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Integrating magnetotellurics, soil gas geochemistry and structural analysis to identify hidden, high enthalpy, extensional geothermal systems

March 1, 2019

We applied magnetotellurics (MT), diagnostic structural affiliations, soil gas flux, and fluid geochemistry to assist in identifying hidden, high-enthalpy geothermal systems in extensional regimes of the U.S. Great Basin. We are specifically looking for high-angle, low-resistivity zones and dilatant geologic structures that can carry fluids from magmatic or high-grade metamorphic conditions in the deep crust upward to exploitable depths, and to verify the nature of the deep sources through soil gas and fluid compositions. The project was motivated by prior MT transect coverage of western and central Nevada centered upon the Dixie Valley producing geothermal system where such favorable indicators were first recognized. The high-angle MT structures are taken to be fluidized fault zones connecting deep magmatic/metamorphic activity with the geothermal system, but the concept required verification by testing at other systems.
The project was set up with a two-phased organization. Phase I was carried out at the McGinness Hills system, central Nevada, where Ormat Inc flagship power facility is located and a considerable amount of pre-existing data were available. Resistivity models along MT transects also showed a strong low-resistivity upwelling originating from interpreted deep crustal magmatic underplating. Controlling structures on production as indicated by Ormat data and our new mapping were favorable to dilatancy, comprising an accommodation zone between major normal faults of opposing dip. A 3D MT survey and inversion confirmed the existence of the steep low-resistivity zone dipping ESE toward the deep crust and placed N-S bounds upon the feature. In cooperation with Ormat personnel, we sampled well fluids from production intervals for He isotope composition. Elevated 3He was verified through mass spectrometry analysis confirming a magmatic connection with the producing system. High CO2 soil gas flux including possibly metamorphic 13C and 14C component was measured over the area of dilatant structures. Hence, the triad of indicators posed above was confirmed in Phase I.
Subsequently, Phase II of the project proceeded in the greenfield Kumiva-Blackrock Desert district of northwestern Nevada to see if a new system could be identified. Transect MT data also showed a low-resistivity upwelling originating from interpreted deep crustal magmatic underplating. An MT survey of 131 sites was imaged through 3D inversion using an in-house, DOE-supported finite element algorithm. Low resistivity upwellings that warranted follow up study occur under the flanks of the Seven Troughs Range, under Kumiva Playa immediately west of the Blue Wing Mountains, and under northern Granite Springs Valley. Structural assessment of the project area by Co-I J. Faulds at UNR provided numerous favorable Quaternary fault settings, which were correlated to the MT upwelling structures. Soil CO2 gas flux anomalies generally were not large but did show correlation with resistivity upwelling structure and favorable geological structures. Isotope analyses showed presence of possible inorganic/metamorphic 13C but 14C concentrations did not exceed background values.
We view the initial concept of a confluence of low-resistivity upwelling, favorably dilatant 3D geological structure, and elevated soil gas flux including 13C component to be supported by the further evidence of this project although the indicators in the Phase II study were more diffuse. Mass balance calculations based upon 3He R/Ra values indicates that the proportion of magmatic fluids in a producing system is fairly low, 10-15% by volume. We suggest that the diagnostic MT geophysical structures denote zones of concentrated extensional deformation that increases permeability, potentially enabling a circulating upper crustal geothermal system, while at the same time connecting telltale deep component signatures to the upper crust. The northern Granite Springs Valley structure is receiving followup stu

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title Integrating magnetotellurics, soil gas geochemistry and structural analysis to identify hidden, high enthalpy, extensional geothermal systems
Authors Philip E. Wannamaker, James E Faulds, B. Mack Kennedy, Virginie Maris, Drew L. Siler, Craig Ulrich, Joseph Moore
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype
Series Title
Series Number
Index ID 70204785
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center