Earthquakes Turn Water Into Gold, a new study claims

ISLAMABAD: Water in faults vaporizes during an earthquake, depositing gold, according to a model issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, Live Science reported here.

The model provides a quantitative mechanism for the link between gold and quartz seen in many of the world’s gold deposits, said Dion Weatherley, a geophysicist at the University of Queensland in Australia and lead author of the study.

When an earthquake strikes, it moves along a rupture in the ground – a fracture called a fault. Big faults can have many small fractures along their length, connected by jogs that appear as rectangular voids. Water often lubricates faults, filling in fractures and jogs.

About 6 miles (10 kilometers) below the surface, under incredible temperatures and pressures, the water carries high concentrations of carbon dioxide, silica and economically attractive elements like gold.

During an earthquake, the fault jog suddenly opens wider. It’s like pulling the lid off a pressure cooker: The water inside the void instantly vaporizes, flashing to steam and forcing silica, which forms the mineral quartz, and gold out of the fluids and onto nearby surfaces, suggest Weatherley and co-author Richard Henley, of the Australian National University in Canberra.

Surprisingly, the quartz doesn’t even have time to crystallize, the study indicates. Instead, the mineral comes out of the fluid in the form of nanoparticles, perhaps even making a gel-like substance on the fracture walls. The quartz nanoparticles then crystallize over time.

Even earthquakes smaller than magnitude 4.0, which may rattle nerves but rarely cause damage, can trigger flash vaporization, the study finds.

“Given that small-magnitude earthquakes are exceptionally frequent in fault systems, this process may be the primary driver for the formation of economic gold deposits,” said an expert.