Much of the world's Li deposits occurs as basinal brines in magmatic orogens, particularly in continental volcanic arcs. However, the exact origin of Li enrichment in arc magmatic systems is not clear. Here, we show that, globally, primitive arc magmas have Li contents and Li/Y ratios similar to mid-ocean ridge basalts, indicating that the subducting slab has limited contribution to Li enrichment in arc magmas. Instead, we find that Li enrichment is enhanced by lower degrees of sub-arc mantle melting and higher extents of intracrustal differentiation. These enrichment effects are favored in arcs with thick crust, which explains why magmatism and differentiation in continental arcs, like the Andes, reach greater Li contents than their island arc counterparts. Weathering of these enriched source rocks mobilizes and transports such Li into the hydrologic system, ultimately developing Li brines with the combination of arid climate and the presence of landlocked extensional basins in thickened orogenic settings. The exact origin of lithium enrichment in arc magmatic systems is unclear. Here the authors conduct a global systematics of lithium, explaining why volcanic arcs built on thickened crust are most lithium-enriched, which sheds light on the future exploration of lithium resources.
Fig. 1: Distribution of global lithium deposits and conceptual cartoon describing Li cycling in subduction zones.