Water in faults that vaporizes during an earthquake forms gold deposits, according to a new study published in the March issue of Nature Geoscience.
Dion Weatherley, a geophysicist at the University of Queensland in Australia, said that the model establishes a link between gold and quartz formation in many of the world's gold deposits, the same kind of hybrid formations that sparked the 19th-century California and Klondike gold rushes.
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When an earthquake strikes, a fracture called a fault forms. Big faults can have many small fractures along their length, connected by jogs that appear as rectangular voids. Water often lubricates faults, filling in fractures and jogs, according to OurAmazingPlanet.
About six miles below the surface of a fault, there are high temperatures and pressures that cause water to carry high concentrations of carbon dioxide, silica, and economically attractive elements like gold.
When an earthquake occurs, the fault opens wider; the void vaporizes, flashing steam and forcing the precious minerals out of the fluids, posit Weatherley and co-author Richard Henley, of the Australian National University in Canberra.
The amount of gold produced from an earthquake is tiny, as underground fluids carry at most only one part per million of the element. However, earthquakes smaller than magnitude 4.0, which may rattle nerves but rarely cause damage, can trigger the vaporization, so perhaps an earthquake zone like New Zealand's Alpine Fault, one of the world's fastest, could build a mineable deposit in 100,000 years, Weatherly said.
"Given that small-magnitude earthquakes are exceptionally frequent in fault systems, this process may be the primary driver for the formation of economic gold deposits," Weatherley told OurAmazingPlanet.
Earthquakes aren't the only cataclysmic source of gold. Volcanoes produce the precious metal as well.
Understanding how gold forms helps companies prospect for new mines. The World Gold Council reports that humans have pulled more than 188,000 tons of the metal from the ground, exhausting most accessible sources.
"This new knowledge on gold-deposit formation mechanisms may assist future gold exploration efforts," Weatherley said.
Jamie Wilkinson, a geochemist at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science the findings make sense.
"To me, it seems pretty plausible. It's something that people would probably want to model either experimentally or numerically in a bit more detail to see if it would actually work," Wilkinson told OurAmazingPlanet.
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