• Sulfuric acid speleogenesis (SAS) produces sulfate, carbonate, and oxide byproducts.
  • Many SAS caves no long contain sulfate byproducts that are dateable by 40Ar/39Ar.
  • We applied U-Pb analyses of a dolomite crust sample from Carlsbad Cavern.
  • A model age of 4.1 +/- 1.3 Ma for the dolomite crusts matches the alunite age.
  • U-Pb dating of speleogenetic dolomite is a new way of measuring the timing of SAS.


The 1100-meter Big Room elevation level of Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico USA, formed 4 Ma by hypogenic sulfuric acid speleogenesis (SAS). The age of the Big Room level of 4.0 ± 0.2 Ma was previously determined by dating alunite, a byproduct of speleogenesis, using the 40Ar/39Ar method. Duplication of these results is possible by radiometric dating of other byproducts interpreted to be speleogenetic (a byproduct of speleogenesis) such as calcite and dolomite in certain settings. XRD and TEM analyses of sample 94044, a piece of crust collected within the Big Room level of SAS just below Left Hand Tunnel indicate that this dolomite sample we interpret to be speleogenetic is as well-ordered crystallographically as the Permian bedrock dolomite, possibly reflecting its SAS origin. Three U-Pb analyses were performed on subsamples A1, A2, and A3 of sample 94044, and two, A1 & A2, produced out-of-secular equilibrium results due to the presence of authigenic quartz and/or later re-distribution of uranium in the dolomite crust, which prevented the calculation of an isochron age. Because subsample 94044-A3 exhibited δ234U and 230Th/238U values consistent with secular equilibrium, we were able to generate a 238U/204Pb-206Pb/204Pb model age of 4.1 ± 1.3 Ma on the dolomite crust (94044) that we interpret to be reliable. The 4.1 Ma age of the speleogenetic dolomite crust agrees with the 4 Ma 40Ar/39Ar age for the timing of speleogenesis of the Big Room level. While 40Ar/39Ar-dating of speleogenetic alunite- and jarosite-group minerals remains the primary way to determine absolute timing of hypogenic SAS, here we demonstrate that U-Pb dating of speleogenetic dolomite can be used to compliment or independently measure the timing of SAS. This method of dating SAS could be applicable in caves where the more soluble SAS-indicator minerals such as gypsum, alunite, and jarosite have been removed.



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