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Global distribution of sediment-hosted metals controlled by craton edge stability


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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Fig. 1: Mineralization system for genesis of sediment-hosted base metal deposits.
Fig. 2: Distribution of sediment-hosted and IOCG base metal deposits as a function of Australian lithospheric thickness.
Fig. 3: Global distribution of sediment-hosted base metal deposits as a function of lithospheric thickness.
Fig. 4: CDFs for global sediment-hosted base metals.
Fig. 5: Thermal modelling of basin subsidence histories.

Data availability

All data, including digital versions of lithospheric thickness maps and deposit databases, are available in the manuscript or the Supplementary Information, and on the OSF database (


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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.

Author information




K.C. discovered this relationship. K.C. and M.J.H. conceived and designed the study. D.L.H., K.C., F.D.R. and M.J.H. compiled deposit databases. A.L.J. collated Australian xenolith data. A.L.J., F.D.R. and M.J.H. performed the thermobarometry and palaeogeotherm modelling. F.D.R. and M.J.H. developed the shear-wave to temperature conversion scheme. F.D.R. calibrated anelasticity parameterizations. M.J.H. generated lithospheric thickness maps, performed statistical tests, made figures and compiled supplementary information. S.G., M.J.H. and K.C. investigated implications of rifting continental lithosphere. The paper was written by K.C. and M.J.H., with guidance from all authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Mark J. Hoggard or Karol Czarnota.

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Extended data

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 information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion including equations, Figs. 1–33 and Tables 1–8.

Supplementary Data

Lithospheric thickness maps in netCDF, GeoTIFF and CSV format.

Supplementary Table 1

Compilation of base metal deposits.

Supplementary Table 2

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).

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