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 (

Stable isotopes in evaporite systems: Part II - 13C (Carbon)

John Warren - Thursday, May 31, 2018



13C interpretation in most ancient basins focuses on carbonate sediment first deposited/precipitated in the marine realm. Accordingly we shall first look here at the significance of variations in 13C over time in marine carbonates and then move our focus into the hypersaline portions of modern and ancient salty geosystems. In doing so we shall utilize broad assumptions of homogeneity as to the initial distribution of 13C (and 18O) in the marine realm, but these are perhaps oversimplifications and associated limitations need to be recognized (Swart, 2015)

In the next article we shall look at the utility of crossplots of carbon and oxygen isotopes. Stable oxygen isotope values (d18O) crossplotted with respect to carbon isotope values (d13C) from, the same sample creates one of the most widely applied proxies used to infer palaeo-environmental conditions (depositional and diagenetic) in Holocene and ancient carbonate sediments. This is in large part due to kinetic fractionations that occur during evaporation (Leng and Marshall, 2004). It has long been known that as any liquid evaporates, the residual fluid becomes enriched in the less abundant heavy isotope(s) (see Horton et al., 2016 for detailed discussion).

Interpreting 13C

Over the Phanerozoic the standard paradigm for interpreting variations in variations in 13C values from modern and ancient marine carbonate is based on an integration of our understanding of the carbon cycle with the following arguments. Most of the carbon in Earth’s near-surface systems is stored in sedimentary rocks with only about 0.1% in living organisms and the atmosphere-hydrosphere (Figure 1). Oxidized carbon occurs primarily as marine carbonates and reduced carbon as organic matter in sediments. In the carbon cycle, CO2 from the oceans and atmosphere is transferred into sediments as carbonate carbon (Ccarb) or organic carbon (Corg), the former of which monitors the composition of the oceans (Figure 1). The cycle is completed by uplift and weathering of sedimentary rocks and by volcanism, both of which return CO2 to the atmosphere.

There are two stable carbon isotopes, carbon 12 (6 protons and 6 neutrons) and carbon 13 (6 protons and 7 neutrons). Photosynthetic organisms incorporate disproportionately more CO2 containing the lighter carbon 12 than the heavier carbon 13 (the lighter molecules move faster and therefore diffuse more easily into cells where photosynthesis takes place). During periods of high biological productivity, more light carbon 12 is locked up in living organisms and in resulting organic matter that is being buried and preserved in contemporary sediments. Consequently, due the metabolic (mostly photosynthetic) activities of a wide variety of plants, bacteria and archaea, the atmosphere and oceans and their sediments become depleted in carbon 12 and enriched in carbon 13 (Figure 2)

It is assumed that the carbon isotopic ratio in calcareous shells of marine organisms is in equilibrium with that of seawater. So as more carbon 12 is held in biomass during times of high primary productivity, and increased burial of organic carbon, calcareous (CaCO3) skeletal materials become enriched in carbon 13. In contrast during periods of low biological productivity and decreased burial of organic carbon, for example following mass extinctions, marine calcareous skeletal materials become enriched in carbon 12.

Hence plotting variations in carbon isotopes in marine carbonates and organic matter over time offers a way to trace the growth of the crustal reservoir of reduced carbon (Des Marais, 1997). That is, the relative abundance of carbon isotopes is controlled chiefly by: 1) equilibrium isotopic effects among inorganic carbon species, 2) fractionation associated with the biochemistry of organic matter, and 3) the relative rates of burial of carbonate and organic carbon in sediments (Condie 2016).

Because organic matter preferentially incorporates 12C over 13C, there should be an increase in the 13C/12C ratio (as measured by δ13C) in buried carbon with time, and indeed this is what is observed (Des Marais, 1997; Worsley & Nance, 1989). δ13Corg increases from values < -40‰ in the Archaean to modern values of -20 to -30‰. On the other hand, seawater carbon as tracked with δ13Ccarb remains roughly constant with time, with δ13Ccarb averaging about 0%.

Variation in fluxes over time within the carbon cycle can be monitored by an isotopic mass balance (Des Marais, 1997), whereby;

δin = fcarbδ13Ccarb + forgδ13Corg

δin represents the isotopic composition of carbon entering the global surface environment comprised of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. The right side of the equation represents the weighted-average isotopic composition of carbonate (δ13Ccarb) and organic (δ13Corg) carbon buried in sediments, and fcarb and forg are the fractions of carbon buried in each form (fcarb = 1 - forg). For timescales longer than 100 Myr, δin = -5‰, the average value for crustal and mantle carbon (Holser et al., 1988). Thus, where values of sedimentary δ13Ccarb and δ13Corg can be measured, it may be possible to determine forg for ancient carbon cycles. Higher values of δ13Ccarb indicate either a higher value of forg or a greater negativity of average δ13Corg.

During the Phanerozoic, there are several peaks in δ13Ccarb, the largest at about 110, 280, 300, 400, and 530 Ma (Figure 3). These peaks are widely interpreted to reflect an increase in burial rate of organic carbon (Des Marais et al., 1992; Frakes et al., 1992). This is because organic matter selectively enriched in 12C depletes seawater in this isotope, raising the δ13C values of seawater. In the late Paleozoic (300-250 Ma), the maxima in δ13Ccarb correspond to the rise and spread of vascular land plants, which provided a new source of organic debris for burial (Condie 2106, Berner, 1987, 20 01). Also conducive to preservation of organic remains at this time were the vast lowlands on Pangea, which appear to have been sites of widespread swamps where bacterial decay of organic matter is minimized. The drop in δ13Ccarb at the end of the Permian is not understood. Perhaps, large amounts of photosynthetic O2 generated by Carboniferous forests led to extensive forest fires that destroyed large numbers of land plants in the Late Permian (Condie, 2016). However, the reasons for the oscillations in δ13Ccarb are not yet unequivocally resolved and, as in all sciences, the tenet "...perceived correlation does not necessarily equate to causation"must always be at the forefront in the scientific mindset.

Across the Precambrian and the Phanerozoic, the initiation of glaciation on a global scale, as in the Cryogenian ‘Snowball Earth’, has been interpreted to be dependent on parameters like the latitudinal extent of continents and oceanic circulations (Figure 4; Condie, 2016). The main drive for an onset of global glaciation is believed to be the lowering of atmospheric CO2. It likely also requires a continental landmass to be covering one of the earth's polar positions. More recently, cooling related to an increase in the earth's albedo due to widespread evaporites (saline giants) has been added to the list of possible drivers to the onset of glaciation.

Climate modelling studies imply that CO2 concentrations as low as 100–150 ppm are required to initiate global glaciation (e.g. Liu et al., 2013; Feulner and Kienert, 2014). One potential cause of lowered CO2 is drawdown of CO2 during intense silicate weathering in equatorial regions (Hoffman and Schrag, 2002; Goddéris et al., 2003). Photosynthesis provides another mechanism for CO2 drawdown, via conversion of CO2 to O2 and rapid burial of organic carbon, which is reflected in a positive δ13C excursion for carbonates (Pierrehumbert et al., 2011). Additionally, long term cloud cover (Feulner et al., 2015), fluctuations in atmospheric-ocean heat transport, the earth's albedo, or solar luminosity (Pierrehumbert et al. (2011) are also proposed as potential causes of the onset of glaciation (ice-house mode climate).

In a recent paper, Schmid 2017 focused on the cause of the Bitter Springs carbon isotope anomaly, she argues the cause of the pre-glacial, globally recognised, carbon and oxygen isotope variations in carbonate sediments tied to the Bitter Springs anomaly is a response to widespread fractional evaporation of dissolved CO2. This carbon isotope anomaly ties to a well defined correlation with the distribution of Neoproterozoic evaporite basins. She also shows volcanism occurred during the onset of the Bitter Springs Stage (811–788 Ma) and associated widespread evaporite distribution across Australia.

Schmid (op. cit.) argues that the albedo effect began with of the widespread deposition of Rodinian supercontinent evaporites in very shallow marine to epicontinental sedimentary successions beginning ≈810 Ma, increased siliciclastic redbed weathering. This and continuing evaporite deposition and exposure between ≈780 and 720 Ma drove a worldscale increase in Earth's albedo. Such highly reflective salt deposits defined a saline giant across an area that today covers one-third of the Australia continent. Thus, this and other penecontemporaneous saline giants over the Rodinian supercontinent played a potentially significant role in the onset of atmospheric cooling via a significant increase in albedo (Figure 5). These salt beds occur in periods that typify the onset of local (750 Ma) and then global glaciation (720 Ma).

Schmid (2017) goes on to note that the degree of evaporation in the Bitter Springs group sediments is related to the δ13C signature in variably concentrated waters (Figure 6). That is the Tonian Bitter Springs Group (≈830–750 Ma), within the Amadeus Basin in central Australia consists of thick halite and sulphate evaporite accumulations and associated carbonates. The deposition of halite occurred in shallow marine, lagoon (salina) environment (Gillen Formation), and developed into sulphate-dominated supratidal sabkha during sea level regression (Johnnys Creek Formation). The overall regression was interrupted by a transgressive phase lasting at least 20 Ma and leading to deposition of basin-wide stromatolitic dolostone (Loves Creek Formation). The salinity and high evaporation is reflected in positive δ13C in the intercalated carbonates (+4 to +6‰ VPDB) of the evaporitic units, while the shallow marine stromatolitic incursion of the Loves Creek Formation (−2‰ δ13C) show typical marine carbonate isotopic values (Figure 7).

This salinity controlled isotopic separation supports the observations of Stiller et al. (1985) who noted extreme enrichment of 13C in the dissolved inorganic carbon pool in evaporating brines up with δ13C values of up to + 16.5‰ under natural abiotic, oxic conditions in Dead Sea evaporation ponds (Figure 7). The systematic increase in 13C values in highly evaporated waters from the various bittern ponds of the Dead Sea Saltworks is thought to result from a nonequilibrium gas-transfer isotope fractionation. The process of ongoing evaporation leads to CO2 loss within the evaporative brine as less and less gas can held in solution (see Warren 2016, Chapter 9). CO2 exchange in a concentrating surface brine occurs directly between the water column and air, resulting in direct CO2 loss through evaporation. In a sabkha environment. CO2 is released from the hypersaline groundwater through sediments before being released to air as evaporites may form intrasediment precipitates. Overall, atmospheric CO2 uptake in hypersaline settings fed by shallow marine water is diminished compared to the normal marine settings.

Precipitated carbonates modern salinas and sabkhas are mainly aragonite, and formed in association with such evaporative brine, are consistently13C enriched, as seen in nearby Solar Lake and Sabkha Gavish (Figure 2; Stiller et al., 1985; Schidlowski et al., 1984). In a similar fashion, Palaeoproterozoic interbedded shallow marine carbonates, redbeds and evaporites have values up to δ13C + 17.2‰ (Melezhik et al., 1999). Permian and Triassic (Schmid et al., 2006a) redbeds and evaporite sequences also have 13C-rich carbonates (up to +7‰) and enrichment is partly attributed to evaporation and associated CO2 loss (Beauchamp et al., 1987). In modern oceans, atmospheric CO2 is consumed by biological activity and carbonate production originates from mainly marine organisms, leading to near atmospheric to organic negative δ13C signatures in the precipitated sediment(Andersson, 2013).

If increasing salinity leads to unfavourable conditions for photosynthesising organisms to survive (Lazar and Erez, 1992), carbonate through to bittern precipitation becomes increasingly abiotic and evaporation driven, especially at the upper end of the evaporation series. The loss of Ca during evaporation of a brine, via aragonite and calcium sulphate precipitation, leads to an increase in Mg/Ca ratio and an increase in residual brine density. This can result in primary dolomite precipitation or widespread reflux dolomitisation (Schmid et al., 2006, Warren 2000, 2016.

In summary, the typical δ13C signature in normal marine carbonate sediment across much of geological time centres around 0 ‰ and ranges between a few parts per mille on either side of the zero line reflecting precipitation by calcifying and photosynthesising organisms (e.g. algae), while abiotic, evaporation induced carbonates tend to have δ13C values above +1‰. More positive δ13C values (+4 to +6‰) tend to typify dominantly abiotic carbonates (and local methanogenic carbonates with even more positive values) and support the notion of evaporation-driven 13C-enrichement in times of widespread evaporitic epeiric and basinwide carbonates. In the Precambrian, widespread marine stromatolitic units such as, algal Loves Creek Formation reflects δ13C values for biogenic carbonate precipitation under shallow marine, non-hypersaline conditions. The change from a shallow hypersaline lagoon towards evaporitic mudflats and salterns suggests an increase in aridity and continentality/hydrographic isolation, with associated more positive δ13C values.

Implications for some types of 13C anomaly

The Bitter Springs Group chemostratigraphy has been correlated globally and the negative excursion was named previously after this unit (Bitter Springs Stage anomaly). However, the mechanism of evaporation-driven fractionation of δ13C is different from the commonly proposed inorganic-organic carbon fractionation, and challenges the views on interpreting global chemostratigraphic anomalies or excursion and their cause. Evaporite basins covered vast regions worldwide prior to the Sturtian glaciation, e.g. the Australian evaporites would have covered a third of the continent. The light surface of evaporites and associated carbonates would have had a high albedo and effectively cause less surface heat absorption. This subsequently would have triggered temperature decrease on a continental and possibly global scale. The Schmid paper hypothesises that the deposition of evaporites worldwide would have contributed to global cooling starting ≈100 Ma prior to Snowball Earth and would have played an important role in the onset of global glaciation.


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