Magma Chamber Processes within Quaternary and Recent Systems

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Internal structure, sampling locations and U-Pb zircon age distribution of the Geysers Plutonic Complex

Hazard assessment and risk management of restless caldera systems worldwide depend on reliable constraints on magma accumulation rates and conditions of preeruptive storage. Ion microprobe analysis of accessory minerals is a unique tool to address these issues for youthful magma systems due to a high sensitivity for low-abundance isotopes (e.g., 206Pb, 230Th) and high spatial resolution that allows radiometric dating of individual crystal domains. By the same token, melt inclusions can be harnessed for insights into processes of magmatic degassing and assimiliation of hydrothermally altered magma chamber rinds. Ion microprobe group members are currently involved in studies of large-volume, Quaternary caldera systems underlying Long Valley and Yellowstone (U.S.A.).  Work has been performed at La Pacana (Chile), the largest known terrestrial resurgent caldera, and at Toba (Indonesia), the source of a ~76 ka eruption thought by some to have pushed the then human population to the brink of extinction ( Rampino and Ambrose, 2000).

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Yellow Stone Geysers

Ion microprobe U-Pb zircon age results for the Bishop Tuff (Long Valley; Reid and Coath, 2000) and La Pacana (Schmitt et al., 2002) argue strongly against protracted preeruptive magma storage. By contrast, Long Valley post-caldera lavas show evidence for >100 ka crystal residence (Reid et al., 1997) and remelting of solidified and hydrothermally altered precursor intrusions (Schmitt and Simon, 2003). Zircon 238U-230Th disequilibrium age populations for Central Plateau Member lavas at Yellowstone indicate episodic magma differentiation by effective crystal-melt separation and storage for timescales on par with estimates for other voluminous caldera-related rhyolites (Vazquez and Reid, 2002). In the case of Toba, allanite recorded a 150 ka differentiation history that continued up to the time of eruption. Allanite compositional variability increased dramatically within ca. 35 ky of eruption, suggesting an episode of vigorous crystal and/or melt mixing close to eruption (Vazquez and Reid, 2004). While these results underscore the notion that large-volumes of silicic magma can accumulate over short geologic time-spans (cf. Huppert and Sparks, 1988), they also provide showcase examples of complex pre-eruptive histories with unprecedented temporal resolution of processes such as crystallization, magma recharge and thermal rejuvenation in individual caldera systems.

Another area in which we have focused upon is the magmatic system developed at The Geysers, a major geothermal anomaly in northern California that has sustained significant (up to ~1000 MW) electricity generation for more than three decades (Barker et al., 1992).  While geothermal activity has apparently persisted at shallow (<3-4 km) levels for more than a million years (e.g., Moore and Gunderson, 1995), the nature of its heat source still remains poorly understood. At the surface, the Geysers reservoir is associated with small-volume volcanic centers (1 to <10 km3) that range in age from ~2.7 to ~0.7 Ma. At subsurface levels, geothermal wells penetrated an extensive (>300 km3) plutonic body, termed the Geysers Plutonic Complex (GPC). Previous attempts to determine crystallization ages   within the GPC had been hampered for a variety of reasons (Schriener and Suemnicht, 1981; Dalrymple, 1993). Using ion microprobe techniques, we have been able to systematically determine the timing of emplacement throughout the GPC (Dalrymple et al., 1999; Schmitt et al., 2003b) and related these to coeval volcanism in the overlying Cobb Mountain volcanic field (Schmitt et al., 2003a). Over 400 zircon ages from thirty four spatially and petrologically comprehensive samples recovered from twenty different wells indicate piecemeal intrusion of the GPC between 1.8 and 1.1 Ma. This allows us to conclude that the GPC (as presently explored) is too old to serve as the heat source for the Geysers geothermal system.