Isotopic Studies of Byproducts of Hypogene Speleogenesis and their Contribution to the Geologic Evolution of the Western United States

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Conference Proceeding

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isotopic studies, hypogene speleogenesis, western united states


Hypogene speleogenesis in the western United States is associated with a deep source of water and gases that rise and mix with shallow aquifer water. Caves are formed below the surface without surface expressions (ie, sinkholes, sinking streams), and byproducts of speleogenesis are precipitated during the late phase of hypogene speleogenesis. These byproducts provide geochemical and geochronological evidence of a region’s geologic history and include gypsum rinds and blocks, elemental sulfur, halloysite-10Å, alunite, natroalunite, and other sulfur-related minerals. The following speleogenetic and speleothemic features are common: alteration rinds, crusts, mammillaries, folia, rafts, and cave spar. The types of hypogene speleogenesis vary and many can be expressed in space and time in relation to paleo-water tables. We identify two general types: (1) H2S-H2SO4-dominated speleogenesis that takes place predominantly near a paleo-water table (a few meters above and below), and (2) CO2-dominated speleogenesis that mostly takes place 10s to 100s of meters below a paleo-water table, with latest-stage imprints within meters of the water table.
The Kane caves in Wyoming, and the Guadalupe Mountains caves in New Mexico and West Texas, are examples of H2S-H2SO4-dominated speleogenesis (also known as sulfuric acid speleogenesis, SAS), where deposits of H2S- and H2SO4-origin are the obvious fingerprints. The Grand Canyon caves in Arizona and Glenwood Caverns in Colorado are examples of CO2-dominated systems, where H2SO4 likely played a smaller role (Onac et al., 2007). Deeper-seated geode-like caves, like the spar caves in the Delaware Basin area, are probably CO2-dominated, and have formed at greater depths (~0.5 ± 0.3 km) below paleo-water tables. Caves in the Black Hills, South Dakota are composite and complex and show evidence for multiple phases of hypogene speleogenesis. In areas such as the Grand Canyon region, these paleo-water tables, when they existed in thick carbonate rock stratigraphy and especially at the top of the thick carbonate rock strata, were likely regionally relatively flat in the larger intact tectonic blocks.
Geochemical studies of these deposits are providing information about the timing of speleogenesis through U-Th, U-Pb, and Ar-dating. In addition, tracer data from isotopes of C, O, S, Sr, and U are indicators of the sources of water and gases involved in speleogenesis. From these studies, novel canyon incision and landscape evolution interpretations are appearing in the literature. Beyond this, the study of these byproduct materials seems to show evidence that the deeply sourced water and gases involved in hypogene speleogenesis in the western United States are generated during tectonic and volcanic activity, and may be related to mantle processes associated with formation of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range province, and Rio Grande Rift.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Hypogene Cave Morphologies Karst Waters Institute Special Publication, v. 18, p. 88-94