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Validation of Landsat and Aster hydrothermal alteration

criteria in Sierra Vaquillas Altas area, Northern Chile

Natalia Astudillo y Carlos Venegas
Servicio Nacional de Geologa y Minera (SERNAGEOMIN), Av. Santa Maria 0104, Providencia, Santiago, Chile

*Contact email: natalia.astudillo@sernageomin.cl

Abstract. The Sierra Vaquillas Altas area hosts several

stocks that represent several magmatic pulses through
geological time which generated hydrothermal alteration
zones of different mineralogical characteristics. In order to
identify them we use various band combinations in Aster
and Lansat ETM imagery, validated with field data,
petrography and DRX. The results indicate that a first order
control in the type of alteration-mineralization observed is
strongly related to the deformation style found, thickskinned in the northern area vs thin-skinned in the southern
area. Moreover, we have detected latitudinal differences in
the crustal levels exposed which are indicated by the type
of alteration assemblages.
Keywords: Vaquillas
Landsat, ASTER.




1 Introduction
The Sierra Vaquillas Altas area is located in the
Precordillera of the southern part of the Antofagasta
Region, in northern Chile (2500-2530 S; 69306900W). The studied area covers approximately 2.790
km2, and it extends mainly along the Domeyko Cordillera,
including geologic record from the Ordovician to the
Quaternary. It can be divided in two structural- lithological
domains: a northern domain is characterized by thickskinned deformation style, related to uplift of Paleozoic
granitic complexes and its effusive equivalent (La Tabla
Formation) by deep reverse faults, and a southern domain
where a thin-skinned deformation style prevails, affecting
Mesozoic and Cenozoic volcanic and sedimentary
sequences. These domains are separated by a inferred NWSE trending lineament (Culampaja lineament) that extends
through the Central Andes of Chile and Argentina (Riller,
As part of the geological mapping program (Plan Nacional
de Geologia, PNG) by SERNAGEOMIN, we have carried
out a study of hydrothermal alteration, which consider, (1)
spectral interpretation of different band combinations for
Landsat ETM and ASTER imagery; (2) field data that
shows the existence of hydrothermal alterations
associations near to several stocks/hypabyssal intrusions
and reverse faults (e.g: El Profeta) and (3) X-ray
diffraction on powdered rocks and thin-polished sections
analyses. The purpose of this work is to demonstrate that
the remote sensing provides initial information about the
properties of hydrothermal altered rocks, thus allowing the

detection of potential areas of alteration and

mineralization. The detailed study of identified zones
could deliver potential exploration targets and, on the other
hand, this result can support metallogenic interpretations
and tectonic meaning.


The analyses of LANDSAT ETM+ and Advanced

Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer
images (ASTER) gives an idea of likely spatial distribution
of hydrothermally altered rocks in this studied area,
considering that those processes can produce distinctive
assemblages of minerals (Corbett y Leach, 1998).
Therefore, we have used a representative RGB band
combinations and band-math ratios applied to identify this
parameter. The image processing includes a radiometric
calibration and relative reflectance conversion using Flat
Field method. The spatial resolution of the LANDSAT
ETM six-band and ASTER nine-band (VNIR+SWIR)
image datasets used is 30 meters, whereas the thermal
ASTER TIR resolution is 90 meters. Furthermore, each
anomalous behavior identified in the studied area was
visited and studied.


Examination of Landsat RGB: 741 band composition,

optimized by saturation stretch method (Ghassemi Dehnavi
et al., 2010) shows, in the studied area, strong contrast
between hydrothermal alteration (phyllic, argillic,
advanced argillic), with white-cyan colors, and the host
rock (Figure 1). Additionally, in Landsat RGB: 321 true
color image, enhanced by decorrelation stretch to identify
lithological contrasts (Leverington and Moon, 2012), the
pink and white color have a relationship with clays and FeOH minerals distribution. In this context, minor color
variations can be generated by superimposed alteration
pulses, considering, for example, clay dependence of the
temperature and pH, which explains different spectral
properties for rocks that present argillic alteration.
In more complexes RGB band-math using Lansat imagery
to distinguish chlorite-epidote-clay alteration minerals
(RGB: 5/1 5/7 5/4 * 3/4, Sultan et al., 1986; RGB: 5/3
5/1 7/5 and 7/5 5/4 3/1, Gad & Kusky, 2006; RGB: 5/7
4/5 3/1, Pea and Abdelsalam, 2006), the images show a

good correlation of pink-ligth yellow, green-purple and

blue-purple-yellow colors in edges of porphyries with
skarn-type zonation, particularly, in the Plomo and Corral
del Alambre hills where Paleocene hypabissal stocks
intruded limestone from Profeta Formation. A similar
pattern, although less evident can be observed in Sierra
Santa Ana, because, apparently argillic alteration erases
partially the propylitic-albitic deeper mineralogical
association, related to Eocene porphyry intrusion. This is
validated at outcrops and microscopic scale.
The RGB 461 ASTER combination indicate that, in the
first case, magenta color is associated with the absorption
of band 6 (2.20 m), characteristic of Al-OH minerals,
while scarce thin yellow zones is correlated with Fe3+
intervention (band 1, Di Tommaso and Rubinstein, 2007).
The RGB 468 ASTER image integrates the Mg-OH
association is partially preserved. The last two
combinations allow us to distinguish the mentioned
mineral associations in Sierra Candeleros prospect, where
several Late Cretacic epizonal intrusives are hosted by
calcareous sandstones and conglomerates of Profeta
The 4/5, 4/6 and 4/7 Aster band ratios show white areas
related to strong responses for Al-OH (bands 5 and 6) and
Fe-OH minerals (band 7, Di Tommaso and Rubinstein,
2007), probably generated by either hydrothermal
alteration or supergene processes. For example, several ash
tuff from Paleocene Chile-Alemania Formation whereas
NNE-SSW trending outcrops localized near to Quebrada
Varitas and Pastos Largos, shows evidences of alteration
zones (argillic, phyllic, advanced argillic poorly
development), probably associated with acid-sulphate
condition (Browne, 1978), as response of distal fluids
circulation canalized by permeable levels to most distant
effusive centers.
Others anomalies were detected and interpreted by means
of ASTER OHIa, OHIb and ALI indexes, combined with
TIR indexes (SI, QI, Kobayashi et al., 2010), considering
selective absorption in a specific spectral region for
kaolinite, montmorillonite, micas and alunite (Ninomiya,
2004, table 1). This behavior is well recognized in the
southeast of studied area, where there is a large
hydrothermal alteration zone, restricted to the Miocene
Chaco caldera and surrounding areas. The Chaco volcano
is built by lavas and avalanche deposits (Naranjo et al.,
2015). Besides, Cornejo and Mpodozis (1996) indicate the
presence of not-altered andesitic bodies and daci-andesitic
domes with advanced argillic alteration haloes. Also
detailed field mapping (Venegas et al., 2013) shows, at the
bottom of the volcano, hydrothermal breccias with alunitequartz-opal matrix, and restricted evidences of vuggy silica
texture. Integration of Landsat and Aster images allow us
to identify a core of intense advanced argillic alteration of
NNE- SSW ellipsoidal in shape and remnants of ancient
fumaroles, corresponding to metrics outcrops with

gypsum, clays, native sulfur; and jarosite, montmorillonite,

and scarce dickite-natroalunite (DRX). Surrounding this
zone appears argillic and phyllic alteration with a chaotic
spatial distribution. Moreover, in combination with
mineralogical analyses indicate apparent pyrophyllite
prevalence in the western sector of the Chaco, and traces of
kaolinite - montmorillonite. Also, related to breccias edges,
the signal for alunite, silica and Fe-OH minerals is intense.
DRX results found natroalunite, cristobalite, quartz,
dickite, nacrite and goethite, hematite, gibbsite and illite
traces, or natroalunite, alunite, cristobalite, gypsum,
kaolinite and montmorillonite which indicates that
corresponds to advanced argillic alteration area. Moreover,
it can be deduced, at least, two mineralogical associations
with different temperature, considering the stability
conditions defined by Zotov et al. (1998) and Stoffregen
and Cygan (1990): (1) higher T: natroalunite-nacritedickite, and (2) lesser T: alunite-natroalunite-kaolinite.


Considering only the combined analyses of ASTER and

LANDSAT data, it can be identified different atypical
behaviors for spectral properties of rock in the studied
area, mainly related to mineral associations generated by
metasomatic, hydrothermal and supergene processes. The
last, it is facilitated by geological observations in the field
(Venegas et al., 2013).
There is a geographic break in the distribution of alteration
in the studied area. Toward the north of quebrada
Vaquillas Altas (Figure 1), older intrusive and volcanic
rocks related to the central higher elevations (Late
Paleozoic La Tabla and Complejo Intrusivo Punta del
Viento) shows deeper and scarce alteration (weakmoderate silicification), and sporadic, restricted and noneconomic mineralization targets, related to hypabyssal
intrusive bodies, related to strong erosion and denudation.
This is well correlated with the thick-skinned deformation
style found in this zone, which caused noticeable basement
uplift and consequent erosion and exhumation.
On the other hand, towards the south of quebrada
Vaquillas Altas, there is an increment the number of
visible hypabyssal stocks and its hydrothermal alteration
associated (phyllic, argillic, incipient advanced argillic).
The last is interpreted as a lower exhumation rate
compared to what we see in Sierra Vaquillas Altas that it is
likely related to thin-skin deformation style. Moreover,
several of these targets have been prospected or/and
mining and are linked to porphyry Cu-Au systems (Sierra
Santa Ana) and low sulfidisation epithermal system (Mina
Vaquillas). Furthermore, the present outcrops and the
hydrothermal alteration patterns observed indicate
different crustal blocks exposures, representative of
specific depth levels and geological paleoenvironment, as
response of structural configuration at minor scale. For
example, Eocene Sierra Santa Ana prospect, whose
alteration pattern is related to magmatism roots and

porphyry-style models (moderate-high erosion) versus

Miocene El Chaco Caldera, with predominately epithermal
mineralogical association.

Silvia Arce, Mrs. Laura Varas and Dr. Eugenia Fonseca to

fruitful discussions.

The alteration patterns observed are predominantly

controlled by (1) lithological types of host rocks, (2)
composition of hypabyssal intrusive and (3) emplacement
depth. This is the case of Sierra Candeleros, where in the
east-southern portion the dacitic-andesitic (-hornblende)
stocks and sills were emplaced in sandstone and
conglomerate country rocks, with focalized silicification
and, in the edges of several intrusives, marginal argillic
alteration. Instead, in the northwest of these ranges,
alteration development is greater, where the emplacement
of dacitic (hornblende-biotite) porphyries within
ignimbrites, volcanic breccias and lavas of Llanta
Formation, produce a significant silicic-argillic alteration,
with localized incipient advanced argillic minerals
associations. Another example is the Paleocene hypabissal
intrusives, that can be near to magmatism roots, with
consequent generation of skarn alteration pattern, as in
Plomo and Corral del Alambre hills, or most shallow small
cupolas, with scarce hydrothermal alteration development,
as the case identified between Quebrada Los Sapos and
Sandn, with restricted argillization


mesothermal and porphyry deposits) depends on the
crustal depth and temperature (Corbett & Leach, 1998;
Sillitoe, 2010); in Sierra Vaquillas Altas, hydrothermal
alteration found is closely related to uplift and denudation
of crustal blocks, in response to tectonic events which, in
several cases, is well distinguished by spectral data.
Specifically, toward the north of Quebrada Vaquillas the
hydrothermal alteration pattern recognized indicate mainly
hypothermal-near to magmatic conditions, formed at
relatively high temperature and pressure, whereas toward
the south of Quebrada Vaquillas, the hydrothermal
alteration recognized shows relatively shallower crustal
levels, related to hypothermal-near to mesothermal, and
epithermal paleoenviroments.
Therefore, Aster and Landsat ETM+ data provide
mineralogical-structural information that could be helpful
with initial identification of probable hydrothermal
affected areas. Using these results can reduce the time of
field evaluation. Nevertheless, the validation of this
information by geological field data is fundamental for
supporting interpretations of geologic controls of


This study was carried out within the geological mapping

scale 1:100.000 of Vaquillas Altas mapa, supported by
SERNAGEOMIN. We are gratefully acknowledgment to


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Figure 1: Landsat 8 Red-Green-Blue (RGB) 7, 4 and 1 band composition, optimized by saturation stretch method of

Vaquillas Altas area. Hydrothermal altered rocks are represented by white, cyan and light green colors in the Landsat ETM image.