Geophysical expression of a buried niobium and rare earth element deposit: the Elk Creek carbonatite, Nebraska, USA

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 9:45 AM
Benjamin Drenth1, Jeffrey D Phillips1, Andy Kass1 and Richard A Krahenbuhl2, (1)USGS, Denver, CO, United States, (2)Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, United States
The lower Paleozoic Elk Creek carbonatite is a 6-8 kilometer diameter intrusive complex buried under 200 meters of sedimentary rocks in southeastern Nebraska. It hosts the largest known niobium deposit in the U.S. and a rare earth element (REE) deposit. The carbonatite is composed of several lithologies, the relations of which are poorly understood. Niobium mineralization is most enriched within a magnetite beforsite unit, and REE oxides are concentrated in a barite beforsite unit. The carbonatite intrudes Proterozoic country rocks. A high-resolution airborne gravity gradient and magnetic survey was flown over the carbonatite in 2012. The carbonatite is associated with an annular vertical gravity gradient high with a subdued central low, and a central magnetic high surrounded by magnetic field values lower than those over the country rocks. Geophysical, borehole, and physical property data are combined for an interpretation of these signatures. The carbonatite is denser than the country rocks, explaining the gravity gradient high. Most carbonatite lithologies have weaker magnetic susceptibilities than those of the country rocks, explaining why the carbonatite produces a magnetic low at its margin. The primary source of the central magnetic high is interpreted to be mafic rocks that are strongly magnetized and are present in large volumes. Magnetite beforsite is very dense (mean density 3200 kg/m3) and strongly magnetized (median 0.073 SI magnetic susceptibility), producing a gravity gradient high and contributing to the aeromagnetic high. Barite beforsite has physical properties similar to most of the carbonatite volume, making it a poor geophysical target. Geophysical anomalies indicate the presence of dense and strongly magnetized rocks at depths below existing boreholes, either a large volume of magnetite beforsite or another unknown lithology. Studies are underway to investigate possible effects of alteration and magnetic remanence, and to better constrain the 3D distribution of magnetite beforsite.