nodules and satinspar vein fills. Both are secondary evaporite textures likely implying the dissolution of previously more voluminous CaSO4 and NaCl beds and masses. Gypsum along with celestite are the most common gangue minerals associated with native copper veins in all the Corocoro deposits (Singewald and Berry, 1922). In the geological analysis of the first two decades of last century, the copper-bearing beds of the westerly-dipping series were called "vetas" and those of the easterly-dipping beds "ramos" and, as a matter of convenience, the names became attached to the rocks themselves. The term "veta" is Spanish for vein and "ramo" the Spanish for branch (native copper). The 1922 paper by Singewald and Berry noted that the veta horizons were traceable continuously for over 5 km in outcrop, but they found no apparent primary trends related to ramos outcrops (Figure 3).

Six mineralised layers of each kind were in exploited in mining during the first two decades of last century, the thicknesses of which varied from a few centimetres to 7 meters (Figure 3). Sheets and masses of native copper, called charque, were up to 600 pounds in weight, but more significant volumes of copper were extracted from vetas sandstones where copper was found as diffuse minute grains, pellets, or granular masses of the native metal. Associated with the enriched copper zones were more oxidised minerals as malachite, chrysocolla, azurite, domeykite, and chalcocite. Singewald and Berry (1922) noted gypsum and salt were the principal gangue minerals, while silver minerals were rare. The vetas sediment hosts tended to be coarser grained, often conglomeratic; whereas the ramos sediment hosts were finer-grained with copper present as smaller particles and masses.


The currently accepted interpretation of the Corocoro copper is that it formed during early diagenesis within a saline playa depositional environment, and in combination with dissolution of the adjacent bedded lacustrine evaporites (Figure 4). This bedded combination is thought to have controlled the formation, transport and precipitation of the copper ore (Flint, 1989). Playa sandstones, sealed between impervious evaporitic mudstone layers, created the plumbing for focused metalliferous fluid migration toward the basin margin. It is argued that the carbonaceous material at Corocoro was likely concentrated in the sandstones and conglomerates and not in the shalier members of the sedimentary sequence (Eugster, 1989).

The organics were considered strata-entrained as primary plant matter (e.g. spores) preferentially in the sandstones, along with later possible catagenic/hydrothermally cracked products migrating as hydrocarbons out of the basin. This created locally reducing pore environments in the aquifers wherever these reduced fluids met with somewhat more oxidising updip pore waters. This updip migration of saline reducing waters, in combination with sulphur supplied as H2S from the adjacent dissolving calcium sulphate beds and nodules, as well as from dissolving intergranular sulphate cement, precipitated copper in the newly created secondary porosity. The pore water chemistry and flow hydrology of this sandstone-hosted Cu system is thought to show many affinities with diagenetic uranium-redox precipitating systems, as defined by Shockey and Renfro (1974).

However, there is, in my mind, a possible anomaly in this model, which assumes organics were deposited in fluvial sandstones at the time of deposition. It is highly unusual to have higher plant material accumulating in large volumes in sandstone in a setting that is sufficiently arid and oxidising to precipitate ongoing interbeds of halite and gypsum. Such settings are typically too dry to allow abundant higher plant growth. Also, groundwaters that are flowing basinward through bajada sandstones in Neogene sediments of the Andes are ephemeral or too oxidising to facilitate the long-term reducing conditions needed to preserve significant volumes of high plant remains in the sandstone aquifers.

What is also interesting in this sedimentological/diagenetic model of Tertiary age cupriferous redbeds deposits in the Andes, centred on Corocoro, but not considered in any detail in the published literature base, is the question..., What controlled the folding, and the associated brecciation and perhaps even subsurface brine interfaces responsible for the Cu precipitation? All the stratabound Bolivian Cu deposits accumulated in sediment hosts that were deposited in fault-bound intermontane groundwater sumps. All are located in hydrologic lows in the crustal shortening tectonic scenario that typifies the Tertiary history of the Andes.

The variable ages of the host sediments and the predominance of evaporite indicators including gypsum in outcrop (often as diagenetic residues, not primary, features in the fluvial hosts) and all intimately tied to the Corocoro ore forces the question...., “was the fluid focusing driving the Cu precipitation a response to compression-driven halokinesis in an evolving salt-lubricated thrust belt?” Did this on-ground scenario occur in a halokinetic hydrology, that was possibly related to a combination of thrust-driven telogenesis, redox setup, evaporite dissolution and aquifer focusing of brines with dissolution aiding local slumping? This, along with associated strike-slip prisms, could better explain the stability of redox interfaces in sandstone aquifers across timeframes needed to accumulate significant native copper volumes. After all, most of the ore textures are passive precipitates, mainly in pre-existing porosity. If so, perhaps these deposits are not a variation on a roll-front uranium theme, which is predicated on dispersed primary organic material in the host sandstones (Shockey and Renfro, 1974).


When one plots the position of Corocoro and other redbed copper across the region, the 1000-lb gorilla that has been standing in the corner of the room for the past century becomes obvious. The Corocoro redbed copper deposit is located on a salt-cored fault system linked across less than a kilometre to an outcropping gypsum-capped remnant of a salt diapir which crosscuts the anticlinal axis of a saline redbed/greybed Corocoro sequence and ties to the saline decollement of the Corocoro Fault (Figure 5). The same tie to salt-cored decollement and diapir proximity is true of other nearby redbed copper deposits to the south-southeast, such as Veta Verde and Callapa. It is highly likely that the saline fluid interfaces forming the redbed Cu deposits of Corocoro, Veta Verde and Callapa were halokinetically focused. A similar-salt lubricated set of thrusts and strike-slip faults typifies halokinetic anticline outcrops in Central Iran.

It is highly likely that much of the structuration that is controlling Corocoro ore positioning is a response to salt flow related uplift, brine conduits and fracture creation. Metal precipitation occurred at redox interfaces induced and controlled by regional salt-lubricated compressional tectonism, and the associated salt-structuration has driven the brine-interface redox hydrology.

Work by Rutland (1966) did make an observation that the Corocoro ore deposits are related to an unconformity between the Ramos and Vetas Formations. Previously, the unconformity was interpreted as directly due to the outcrop of the Corocoro Fault. He noted that the fault and the unconformity were one and the same. In the 1960s there was no notion of a salt weld but it was nonetheless a highly astute observation by Roy Rutland. He went on to note a similar unconformity is tied to the growth of the Chuquichambi salt diapir, some 100 km southeast of Corocoro. Unfortunately, the halokinetic implications of Rutland's work were not considered 20 years later in Flint's key 1989, paper inferring a mostly clastic sedimentological origin for the Corocoro and other similar SSC deposits.

A possible halokinetic/weld association also leads to the question... Were the salt lakes, that are considered an integral part of the depositional and saline ore-precipitation systems at Corocoro by Flint, also a response to dissolution of the same nearby diapiric structures, when they were active in the mid to late Tertiary? This tie, between diapir/weld brines sourced in the drainage hinterland and bedded evaporite - lacustrine mud interbeds accumulating in the groundwater outflow sumps, is the case with groundwater inflow for the Salar de Atacama infill, as it is in other Quaternary salt lakes in the region. The are many diapir remnants across the Andes region. It seems that the Corocoro style of Cu mineralisation is perhaps another example of suprasalt redox focusing in a halokinetic setting.

Whether the halokinetic scenario, or the currently accepted non-halokinetic bedded arid-lacustrine evaporite scenario, explains the Cu mineralisation Corocoro is yet to be tested. But in terms of future copper exploration for similar deposits, it probably requires an answer. A halokinetic association offers an exploration targeting mechanism, utilising satellite imagery and aerial/gravimetric data, prior to the acquisition of on-ground land positions and geochemical surveys.

McArthur River (HYC), Ridge II and Cooley II deposits, Australia

This material on the HYC deposit will be expanded upon in an upcoming paper by Lees and Warren (in prep.). Before mining, the McArthur River (or HYC) Pb-Zn-Ag deposit, contained 227 million tonnes of 9.2% Zn, 4.1% Pb, 0.2% Cu and 41 ppm Ag (Logan et al., 1990; Pirajno, and Bagas, 2008). The deposit is hosted in the HYC Pyritic Shale member and lies adjacent to the Emu Fault in the McArthur Basin and adjacent to what are currently sub-economic base metal deposits in the Emu Fault zone known as the Cooley II and the Ridge II deposits (Figure 6a). Across all these deposits, major ore sulphides are pyrite, sphalerite and galena, with lesser chalcopyrite, arsenopyrite and marcasite. The mineralised region has an area of two km2 and averages 55 m in thickness (Figure 6b). It is elongated parallel to the major Emu growth Fault, which lies 1.5 km to the east, but is separated from the main ore mass by carbonate breccias of the Cooley Dolostone Member (Figure 6a-d).


The sequence at McArthur River comprises dolomites of the Emmerugga Dolostone (with the Mara Dolostone and Mitchell Yard members), overlain by the Teena Dolostone with abundant aragonite splays indicative of a normal-marine tropical Proterozoic carbonate. Overlying the Teena Dolostone in the vicinity of the HYC deposit is the somewhat deeper water Barney Creek Formation and its equivalents, containing the W-Fold Shale member, while the ore is hosted in carbonaceous shales, with multiple lenses of fine-grained galena-sphalerite-pyrite, separated by inter-ore sedimentary breccias (Large et al., 1998). This unit contains numerous sedimentary features indicative of a deeper-water anoxic setting. For example, comparison with d13C values from isolated kerogen in the HYC laminites confirms that n-alkanes in Bitumen II are indigenous to HYC, indicating that the deposit formed under euxinic conditions. This supports a generally-held model for Sedex deposits the region, whereby lead and zinc reacted in a stratified water column with sulphide produced by bacterial sulphate reduction (Holman et al., 2014).

The ore-hosting organic-rich 1,643-Ma HYC Pyritic Shale Member of the Barney Creek Formation is much thicker in the HYC sub-basin than elsewhere in the Batten Trough Fault Zone (e.g., Glyde River Basin) and consists mainly of dolomitic carbonaceous siltstones (Figure 7; Davidson and Dashlooty, 1993; Bull 1998). I would argue this thickening reflects a combination of long-term local basinfloor subsidence, related to salt withdrawal, and brine stratification due to ongoing salt dissolution and focused outflow. Indicators of former salt allochthon tiers are widespread in the vicinity of the HYC deposit, but are absent in the Glyde River Basin.


Breccias in and around HYC

In the HYC mine area, the ore interval is overlain by the HYC pyritic shale member and made up of pyritic bituminous and dolomitic shales and polymict breccias (Figure 7). Importantly, when contacts are walked out in outcrop, the polymict breccias are significantly transgressive to bedding, while drilled intersections in the vicinity of the HYC deposit and in the mine itself show the breccias are stratabound. Another interesting feature of these breccias is that they can contain mineralised clasts. More broadly, a variety of sedimentary breccias occur throughout the Barney Creek Formation stratigraphy, especially along the eastern margin of the HYC half graben and tend to pass updip into the breccias of the Cooley Dolostone (Figure 6a).

Williams 1976, defined three breccia types (I, II and III) in the HYC area. Type I breccia beds occur in the lower half of the HYC Pyritic Shale Member and contain clasts characteristic of lithologies in formations of the McArthur Group below the Barney Creek Formation (Table 2). In the northern end of the sub-basin, the breccias are of a chaotic nature with no sorting and minor grading of clasts (Figure 6b). The underlying shale beds are frequently contorted and squeezed between the breccia fragments, which reach a maximum size of approximately 10 m. Toward the south, the thickness and maximum clast size of individual breccia beds decrease (Figure 6b). All breccia units are thickest adjacent to the Emu Fault Zone and likely record sediment sinks controlled by rapid fault-controlled basin subsidence during Barney Creek time. Inter-ore breccias amalgamate and thicken to the north-north-east of HYC, and occupy a position toward the foot of what is interpreted as a more substantial breccia lens, dominated by sediment gravity flow deposits (Figure 6d; Logan et al., 2001).


In a subsequent study, Ireland et al. (2004a) identified four distinct sedimentary breccia styles within Type I breccias: framework-supported polymictic boulder breccia; matrix-supported pebble breccia; and gravel-rich and sand-rich graded turbidite beds (Table 2). The boulder breccias can be weakly reverse-graded and show rapid lateral transition into the other facies, all of which are interpreted as more distal manifestations of the same sedimentary events. The flow geometry and relationships between these breccia styles are interpreted by Ireland et al. (2004a) to reflect mass-flow initiation as clast-rich debris flows, with transformation via the elutriation of fines into a subsequent turbulent flow from which the turbidite and matrix-supported breccia facies were deposited.

All the Type 1 mass-flow facies contain clasts of the common and minor components of the in-situ laminated base-metal mineralised siltstone. Texturally these clasts are identical to their in-situ counterparts and are distinct from other sulphidic clasts that are of unequivocal replacement origin. In the boulder breccias, intraclasts may be the dominant clast type, and the matrix may contain abundant fine-grained sphalerite and pyrite. Dark-coloured sphaleritic and pyritic breccia matrices are distinct from pale carbonate-siliciclastic matrices, are associated with a high abundance of sulphidic clasts, and systematically occupy the lower parts of breccia units. Consequently, clasts that resemble in-situ ore facies are confirmed as genuine intraclasts incorporated into erosive mass flows before complete consolidation. Disaggregation and assimilation of sulphidic sediment in the flow contributed to the sulphide component of the dark breccia matrices. The presence of laminated sulphidic intraclasts in the mass-flow facies constrains mineralisation at HYC to the uppermost part of the seafloor sediment pile, where this material was susceptible to erosion by incoming clast-rich mass flows. That is, the presence of laminated sulphidic intraclasts in the mass-flow facies constrains mineralisation at HYC to the uppermost part of the seafloor sediment pile, where this material was susceptible to erosion by incoming clast-rich mass flows (Ireland et al., 2004a).

Type II breccia beds occur throughout the HYC Pyritic Shale Member but are most common in the upper half of the Member. Clasts are predominantly grey dololutite which occasionally contain radiating clusters of acicular crystal pseudomorphs (“coxcos”) indicative of tropical Proterozoic shelf carbonates. The clasts are similar to lithologies in the Emmerugga and Teena Dolomites and are considered to have been derived from these formations. A characteristic of this breccia type, which differentiates it from Type I and III breccias is the absence of green and red clasts, signifying that clasts in Type II breccias were not derived from the Tooganinie or lower formations, but mostly derived by erosion and collapsed of updip shallow-water cemented shelf carbonate layers. Type II breccias lack the well-developed grading seen in Type I breccias. Isopach maps (Figure 6c) and maximum clast-size plots of individual breccia beds show a close correlation and indicate the type II breccias dominate in the southeast of the HYC subbasin.

Type III breccia beds are confined to the uppermost breccia unit of the HYC Pyritic Shale Member in the HYC sub-basin and are equivalent to the Upper Breccia of Murray (1975). This unit consists exclusively of Type III breccias with the exception of several shale beds near the base. The top of the Upper Breccia is not exposed in the sub-basin, and the unit reaches a maximum known thickness of 210 m. Clasts within the breccias are completely chaotic, and there is no recognisable grading or sorting. Clasts range in size from a few millimetres up to several tens of metres. The fragment lithologies are identical to those in the Type I breccias with the notable exception that they also contain clasts of sandstone, quartzite and potash-metasomatized quartz dolerite—lithologies that are characteristic of the underlying Masterton Formation. The fragments are therefore considered to be derived from the McArthur Group (below the Barney Creek Formation) and the Masterton Formation. According to Walker et al. (1977), the most likely source of the clasts from the Masterton Formation is erosion uplifts and horsts in the Emu Fault Zone. But the same authors also state the exact source area and the direction of movement of the clasts could not be identified. In my opinion, Type III breccias are salt-ablation derived and so contain a variety of clasts lithologies plucked by the rising salt as it rose toward the surface to feed an at-seafloor allochthon.

More broadly, breccias of the updip Cooley Dolostone member, that interfinger and also overlie the HYC deposit (Figure 6a) are usually regarded as part of the Barney Creek Formation. The Cooley Dolostone is interpreted, historically, as a talus slope breccia (Walker et al. 1977, Logan 1979), containing clasts eroded from the Teena and Emmerugga Dolostones. Hinman (1995) regarded the Cooley Dolostone as a tectonic breccia, formed along reverse faults within the steep to overturned, brittle dolomitic lithologies of Teena, Mitchell Yard and Mara Dolostones(members of the Emmerugga Dolostone) as they were overthrust against and over Barney Creek Formation lithologies. Perkins & Bell (1998) interpret the Cooley Dolostone as an in situ alteration body, contiguous with, and derived from, the HYC sequence, rather than being separated from it by a thrust fault. I interpret much of the Cooley as a salt allochthon breccia derived from a salt-cored basin edge fault system, now evolved into a salt weld (Table 2).

Brine haloes and mineralisation

Regional-scale potassic alteration of Tawallah Group dolerites and sediments were documented by Cooke et al. (1998), Davidson (1998, 1999). These authors describe fluids responsible for this alteration as oxidised, low-temperature (100˚C), saline (> 20wt % NaCl equiv), Na-K-Ca-Mg-rich brines, and argue that the high salinities and the presence of hydrocarbons are consistent with brine derivation from nearby evaporitic carbonates during diagenesis.

I suggest that saline fluids feeding these haloes came not from the dissolution of evaporites in adjacent bedded carbonate hosts, but from the decay of former fault-fed thick salt allochthon tongues in positions that now are indicated by salt allochthon breccias. These breccias tie back to what were salt-lubricated fault and salt welds. The presence of salt and diagenetic haloes in these features focused tectonic movement and fluid supply in both initial extensional and subsequent compressional stages. As such, this interpretation supports a salt dissolution origin of the brine origins proposed by both Logan (1979) and Hinman (1995). The difference with their interpretations is that I envisage the brine being derived during salt flow emplacement and dissolution, tied to focused fault conduits in a mobile, suprasalt fault complex, atop or adjacent to the now-dissolved flowing and tiered salt mass. I do not think the nearby platform carbonates (with coxcos and smooth-walled cherts) ever contained significant volumes of primary evaporites.

Worldwide and across deep time, most halokinetic basinwide evaporite associations are typified by an initial extensional and loaded set of diapirs evolving into salt-cored fault welds, with subsequent reactivation of these features in compression (Warren, 2016; Chapter 6). Such a framework typifies long-term salt tectonics with inherently changing structural foci across most Phanerozoic halokinetic salt realms, as in the North Sea, the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and most circum-Atlantic salt basins. It is indicative of continental plate-edge evaporites caught up in the Wilson cycle (Warren, 2010).

Near the HYC deposit, Mn-enrichment, particularly of dolomite and ankerite in the W-fold Shale beneath the ore zone, is considered to be related to exhalation of Mn-bearing brines, associated with rifting and basin deepening, before the onset of zinc-lead mineralisation (Large et al. 1998). This too, is consistent with the salt-focused mineralisation hydrology of diagenetic ferroan and Mn-bearing hydrologies of the modern Red Sea halokinetic deeps (Schmidt et al., 2015) and the Danakhil depression in the Quaternary, when it was a marine-fed saline system (Bonatti et al., 1972).

Ridge and Cooley deposits

In the area to the east of to McArthur River HYC basin, a number of currently sub-economic Zn-Pb-Cu deposits occur, typified by the nearby Ridge and Cooley deposits (Figure 6a; Walker et al. 1977; Williams 1978). Both are similar to the Coxco deposit, being described as MVT deposits mainly hosted by dolomitic breccias, but with minor, shale-hosted concordant mineralisation in the Ridge II deposit (Figure 8; Williams 1978). Likewise, the Coxco deposit contains several million tonnes at 2.5% Zn and 0.5% Pb, in coarse-grained, stratabound galena-sphalerite-pyrite-marcasite, hosted by dolomitic breccias containing clasts of the Mara Dolostone Member, Reward Dolostone, and the Lynott Formation of the McArthur Group, within the Emu Fault Zone (Walker et al. 1977, Walker et al. 1983). Mineralisation comprises veins, “karst” and dissolution breccia fill likened to Mississippi Valley Type (MVT) mineralisation (Walker et al. 1977).

According to Williams (1978), the Emmerugga Dolostone hosts the discordant mineralisation of Cooley II deposit, while Cooley Dolostone breccias contain the Ridge II deposit (Figure 8). The Emmerugga Dolostone at Cooley II consists of massive to laminated dolostone and contains carbonaceous matter, stromatolites, oncolites, and ooids, indicating that it was deposited in a shallow-water normal-marine environment with high biologic productivity. Similarly, the Cooley Dolostone host at Ridge II is a breccia composed of randomly oriented dolostone clasts varying in diameter from a few millimetres up to several tens of metres. Some clasts have near-identical lithologies to those comprising the Emmerugga Dolostone, whereas others contain coxcos and were likely derived from the fragmentation of Teena Dolostone. The Cooley Dolostone breccia contains little depositional matrix. Clast boundaries are marked by sudden changes in features such as dolostone type and bedding-core angles, indicating that the breccia was mostly clast-supported at the time of formation. Most interestingly, drilling in the vicinity of the deposit (DDHR210) intersected a large clast of “out of sequence” dolerite (Figure 8a). Similar large salt-buoyed clasts (up to 100’s meters across) composed of Eocene dolerite occur in the salt allochthon breccias at Kuh-e-Namak-Qom (Salty Matters blog, March 10, 2015).


Two major phases of crosscutting brecciation in the area are recognised by Williams (1978) in drill core samples of discordant mineralisation from both the Emmerugga and Cooley Dolostone hosts. First generation breccias, formed during the earlier phase of brecciation, consist of angular clasts of dolostone (< 1 mm to at least 1 m in diameter) in a dark colored matrix of tiny ( < 1 µm to 20µm) anhedral dolomite grains, disseminated euhedral pyrite crystals (<50 µm in diameter) and reddish brown carbonaceous matter). The identical nature of the first generation breccias in both the Emmerugga and Cooley Dolostone hosts suggests that brecciation occurred simultaneously in both, via the same mechanism (Williams, 1978). At the time this interpretation was made, there was no “data” (paradigm) available to determine whether the brecciation in the Cooley Dolostone occurred in situ or whether it took place in the dolostone before its removal from the Western Fault Block. Today, we would likely interpret these features as reworked salt ablation breccias on the deep seafloor with infiltrated suspension clays and early-diagenetic pyrite.

Second generation breccias, formed during a later phase of brecciation, consist of angular clasts of first-generation breccias (< 1 mm to at least 10 cm in diameter) in a matrix of either veins filled with sulphide minerals and dolomite, or fine-grained (10 µm to 100 µm in diameter) anhedral dolomite grains, disseminated to massive sulfide minerals, small (on the average 500 µm x 20 µm) interlocking laths of barite or dolomite pseudomorphs after barite, and brown carbonaceous matter (Williams, 1978). Second generation breccias, although coincident with the first generation breccias, are less widespread than the earlier breccias. Again, according to Williams (op. cit.), the similarity of the second generation breccias in both the Emmerugga and Cooley Dolostones suggests a common origin. Again, they concluded there was no “data” (paradigm) available to establish the time of this brecciation relative to the deposition of the Cooley Dolostone. I would argue these “second generation” breccias represent a less distally reworked salt ablation breccia, possibly with interspace anhydrite and gypsum at the time they formed. These calcium sulphate phases facilitated the shallow subsurface emplacement of metal sulphides via bacterial or thermochemical sulphate reduction, in a way not too dissimilar to the mechanisms emplacing Pb-Zn at Cadjebut or Bou Grine ores in Tunisia (Warren and Kempton et al., 1997; Warren 2016; Chapter 15).

Allochthon Interpretation

The origin of the HYC deposit and adjacent subeconomic mineralised accumulations is still somewhat controversial and equivocal (Figure 6a; Ireland et al. 2004a,b; Perkins and Bell, 1998; Logan, 1979; Walker et al., 1977). Large et al. 1998 summarised the alternative models: 1) a sedimentary-exhalative (‘sedex’) model was proposed by Croxford 1968 and Large et al. 1998; while, 2) a syndiagenetic subsurface replacement model was introduced by Williams 1978; Williams & Logan 1986; Hinman 1995 and Eldridge et al. 1993, the latter based on sulphur isotopes. In my opinion, a third factor, namely a now-dissolved salt allochthon system, should be considered in interpretations of ore genesis and associated breccias. I interpret ore-hosting laminites of HYC deposit as DHAL laminites, and the Ridge II and Cooley II were hosted in updip regions once dominated by salt tongues and salt ablation breccias within a fault-fed salt allochthon complex surrounded by updip normal-marine shoal-water platform carbonates (Figure 9).

That is, all three deposits are related to the ongoing and time-transgressive dissolution of shallow halokinetic salt tiers. The salt tongues periodically shed mass flow deposits, triggered by seafloor instability created by the interactions of salt flow, salt withdrawal and the dynamic nature of salt and fault welds. In my opinion, the lack of equivalent breccias, DHAL laminites and halo evidence in otherwise similar deepwater sediment in Barney Creek Formation in the Glyde River Basin, some 80 km to the south-east of HYC, is why this basin lacks economic levels of base metal mineralisation (Figure 7).


Assuming that the first and second generation breccias in Type 1 and III breccias in all of the stratigraphically discordant deposits (allochthon and weld breccia), first defined by Walker et al., 1977 (Table 2) had shared salty origins, the wider distribution of the first generation breccias suggests that they formed via seafloor reworking processes acting across the whole region as a rim to discordant mineralisation (Williams 1978). Therefore, Williams (op cit.) argued geologically reasonable causes of the brecciation in the Cooley Dolostone include; movement on the Western and Emu faults, slumping of debris off the Western Fault Block, and stratal collapse due to the dissolution of evaporite minerals. I would argue for all of the above, but add that the whole Cooley Dolostone breccia system at the time the first generation breccias formed was a massive salt-flow fault-feeder system that was salt-allochthon cored and salt-lubricated. Situated at and just below the deep seafloor, salt tongue dissolution created salt-ablation breccias, while the halokinetic-induced seafloor instability instigated periodic mass flows into a metalliferous brine lake; as occurs today in the modern Red Sea deeps, the Orca basin in the Gulf of Mexico and the various brine lakes (DHAL's) of the Mediterranean Ridges (Table 2).

Breccia textures in a halokinetic salt ablation system are always two stage (Warren, 2016); the first stage of brecciation occurs as the salt tongue is inflated and spreading over the surrounds, even as its edges dissolve into ablation breccias reworked by further salt tongue movements and accumulations of contemporary salt-carapace materials (Figure 9). This first stage is typified by mass wasting piles related to the debris rims accumulating about the salt tongue edges, as debris slides downslope across the top of a continuously resupplied salt mass. The friction along the underside of the expanding salt sheets drives overturn, contortion, and brecciation of the underlying deep seafloor bed, this ultimately creates subsalt thrust overfolds (known as gumbo zones beneath the salt allochthons of the Gulf of Mexico). The second stage of brecciation is related to the dissolution of the salt itself once the salt supply is cut off by salt withdrawal and overburden touchdown.

Because allochthons are set up in the expansion stage of salt movement across the seafloor, Stage 1 breccias tend to be more widespread at the landsurface than stage 2 breccias. Stage 2 breccias form once the mother salt supply to the salt tongue or tier is cut off, the salt tongue then dissolves and final brecciation occurs, often with significant roof collapse features in any overburden layers. Similar two-stage allochthon breccias outcrop and subcrop in salt namakier provinces across Iran (Warren 2016, Chapter 7). However, unlike Iran the HYC laminites and associated breccias accumulated in a local deeper marine anoxic sump within a dominant subaqueous normal-marine carbonate shelf setting. There are also partial analogies with salt-cored Jurassic shelf carbonates and allochthon breccias in the paleo Gulf of Mexico, or the Cretaceous mineralised and ferruginised shelf-to-slope halokinetic-cored depositional system that now outcrops in the Domes Region of North Africa (Warren, 2008; Mohr et al. 2007).

Based on the sedimentology of the HYC ore host (Figure 9), I conclude that the HYC deposit accumulated as classic DHAL deposit in a salt allochthon-floored sump. Initial ore accumulation took place as metalliferous laminites in a local salt withdrawal basin. The anoxic brine-filled DHAL sump sat atop a deflating salt allochthon sheet with one of the tiers indicted by salt dissolution breccias at the Myrtle-Mara contact.

The following observations further support this conclusion; 1) the scale and deepwater setting of the deposit, 2) the fault-bound brine-fed margin to the deposit, 3) the rapid local subsidence of the sediments in the deeper water anoxic portion that constitutes the Barney Creek Fm host (HYC Pyrite member), 4) the syndepositional nature of the inter-ore polymict mass flow breccias, 5) the presence of syndepositional barite and Mn haloes from a diagenetically imposed oxidised saline set of pore waters hosted in what were formerly normal-marine sediment pore fluids.

Salt flowing from an allochthon sheet into salt risers in the Emu-Western fault region drove fault-bound rapid subsidence that created local deeper-water anoxic brine-filled sumps in an otherwise healthy marine carbonate shelf (see Salty Matters blog, April 29, 2016, for a salt-controlled structural analogy in the Red Sea). The fault-controlled salt risers allowed brine to escape onto the seafloor at Barney Creek time and to flow across the seafloor into the large DHAL sump that is today the HYC deposit (Figure 9). With time, the salt risers evolved in salt welds and ultimately into fault welds with salt-ablation breccia textures.

The characteristic Fe-Mn and baryte haloes, along with skeletal halites, in what were porous sandstone aquifers intersected by hypersaline waters from the rising and dissolving salt mass are today indicators of the geometry of the former briny plumbing. In the Barney Creek Fm., the occurrence of the Mn and ferruginous haloes indicate the fault-conduit aquifer focus to the suprasalt brine flow and the level of hypersaline brine intersections. There are also transitions into more-typical more-oxidised marine pond and pore water masses in the upper levels atop the DHAL waters and around the edge of its brine curtain.

Williams (1978) concluded the less widespread second generation breccias in the Cooley Dolostone wedge likely formed by processes that acted only locally on the first generation breccias. I agree and would argue that a later DHAL mineralisation focus, during the creation of a later generation of breccias, was the transition from a salt feeder supplying a canopy of allochthon tongues along the Emu Fault region into a system that became first a salt weld, then a fault weld as the mother salt supply was lost (Table 2).

Williams (op. cit.) noted that the association of the two breccia generations, and the occurrence of base metal sulfide minerals and barite, presumably brought in from an outside source, in the matrix of the second generation breccias suggest that the later breccias formed by solution collapse following the introduction of mineralizing solutions into the porous, first generation breccias. I am in complete agreement with this conclusion. In addition, we now have a set of salt-related mechanisms and time-transgressive paradigms that explain the transition from one breccia generation tied to a syndepositional DHAL-related succession that we classify as the sedex brine pool stage that is forming the HYC deposit. With time and salt dissolution/source depletion, we pass to the next generation of breccias, which are linked to a fault weld, evaporite-collapse sub-economic set of MVT deposits (e.g. Cooley II Ridge II and Coxco deposits).

In my opinion, halokinesis created shallow allochthonous salt tiers at the time the normal-marine Emmerugga and Teena Dolostones. Salt withdrawal from allochthon sheets emplaced below the shallow sea floor caused it to deepen locally, this facilitated deposition of thickened intervals of deeper water, more siliceous deposits, as defined by thickness and mineralogical/ colour changes in the W-Fold shale and Barney Creek Formation (Figure 9). Where the brine accumulated in the deepened seafloor depression, which was the HYC DHAL sump, it lay atop a salt withdrawal basin, associated with flow of allochthon salt into the proto-Western Fault (now a deformed fault-weld). The stratigraphic level of the withdrawal is indicated by the allochthon collapse breccia seen at the top of the Myrtle Shale.

The salt-brine focusing time-transgressive halokinetic architecture of the mineral system allowed metal-bearing chloride rich brines circulating in the buried sediments of the basin to access and replace the reduced pyritic and bituminous laminite of the DHAL. As well as ponding in DHALs, some of the same metal-bearing brines exploited the presence of fractionally dissolved interclast calcium sulphate within diapir collapse breccias. So a similar set of redox interfaces drove discordant mineralisation in second generation breccias in the nearby Cooley, Coxco and Ridge deposits. At that time, some of the collapsing crests on the diapiric basin margin perhaps had subaerial crests. We interpret the smaller-scale currently-subeconomic Cooley, Coxco and Ridge deposits as combinations of passive infill, vein and replacement mineralisation in diapiric, dissolution and salt collapse breccias. The Pb-Zn ore, and its collapse-induced host rock, formed in a diagenetic setting much like that in suprasalt circum-diapir MVT deposits hosted in caprocks breccia and peripheral Cretaceous seafloor DHAL laminites in the Bahloul Formation of Northern Africa (see Warren 2016; Chapter 15).

The intimate relationship between breccias and mineralisation across the McArthur River region, including clasts of ore in sedimentary and diagenetic breccias, can be explained, by continual halokinetic salt movement before, during, and after the main episode of laminite Pb-Zn ore formation. This interpretation of both inter-ore “sedimentary” and Cooley Dolostone member breccias across the region reconciles what were seen as previously conflicting primary versus time-transgressive relationships (e.g., Williams 1978; Perkins & Bell 1988).

The characteristic Mn and baryte haloes, along with skeletal halites, in what were porous sandstone aquifers intersected by hypersaline waters from the rising and dissolving salt mass are today indicators of the geometry of the former briny plumbing. In the Barney Creek Fm., the occurrence of the Mn and ferruginous haloes indicate the aquifer and the level on hypersaline brine intersections with the more typical more oxidised marine water mass and pores water at levels atop the brine lake.

Williams (1978) concluded the less widespread second generation breccias in the Cooley Dolostone wedge likely formed by processes that acted only locally on the first generation breccias. I agree, and would argue that the later mineralisation focus, during the creation of the second generation of breccias, was the transition from a salt feeder supplying a canopy of allochthon tongues along the Emu Fault region into a system that became first a salt weld, then a fault weld as any ongoing mother salt supply was lost. Williams (op. cit.) in a discussion of the Ridge and Cooley deposits noted that the association of the two breccia generations, and the occurrence of base metal sulfide minerals and barite in the matrix of the second generation breccias, presumably brought in via fluids with an outside source. He suggests that later breccias formed by solution collapse following the introduction of mineralising solutions into the porous, first generation breccias. I agree also with this conclusion but would also place it in the typical saline baryte ore association seen in many salt diapir provinces such as the Walton-Magnet Cove region of Nova Scotia, or the Oraparinna Diapir in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia (see Warren 2016, Chapter 7 for detail on theses and other similar baryte deposits).

In addition, we now have a set of salt-related mechanisms and time-transgressive paradigms that explain the transition from one breccia generation tied to a syndepositional DHAL-related succession we classify as the sedex brine pool that is the HYC deposit, to the next generation of breccias that are linked to a fault weld, evaporite-collapse sub-economic set of smaller scale MVT deposits (e.g. Cooley II Ridge II and Coxco deposits).

In my opinion, halokinesis created shallow allochthonous salt tiers at the time the normal-marine Emmerugga and Teena Dolostones were deposited. Salt withdrawal below the shallow sea floor caused it to deepen locally, this facilitated deposition of thickened intervals of deeper water, more siliceous deposits defined by the W-Fold shale and Barney Creek Formation (Figure 9). Where the brine accumulated in the deepened seafloor that was the HYC DHAL sump it lay atop a salt withdrawal basin, associated with flow of allochthon salt into the proto-Western Fault (now a deformed fault- weld) with the stratigraphic level of the withdrawal indicated by the allochthon collapse breccia at the top of the Myrtle Shale.

The salt-brine focusing time-transgressive halokinetic architecture of the mineral system allowed metal-bearing chloride-rich brines circulating in the basin to access and replace the reduced pyritic and bituminous laminite of the DHAL. As well as ponding in DHALS, some of the same metal-bearing brines exploited diapir collapse breccias and drove discordant mineralisation and second generation breccias in the nearby Cooley, Coxco and Ridge deposits. At that time, some of the collapsing crests on the diapiric basin margin perhaps had subaerial crests. We interpret the smaller-scale currently-subeconomic Cooley, Coxco and Ridge deposits as combinations of passive infill, vein and replacement mineralisation in diapiric, dissolution and collapse breccias. The Pb-Zn ore, and its collapse-induced host rock, formed in a diagenetic setting much like that in suprasalt circum-diapir MVT deposits hosted in caprocks and Cretaceous seafloor laminites of the Bahloul Formation of Northern Africa (see Warren 2016 Chapter 15).

The intimate relationship between breccias and mineralisation across the McArthur River region, including clasts of ore in sedimentary and diagenetic breccias, can be explained, by continual halokinetic salt movement before, during, and after ore formation.

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Salt, Oil, Gas & Metals: What Drives the Link?

John Warren - Friday, March 31, 2017

Introduction

This article is based on a review written for CSPG Reservoirs and presented orally at the AAPG 2016 meeting in Calgary. It endeavours to give an up-to-date synopsis of how and why ancient salty basins tend to contain elevated levels of oil, gas and metals. It begins with an overview of hydrologies, then places ancient salt bodies in their climatic and tectonic context, and lastly looks at industrial associations and predictors. For brevity, details of many regions, deposits and references are summarised as tables, more complete discussion and referencing can be found in appropriate sections in Warren (2016), or feel free to contact me (jkwarren@saltworkconsultants.com or via www.saltworkconsultants.com) with requests for more comprehensive documentation of particular examples.


Evaporite styles reflect intrabasin brine hydrology

If we accept the definition of an evaporite as “A salt rock originally precipitated from a saturated surface or near-surface brine in hydrologies driven by solar evaporation,” then the greater volume of saline mineral salts in the earth’s sedimentary realm are the product of solar heating of brine. There are other sets of mineral salts in the depositional and diagenetic realm with the same mineral composition as evaporite salts, but these salts result from cryogenic, hydrothermal or burial re-equilibration processes (Warren, 2016). For a water molecule to escape into the vapour phase in an evaporitic setting, and so increase the salinity of an enduring brine body or pore water in the capillary zone of a sabkha, the water molecule must; 1) absorb heat energy, 2) be located near the liquid surface, 3) be moving in the proper direction, 4) have sufficient energy to overcome liquid-phase intermolecular forces and, 5) pass through the surface tension inter-face (Figure 1).


Simple physics of molecular escape (rate and intensity) during solar evaporation essentially controls the potency of re-maining brine. Bed textures and mineralogies entomb evidence of concentration levels in the brine and its hydrological setting/stability (Figures 2, 3). This makes evaporites excellent gauges of climate present and past. In combination, relative brine density and specific heat capacity of adjacent brine masses control density and thermal stratification in saline brine bodies located at or near the earth’s surface (Figure 2). Subsequent burial alteration controls later textural evolution by interactions with regional shallow and deep phreatic crossflows (Warren, 2016).

Specific heat is the amount of heat needed to raise one gramme of a substance by 1 °C. For a given amount of heat input, a unit volume of hypersaline water will show a greater increase in temperature than a less salty water (Figure 2c). Given the same degree of insolation, this means density-stratified water bodies tend to be heliothermic, with the lower, denser bottom brine layer being warmer than the somewhat less saline, less dense, upper water layer (Figure 2a). The level in any water column where a marked change in temperature occurs is the thermocline, and in a density-stratified brine mass corresponds to the halocline, also termed a chemocline (Figure 3a). The combination of high temperature, high salinity and lower oxygen levels in the lower brine mass in a heliothermal brine system means only a specialised biota can survive there, often with specialised bacterial populations living in waters just above a saline thermocline. A modern example is the purple sulphur-oxidising community flourishing immediately above the halocline in Lake Mahoney, British Columbia. Fluctuating salinity and nutrient levels endemic to many evaporite depositing regions encourage preservation of elevated levels of organic matter in a variety of hypersaline settings past and present (“feast and famine” associations; Warren, 2011).

As any brine concentrates, its density increases (Figure 2b). The overlying water body must be holomictic for bottom-nucleated salts to accumulate across the subaqueous floor of a brine mass and for dense, saturated brine to sink (reflux) into underlying sediments (Figure 3a). Holomixis means a near homogenous distribution of brine density, temperature, and salinity throughout the brine mass, with internal mixing being ongoing and mostly maintained by wind movement. In contrast, a meromictic brine body is internally stratified, with a lower more-saline, denser, warmer water mass separated across a halocline from an upper, less saline, less-dense, cooler water mass. A longterm halocline hinders chemical or physical changes in the underlying denser waters, so shutting down bottom nucleation, as well as slowing and ultimately stopping brine reflux. A permanently stratified system is ectogenic, while a brine column that is temporarily stratified is endogenic.

Over decades, saline water masses can change from ectogenic to endogenic. In February 1979, salinity equalisation drove the mixing of upper and lower water masses in the Dead Sea, resulting in a holomictic water body. Since then, aside from short episodes of storm-flood-driven freshening of the upper water mass in 1980 and 1994 (meromixis), the Dead Sea has been holomictic, and halite has been accumulating on the deep lake floor (Gertman and Hecht, 2002). Before 1979, the Dead Sea had been a stratified system for at least 400 years and only pelagic carbonate laminites with minor gypsum, not halite, accumulated on the deep lake floor, beneath a 370-380 m deep brine column.


Holomixis permits deposition of a coherent salt layer across the whole basin floor, beneath both shallow and deep brine columns. Density stratification allows evaporitic salts to crystallise only in the upper water mass or at the upper brine - lower brine interface, so bottom nucleation tends to occur on the shallower lake floor, where it lies above the halocline (Figure 3a). That is, long-term (ectogenic) column stratification mean bottom nucleation of salts can only occur where the upper salt-saturated brine mass intersects the sediment bottom, with a pelagic settling of salts occurring deeper out in the depositional basin, as in the Dead Sea prior to February 1979 (Figure 3a). The bottom growth of crystals cannot occur on a deep bottom located beneath a density-stratified system, as there is no mechanism to drive ongoing supersaturation in the lower water mass. For the same reason, constant brine reflux driving sinking of a dense brine into sediments beneath the floor of the evaporite basin can only proceed if significant regions of the overlying brine mass are holomictic. Deposition of capillary salts (sabkha deposits) occurs in subaerial settings, wherever the saline capillary zone inter-sects the land surface (Figure 3b).

When salts are accumulating beneath a holomictic brine mass, textures in bottom nucleates is controlled by the stability of the overlying brine column (Figure 3b). When the overlying column is deep (>30-100m) then, other than areas on the deep bottom of local phreatic spring-fed outflows, there is no general hydrochemical mechanism to drive fluctuations in bottom-brine chemistry. The resulting deep bottom precipitates tend to be monomineralogic crystal clusters, possibly encased by re-transported material washed in from the shallower surrounds (Figure 3a, 3b). In contrast, when the overlying brine column is shallow (<30m and typically <5-10m) then the chemistry and stability of the brine varies on a shorter term (daily-weekly) basis, so more layered bi-mineralogic bottom-nucleates can accumulate as layered to laminated salt beds. In addition, all evaporite sediments can be reworked by bottom currents, with similar textures to those that characterise siliciclastic and mechanically-modified carbonate sediments (Figure 3b).

"Now" versus "then" in evaporite deposition

Uniformitarianism is an essential tenet of geological understanding. Yet, when we look at evaporite volumes and depositional settings across deep time, we see that the diversity of modern evaporite analogues is constrained by a deficit in two conditions, specifically; 1) the current lack of greenhouse eustasy; contemporaneous atmospheric conditions and sea levels are controlled by the earth’s current icehouse climate mode and have been for the last 10-12 million years, and 2) the current lack at the plate-edge scale of marine seepage into large hydrographically-isolated oceanic sump basins (Warren, 2010). Both situations circumscribe different hydrologies and eustasies compared to continental-fed in-flows that typify the world's current larger evaporite basins. Today, and across the Quaternary, the largest and thickest salt stacks, with areal extents up to 10,000 km2 and thickness up to 900 m, tend to precipitate in the lower parts of suprasealevel intermontane lacustrine sumps located in tectonically active parts of continental interiors, such as Salar Atacama and Salar di Uyuni in the Andean Altiplano (Figure 4a). Most ancient evaporites are marine-fed and were deposited in huge hydrographically-isolated subsealevel marine-seepage sumps located in intracratonic basins or within rifts or compressional sutures. Often, the areal extents of these ancient systems were more than 250,000 km2, this is more than two orders of magnitude larger than any Quaternary evaporite deposit. Bedded (pre-halokinetic) thicknesses could be more than a kilometre.


Ancient marine saline giants (megahalites and megasulphates) accrued in either of two plate-scale settings, which at times merged into one another, namely; 1) Platform evaporites (Figure 5) and 2) Basinwide evaporites (Figure 6). The first major contrast with nonmarine continental dominance in Quaternary evaporite settings is the fact that platform evaporites require greenhouse eustasy, the second is that basinwide evaporites require tectonically- and hydrographically-isolated widespread subsealevel depressions, typically found along plate edges with continent-continent proximity (Figure 5).

Neither condition is present on the current earth surface. For basinwides, suitable hydrologic conditions were last present during the Messinian Salinity Crisis in the Mediterranean region, and platform evaporite settings were last present on earth across large parts of the Middle East carbonate platform during the Eocene (Tables 1, 2). There is a third group of ancient evaporite deposits; it encompasses all nonmarine lacustrine beds past and present (Table 3). This group has same-scale modern-ancient counterparts, unlike ancient marine platform and basinwide evaporites (Figure 4a; Warren, 2010, 2016).


Platform evaporites

Are made up of stratiform beds, usually <50 m thick and composed of stacked <1 to 5 m thick parasequences or evaporite cycles, with a variably-present restricted-marine carbonate unit at a cycle base (Table 1). Salts were deposited as mixed evaporitic mudflat and saltern evaporites, sometimes with local accumulations of bittern salts. Typically, platform salts were deposited in laterally extensive (>50-100 km wide), hydrographically-isolated, subsealevel marine-seepage lagoons (salterns) or evaporitic mudflats (sabkhas and salinas). These regions had no same-scale modern coun-terparts and extended as widespread depositional sheets across large portions of hydrographically isolated marine platform areas, which passed seaward across a subaerial seepage barrier into open marine sediments (Figure 5). In marine margin epeiric settings, such as the Jurassic Arab/Hith and Permian Khuff cycles of the Middle East or the Cretaceous Ferry Lake Anhydrite in the Gulf of Mexico, these platform evaporites are intercalated with shoalwater marine-influenced carbonate shelf/ramp sediments, which in turn pass basinward across a subaerial sill into open marine carbonates. Landward they pass into arid zone continental siliciclastics or carbonate mudflats.


Platform evaporite deposition occurred in both pericontinental and epicontinental settings, at times of low-amplitude 4th and 5th order sealevel changes, which typify greenhouse eustasy (Figure 5; Warren, 2010). Platform evaporites also typify the saline stages of some intracratonic basins. Platform evaporites cannot form in the high-amplitude, high-frequency sealevel changes of icehouse eustasy. The 100m+ amplitude oscillations of icehouse times mean sealevel falls off the shelf edge every 100,000 years, so any evaporite that had formed on the platform is subaerially exposed and leached. Fourth order high-amplitude icehouse eustatic cycles also tend to prevent laterally-continuous carbonate sediment barriers forming at the top of the shelf to slope break and so icehouse evaporite systems tend not to be hydrographically isolated (drawdown) at the platform scale. Rather icehouse eustasy favours nonmarine evaporites as the dominant style, along with small ephemeral marine-margin salt bodies, as seen today in the bedded Holocene halites and gypsums of Lake Macleod in coastal West Australia.

Ancient platform evaporite successions may contain halite beds, especially in intracratonic basinwide settings, but periplatform settings, outside of intracratonic basins, are typically dominated by 5–40 m thick Ca-sulphate beds intercalated with normal-marine platform carbonates (Table 1). The lateral extent of these epeiric platform sulphate bodies, like the Middle Anhydrite Member of the Permian Khuff Fm. of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with a current area of more than 1,206,700 km2, constitute some of the most aerially-extensive evaporite beds ever deposited.


Basinwide evaporites

Are made up of thick evaporite units >50–100 m thick made up of varying combinations of deepwater and shallow wa-]ter evaporites (Table 2). They retain textural evidence of different but synchronous local depositional settings, including mudflat, saltern, slope and basin (Figures 6). When basinwide evaporite deposition occurs, the whole basin hydrology is evaporitic, holomictic, and typically saturated with the same mineral phase across vast areas of the basin floor, as in the Dead Sea basin today. The Dead Sea has a more limited lateral scale than ancient basinwides but currently has halite forming simultaneously as; 1) decimeter-thick chevron-dominated beds on the saline-pan floor of the shallow parts around the basin edge in waters typically less than 1-10 metres deep, and 2) as coarse inclusion-poor crystal meshworks of halite on the deep basin floor that sits below a halite-saturated brine column up to hundreds of metres deep (Figure 3a). Ancient basinwide successions are usually dominated by thick massive salt beds, generally more than 100-500 m thick. Deposits are made up of stacked thick halite beds, but can also contain substantial volumes of thick-bedded Ca-sulphate and evaporitic carbonate, as in the intracratonic basinwide accumulations of the Delaware and Otto Fiord Basins (Table 2).

Owing to inherent purity and thickness of the deposited halite, many halite-dominant basinwide beds are also remobilized, via loading or tectonics, into various halokinetic geometries (Hudec and Jackson, 2007). Some basinwide systems (mostly marine-fed intracratonic settings) entrain significant accumulations of marine-fed potash salts, as in the Devoni-an Prairie Evaporite of western Canada. In contrast, all Quaternary examples of commercial potash deposits are accumulating in continental lacustrine systems (Warren 2016; Chapter 11).

Basinwide evaporite deposits are the result of a combination of tectonic and hydrological circumstances that are not currently active on the world’s surface (Figure 4b). They were last active in the Late Miocene (Messinian), in association with soft-suture collision basins tied to the Alpine-Himalaya orogenic belt, and in Middle Miocene (Badenian) basins developed in the early rift stages of the Red Sea. Basinwide systems will be active again in the future at sites and times of appropriate plate-plate interaction, when two continental plate edges are nearby, and the intervening seafloor is in or near a plate-edge rift or suture and is both subsealevel and hydrographically isolated (Figure 6).


Lacustrine (nonmarine) evaporites

Quaternary continental playa/lacustrine are constructed of stratiform salt units, with the greater volume of saline sediment accumulating in lower, more-saline portions of the lacustrine landscape. Beds are usually dominated by nodular gypsum and displacive halite, deposited in extensive evaporitic mudflats and saltpans with textures heavily overprinted by capillary wicking, rather than as bedded bottom-nucleated layers on the subaqueous floors of perennial brine lakes (Figure 3b; Ruch et al., 2012). In ancient counterparts, the total saline lacustrine thickness ranged from meters to hundreds of meters, with lateral extents measured in tens to hundreds of kilometres (Table 3; Figure 4a). Lacustrine salt beds are separated vertically, and usually surrounded by, deposits of lacustrine muds, alluvial fans, ephemeral streams, sheet floods, eolian sands, and redbeds. As today, ancient lacustrine salts accumulated in endorheic or highly restricted discharge basins, with perennial saline water masses tending to occur in the drainage sumps of steep-sided drainage basins (Warren, 2010, 2016). Saline lake basins accumulating gypsum, or more saline salts like halite or glauberite, typically have a shallow water table in peripheral saline mudflat areas and so are dominated by continental sabkha textures. Nearby is the lowermost part of the lacustrine depression or sump where deposition is typified by ephemeral ponded brine pan deposits, rather than permanent saline waters.

Saline lacustrine mineralogies depend on compositions of inflowing waters, so depositional sumps in regions with non-marine ionic proportions in the feeder inflow, accumulate thick sequences of nonmarine bedded salts dominated by trona, glauberite, and thenardite. In contrast, nonmarine areas with thalassic (seawater-like) inflows tend to accumulate more typical sequences of halite, gypsum, and anhydrite.


Across the Quaternary, less-saline perennial saline-lake beds tend to occur during more humid climate periods in the same continental-lacustrine depressions where saline-pan beds form (e.g., Lake Magadi, Great Salt Lake, Lake Urmia). On a smaller scale, in some modern saline lake basins, parts of the lake floor can be permanently located below the water surface (Northern Basin in the Dead Sea or Lake Asal). In some modern saline sumps dominated by mudflats, a perennial saline lake water mass is located toward the edge of a more central salt-flat zone, forming a perennial water filled “moat” facies surrounding a seasonally desiccated saline pan (as in Salar, de Atacama, Salar de Uyuni, Lake Magadi, Lake Natron). These permanent to near-permanent saline water “moat” regions are typically created where fresher inflows encounter saltier beds of the lake centre, dissolve them, and so form water-filled peripheral depressions. Bottom sediment in the moats tend to be mesohaline carbonate laminites, which can contain TOC levels as high as 12%.

High-water stage perennial saline lacustrine sediments tend to be carbonate-rich or silica-rich (diatomaceous) laminites. Ancient examples of large saline lacustrine deposits made up of alternating humid and desiccated lacustrine units include the Eocene Green River Formation of Wyoming and the Permian Pingdiquan Formation of the Junggar Basin, Chi-na (Table 4). Evaporites deposited in a suprasealevel lacustrine basin (especially Neogene deposits) have numerous same-scale Quaternary analogues, unlike the more voluminous ancient marine platform and basinwide evaporites (Figure 4a).


Salt punches above its weight, but why? (facilitator for economic accumulations of oil, gas and metals)

In terms of total mass in sedimentary basins, the proportion of evaporite across the world’s Phanerozoic basins is rarely more than 2% (Figure 7; Ronov, 1980). Today we have comprehensive documentation that salt horizons, their brines, associated dissolution and alteration conduits control significant economic associations of oil, gas and metals (Warren, 2016):

  • 50% of world’s carbonate reservoirs (seals, traps and source rocks)
  • All the world’s supergiant oil and gas fields in thrusts (seals and structural traps).
  • All supergiant sedimentary copper deposits (halokinetic brine focus)
  • 50% of world’s giant SedEx deposits (halokinetic brine focus).
  • 80% of giant MVT deposits (sulphate-fixer & brine interface)
  • World’s largest Phanerozoic Ni deposit (meta-igneous – Noril’sk).
  • Many larger IOCG deposits (meta-evaporite, brine and hydrothermal).
  • This enrichment runs counter to a proportion of 2% of the world's Phanerozoic sediments. The exact why or how of these associations is still not well understood. Most geologists working with oil, gas or metal buildups in a salt-rich basin will come to have a suspicion, and for some, the conviction, that salt or its subsurface alteration plays a role in defining the position or enrichment level of the commodity of interest. Evaporite masses in the subsurface, especially if halite-dominant, enable both physical and chemical alterations, which tend to improve economic prospectivity. The unique properties of salt in the diagenetic realm tend to facilitate, focus and stabilise processes that lead to elevated levels of accumulations of various commodities (Figure 8). That is, evaporites in a basin tend to enhance the volume of oil, gas or metals in an accumulation, but are not necessarily the direct cause of the accumulation/precipitation.


    Evaporite-hydrocarbon association

    When the reservoired hydrocarbon below a salt seal is oil, little or no leakage can take place through a laterally continuous evaporite. Even when the reservoired hydrocarbon is methane, little or no loss occurs, even by diffusion (Ehgartner et al., 1998). The much greater efficiency of evaporite seals, compared to shales, is clearly seen in the total hydrocarbon volumes held back by the two lithologies. Total worldwide shale sediment volume in the Earth's sedimentary crust is more that an order of magnitude greater than that of evaporites, yet the split between reservoired hydrocarbons below a shale or an evaporite seal is roughly 50:50 (Grunau, 1987). Likewise, typical volumes of salt-sealed giant fields dis-covered in the last decade are much grander than that held in mudrock-sealed systems (Bai and Yu, 2014).

    Of the 120 giant oil and gas fields discovered in the period 2000 - 2012 some 54.6 % are hosted in marine carbonates and 12% in lacustrine carbonates, meaning less than a third of new giant discoveries are in siliciclastic reservoirs (Figure 9a). Some 56% of these oil and gas giants have an evaporite seal, with 82% of the marine carbonates having an evaporite seal and 91% of the lacustrine carbonates having an evaporite seal (Figure 9b, c). Clearly, carbonate reservoirs with evaporite seals constitute most of the giant oil and gas discoveries across the period 2000-2012, and the proportions of this association are likely to increase in conventional discoveries across the next decades (Bai and Yu, 2014).


    Of these 120 oil and gas giants, one is a megagiant field with a recoverable reserve of 50 Bboe (Billion barrels oil equivalent) or more, and 6 are supergiant fields with recoverable reserves of 5 Bboe or more. The seven largest fields are: Galkynysh (aka Yolotan or Osman) gas field in the Ama-Darya Basin of Turkmenistan with an original 2P reserve of 67.1 Bboe, making it likely the second largest known gas field in the world; Kashagan oil field (18.1 Bboe) in the North Caspian basin; Kish 2 gas field in the Arabian Basin (Iran): Lula (previously known as Tupi), Franco and Libra oil fields in the Santos Basin of offshore Brazil; and Sulige gas field (5.7 Bboe) in the Ordos Basin, China. In this listing, the geology of Galkynysh is not yet reliably published, but of the remaining 6, only Sulige does not have an evaporite association.

    Typical bedded evaporite seals, especially beds composed of monomineralogic assemblages such as massive nodular anhydrite or massive halite and have measured entry pressures more than 3000 psi. Most impure evaporite beds have entry pressures greater than 1000 psi, as do many evaporite-plugged reflux dolomites. Contrast this with most shales, which tend to be water-bearing (mostly bound and structural water), with typical entry pressures between 900 and 1500 psi (Sneider et al., 1997). Although such shales are respectable seals, over time shale allows substantial diffu-sive leakage of methane and even liquid hydrocarbons via inherent microporosity, less so if the shales are organic-rich. Even ignoring halite's ability to reanneal and flow under stress, any evaporite seal has much lower intrinsic permeability than shale, and this helps maintain its seal integrity. With permeabilities of 10-7 md, a hydraulic gradient of 0.01, and a porosity less than  0.01, a brine would take somewhere between 3 and 30 million years to flow 1 metre into an unfractured halite seal. For anhydrite, which has permeability some 100 times higher than halite, a brine would take between 30,000 and 300,000 years to flow 1 metre into the seal (Beauheim and Roberts, 2002).


    Evaporites are excellent longterm seals to substantial hydrocarbon columns. This applies to any siliciclastic or carbonate reservoir adjacent to bedded or halokinetic salty seals (Figure 10). The exemplary ability of bedded evaporites to act as seals holding back massive hydrocarbon columns is clearly seen in the Middle East, where Ghawar, the world’s largest oil field, is sealed by bedded anhydrites of the Jurassic Arab D Formation and the overlying Hith Anhydrite seal. This evaporite seal association in Ghawar holds back an estimated remaining reserve of more than 100-200 billion barrels. Bedded platform anhydrites also seal Safaniya, the world’s largest offshore field, also in Saudi Arabia, with estimated reserves of more than 25-30 billion barrels of oil and 5 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Likewise, Permian platform anhydrites are the regional seal to North Field in offshore Qatar, the world’s largest single gas field (non-associated gas) with more than 500 tcf of reserves (Alsharhan and Nairn, 1997). This gas is reservoired and sealed in the evaporitic dolomites of the Permian Khuff Formation and recent announcements by the Qatari Government have postulated more than 900 tcf of certified non-associated gas sealed in the North Field structure.

    In terms of physical processes, buried near-pure halite beds and masses (rock salt) in the sedimentary realm are rheologically unusual compared to other nearby sediments, in that at geological time scales rock salt can set up deformation responses that mimic Newtonian fluid responses. At the same time, intercrystalline textures in the flowing salt mass maintain seal integrity, even as local crystals dissolve and reprecipitate. That is, down to depths of 6-8 km rock salt flows and maintains seal integrity, while adjacent non-salt sediments tend to fault and fracture. The ability of bedded salt to seal (Figure 10a) and of flowing salt to create and seal supra-, intra- and sub-salt reservoirs is well documented (Figure 10b).

    Dense evaporitic brines can pass through adjacent or underlying sediments both at the time the bedded salts are accumulating, or later as a subsurface salt mass dissolves. For example, chemical responses, created within the set-up hydrology of widespread salt deposition and early burial, drive brine reflux, moving magnesium-rich modified seawater brines into and through the underlying carbonate sediments. This hydrology crafts broad reflux dolomite haloes, with local burial anhydrite patches and overall improves intercrystalline connectivity, at least until the dolomite reservoir becomes overdolomitised (Figure 11). Once this happens, all effective polyhedral porosity is lost in the dolomite and the reservoir potential is destroyed. Later dissolution brines can create hydrothermal waters capable of leaching and burial dolomitization, as in the burial-dolomite reservoirs of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (Davies and Smith, 2006).


    Organic-hydrocarbon association

    As long ago as the middle of last century, Weeks (1961) emphasised the importance of evaporites as seals to many of the world's major hydrocarbon accumulations. He also pointed out that many of the cycles of deposition that involve organic-rich carbonate marls or muds also end with evaporites. Clearly, in evaporitic settings, there is an association with Type I-II hydrogen-prone kerogens in mesohaline source rocks, and this is related to the ability of halotolerant photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria to flourish in periodically mesohaline waters. Such kerogens tend to be oil-prone rather than gas prone and typified by long-chain hydrocarbons (Warren, 2011).

    Much of the mesohaline organic matter preserved in evaporitic carbonates, and the resulting source rocks, originated as planktonic blooms (pelagic “rain from heaven”) or from the benthic biomass (“in situ” accumulations). Such organics typically settled out as seriate pulses of organic matter (often pelleted and laminated) that sank to the bottom of a layered brine column. Each pulse was tied to a short period when surface brines were diluted and halotolerant producers (mostly cyanobacteria and algae) flourished in the freshened lit zone. That is, laminated mesohaline mudstones that constitute most evaporitic source rocks reflect biological responses to conditions of “feast or famine” in vacillatingly-layered brine bodies (Figure 12; Warren, 1986, 2011).


    Worldwide, studies of schizohaline evaporitic basins have shown that organic-rich mesohaline sediments can accumulate beneath ephemeral surface brines in salterns, or in basin and slope settings in both marine and continental settings (Figure 12; Kirkland and Evans, 1981; Oehler, 1984; Warren, 1986, 2011; Rouchy, 1988; Busson, 1992). The most prolific accumulations of organics in ancient evaporitic settings tend to be laminated micritic carbonates deposited be-neath intermittently stratified moderately-saline (mesohaline) anoxic water columns of varying brine depth.

    There are three, possibly four, major mesohaline density-stratified settings where organic-rich laminites (source rocks) accumulate in saline environments that are also associated with, or evolve into, evaporite deposits (Warren, 2011):

    1) Basin-centre lows in marine-fed evaporitic drawdown basins (basinwide salts).

    2) Mesohaline intrashelf lows atop epeiric evaporitic platforms.

    3) Saline-bottomed lows in perennial underfilled saline lacustrine basins.

    4) Closed seafloor depressions in halokinetic deepwater marine slope and rise terrains.

    The Metal-evaporite association

    In addition to the evaporite hydrocarbon association, there is an association of evaporite settings with the larger of the known MVT, Sedex, Stratiform Sedimentary Copper and some IOCG associations (Figure 13; see Warren 2016, Chapter 15 and 16 for detailed case histories and models). The role of evaporites in focusing metalliferous ore accumulations is two-fold; 1) In solution (halite-dominant precursor) they can act as chloride-rich metal carriers and 2) Locally, as beds or masses (especially of CaSO4), their dissolution products, especially if trapped, can supply sulphur (mostly as bacteriogenic or thermogenic H2S) and also set up chemical interfaces that act as foci in the setup of brine mixing conditions suitable for precipitation of metal sulphides or native elements. Hence, most evaporite-associated ore systems tend to be epigenetic, rather than syngenetic. Subsurface salt beds and masses are merely the solid part of a large ionic recycling system; dissolved metals are another part, and zones of mixing between the two are typically sites where ores tend to accumulate. Halokinesis steadies the position of a redox interface, tied to a salt dissolution brine halo, and enables an extended phase of focus to a metal precipitative (redox) interface at a stable location in subsurface earth-space (Warren, 2016).


    At the world-scale, evaporite-associated metalliferous systems are driven by plate tectonics. Halite-dominated sequences, deposited in the drawdown basin centres, tend to dissolve in burial, and so supply chloride ions to the brine system. Salt beds that are thick enough tend to flow and so focus the upward, and centripetal passage of basinal and hydrothermal fluid flows. Dissolving gypsum or anhydrite beds, typically deposited higher on the basin platform or diagenetically accumulated along salt dissolution edges and touchdowns can supply sulphur, via bacterial or thermochemical sulphate reduction, while simultaneously focusing metalliferous brine flows into the precipitation interface.

    When the chemistries of the dissolving salt beds and the metal carriers interact so that redox fronts, salinity contrasts, and other precipitative interfaces are set up, an ore deposit can form. Thus, in base and precious metal exploration within evaporitic terranes, we are ultimately searching for those parts of a subsurface ionic cycling system where the salt dissolution, salt beds and metal systems have interacted to create economic levels of metalliferous precipitates.

    If salt is more than a seal, then......

    From a time in the 1950's and 1960's when evaporites were mostly seen as seals, knowledge systems developed over the next five decades now allow us to do much more with respect to predictive industrial geology, centred on the following evaporite facts:

    1) The distribution of evaporite depositional textures maps paleotopography across the underlying carbonates and siliciclastics. So, depositional signatures preserved in the seal can be used to map reservoir quality trends in terms of reflux dolomite intensity, anhydrite cement-patch distributions and zones of subaerial diagenesis

    2) Thick beds of halite tend to accumulate in particular plate tectonic settings. Beds deposited in plate-edge saline sumps tend to flow via sediment loading and extension, without later superimposed tectonic stresses. In contrast, bed deposited in intracratonic settings tend to require later externally-imposed tectonic stress in order to flow. Hydrocarbon trapping geometries are tied to particular styles of salt tectonics

    3) Mesohaline source rock distribution is related to evaporite basin architecture and likely fluid escape pathways, which in turn are related to seal type and timing of salt dissolution or halokinetic withdrawal.

    4) Potash ore quality controls are related to the timing of various brine crossflows generated during deposition, mesogenesis and telogenesis.

    5) Positions of likely base metal and copper accumulations relate to set-ups of dissolution-related of redox interfaces, mesogenetic cross-flows, and in some cases, halokinetic geometries. At the plate tectonic scale, these accumulations occur at particular hydrological interfaces within the basin architecture.

    References

    Alsharhan, A. S., and A. E. M. Nairn, 1997, Sedimentary Basins and Petroleum Geology of the Middle East: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Elsevier Science B. V., 942 p.

    Bai, G., and Y. Xu, 2014, Giant fields retain dominance in reserves growth: Oil & Gas Journal, v. 112, p. 44-.

    Busson, G., and et al., 1992, Basins paleogenes saliferes de l'Est de la France (Valence, Bresse et Haute-Alsace) Translated Title: Paleogene salt basins of eastern France, Valence, Bresse and Haute-Alsace: Geologie de la France, v. 1, p. 15-64.

    Davies, G. R., and L. B. Smith, 2006, Structurally controlled hydrothermal dolomite reservoir facies: An overview: Bulle-tin American Association Petroleum Geologists, v. 90, p. 1641-1690.

    Ehgartner, B. L., J. T. Neal, and T. E. Hinkebein, 1998, Gas Releases from Salt: SAND98-1354, Sandia National Laborato-ries, Albuquerque, NM, June 1998.

    Gertman, I., and A. Hecht, 2002, The Dead Sea hydrography from 1992 to 2000: Journal of Marine Systems, v. 35, p. 169-181.

    Grunau, H. R., 1987, A worldwide look at the cap-rock problem: Journal of Petroleum Geology, v. 10, p. 245-266.

    Hay, W. W., A. Migdisov, A. N. Balukhovsky, C. N. Wold, S. Flogel, and E. Soding, 2006, Evaporites and the salinity of the ocean during the Phanerozoic: Implications for climate, ocean circulation and life: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 240, p. 3-46.

    Jiang, L., C. F. Cai, R. H. Worden, K. K. Li, and L. Xiang, 2013, Reflux dolomitization of the Upper Permian Changxing Formation and the Lower Triassic Feixianguan Formation, NE Sichuan Basin, China: Geofluids, v. 13, p. 232-245.

    Kirkland, D. W., and R. Evans, 1981, Source-rock potential of an evaporitic environment: Bulletin American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 65, p. 181-190.

    Oehler, J. H., 1984, Carbonate source rocks in the Jurassic Smackover trend of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, in J. G. Palacas, ed., Petroleum geochemistry and source rock potential of carbonate rocks, v. 18: Tulsa, Oklahoma, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Studies in Geology, p. 63-69.

    Pilcher, R. S., B. Kilsdonk, and J. Trude, 2011, Primary basins and their boundaries in the deep-water northern Gulf of Mexico: Origin, trap types, and petroleum system implications: Bulletin American Association Petroleum Geologists, v. 95, p. 219-240.

    Ronov, A. B., V. E. Khain, A. N. Balukhovsky, and K. B. Seslavinsky, 1980, Quantitative analysis of Phanerozoic sedimen-tation: Sedimentary Geology, v. 25, p. 311-325.

    Rouchy, J. M., 1988, Relations évaporites-hydrocarbures:l'association laminites-récifes-évaporites dans le Messinien de Mediterranée et ses enseignements, in G. Busson, ed., Evaporites et hydrocarbures, v. 55, Mémoires du Muséum na-tional d'Historie naturelle, (C), p. 15-18.

    Ruch, J., J. K. Warren, F. Risacher, T. R. Walter, and R. Lanari, 2012, Salt lake deformation detected from space: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 331-332, p. 120-127.

    Sneider, R. M., J. S. Sneider, G. W. Bolger, and J. W. Neasham, 1997, Comparison of Seal Capacity Determinations: Con-ventional Cores vs. Cuttings, in R. C. Surdam, ed., AAPG Memoir 67: Seals, Traps, and the Petroleum System.

    Warren, J. K., 1986, Shallow water evaporitic environments and their source rock potential: Journal Sedimentary Pe-trology, v. 56, p. 442-454.

    Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporites through time: Tectonic, climatic and eustatic controls in marine and nonmarine depos-its: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 98, p. 217-268.

    Warren, J. K., 2011, Evaporitic source rocks: mesohaline responses to cycles of “famine or feast” in layered brines, Doug Shearman Memorial Volume, (Wiley-Blackwell) IAS Special Publication Number 43, p. 315-392.

    Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A Compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.

    Weeks, L. G., 1961, Chapter 5, Origin, migration and occurrence of petroleum, in G. B. Moody, ed., Petroleum Explora-tion Handbook: New York, McGraw-Hill.

     


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