Salty Matters

The Blog is written by me, John Warren. Once every three or four weeks or so I will post an article or two on an evaporite topic that has piqued my interest. On the Saltwork Publications webpage (under "the Works") there is a growing library of pdfs and epubs based on these blogs. These articles on the website have much higher resolution extractable graphics in than in the blog. There is also a link to this set of pdfs and epubs on the home page (

Aeolian Gypsum and Saline Pans - an indicator of climate change

John Warren - Friday, June 30, 2017


Evaporites deposited as aeolian dunes are not commonplace in Quaternary successions and not yet documented in any pre-Quaternary succession (Table 1). These eolian deposits are deposited above the water table in a vadose setting, generally in a degrading playa or salt lake hydrology. Consequently, there is an inherent low preservation potential for this style of evaporite; most documented examples are less than a few tens of thousands of years old.


Even though relatively rare as an evaporite type, the presence of eolian evaporites, usually as gypsum dunes or lunettes with associated soils and saline mudflats, does indicate particular climatic and hydrological conditions. Eolian gypsum deposits may have possible counterparts in the Martian landscape (Szynkiewicz et el., 2010).

Over the Quaternary and across the Australian continental interior, increased aridity is expressed by episodes of dune reactivation, lake basin deflation with eroded sediment accumulating downwind in transverse dunes or lunettes (Bowler, 1973; Fitzsimmons et al., 2007), Deposition is tied to increased dust mobility (Hesse and McTainsh, 2003) and reduced river discharge and channel size (Nanson et al., 1995). Such responses to increasing landscape aridity in saline groundwater sumps are seen in most arid to semi-arid regions of the world where water tables are falling, usually driven by increasing aridity.

This article focuses on eroded subaerial evaporites as a response to increasing aridity, especially the formation of gypsum dunes and lunettes (Table 1; Figure 1).

Gypsum dune styles and saline pans

Figure 1 and Table 1 plot documented occurrences of eolian gypsum across the world, overlain on a Koeppen climate base (Figure 1a). Figure 1b plots the latitudinal occurrences of documented gypsum dunes versus elevation and Koppen climate type. Figures 1c and 1d plot the detail of these same occurrences for the USA and Australia, where individual deposits are better documented. At the worldscale, there is an obvious tie to the world's desert belts with occurrences consistently situated in regions of the cool dry descending cells of northern and southern hemisphere Hadley cells (positions indicated by light blue rectangles in Figure 1b - See also Salty Matters article from Jan. 31, 2017). Many occurrences are also situated in Late Pleistocene to Holocene climate transition zones, marked by aridification at the transition from Late Pleistocene to Holocene climates, and in many case tied to transitions from perennial saline lakes and mega-lakes to continental saltflats to dunes and interdunal pans, An example of a quartz sand erg association (downwind of a gypsiferous strandzone) is seen in the transition area into the southern Kallakoopah Pans from the northern margin of Lake Eyre, Australia and its megalake precursor (Figure 2).

At the local scale, gypsum dunes generally occur downwind or atop a saline pan or playa that is, or was, recently subject to a lowering of its lacustrine watertable. In many situations the elongation of individual pan shapes line up in an orthogonal direction to the dominant wind and so also show an eolian control, like the associated gypsum dune position and alignment (Figure 3). Wind-aligned lakes and sumps and oriented-pans are much more numerous with a broader climatic range than gypsum dunes (Goudie and Wells, 1995; Goudie et al., 2016). When present, eolian bedforms associated with oriented pans lacking evaporites are dominated by clay pellets or quartz sand.

Many of the pan edge dunes show crescent shapes and so are termed lunettes. (Figure 3; Bowler, 1973). Lunette sediments range in composition from quartz-rich to sandy clay, gypsiferous clay to nearly pure gypsum. Pure quartz dune lunettes likely formed under lake-full conditions, and so show a distinct hydrology from that of the clay pellet or gypsum-rich varieties, which form by deflation of subaerially-exposed adjacent lake floors. The flocculation of suspended clays into pellets requires some degree of salinity but is less than that required to precipitate gypsum.

Lunette sediments range in composition from quartz-rich, sandy clay, through gypseous clay to nearly pure gypsum. Pure quartz dunes formed under lake-full conditions and are distinct from that of the clay and gypsum-rich varieties, which formed by flocculation and deflation from adjacent subaerially exposed lake floors. (Bowler, 1986). Gypsum and pelleted clay dunes (lunettes) line the edges of many salt lakes and playas in southeastern, southern and southwestern Australia; Prungle Lakes and Lake Fowler (gypsum lunettes), Lake Tyrell (clay lunette with occassional gypsum enrichment) and Lake Mungo (quartz sand lunette). All these lunettes are lake or pan-edge relicts from the Late Pleistocene deflationary period, when the lacustrine hydrology changed from perennial water-filled lakes to desiccated mudflats. Likewise, there are gypsum dunes in deflationary depressions in Salt Flat Playa and the Bonneville/Great Salt Lake region of Utah (Figure 4; Table 1).

Internal sedimentary structures in many of these lake-edge gypsum dunes or lunettes show tabular cross beds with consistent bedform orientation. Many lack abundant trough or festoon cross beds, suggesting consistent wind directions (Jones 1953; Bowler, 1973, 1983). Grain constituents clearly indicate deflation of former lake sediments, which were mostly vadose prior to deflation and passage into the dunes (Figure 4).

Gypsum dunes are part of a much broader lake-edge eolian sandflat association with the lakes often supplying large volumes of quartzose eolian sediment into adjacent sand seas or ergs (Figure 2; Warren, 2016). As mentioned pan-edge dunes described as ‘lunettes’ have a characteristic crescentic shape, other lake edge dunes may show more linear or longitudinal outlines, sometimes with parts of large sand seas or ergs being fed by the deflation of the salt lake or pan as at the southern edge of the Simpson Desert in Australia where it is in contact with the expanding and contracting edge of (Lake Eyre Figure 2).

Hydrological transitions from downwind evaporite dunes and lunettes

The role of salts, groundwater oscillations and the associated lake water levels/watertables are critical in creating eolian evaporites. Typically, once seasonal drying of an increasing arid lake floor sump begins, remaining surface waters with suspended clay become saline enough for the clay to flocculate and sink to the bottom of the desiccating water mass. If surface water concentration continues and the water surface sinks into the sediments to become a saline water table, then secondary gypsum prisms and nodules grow within the capillary zone of already-deposited sediment. In waters that are increasingly saline but not saturated with gypsum or halite, pelletization can continue to occur in the capillary fringe of clayey surface sediment (Figure 5).

Ongoing seasonal aridity further lowers the watertable in a saline mudflat, so the upper part of the vadose sediment column leaves the top of the capillary zone. It then deflates, leading to an accumulation of sand-sized sediment in adjacent eolian lunettes. If there is a prevailing wind direction, this builds significant volumes of dune sediment in a particular wind-aligned quadrant of the saline pan edge. Whether clay pellets or gypsum crystals are the dominant lunette component depends on the humidity inherent to the pan climate. In hyperarid situations, halite can be an eolian component in the lake hydrology (Salar de Uyuni; Svendsen, 2003).

In some lunettes, the mineralogy changes according to climate-driven changes in the hydrogeochemistry of the lake waters sourcing the lunette. For example in the Lake Tyrell lunette in semi-arid southwest Australia, the sediments in a layer range from clay pellets (75%) and dolomite (25%) in somewhat humid times of deflation to layers, with gypsum making up >90%, indicative of a more arid hydrochemistry. Lunettes associated with the shrinkage and deflation of Late Pleistocene Estancia megalake (New Mexico, USA) show similar variations in the proportions of clay pellet and gypsum sands in lake margin deposits around the edges of up to 120 blowout depressions. These blowouts define the former extent of the shrinking megalake and encompass both shoreline and lunette sands (Allen and Anderson, 2000)

Thus, the presence of an active gypsum lunette-field at a saline pan or playa edge is tied to landscape instability and a change from more humid to more arid conditions. To form a lunette requires a change in climate and an associated change in pan or playa hydrology and it hydrological base level and lake edge water table level, over time frames typically measured in hundreds to thousands of years.


Not just sand and dust-sized particles

Coarser than sand-sized gypsum crystals are transported in in lake margin mounds under hyperarid windy conditions that typify ephemeral pans and saline mudflats in parts of the Andean Altiplano and even higher elevations in the alpine tundra climatic zones. Salar Gorbea is a type example for this type of coarse-grained eolian transport (Figure 6; Benison, 2017). Whirlwinds, dry convective helical vortices, can move large gypsum crystals in their passage over the saline muflat. The transported gravel-sized crystals are entrained on the saline pan surface, after they first grew subaqueously in shallow surface brine pools. Once the pools dry up the crystal clusters disaggrate and then are transported as much as 5 km to be deposited in large dune-like mounds.

The dune gravel is cemented relatively quickly by gypsum cement precipitating from near-surface saline groundwater, resulting in a gypsum breccia. This documentation marks the first occurrence of gravel-sized evaporite grains being moved efficiently in air by suspension and provides a new possible interpretation for some ancient breccias and conglomerates, and improves understanding of limits of extremity of Earth surface environments.



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