Sustainable development and the transition to a clean-energy economy drives ever-increasing demand for base metals, substantially outstripping the discovery rate of new deposits and necessitating dramatic improvements in exploration success. Rifting of the continents has formed widespread sedimentary basins, some of which contain large quantities of copper, lead and zinc. Despite over a century of research, the geological structure responsible for the spatial distribution of such fertile regions remains enigmatic. Here, we use statistical tests to compare deposit locations with new maps of lithospheric thickness, which outline the base of tectonic plates. We find that 85% of sediment-hosted base metals, including all giant deposits (>10 megatonnes of metal), occur within 200 kilometres of the transition between thick and thin lithosphere. Rifting in this setting produces greater subsidence and lower basal heat flow, enlarging the depth extent of hydrothermal circulation available for forming giant deposits. Given that mineralization ages span the past two billion years, this observation implies long-term lithospheric edge stability and a genetic link between deep Earth processes and near-surface hydrothermal mineral systems. This discovery provides an unprecedented global framework for identifying fertile regions for targeted mineral exploration, reducing the search space for new deposits by two-thirds on this lithospheric thickness criterion alone.
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This work is a contribution to the Australian government’s Exploring for the Future program. We are grateful to B. Steinberger, N. Rawlinson, K. Yoshizawa and B. Kennett for sharing lithospheric thickness maps. We thank J. C. Afonso, E. Bastrakov, G. Begg, R. Blewett, A. Bufe, D. Champion, R. Davies, B. Delbridge, A. Dickinson, M. Doublier, R. Fu, S. Goes, A. Gorbatov, B. Hodgin, B. Holtzman, C. Jiang, J. Kingslake, S. Liu, Z. Ma, T. Mackey, P. McFadden, D. McKenzie, D. Müller, P. Nimis, C. O’Malley, E. Powell, K. Priestley, R. Remm, T. Schlegel, D. Schutt, O. Shorttle, R. Skirrow, E. Smith, S. Stephenson, Y. Takei, C.-Y. Tien, N. White and J. Winterbourne for their assistance and discussions. S. Lebedev provided helpful feedback on an early draft of this work. M.J.H. acknowledges support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (grant NNX17AE17G) and the Donors of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (59062-DNI8). F.D.R. acknowledges support from the Schmidt Science Fellows program, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. K.C. and D.L.H. publish with permission of the CEO of Geoscience Australia. Geoscience Australia eCat ID 132624. M.J.H. is indebted to J. Austermann and J. Mitrovica for personal guidance and affording him the freedom to pursue this research.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Rebecca Neely.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 Global lithospheric thickness maps obtained from calibration of four upper mantle surface wave tomography models.
(a) SL2013sv model.30 Symbols = deposit locations; area proportional to estimate of total contained mass of metal (Mt = megatonnes); unknown deposit size given 2 Mt symbol; colour = ore body formation age (billion years); unknown age plotted in grey; circles = clastic-dominated lead-zinc (PbZn-CD); triangles = Mississippi Valley type lead-zinc (PbZn-MVT); squares = sedimentary copper (Cu-sed). (b) Associated CDFs for sediment-hosted deposits and random continental locations. (c-d) Same for the 3D2015-07Sv model.70 (e-f) Same for the CAM2016 model.71,72 (g-h) Same for the SLNAAFSA model, generated by blending regional updates from North America (SL2013NA73), Africa (AF201974), and South America (SA201975) into the global SL2013sv model.30 Note that CDFs for all tomography models show a significant difference from the distribution of random continental locations.
Supplementary Discussion including equations, Figs. 1–33 and Tables 1–8.
Lithospheric thickness maps in netCDF, GeoTIFF and CSV format.
Compilation of base metal deposits.
Locations and mineral compositions for xenocryst/xenolith thermobarometry with optimal FITPLOT palaeogeotherms.
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Hoggard, M.J., Czarnota, K., Richards, F.D. et al. Global distribution of sediment-hosted metals controlled by craton edge stability. Nat. Geosci. 13, 504–510 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0593-2
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