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Mapping critical minerals from the sky

September 8, 2021

Critical mineral resources titanium, zirconium, and rare earth elements occur in placer deposits over vast parts of the U.S. Atlantic Coastal Plain. Key questions regarding provenance, pathways of minerals to deposit sites, and relations to geologic features remain unexplained. As part of a national effort to collect data over regions prospective for critical minerals, the first public high-resolution aeroradiometric survey over the U.S. Atlantic Coastal Plain was conducted over Quaternary sediments in South Carolina. The new data provide an unprecedented view of potential deposits by imaging Th-bearing minerals in the heavy mineral assemblage. Sand ridges show the highest radiometric Th values with localized, linear anomalies, especially along the shoreface and in areas reworked by multiple processes and/or during multiple episodes. Estuarine areas with finer-grained sediments show lower, distributed Th anomalies. Th values averaged over geologic unit areas are similar for both environments, suggesting that heavy minerals are present but have not been locally concentrated in the lower-energy estuarine environments. Radiometric K highlights immature minerals such as mica and potassium feldspar. K is elevated within shallow sediments younger than ca. 130 ka, an attribute that persists in regional data from northern South Carolina to northern Florida. Both K and Th are elevated over the floodplains of the Santee River and other rivers with headwaters in the igneous and metamorphic Piedmont Terrane. The persistence of K anomalies for distances of more than 100 km from the Santee River floodplain suggests that heavy minerals are delivered from the Piedmont to offshore areas by major rivers, transported along the coast by the longshore current, and redeposited onshore by marine processes.