Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Flash vaporization during earthquakes evidenced by gold deposits


Much of the world’s known gold has been derived from arrays of quartz veins. The veins formed during periods of mountain building that occurred as long as 3 billion years ago1,2,3, and were deposited by very large volumes of water that flowed along deep, seismically active faults. The veins formed under fluctuating pressures4,5 during earthquakes6, but the magnitude of the pressure fluctuations and their influence on mineral deposition is not known. Here we use a simple thermo-mechanical piston model to calculate the drop in fluid pressure experienced by a fluid-filled fault cavity during an earthquake. The geometry of the model is constrained using measurements of typical fault jogs, such as those preserved in the Revenge gold deposit in Western Australia7, and other gold deposits around the world. We find that cavity expansion generates extreme reductions in pressure that cause the fluid that is trapped in the jog to expand to a very low-density vapour. Such flash vaporization of the fluid results in the rapid co-deposition of silica with a range of trace elements to form gold-enriched quartz veins. Flash vaporization continues as more fluid flows towards the newly expanded cavity, until the pressure in the cavity eventually recovers to ambient conditions. Multiple earthquakes progressively build economic-grade gold deposits.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Gold–quartz extensional veins.
Figure 2: Opening of jogs on faults during earthquakes7 showing relative motion of the sidewalls during slip.
Figure 3: Fluid pressure transients during earthquakes.
Figure 4: Fluid density and quartz solubility transients during earthquakes.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Sibson, R. H., Robert, F. & Poulsen, K. H. High-angle reverse faults, fluid-pressure cycling, and mesothermal gold–quartz deposits. Geology 16, 551–555 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Boullier, A. M. & Robert, F. Paleoseismic events recorded in Archaean gold–quartz vein networks, Val d’Or, Abitibi, Quebec, Canada. J. Struct. Geol. 14, 161–179 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Goldfarb, R., Baker, T., Dube, B., Groves, D. I., Hart, C. J. & Gosselin, P. Distribution, character and genesis of gold deposits in metamorphic terranes. Econ. Geol. 100th Anniversary Volume, 407–450 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Wilkinson, J. J. & Johnston, J. D. Pressure fluctuations, phase separation, and gold precipitation during seismic fracture propagation. Geology 24, 395–398 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Parry, W. T. Fault-fluid compositions from fluid-inclusion observations and solubilities of fracture-sealing minerals. Tectonophysics 290, 1–26 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cox, S. F. & Ruming, K. The St Ives mesothermal gold system, Western Australia—A case of golden aftershocks? J. Struct. Geol. 26, 1109–1125 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Nguyen, P. T., Cox, S. F., Harris, L. B. & Powell, C. McA. Fault-valve behaviour in optimally oriented shear zones: An example at the Revenge gold mine, Kambalda, Western Australia. J. Struct. Geol. 20, 1625–1640 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Frimmel, H. E. Earth’s continental crust gold endowment. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 267, 45–55 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Phillips, G. N. & Powell, R. Formation of gold deposits: A metamorphic devolatilization model. J. Metamorph. Petrol. 28, 689–718 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Cox, S. F., Knackstedt, M. A. & Braun, J. in Structural Controls on Ore Genesis Vol. 14 (eds Richards, J. P. & Tosdal, R. M.) 1–24 (Society of Economic Geologists Review, Society of Economic Geologists, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Clark, M. E., Carmichael, M. D., Hodgson, C. J. & Fu, M. in The Geology of Gold Deposits: The Perspective in 1988 (eds Keays, R. R., Ramsay, W. R. H. & Groves, D. I.) 445–459 (Economic Geology Monograph, Vol. 6, Society of Economic Geologists, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Aki, K. Generation and propagation of G waves from the Niigata earthquake of June 14, 1964. Part 2. Estimation of earthquake moment, released energy and stress-strain drop from G wave spectrum. Bull. Earthq. Res. Inst. 44, 73–88 (1966).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Sheldon, H. A. & Ord, A. Evolution of porosity, permeability and fluid pressure in dilatant faults post-failure: Implications for fluid flow and mineralization. Geofluids 5, 272–288 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Cox, S. F. Coupling between deformation, fluid pressures and fluid flow in ore-producing hydrothermal environments. Econ. Geol. 100th Anniversary Volume, 39–75 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Shelly, D. R. Migrating tremors illuminate complex deformation beneath the seismogenic San Andreas fault. Nature 463, 648–653 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Boiron, M. C., Cathelineau, M., Banks, D. A., Fourcade, S. & Vallance, J. Mixing of metamorphic and surficial fluids during the uplift of the Hercynian upper crust: Consequences for gold deposition. Chem. Geol. 194, 119–141 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Migdisov, A. A. & Williams-Jones, A. E. A predictive model for metal transport of silver chloride by aqueous vapour in ore-forming magmatic-hydrothermal systems. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 104, 123–135 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Pitcairn, I. K., Teagle, D. A. H., Craw, D., Olivo, G. R., Kerrich, R. & Brewer, T. S. Sources of metals and fluids in orogenic gold deposits: insights from the Otago and Alpine Schists, New Zealand. Econ. Geol. 101, 1525–1546 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Dolejs, D. & Manning, C. E. Thermodynamic model for mineral solubility in aqueous fluids: Theory, calibration and application to model fluid-flow systems. Geofluids 10, 20–40 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Tanner, D., Henley, R. W., Mavrogenes, J. A. & Mernagh, T. in XVI Congreso Peruano de Geologia SEG 2012 Conf. Lima, September 23–26, Poster 100 (Society of Economic Geologists, 2012).

  21. Kind, M. & Kaiser, R. Flash Crystallization—A new process for designing crystalline powders. 17th Int. Symp. Industrial Crystallization Vol. 1, 111–118 (Society of Economic Geologists, 2008).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Kind, M. Colloidal aspects of precipitation processes. Chem. Eng. Sci. 57, 4287–4293 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Herrington, R. J. & Wilkinson, J. J. Colloidal gold and silica in mesothermal vein systems. Geology 21, 539–542 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Vityk, M. O. & Bodnar, R. J. Textural evolution of synthetic fluid inclusions in quartz during reequilibration, with applications to tectonic reconstruction. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 121, 309–323 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Robinson, R. Potential earthquake triggering in a complex fault network: The northern South Island, New Zealand. Geophys. J. Int. 159, 734–748 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Drew, L. J., Berger, B. R. & Kurbanov, N. K. Geology and structural evolution of the Muruntau gold deposit, Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan. Ore Geol. Rev. 11, 175–196 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Frimmel, H. E. & Minter, W. E. L. Recent developments concerning the geological history and genesis of the witwatersrand gold deposits, South Africa. Soc. Econ. Geol. Special Publ. 9, 17–45 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hanks, T. C. & Kanamori, H. A moment magnitude scale. J. Geophys. Res. 84, B2348–B2350 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Leonard, L. Earthquake fault scaling: Self-consistent relating of rupture length, width, average displacement, and moment release. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 100, 1971–1988 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Henley, R. W. & Hughes, G. O. Underground fumaroles: ‘Excess heat’ effects in vein formation. Econ. Geol. 95, 453–466 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


R.W.H. wishes to express his thanks to S. Cox and B. Berger for their constructive comments on this paper and stimulating discussions over several decades. D.K.W. would like to thank R.W.H., D. Wood and his colleagues at the W. H. Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre for encouragement to consider seismological implications for mineral deposition. D. Tanner also kindly provided constructive comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



R.W.H. conceived the initial concept. D.K.W. carried out the analysis and both authors contributed to the writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dion K. Weatherley.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 267 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Weatherley, D., Henley, R. Flash vaporization during earthquakes evidenced by gold deposits. Nature Geosci 6, 294–298 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing