One of the most revealing field trips that I ever made was to the now-closed Pine Point lead-zinc deposit in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Being in the company of the late Doug Shearman (dcd. 2003) of Imperial College London helped a great deal, but the evidence exposed in and around the mine reawoke my interest in sedimentary processes that lead to economic mineralisation. To cut a long story short, Pine Point developed by the passage of Devonian seawater from a vast evaporating basin through a barrier-reef complex, in which a variety of chemical and biological environments, and products of karst formation encouraged the fluid to deposit the metals that it contained on an awesome scale. Limestone-hosted Pb-Zn ores occur widely in Britain and Ireland in rocks of Carboniferous age, the most familiar to me in the English Pennines being in narrow veins. The biggest in Ireland, and they are world-class, are more pervasive of the carbonate host. How they formed has been conjectural and based on geological relationships in what is a small area by comparison with the vast Late Palaeozoic sedimentary systems of the Canadian Shield. Crucial large-scale evidence is meagre. Studying the chemistry of the ore-bearing solution trapped in Irish fluid inclusions reveals a familiar picture (Wilkinson, J.J. et al. 2005. Intracratonic crustal seawater circulation and the genesis of subseafloor zinc-lead mineralization in the Irish orefield. Geology, v. 33, p. 805-808).
Multi-element geochemistry plus strontium and sulfur isotope composition of the included fluids in Irish deposits reveals the signature of considerable concentration of the brines by evaporation, together with their having scavenged metals from crustal rocks as they circulated at depth. Returning to the surface along fault-controlled conduits, the metal-rich brine seems to have mixed with another. As at Pine Point, the sulfur needed to precipitate metal ions as insoluble sulfide ore minerals was probably supplied as hydrogen sulfide excreted by anaerobic bacteria that reduce sulfate ions in seawater. Doug demonstrated this phenomenon in 1981 with a linen handkerchief soaked in lead acetate solution, which he dipped into a foetid swamp seething with such ‘bugs’ on the Pine Point muskeg. ‘Instant orebody’, he cried, as the hanky turned black from fine galena particles.
Although the Irish Zn-Pb ores are more related to faults than to limestone reefs, nonetheless local geology demonstrates considerable relief on the floor of the shallow Carboniferous sea. Fully understanding the ‘plumbing’ and the geochemistry requires, as Wilkinson and colleagues suggest, a regional view of Carboniferous tectonics just before Africa collided with Laurussia. Just before that amalgamation, restricted, evaporation-prone basins would have formed. On a continental scale the circulation of their concentrated brines would have followed active faults systems that reached the shallow sea bed: a great deal more complicated than what is plain to see at Pine Point, given the eye of one of post-WW2 Britain’s lions of geology.