The United States is a net importer of barite, a critical mineral for the oil and gas industry; more than 80 percent of current domestic consumption of barite is imported from China. Nearly all of the domestic production of barite comes from stratiform deposits in Nevada. The 'modern analogs' approach adopted in this review can contribute to improving deposit models and the long-term resource picture in the United States.
Massive barite deposits in Nevada are interlayered with deep-water siliceous sedimentary strata of Paleozoic age within the Roberts Mountains Allochthon. Although the barite deposits formed along the long-lived, tectonically active margin of western North America before the Antler orogeny, uncertainty still exists regarding key aspects of their genesis, especially with respect to tectonic setting and depositional processes. Proposed tectonic settings include a continental slope adjacent to an ocean basin, and a rifted basin formed on continental crust. A margin dominated by other stress configurations
and strike-slip faulting may also have been present during the Paleozoic. Hypotheses for the genesis of sediment-hosted, stratiform barite deposits in Nevada can be grouped into two categories: (1) a synsedimentary hydrothermal model and (2) an ocean-circulation/productivity-zone model. Both models include a stage involving bacterial reduction of seawater sulfate.
Disseminated, diagenetic, and hydrothermal barite deposits are widespread features of the modern ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, disseminated barite deposits (max 9 weight percent BaSO4) are forming below high-productivity zones (for example, in equatorial belts) and on the flanks of ocean ridges (as fallout of 'black smoker' particles). Massive barite deposits of diagenetic (in the subsea floor and at cold seeps) and hydrothermal origins are present in several sediment-covered tectonic settings, including ocean ridges (Escanaba Trough and Guaymas Basin), oceanic transform faults (Blanco Fracture Zone), marginal basins (Sea of Okhotsk), convergent margins (Peru, Oregon, Alaska), and transform margins (California Continental Borderland). Both hydrothermal and diagenetic barite deposits may be present in some environments (for example, the California California Borderland).
On the basis of a consideration of tectonic settings and a comparison of deposit attributes (associated rock types, size, structure), mineralogy (BaSO4 content, SiO2 content), and geochemistry (S- and Sr-isotopic ratios) for modern and ancient massive barite deposits, cold seeps along transform margins (or, possibly, marginal basins) represent the most promising present-day metallogenetic analogs for stratiform barite. Hydrothermal systems can also produce high-grade barite, but the ubiquity of associated sulfide mineralization on the modern sea floor (and the paucity of sulfides in Nevada deposits) is problematic. On the basis of data from modern barite deposits, the presence of vent-specific faunas (tubeworms) and the variation in d34S values for barite (related to bacterial reduction of seawater sulfate) may not permit discrimination between a diagenetic or hydrothermal origin for ancient barite deposits.
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Chapter H: Stratiform Barite Deposits in the Roberts Mountains Allochthon, Nevada: A Review of Potential Analogs in Modern Sea-Floor Environments