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Rare earth mineral potential in the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain from integrated geophysical, geochemical, and geological approaches

June 29, 2017

We combined geophysical, geochemical, mineralogical, and geological data to evaluate the regional presence of rare earth element (REE)−bearing minerals in heavy mineral sand deposits of the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain. We also analyzed regional differences in these data to determine probable sedimentary provenance. Analyses of heavy mineral separates covering the region show strong correlations between thorium, monazite, and xenotime, suggesting that radiometric equivalent thorium (eTh) can be used as a geophysical proxy for those REE-bearing minerals. Airborne radiometric data collected during the National Uranium Resource Evaluation (NURE) program cover the southeastern United States with line spacing varying from ∼2 to 10 km. These data show eTh highs over Cretaceous and Tertiary Coastal Plain sediments from the Cape Fear arch in North Carolina to eastern Alabama; these highs decrease with distance from the Piedmont. Quaternary sediments along the modern coasts show weaker eTh anomalies, except near coast-parallel ridges from South Carolina to northern Florida. Prominent eTh anomalies are also observed over large riverbeds and their floodplains, even north of the Cape Fear arch where surrounding areas are relatively low. These variations were verified using ground geophysical measurements and sample analyses, indicating that radiometric methods are a useful exploration tool at varying scales. Further analyses of heavy mineral separates showed regional differences, not only in concentrations of monazite, but also of rutile and staurolite, and in magnetic susceptibility. The combined properties suggest the presence of subregions where heavy mineral sediments are primarily sourced from high-grade metamorphic, low-grade metamorphic, or igneous terrains, or where they represent a mixing of these sources. Comparisons between interpreted sources of heavy mineral sands near the Fall Line and igneous and metamorphic Piedmont and Blue Ridge units showed a strong correspondence with rocks closest to the Fall Line and poor correspondence with rocks farther inland. This strongly suggests that the primary source of those heavy minerals, especially monazite, is the rocks that formed the rocky coast that was present during opening of the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn indicates the importance of coastal processes in forming heavy mineral sand concentrations. Furthermore, narrow radiometric eTh and K anomalies are associated with major rivers, indicating limited spatial influence of fluvial processes. Later coastal plain sediment deposition appears to have involved reworking of sediments, providing an “inheritance” of the rocky coast composition that persists for some distance from the Fall Line. However, this inheritance is reduced with distance, and sediments within ∼100 km of the coast in Georgia and Florida exhibit properties indicative of mixing from multiple sources.

Publication Year 2017
Title Rare earth mineral potential in the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain from integrated geophysical, geochemical, and geological approaches
DOI 10.1130/B31481.1
Authors Anjana K. Shah, Carleton R. Bern, Bradley S. Van Gosen, David L. Daniels, William Benzel, James R. Budahn, Karl J. Ellefsen, Adam T. Karst, Richard Davis
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title GSA Bulletin
Index ID 70189106
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center