Comparative mineralogy and geochemistry of gold-bearing sulfide deposits on the mid-ocean ridges Academic Article uri icon


  • A comparative study of the mineralogy and geochemistry of sulfide deposits on mid-ocean ridges in the Northeast Pacific and the Mid-Atlantic reveals common characteristics associated with primary gold enrichment. Average gold contents of 0.8 to 5 ppm Au occur in sulfides from Southern Explorer Ridge and Axial Seamount (Northeast Pacific) and from the TAG hydrothermal field and Snakepit vent field (Mid-Atlantic Ridge). The enrichment of gold in these deposits is consistently related to a phase of late-stage, low-temperature (< 300-degrees-C) venting. Concentrations > 1 ppm Au occur exclusively in pyritic assemblages and commonly with abundant Fe-poor sphalerite and a suite of complex Pb-Sb-As sulfosalts. Amorphous silica and, locally, barite or carbonate are important constituents of the gold-rich precipitates but do not contain gold themselves. High-temperature (350-degrees-C) black smoker assemblages, consisting dominantly of pyrite, chalcopyrite, pyrrhotite, isocubanite and abundant anhydrite are uniformly gold-poor (less-than-or-equal-to 0.2 ppm Au). To the extent that individual sulfides can be mechanically separated, chemical analyses by neutron activation indicate that gold is most abundant in sphalerite (up to 5.7 ppm Au) but also occurs in pyrite and marcasite. Samples of sphalerite with abundant inclusions of fine-grained sulfosalts locally contain up to 18 ppm Au, suggesting that sulfosalts may be repositories for gold. No free gold has been observed at 4000 x magnification of polished specimens, indicating that the gold is present only as submicroscopic inclusions or as a chemical constituent within the sulfides. Samples from gold-rich deposits in the Northeast Pacific and Mid-Atlantic are compared with similar but relatively gold-poor sulfides from the Galapagos Rift and 13-degrees-N on the East Pacific Rise (EPR), and with barren sulfides from 11-degrees-N EPR, 21-degrees-N EPR, the Endeavour Ridge, and the Southern Juan de Fuca Ridge. Trace element analyses of more than 170 samples show that gold enrichment in almost all of the deposits is associated with high concentrations of Ag, As, Sb, Pb and Zn, and locally with high Cd, Hg, Tl, and Ga. In contrast, gold is typically depleted in samples with high Co, Se, and Mo. The close association of Au with Ag, As, Sb, and Pb may reflect the common behavior of these metals as aqueous sulfur complexes (e.g., [Au(HS)2-]) at low temperatures. Similar mineralogical and geochemical associations are observed in sulfide deposits from modern back-arc settings and in the ancient geologic record.

publication date

  • October 1991