The Basics

Minerals on the Edge – Plate Boundaries and Minerals

The world is a dynamic place. The earth that we stand on, and think of as fixed, is anything but. The most unstable areas of all are the plate boundaries, where giant crustal plates collide together, the physics is simple; something’s gotta give, and there are probably going to be fireworks – or at least volcanic eruptions and earthquakes! Along with the destruction though, comes the creation of many of the mineral deposits we rely on.

Plate tectonics is the theory that explains why there are lots of volcanoes in Iceland and Japan, but far fewer in Russia and Africa. It also explains why the Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world while the highest peak in Australia is barely over 2000m!

The energy released along boundaries, results in volcanic and hydrothermal activity that creates the right conditions for many minerals to be concentrated. Plate boundaries are also a way for deep-seated rocks from the mantle to find a way to the near-surface. These rocks become the source of many of our largest mineral deposits.

Major tectonic Plates
Major tectonic Plates. Image CC

Plate boundaries are crucial; they are where new land is created. If the plates suddenly stopped moving, fairly quickly, in geological terms, the whole world would be one gigantic ocean again as the continents were eroded down to below sea level.

Although the details can be complex – there are in essence three types of plate boundaries:

Three types of plate boundaries: Convergent, Transform and Divergent.
Three types of plate boundaries: Convergent, Transform and Divergent.
  • Divergent boundaries – where the plates are being forced apart, usually along mid-oceanic ridges. Iceland is the best-studied example, as it’s conveniently above sea level, undersea examples include the “black smokers” of the mid-Atlantic and northwest Pacific.
  • Convergent boundaries – where plates collide, one will be forced under the other – the Himalayas being the most spectacular example, formed as the Indian plate slams into the southern edge of the Eurasian plate. These don’t always create mountain ranges – a subduction zone is marked by a deep ocean trench with a line of volcanoes such as Indonesia where the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and others are volcanic, formed by the collision of the Australian plate which is being forced under the Eurasian plate.
  • Transform boundaries are less common – in this case the plates slide alongside each other. The San Andreas fault in California is the best known example.

Not all plates are the same thickness. Oceanic plates are thinner while the continental plates are thicker with a much lower geothermal gradient. Simplistically, as we move away from the mid-ocean ridges the crust gets thicker and colder.

Mineralisation and Plate Boundaries

What happens along plate boundaries is critical for mineral formation. The energy released along boundaries results in volcanic and hydrothermal activity that creates the right conditions for many minerals to be concentrated. Plate boundaries are also a way for deep-seated rocks from the mantle to find a way to the near-surface. These rocks become the source of many of our largest mineral deposits.

However, for the exploration geologist, it is not just about where plate boundaries are now – it’s about where they were many hundreds of millions of years ago. If we have a clear understanding of the location of ancient plate boundaries, it’s easier to predict where regional mineralisation may occur today.

Icelandic Hydrothermal Activity. Image CC
Icelandic Hydrothermal Activity. Image CC

Divergent Plate Boundaries and Mineralisation

As the seafloor splits apart, the hydrothermal activity cause deposits of both sulphides and metalliferous sediments along flanks of ridges. Black smokers and volcanic massive sulphide deposits are created by water circulating via cracks along ridges, collecting minerals from the heated rock before being expelled through hydrothermal vents. As the super-heated fluids make contact with the seawater, metals that were dissolved from the surrounding basaltic rocks are re-deposited on the sea floor.

Companies are currently considering undersea mining of this type of deposit in the Red Sea. Minerals associated with mid-ocean ridges include iron, zinc, copper, lead, gold, and silver.

Historic examples of volcanic massive sulphide deposits include the Troodos copper-iron complex in Cyprus. The massive sulphides and related stockwork occurs within a basaltic pillow lava sequence. Similar mineralisation occurs in Semail, Oman.

Some 50% of the world’s chromite production is associated with oceanic rocks consisting of layered mafic and ultramafic (i.e. silicon poor) intrusives.

Also associated with mid-ocean ridges are manganese-rich polymetallic nodules that are thought to result from slow accretion of minerals from the seawater over extremely wide areas of the ocean floor.

Subduction Zones and Mineralisation

The well-known Pacific Ring of fire is also a ring of mineral deposits, including deposits along western North and South America, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia and New Zealand. Key resources include:

  • base metals – copper, lead, zinc, and molybdenum
  • precious metals – platinum, gold, silver
  • others metals including tin, tungsten, antimony, mercury and uranium deposits

At these boundaries, one oceanic plate is being forced progressively under another plate. This creates both a source of both heat and minerals that result in a wide variety of mineral deposits.

Mineralization along subduction zone boundaries show a predictable pattern that has been observed in many locations including Myanmar and the Andes. For example from west to east in the Andes we observe mineral deposits including:

This mineralogy reflects progressive melting of metals from the descending slab – tin coming from a depth of 300km. The metals are sourced from the descending slab and overlying mantle. There are often associated geothermal regions.

Himalayas - Big Collision! Image CC
Himalayas – Big Collision! Image CC

Collision Boundaries

When two crustal plates collide the thickness of the plates ensure that there is far less hydrothermal activity, compared to the thin-skinned oceanic plates at subduction zones. Rather than directly causing the formation of mineral deposits, this type of plate boundary will expose a variety of mineralisation which were created elsewhere, displaced and then uplifted by the moving plate.

San Andreas Falut, California. Image CC
San Andreas Falut, California. Image CC

Transform Faults and Mineralisation

In a transform fault neither plate is being forced down into the mantle, so there is little hydrothermal activity. What mineralisation that does occur tends be localised and small scale e.g. the hot spring gold deposit at McLaughin in the California coast ranges



Lis Sowerbutts

Lis Sowerbutts has been both a mine and exploration geologist and has worked in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Canada. She has a BSc(Hons) in Geology from New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington. Lis is also a published author of travel and technical books and has written many articles for online websites.

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