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 (www.saltworkconsultants.com).

Danakhil Potash; Ethiopia - Modern hydrothermal and deep meteoric KCl, Part 3 of 4

John Warren - Friday, May 01, 2015

So far we have discussed the modern salt pan geology of the Danakhil (Part 1 of 4) and the initial subaqueous setting for widespread bedded potash, now in the subsurface, mostly as a kainitite bed (Part 2 of 4). In this blog we will discuss examples of potash in the Danakhil where remobilised salts and brines are related to the circulation of hydrothermal and meteoric fluids have facilitated localised reworking of potash to the surface (part 3 of 4). These fluids are related to the thermal anomalies created by the emplacement of the Dallol mound and the chemical front created by the encroachment of the Bajada along the western margin of the saltflat. Notably, we shall see the Dallol Mound is not a volcanic cone, rather it is an anticlinal dome of uplifted and eroded bedded salt, capped and surrounded by hydrothermal crater features typified by karst pools and brine outflows. Its creation is likely related to emplacement of igneous material at depth but, as yet there, has been no breakout of volcanic rock material in the mound area. This has important economic implications for the nature of remobilised potash and the creation of potential potash ores in the Dallol Mound area, these cosiderations are separate from the regional distribution of primary potash beds (kainitite and carnallitite) that were discussed in the previous blog.


Thermal brine springs and potash occurrences near Dallol mound

Today, hot springs supply and maintain a number of hydrothermally-fed brine pools and brine filled karst lakes in various depressions both atop and near the regional anticlinal salt mound or salt dome, sometimes called Dallol Mountain (Figure 1). As it only rises some 60 metres from the surrounding surface (-81 m versus -120 m) the term mountain is a misnomer. The highly dissected and eroded slope of bedded halite that is the southwest margin of Dallol mound shows the various springs are active in a region of uplifted and eroded bedded evaporite that defines the Dallol mound (Figure 2a). For example, brine springs still supply a small carnallite deposit known as the Crescent deposit located near the uplifted black halite beds that define Black Mountain and located 1.5 km southwest of Dallol mound (Figure 2b). This potash ore is the result of hydrothermally-driven groundwater activity, likely related to the emplacement of the Dallol Mound. The uplift-related thermal hydrology has broken up the mineralogical continuity of the nearsurface evaporite beds including the equivalents to the potash-rich Houston Fm.


The Black Mountain potash deposits caught the attention of the Houston-based  Ralph M. Parsons company in 1954 where, according to Holwerda and Hutchinson, 1968, potash mining had previously already taken place at the Crescent carnallite/sylvite deposit. Earlier extraction had involved, amongst other techniques, flooding of salt pans around a continuously flowing hot spring, followed by harvesting of potash-rich salts, once natural deliquescence had flushed most of the highly soluble MgCl2 from the system. A concession was obtained Parsons linked to obligations to investigate the various potash deposits in the area, some of which were tied to actual outcrops of potash salts. The Parsons Company set up its base on Dallol Mountain at a site previously occupied by the Italian mining community, which had operated in the first few decades of last century (Figure 2a; the modification and reuse of older salt brick buildings is still evident on the ground today). As well, Parsons Co. constructed airstrips on Dallol Mountain and in the Musley area. They drilled more than 300 holes in order to better understand the the distribution of the potash beds. Drilling operations in 1959-1961 led to the delineation of the small localized "Crescent" carnallitite deposit in the vicinity of Black Mountain . This was followed by the discovery of the much larger (>80 million tonnes) "Musley" sylvite deposit near the base of the Ethiopian Highlands, some 5km W of Dallol, and extending at least 10km in a N-S orientation. A 92m vertical shaft and a total of 805m of drives were made in this deposit, but all work was stopped in 1967 after rapid influx of water into the conventional mine killed a number of workers. The political tensions in the area at the time probably also played a part in preventing mining activity in the following years.

Holwerda and Hutchinson (1968) argue that geographical location of the main "Musley" sylvite strata is directly west of Dallol Mound and at the base of the highlands. This, and the fact that sylvite is an alternation product that consistently overlays the carnallite strata and thickens (although discontinuously) along the western margin (see drill hole intersections published in Ercosplan, 2011), suggests that the potash enrichment was produced by selective leaching of MgCl2 from a carnallite precursor, driven by phreatic run-off waters sourced in the Ethiopian highlands. My own observations and plotting of enrichment fairways (using published Ercosplan 2010, 2011 data) confirms Holwerda and Hutchinson’s inferences. If diagenesis, not primary precipitation, is the prime mechanism of sylvite creation in the Musley region, then the regional sylvite control/distribution for this style of enrichment is related to a subsurface meteoric/groundwater phreatic overprint that parallels the encroaching bajada edge. It is a separate ore fairway to the more regional easterly dipping bedded kainitite/carnallitite trend.

Waters in some of the active brine-filled hydrothermal craters and dolines can locally have temperatures of more than 100°C and when waters cool they precipitate varying combinations of halite, carnallite and bischofite. The brines are so saturated with salts that if a stick is thrust into a boiling brine pool and removed it is immediately covered by layer of carnallite or bischofite and halite (Figure 2b, c). The same pools are also rich in FeCl2, sulphur and manganese, which explains the spectacular bright green, red-orange and yellow colours of many of the saline mineral assemblages precipitating in and about these active spring-formed pools. Occasional intense storm-driven sheetfloods can drive renewed activity in the various springs in vicinity of the mound, as happened in the recent floods of February 2011, when the intensity of water circulation and the areal extent of the pools greatly increased. After the same storm flood, a natural collapse doline tens of metres across formed on the western depression margin. Clearly, the local hydrothermal/karstic enhancement style of bittern enrichment is a separate process set for potash enrichment compared to the widespread earlier deposition of marine-fed subaqueous kainite. Hence, it contrasts with the much more widespread set of depositional/early diagenetic processes that laid down the bulk of the bedded potash association that is the Houston Fm. in the Danakhil Depression (as discussed in the previous Danakhil blog).

What is the Dallol Mound and what drives its uplift hydrology?

Despite the widespread misconception that the Dallol mound is a lava cone, Mount Dallol is not a volcanic-centered feature on the Danakhil landscape. A visit to the area reveals no observable volcanic products (lava, ashfall or scoria) on the surface on or near the Dallol mound. This is so even in the region of the most recent phreatic activity in 1926 where a 30 m-diameter phreatic (explosion? or daylighting hydrothermal karst) crater formed, hosted in salt beds (Figure 2b). All the rocks associated with this cavity and its formative event are not volcanic. This means the mechanism that created the Dallol Mound is unlike the magmatic events that created the world famous Erte Ale volcanic cone, with its distinctive longterm active magma lake and located some 80 km to the south of Dallol and still in the Danakhil depression. Instead, the Dallol mound crest is made up of uplifted and eroded halite and potash beds soaked in a thermal hydrology that breaks out on the lake surface as a number of hot bubbling sulphurous brine pools. This is also true of the off-mound crater that formed in 1926 near Black Mountain and still retains bubbling brines with present temperatures ~65-70 °C. Nearby “Black Mountain” is a small area of dark coloured bedded and recrystallised halite, it is not a primary volcanic feature.

As a sedimentologist visiting the area, I wondered at why the Dallol mound features had ever been called volcanic cones, hornitos, or maars (as they are widely described in the literature). To use such genetic terms in a geologically correct fashion I would like to put my hand on a piece of volcanic debris (lava, pumice, scoria or ash) in any of the craters before I call the Dallol mound a volcanic cone. And yet, many workers in the published literature dealing with the Dallol area are happy to do this. I am not saying there is no influence of magmatic heating in forming Dallol Mound, only that molten volcanic rock has yet to surface in the immediate Dallol region. Hence it is unlike the many actual volcanic cones, maars and hornitos to the south and north and this is an significant observation as it deals with mechanism of local potash enrichment. I will argue in the next section that this is because Dallol Mound is a salt uplift feature or dome capped by phreatic cone/ hydrothermal karst structures and all related to the migration of molten magma into more deeply buried salt beds, which contain hydrated salts at the level of the Houston Fm and perhaps even deeper buried hydrated salt layers (see blog 2).

Darrah et al (2013) and Detay (2011) argue that the 30m diameter 1926 crater and other nearby pools on the Dallol saltflat in the vicinity of the Dallol mound are the result of a phreatic explosions, tied to the increasing gas pressure in superficial hydrothermal reservoirs atop a deeper mass of molten rock. The mound is a landscape feature indicative of deep dyke/sill intrusion that did not surface. According to Holwerda and Hutchinson (1968) this yet-to-daylight dyke complex explains the linear orientation of the mound, its pools and other karst/erosion features on the salt flat surface in vicinity of the Dallol mound. That is, the various Dallol hot springs typically consist of 30-40m diameter circular to sub-circular ponds, initially formed by explosive vapor eruptions, to form at-surface circular features, which are widely termed maars, although I would prefer to call them "maar-like." A “maar” is defined in the AGI Glossary of Geology as “a low relief, broad volcanic crater formed by multiple shallow explosive eruptions. It is surrounded by a crater ring, and may be filled by water. Type occurrence is in the Eifel area of Germany.” Given the lack of a volcanic crater rim the Dallol Mound and adjacent brine-filled cavities are not really maars, nor are they hornitos. They will likely evolve into such features, but in their current state better considered brine-filled fumaroles or solfateras or even better, hydrothermal karst cavities that have daylighted. Once the cavities have broken out onto the salt flat surface, these circular (possibly-explosive) features can continue enlarge due to ongoing rise of undersaturated waters and so evolve into expanding hydrothermal karst pools or they can be partially to completely filled with saline precipitates (with no volcanic products derived from molten igneous rock materials).


So, instead of at-surface volcanic products such as lava and ashfall, most of the superficial precipitates/sediments observed in and around the various on- and off-structure Dallol brine pools are evaporite salts, along with some remnants of older clay-sediments. Brine fluids in various hot spring pools in the Dallol area (in the Dallol “hill” crest and the “Crescent” region near Black mountain, and in the “Boiling Lake” region south of the mound) are typically multi-coloured warm/hot ponds (Figure1, 3; Gebresilassie et al., 2011). The various pools are extremely salty (>500g/L), can be highly acidic (sometimes with a pH approaching 0.5), and gas-rich (as evidenced by steady, vigorous bubbling of gases). According to Darrah et al. (2013) the Dallol “salt dome” fluids and associated hot springs are hypothesized to result from the interaction between hot mantle fluids or basalt dyke injections with evaporite deposits at unknown depths. However, direct observations of the volumes of pool waters and the vigour of the outflow are known to increase after the occasional heavy rain event, as happened in February, 2011. Hence, it is unclear if sulfur-rich gases and the low pH brine fluids provide evidence of the interaction of hot mantle fluids with the evaporites (as inferred by Darrah et al., 2013) or the pool waters are, at least in part, related shallower ongoing hydrothermal/karst interactions with more deeply circulated meteoric waters sourced in the 1000-m high adjacent rift highlands.

Why hydrated salts are important in some salt-hosted thermal systems: a Permian Zechstein analog

Most published volcanogenic-related studies of the Dallol Mound have not considered the effects of hydrated salt layers in a situation of rising molten rock, where the country rock contains beds of hydrated evaporites such as kainite or carnallite. This situation is exposed in the dyke-intruded halite-carnallite levels in the mines of the Werra-Fulda mine district of Germany (Schoefield et al., 2013; Warren, 2015). There, the Permian Zechstein salt series contains two important potash salt horizons (2-10m thick), which are mined at a depths ≈ 800 m from within a 400m thick halite host (Figure 4a). In the later Tertiary, basaltic melts intruded these Zechstein evaporites, but only a few dykes reached the Miocene landsurface. Basaltic melt production was related to regional volcanic activity some 10 to 25 Ma. Basalts exposed in the mine walls are typically subvertical dykes, rather than sills. These basaltic intervals can crosscut the salt over zones up to several kilometres wide (Figure 4b). However, correlations of individual dyke swarms, between different mines, or between surface and subsurface outcrops, is difficult.


The basalts are phonolitic tephrites, limburgites, basanites and olivine nephelinites. Dyke margins in contact with halite are usually vitrified, forming a microlitic limburgite glass along dyke edges (Knipping, 1989). At the contact on the evaporite side of the glassy rim there is a cm-wide carapace of high temperature salts (mostly anhydrite and ferroan carbonates). Further out, the effect of the high temperature envelope is denoted by transitions to clear halite, with higher temperature fluid inclusions (Knipping 1989). All of this centimetre to metre-scale alteration is an anhydrous alteration halo, the salt did not melt (halite’s melting temperature is 804°C), rather than migrating, the fluid driving recrystallisation was largely from local movement of entrained brine inclusions. The dolerite/basalt interior of the basaltic dyke is likewise altered and salt soaked, with clear, largely inclusion-free halite typically filling vesicles in the basalt.

Worldwide, dykes intersecting salt beds tend to widen to become sills in two zones: 1) along evaporite units within the halite mass that contain hydrated salts, such as carnallite or gypsum and, 2) where rising magma has ponded and so created laccoliths at the upper or lower halite contact with the adjacent nonsalt strata or against a salt wall (Warren, 2015). The first is a response to a pulse of released water as dyke-driven heating forces the dehydration of hydrated salt layers. The second is a response to the mechanical strength contrast at the salt-nonsalt contact. The first is what is observed in the Fulda region and is also likely relevant to the formation of the Dallol Mound and its remobilised potash-precipitating brines.

 

In such subsurface regions, the heating of hydrated salt layers (such as carnallite or kainite), adjacent to a dyke or sill, drives off the water of crystallisation (chemical or hydration thixotropy) at a much lower temperatures than that at which anhydrous salts, such as halite or anhydrite, thermally melt (Table 1). In the Fulda region the thermally-driven release of water of crystallisation within particular Zechstein salt beds creates thixotropic or subsurface “peperite” textures in carnallitite ore layers, where heated water of crystallisation escaped from the hydrated-salt lattice. Dehydration-driven loss of mechanical strength focuses zones of magma entry into particular horizons in the salt mass, wherever hydrated salt layers were intersected (Figure 4c verses 4d). In contrast, dyke and sill margins are much sharper and narrower in zones of contact with anhydrous salt intervals (Figure 4b; Schofield et al., 2014).

Accordingly, away from immediate vicinity of the direct thermal aureole, heated and overpressured dehydration waters can enter a former Zechstein carnallite halite bed, and drive the creation of extensive soft sediment deformation and [1]peperite textures in the former hydrated layer (Figure 4d, e). Mineralogically, sylvite and coarse recrystallised halite dominate the salt fraction in the peperite intervals/beds. These are evaporite-related beds formed within a hydrated salt bed and so differ from the common notion of volcanic peperites indicating water-saturated sediment intercations with very shallow dyke or sill emplacements. Sylvite in these altered zone is a form of dehydrated carnallite, not a primary-textured salt. In the Fulda region, such altered zones and deformed units can extend along former carnallite layers to tens or even a hundred or more metres from the dyke feeder. Ultimately, the deformed potash bed passes laterally out into the unaltered bed, which retains abundant inclusion-rich primary chevron halite and carnallite (Figure 4d versus 4e). That is, nearer the basalt dyke, the carnallite is largely transformed into inclusion-poor halite and sylvite, the result of incongruent flushing of warm saline fluids mobilized from the hydrated carnallite crystal lattice as it was heated by dyke emplacement. During Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-fluids were mixed with fluids originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite.

In the Dallol depression I think it is highly likely that a similar set of destabilisation processes occurred when rising dyke magma reached the levels of hydrated salts (kainite and carnallite beds) in the Houston Formation of the Danakhil fill, after passing relatively passively through the Lower Rocksalt Formation (see the previous blog). Emplacement of the magma/dyke into  hydrated evaporites in the vicinity of what is now the Dallol mound would have mobilised and deformed the hydrated salt level, converting carnallite to sylvite, kainite to bischofite and lesser kieserite, as well as creating widespread cavities filled with pressured volatiles carried by MgCl and KCl brines. Once these hydrothermal cavities dissolve their way to surface, the feeder brines can cool and precipitate as prograde salts such as halite, sylvite and perhaps bischofite. Such destabilisation would have accommodated the emplacement of a basaltic sill at the level of the potash salts, in turn driving the uplift of the lake beds above this region. Mound-related uplift and hydrothermal activity then drives the formation of natural regions of ground collapse, sulphurous and acidic springs and fumaroles, along with the creation of water-filled chimneys and doline sags, filling with various hydrothermal salts, in the vicinity of the volcanic mound.

Implications for Potash distribution in the Danakhil Depression

The discussion of potash mineral-forming processes in this and the previous blog clearly underlines a trichotomy in the way potash has accumulated in halite host-beds across the Danakhil Depression. The most widespread form of potash in the Danakhil Depression is as a primary evaporite bed, composed of primary marine kainitite precipitates with a carnallite cap (Houston Formation). Across the western side of the depression this easterly dipping bed is now buried beneath 30-150 m of overburden salts. It likely precipitated as a marine seepage-fed bittern layer, at a time the Danakhil depression was hydrographically isolated from a direct surface connection with the Red Sea. Its brine hydrology was dominantly subaqueous and not unlike that of modern Lake Asal in Djibouti, although it was more saline than Asal in the subaqueous potash sump areas. Thus, the Danakhil potash bed (Houston Fm) formed sometime ago, its formative hydology is no longer present in the depression and it may be as old as Pliocene or more likely early to mid Pleistocene. There has been sufficient time for this bed to tilt toward the east. The unit is underlain by the subaqueous Lower Rocksalt Formation (LRF) and subsequently overlain by the Upper Rocksalt Formation (URF). Both these halite formations do not entrain primary potash beds. The LRF contains numerous CaSO4 layers, while the URF contains clayey laminite beds and locally hosts regions of remobilised potash salts. The URF evolves upward into the saltflat/ephemeral lake hyperarid hydrology that typifies the modern depression.

More localised forms of potential potash ore typify occurrences in the Dallol and Musley areas (Figure 2a). There potash in the Dallol Mound region is hydrothermally reworked from the uplifted equivalents of the Houston Formation. Even today this hydrology is precipitating carnallitite (associated with bischofite and minor kieserite) in various hydrothermal brine pools atop and around the Dallol Mound, such as the carnallite-dominant Crescent deposit (Figure 2b). These hydrothermal salts owes their origins to daylighting of pressurised fluid systems and cavities. They were created by the volatile products of hydrated salt layers (Houston Fm) where these salts had come into contact with thermal aureoles or actual lithologies of newly emplaced dykes that had penetrated the underlying halite section. Actual molten volcanic rock has yet to make it to the surface in the Dallol Mound region, although active volcanic mounds and flows do typify the saltflat surface tens of kilometres to the south (Erte Alle ) and north. Based on the analogy exposed within the Zechstein-hosted potash mines of the Fulda region of Germany, it is likely that as well as creating at-surface brine pools, this hydrothermal dyke-related hydrology converts any carnallitite to a sylvinite bed at the level of contact with the Houston Fm. 

Then there is the deep-meteoric alteration system that is altering the kainitite/carnallitite of Houston Fm into sylvinite, it is active along the deep meteoric alteration front located at the irregular interface between the downdip end of the Musley Fan and the updip portion of the Houston Fm. This diagenetic mechanism formed the Musley potash deposit, defined and exploited by the Parsons Company operations and documented in Holwerda and Hutchison (1968). Variations on this deep-meteoric alteration theme likely extend south and north of the Musley fan, wherever the active phreatic hydrology of the bajada located at the foot of the Ethiopian Highlands interacts and interfingers with the updip edge of the easterly dipping Houston Formation.

Once again there is no "one-size-fits-all) model for economic potash understanding (Warren, 2010, 2015). Even in what is probably the youngest known marine-fed potash system in the world, the original potash mineralogy and distribution has been altered and locally upgraded via diagenetic interactions with hydrothermal or deep-meteoric fluids. Predicting ore distributions in this, and all potash systems worldwide, requires an understanding of formative process evolution through deep time, and not just the simple application of a layer-cake primary stratigraphic model. 

References

Carniel, R., E. M. Jolis, and J. Jones, 2010, A geophysical multi-parametric analysis of hydrothermal activity at Dallol, Ethiopia: Journal of African Earth Sciences, v. 58, p. 812-819.

Darrah, T. H., D. Tedesco, F. Tassi, O. Vaselli, E. Cuoco, and R. J. Poreda, 2013, Gas chemistry of the Dallol region of the Danakil Depression in the Afar region of the northern-most East African Rift: Chemical Geology, v. 339, p. 16-29.

Detay, M., 2011, Le DALLOL revisité: entre explosion phréatomagmatique, rifting intra-continental, manifestations hydrothermales et halocinèse: LAVE. Liaison des amateurs de volcanologie européenne, v. 151, p. 7-19.

ERCOSPLAN, 2010, Techical report and current resource estimate: Danakhil Potash Deposit, Afar State, Ethiopia: Project Reference: EGB 08-024.

ERCOSPLAN, 2011, Preliminary Resource Assessment Study, Danakhil Potash Deposit, Afar State, Ethiopia: G & B Property: Project Reference: EGB 10-030.

Gebresilassie, S., H. Tsegab, and K. Kabeto, 2011, Preliminary study on geology, mineral potential, and characteristics of hot springs from Dallol area, Afar rift, northeastern Ethiopia: implications for natural resource exploration: Momona Ethiopian Journal of Science, v. 3, p. 17-30.

Holwerda, J. G., and R. W. Hutchinson, 1968, Potash-bearing evaporites in the Danakil area, Ethiopia: Economic Geology, v. 63, p. 124-150.

Knipping, B., 1989, Basalt intrusions in evaporites: Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences (Springer-Verlag), v. 24, p. 132 pp.

Schofield, N., I. Alsop, J. Warren, J. R. Underhill, R. Lehné, W. Beer, and V. Lukas, 2014, Mobilizing salt: Magma-salt interactions: Geology.

Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporites through time: Tectonic, climatic and eustatic controls in marine and nonmarine deposits: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 98, p. 217-268.

Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p.

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[1] Peperite is a sedimentary rock that contains fragments of igneous material and is formed when magma comes into contact with wet water-saturated sediments. 

Danakhil Potash, Ethiopia: Beds of Kainite/Carnallite, Part 2 of 4

John Warren - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The modern Dallol saltflat described in the previous blog defines the upper part of more than 970 metres of halite-dominated Quaternary evaporites that have accumulated beneath the present salt pan of the Northern Danakhil. The total sequence is made up of interbeds of halite, gypsum, anhydrite and shale with a potash succession separating two thick sequences of halite (Figure 1; Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Augustithis, 1980). At depths of more than 35-40 meters, and deepening to the east, this km-thick subcropping Quaternary halite-dominated fill contains one, and perhaps two or more, potash beds. For a more detailed description of the upper part of the fill the reader is referred to the previous blog and Chapter 11 in Warren, 2015.


Bedded Pleistocene evaporites may underlie the entire Danakil depression, but younger lava flows of the Aden Volcanic Series and alluvium washed in from the surrounding bajada obscure much of the older Pleistocene sedimentary series across much of the southern part of the depression beyond Lake Assale). Potash exploration drilling and core recovery is concentrated in the accessible parts of the northern Danakhil rift, where the saltflat facilitates vehicle access, compared with the lava-covered regions south of Lake Assale. The most recent volcanic activity affecting the known potash region was the emplacement of the Dallol Mound, which has driven local uplift of the otherwise subsurface potash section to where it approaches the surface in the immediate vicinity of the mound (Figure 2a).

Away from the Dallol volcanic mound the upper potash bed beneath the saltflat lies at a depth of 38-190 metres. A lower inferred potash bed likely occurs at depth along the eastern end of the saltflat, but this second bed is inferred from high API kicks in gamma logs run in deeper wells, no solid salt was recovered (Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968). The upper proven potash bed is now the target zone for a number of minerals companies currently exploring for potash in the region. Regionally, both potash units dip east, with the deepest indicators of the two units encountered by the drill in a single well on the eastern side of the saltflat at depths of 683 and 930 m, respectively (Figure 2: Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968). The likely Quaternary age of the potash units, the marine brine source, explains the high magnesium content of the potash bittern salts, as modern seawater contains high levels of Mg and SO4.


My study of core that intersected the potash interval and that is sandwiched between the Lower and Upper Halite units shows both the lower and the upper halite units retain pristine sedimentary textures, with features and vertical successions that indicate distinct hydrologies during their deposition (Figure 3). There is no textural evidence of halokinetic recrystallization in halites any of the studied cores and published seismic also indicates consistent dips in the evaporites . Most of the textures in the cored potash interval indicate a subaqueous density-stratified environment, with brine reworking of the upper part of primary kainitite, carnallitite units. Perennial subaqueous, density-stratified brines also typify the hydrology of the Lower Halite unit, albeit with somewhat lower salinities tan those precipitating the bitterns (Figure 3). The brine that precipitating the Upper Rocksalt Formation was shallower and more ephemeral. The following paragraphs summarise my core-based observations and interpretations that led to this interpretation of the evolving brine hydrology.

The Lower Rocksalt Formation (LRF) is dominated by bottom-growth-aligned subaqueous halite textures and lack of siliciclastic detritus, unlike the Upper Rocksalt Formation (Figure 3). Halite textures in the LRF lack porosity and dominated by coarsely crystalline beds made up of cm-scale NaCl-CaSO4 couplets dominated by upward-pointing halite chevrons and mantled by thin CaSO4 layers (Figure 3). This meromictic-holomictic textural association passes up into the upper part of the LRF with cm-scale proportions alternating of less-saline to more-saline episodes of evaporite precipitation decreasing, indicating an “on-average” increasingly shallow subaqueous depositional setting as one approaches the base of the kainitite unit. The combination of bottom-nucleated and cumulate textures in the LRF are near identical to those in the halites in the kainitite interval in the Messinian of Sicily (see later). 

The laminated Kainitite Member is also a subaqueous unit with layered cumulate textures (Figure 3), it was likely deposited on a pelagic bottom beneath a shallow body of marine-fed bittern waters, which never reached carnallite saturation. Above this are the variably present carnallitic Intermediate and Sylvinitite members and the overlying Halite marker beds in turn overlain by the Upper Halite unit. All retain pristine textures indicating mostly subaqueous deposition, soon followed by varying exposure and reaction with shallow phreatic brines moving across the top of Kainitite member. This shallow phreatic brine crossflow drove syndepositional mineral alteration and collapse in the upper part of the kainitite and carnallitite units.


The potash-entraining interval between the URF and LRF is called the Houston Formation has been drilled and cored extensively by explorers in the basin, showing it is consistently between 15 and 40 metres thick (Figure 1). Stratigraphically, it consists of lower Kainitite Member (4-14m thick) atop and in depositional continuity with the LRF (more than 500m thick) (Figure 3). The Kainitite Member is fine-grained, laminated, locally wavy-bedded, containing up to 50% kainite cumulates in a cumulate (non-chevron) halite background, along with small amounts of a white mineral that is likely epsomite. It is overlain by what older literature describes as the “Carnallitite Intermediate unit” (3-25 m thick). More recent potash exploration drilling has shown all the members that constitute the Intermediate Carnallitite Member is not always present within the Dallol depression. Mineralogically is at best considered as variably developed (Figure 3). Its lower part is a layered to laminated carnallite-halite mixture with some kieserite, anhydrite and epsomite. This can pass up or laterally into kainitite with sylvite. Above the Intermediate Member is the 0-10m thick Sylvinite Member containing 20-30% sylvite, along with polyhalite and anhydrite (up to 10%). Typically the sylvinite member shows primary layering disturbed by varying intensities of slumping and dissolution. Often the upper part of a carnallite unit (where present) also shows similar evidence of dissolution and reprecipitation.

Cores through the sylvinite member and parts of the upper carnallitite member sample a range of recrystallization/flow/slump textures, rather than primary horizontal-laminar textures. Beneath the sylvinite member, the variably-present upper carnallitite member contains a varied suite of non-commercial potash minerals that in addition to carnallite include, kieserite, kainite (up to 10% by volume) and polyhalite, along with minor amounts of sylvite. Minor anhydrite is common, while rinneite may occur locally, along with rust-red iron staining. Sylvite is more abundant near the top of the carnallitite member and its proportion decreases downward, perhaps reflecting its groundwater origin. Kainite is the reverse and its proportion increases downward. The sylvinite member and the carnallitite member also show an inverse thickness relationship. Bedding in the carnallitite member is commonly contorted with folded and brecciated horizons interpreted as slumps. The base of the carnallitite member is defined as the level where carnallite forms isolated patches in the kainite before disappearing entirely.

Drilling in the past few years has clearly show that in some parts of the evaporite unit, located nearer to the western side of the basin, the lower and upper carnallite units are separated by thick bischoftite intervals (Figures 2b, 3). The bischofite is layered at a mm-cm scale and with no obvious breaks related to freshening and exposure, implying it too was deposited in a perennially subaqueous or phreatic cavity setting (Pedley et al., in press).

The potash/bischofite interval passes up into a slumped and disturbed halite-dominated unit that is known as the “Marker Beds” because of the co-associated presence of clay lamina and bedded halite, along with traces of potash minerals (Figure 3). This unit then passes up into the massive Upper Rock Salt unit across an unconformity at the top of the halite “Marker Beds.” Bedded, and at times finely laminated cumulate textures in the various magnesian bittern units, are used by many to argue that the kainitite and the lower carnallitite members are primary or syndepositional precipitates.

Three types of potash-barren zones can occur within it and are possibly related to the effects of groundwaters and solution cavity cements within the carnallitite unit, perhaps precipitated before the deposition of the overlying marker halites. Barren zones in the Sylvinite member are regions where: a) the entire sylvinite bed is replaced by a relatively pure stratiform halite, along with dispersed nodules of anhydrite, b) zones up to 23 m thick and composed of pure crystalline halite (karst-fill cements?) that occur patchily within the sylvinite bed and, c) potash-depleted zones defined by coarsely crystalline halite instead of sylvinite. Bedding plane spacing and layering and some slumping styles in the halite in styles a and b are similar to that in the sylvite bed. Contact with throughflushing freshened nearsurface and at-surface waters perhaps created most of the barren zones in the sylvinite. Fluid crossflow may also have formed or reprecipitated sylvite of the upper member, via selective surface or nearsurface leaching of MgCl2 from its carnallite precursor (Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Warren 2015). Due to the secondary origin of much of the sylvite in the Sylvinite member, the proportion of sylvite decreases as the proportion of carnallite increases, along with secondary kieserite, polyhalite and kainite.

The kainite member is texturally distinctive and is composed of nearly pure, fine-grained, dense, relatively hard, amber-coloured kainite with ≈ 25% admixed halite (Figure 3). Core study shows the lamina style remained flat-laminar (that is, subaqueous density-stratified with periodic bottom freshening) as the mineralogy passes from the LRF up into the flat-laminated kainitite member (Figure 4: Warren, 2015; Pedley et al., in press). Throughout, the kainitite unit shows a cm-mm scale layering, with no evidence of microkarsting or any exposure of the kainitite depositional surface. That is, the Kainitite Member is a primary depositional unit, like the underlying halite and still retains pristine evidence of its dominantly subaqueous depositional hydrology. The decreased proportion of anhydrite in the Kainitite Member, compared to the underlying LRF, indicates a system that on-average was more saline than the brines that deposited the underlying halite. The preponderance of MgSO4 salts means the Kainitite unit like the underlying LRF formed by the evaporation of seep-supplied seawater.

This situation differs from the present “closed basin” hydrology of the Danakil Depression which typifies the URF and the overlying Holocene succession (Hardie, 1990; Warren, 2015).

Units atop the primary laminated textures of the kainitite, lower carnallitite and bischofite members (where present) tend to show various early-diagenetic secondary textures (Figure 4). It seems much of the sylvinite and upper carnallitite member deposition was in shallow subsurface or at-surface brine ponds subject to groundwater crossflows and floor collapse, possibly aided by seismically-induced pulses of brine crossflow. In addition, this perennial density-stratified brine hydrology was at times of holomixis subject to brine reflux and the brine-displacement backreactions that typify all evaporite deposition, past and present (Warren 2015).

The observation of early ionic mobility in potash zone brines in the Danakil depositional system is also not unusual in any modern or ancient potash deposit. It should not be considered necessarily detrimental to the possibility of an extensive economically exploitable potash zone being present in the Danakil Depression. Interestingly, all the world’s exploited potash deposits, including those in the Devonian of Canada and Belarus, the Perm of the Urals and the potash bed of west Texas, show evidence of syndepositional and shallow burial reworking of potash (Warren, 2015). Early potassium remobilization has created the ore distributions in these and other mined potash depositsTextures and mineralogies in the Upper Rocksalt Formation (URF) define a separate hydrological association to the marine-fed LRF and Houston Formation (Table 4). Compared to the LRF, the URF has much higher levels of depositional porosity, lacks high levels of CaSO4, and has high levels of detrital siliciclastics. This is especially so in its upper part, which shows textural evidence of periodic and ongoing clastic-rich sheetflooding and freshening (Figure 4). It was deposited in a hydrology that evolved up section to become very similar to that active on today’s halite pan surface. The URF contains no evidence of salinities or textures associated with a potash bittern event and is probably not a viable exploration target for solid potash salts.

Above the URF is a clastic unit with significant amounts of, and sometimes beds dominated by, lenticular gypsum and displacive halite. The unit thickens toward the margins of the depression (Figure 2). The widespread presence of diagenetic salts indicates high pore salinities as, or soon after, the saline beds that stack into the clastic unit were deposited. Some of these early diagenetic evaporite textures are spectacular, as seen in the displacive halite recovered in a core from the lower portion of the clastic overburden, some 45 m below the modern pan surface (Figure 3).

What is clear from the textures preserved in the potash-rich Houston formation and the immediately underlying and overlying halites is that they first formed in a subaqueous-dominated marine-fed hydrology (Figure 4), which evolves up section into more ephemeral saltpan hydrologies of today (see the previous blog). The potash interval encapsulated in the Houston formation has primary mineralogical associations that are derived by evaporation of Pleistocene seawater (kainitite, carnallitite). In contrast the sylvite section in the Houston tends to form when these primary mineralogies are altered diagenetically perhaps soon after deposition but, especially, when hydrothermal waters circulated through uplifted beds of the Houston Formation, as is still occurring in the vicinity of the Dallol Volcanic Mound. Or where the chemical/meteoric interface associated with the encroachment of the bajada sediment pile drove incongruent dissolution of carnallite along the updip edge of the Houston Fm (as we shall discuss in the next blog). 

References

Augustithis, S. S., 1980, On the textures and treatment of the sylvinite ore from the Danakili Depression, Salt Plain (Piano del Sale), Tigre, Ethiopia: Chemie der Erde, v. 39, p. 91-95.

Hardie, L. A., 1990, The roles of rifting and hydrothermal CaCl2 brines in the origin of potash evaporites: an hypothesis: American Journal of Science, v. 290, p. 43-106.

Holwerda, J. G., and R. W. Hutchinson, 1968, Potash-bearing evaporites in the Danakil area, Ethiopia: Economic Geology, v. 63, p. 124-150.

Pedley, H. M., J. Neubert, and J. K. Warren, in press, Potash deposits of Africa: African Mineral Deposits, 35TH International Geological Congress (IGC), Capetown (28 August to 4 September 2016).

Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p. 

Danakhil Potash, Ethiopia: Is the present geology the key? Part 1 of 4

John Warren - Sunday, April 19, 2015

Geology of potash in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia: Is the present the key?

The Danakhil region, especially in the Dallol region of Ethiopia, is world renowned for significant accumulations of potash salts (both muriates and sulphates), and is often cited as a modern example of where potash accumulates today. What is not so well known are the depositional and hydrological dichotomies that control levels of bittern salts in the Pleistocene stratigraphy that is the Danakhil fill. Geological evolution of the potash occurrences in the Dallol saltflat and surrounds highlights the limited significance of Holocene models for potash, when compared to the broader depositional and hydrological spectra preserved in ancient (Pre-Quaternary) evaporite deposits (see Warren, 2010, 2015 for a more complete analysis across a variety of evaporite salts).

Across the next four blogs, I shall discuss the geological character of the Danakhil fill and the controls on potash in the depression via four time-related discussions; A) Current continental fan - saltflat hydrology that typifies present and immediate past deposition in the depression (Danakhil Blog1). B) A time in the latest Pleistocene when there was a marine hydrographic connection exemplified by a healthy coralgal rim facies (probably ≈ 100,000 years ago, and a subsequent drawndown gypsum rim facies. Both units are discussed in this blog, (Danakhil Blog1), and C) a somewhat older Pleistocene period when widespread potash salts were deposited via a marine seepage fed hydrology (Danakhil Blog2). Then, within this depositional frame, we will consider D) the influence of Holocene volcanism and uplift driving remobilisation of the somewhat older potash-rich evaporite source beds into the Holocene hydrology (Danakhil Blog3) and finally how this relates to models of Neogene marine potash deposition (Danakhil Blog4). These observations and interpretations are based in large part on a two-week visit to the Dallol, sponsored by BHP minerals, and focused on the potash geology of the region. 

Dallol Physiography

The Danakhil Depression of Ethiopia and Eritrea is an area of intense volcanic and hydrothermal activity, with potash occurrences related to rift magmatism, marine flooding, and deep brine cycling. The region is part of the broader Afar Triple Junction and located in the axial zone of the Afar rift, near the confluence of the East African, Red Sea and Carlsberg rifts (Figure 1a; Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Hutchinson and Engels, 1970; Hardie, 1990). The depression defines the northern part of the Afar depression and runs SSE parallel to the Red Sea coast, but lies some 50 to 80 km inland, and is separated from the Red Sea by the Danakil Mountains. The fault-defined Danakil Depression is 185 km long, up to 70 km wide, with a floor that in the deeper parts of the depression is more than 116 meters below sea level. It widens to the south, beginning with a 10 km width in the north and widening up to 70 km in the south (Figure 1a). In the vicinity of Lake Assele, the northern portion of the Danakil is known as the Dallol Depression and has been the focus for potash exploration for more than a century and is in the deepest region of the depression with elevations ranging between 50m to 120m below sealevel (Figure 1b, c). Shallow volcano-tectonic barriers, behind Mersa Fatma, Hawakil Bay and south of the Gulf of Zula, prevent hydrographic (surface) recharge to the depression. Marine seepage is not occurring at the present time, but likely did so at the time the main potash unit was precipitated. Lake Assele (aka Lake Kurum) with a water surface at -115m msl should not be confused with Lake Asal (-155 msl), located 350 km to the southeast of the Danakil. Asal an active marine-fed hydrographically isolated lacustrine drawdown system, which today is depositing a combination of pan halite and subaqueous gypsum in the deepest part of the Asal-Ghubbat al Kharab rift (Figure 1a; Warren, 2015).

Today the halite-floored elongate saltpan, known as the Dallol saltflat, occupies the deepest part of the northern Danakil Depression, extending over an area some 40 km long and 10 km wide (Figure 1b, c). The pan’s position is asymmetric within the Danakil Depression; it lies near the depression’s western edge, some 5km from the foot of the escarpment to the Balakia Mountains and the Ethiopian Highlands, but some 50 km from the eastern margin of the depression, which is in Eritrea. The Dallol saltpan and adjacent Lake Assele today constitute the deepest continental drainage sump in the Afar depression (Figure 1b, c). The area, located east and northeast of the main modern Dallol saltpan depression, is mostly an extensive gypsum plain (Bannert et al., 1970). As we shall see, the gypsum pavement, and its narrower equivalents on the western basin flank, defines a somewhat topographically higher (still sub-sealevel) less-saline, lacustrine episode in the Dallol depression history fill. To the south of the Dallol salt pan, bedded Pleistocene evaporites may underlie the entire Danakil depression, but younger lava flows of the Aden Volcanic Series in combination with alluvium washed in from the surrounding bajada obscure much of the older Pleistocene sedimentary series in southern part of the depression beyond Lake Assele (Figures 1a).

Climate

In terms of daily and monthly temperatures, the Dallol region currently holds the official record for highest average, year-round, monthly temperatures; in winter the daily temperature on the saltflat is consistently above 34°C and in summer every day tops 40°C, with some days topping 50°C (Figure 2; Oliver, 2005). These high temperatures and a lack of rainfall, typically less than 200 mm each year, place the Dallol at the hyperarid end of the world desert spectrum and so it lies at the more arid end of the BWh Köppen climate zone (Kottek et al., 2006; Warren, 2015).


History of extraction of salt products and their transport (Table 1)

Using little-changed extraction and transport methods, salt (halite) has been quarried by local Afar tribesmen for hundreds of years. First, using axes, a crust of pan salt is chopped into large slabs (Figure 3a). Then workers fit a set of sticks into grooves made by the axes. Next, working the stick, workers lever slabs of bedded salt, which is cut into rectangular tiles of standard size and weight, called ganfur (about 4kg) or ghelao (about 8kg). Tiles are stacked, tied and prepared for transport out of the depression on the backs of camels and donkeys (Figure 3b). Around 2,000 camels and 1,000 donkeys come to the salt flat every day to transport salt tiles to Berahile, about 75 km away. Previously, salt tiles were carried via camel train to the city of Mekele, some 100 km from the Danakil. Mekele, located in the Ethiopian highlands is known as the hub of Ethiopia’s former “white gold” salt trade and still today is known as the “old” salt caravan city. Today, the salt caravans walk the extracted salt to Berahile, located some 60 km from Mekele. From there, trucks transport the salt to Mekele. Each truck can transport up to 350 camel salt loads. From the Mekele salt market, Dallol salt blocks are transported and sold to all parts of Ethiopia for use mainly as table salt or as an add-on in animal feed. The lifestyle of the miners and the camel trains is likely to change in the next few decades as sealed roads are now under construction that will link Mekele to Dallol.


Once potash (sylvite and carnallite) was discovered in the Dallol region in 1906, an Italian company by the name of Compagnia Mineraria Coloniale (CMC) established the first mining operation. In 1918 a railway was completed from the port of Mersa Fatma to a termination some 28 km from Dallol (Table 1). Rail construction took place from 1917-1918, using what was then the British and French “military-standard” 600 mm rail-gauge Decauville system. "Decauville" rail construction used ready-made sections of small-gauge track and so the trackway was rapidly assembled; <2 years to complete more than 50 km of track. Once completed, the railway transported extracted potash salt from the "Iron Point" rail terminal near Dallol, via Kululli to the port. Potash production is said to have reached some 50,000 metric tons in the 1920s, extracted from an area centred on the Crescent Deposit, which is located near the foot of uplifted lake beds on the southern flanks of Mt Dallol. However, significant salt production had ceased by the end of the 1920s, as large-scale mines in Germany, the USA, and the USSR began to supply the world market with cheaper product. Unsuccessful attempts to reopen potash production were made in the period 1920-1941. Between 1925-29 some 25,000 tons of sylvite were shipped by rail from the Dallol, with a product that averaged 70% KCl. After World War II, the British administration dismantled the railway and removed all traces of it. In 1951-1953, the Dallol Co. of Asmara sold a few tons of product from the Dallol.


The potash concession title was transferred to the American “Ralph M. Parsons Company” (Parsons) at the end of the 1950s. Parsons initiated the first systematic exploration for potash in the Danakil depression and drilled more than 250 exploration holes during their 9-year evaluation campaign. Major potash resources were confirmed a few km west of Mount Dallol, in a mineralized zone that was named the “Musley” Deposit. Following on from positive exploration results, they began an engineering study to investigate potential processing and mining methods for the Musley Deposit and subsequently in October 1965 sank a shaft into the orebody. They installed underground mine facilities and established a pilot processing plant on surface, to investigate recovery from the bulk samples collected from the underground workings. They envisaged developing the Musley Deposit as a conventional room-and-pillar operation and to this end developed six underground drifts totalling some 805 m in length. Unconfirmed reports suggest that an influx of water flooded the mine (possibly triggered by a seismic event) and after failed attempts to solve the water problem, the activities Parsons ceased activities in 1968. As of end 2014, some salt block buildings built by the Italian and other companies still partially stand as ruins, along with rusting equipment.

Based on the previous work conducted by Parsons, a German potash producer, Salzdetfurth AG (SAG), began a new exploration campaign in the Danakil Depression in 1968 and 1969. In addition to their work in the Dallol depression, SAG drilled a number of wells in a concession south of Lake Assale, and conducted a geological mapping campaign as far north as Lake Badda, on the border with Eritrea. SAG’s exploration work away from the known Dallol deposits did not prove fruitful as they drilled only one drill hole that reached the potash level. This drill hole, located approximately 25 km to the southeast of Mount Dallol, intersected a kainitite bed, with no sylvinite intersection. The SAG concession was returned to state authorities of Ethiopia. Subsequent drilling by other explorationists in this region has confirmed the deepening of the kainitite level to the southeast of Dallol and the lack of sylvinite at greater depths.

Since the dismantling of the railway, there has been no high-volume transport system to carry potash product the Red Sea coast. Currently, the Ethiopian Government is constructing all-weather roads from Dallol to Mekele and Afdera When complete this road system will facilitate transport of future potential potash product from the Dallol to Afdera, from where existing roads provide access to Serdo and from there to the seaport of Tadjoura in Djibouti (Figure 1a). This section requires an addition 30 km of all-weather road to be completed to the coast and will facilitate cost-effective transport of potash product to the large agricultural markets of India and China. The transport distance to the Eritrean coast from Dallol is much shorter, but political considerations mean such a route is not a viable option at the present time.

EVAPORITE DEPOSITIONAL PATTERNS IN OUTCROP

Surficial sediment distributions outline classic drawdown facies belts in the Dallol region, with a wadi-fed alluvial fan fringe passing down dip into sandflats (local dune fields), dry mudflats (with springs), saline mudflats and ephemeral to perennial brine pans of Lake Assele (Figure 1b). The fans, especially along the western margin of the depression are indented or locally covered by a mostly younger succession of constant-elevation marine, biochemical and evaporitic sediments fringes or “bathtub rim” facies (Figure 4).

 

Alluvial Fan fringe (Bajada) 

Pleistocene alluvial/fluvial beds, exposed by local uplift, deflation and ongoing watertable lowering, outcrop about updip edges to the salt-crusted parts of the northern Danakil, and form low flat-topped plateaus or mesas on the plain. These mesas define the tops of alluvial fans aprons, which are heavily dissected and eroded by occasional storm runoff and rainfall. This fan fringe contains relatively fresh water lenses in a desert setting that is one of the world’s harshest (Kebede, 2012). Most of the depositionally active fans line the western margin of the basin and many of the downdip fan edges occur slightly up dip a still-exposed gypsum pavement (Figure 5a), showing depositional equilibration largely with an earlier higher lake stage, while others, such as the Musley fan, have flowed across cut into the gypsum pavement level and now feed water and sediment directly into the edges of the saltflat that defines the lower parts of the depression (Figure 4). Watercourses of the fans that have dissected earlier wadi (bajada) deposits as well as the earlier lacustrine gypsum and limestone pavements so create excellent windows into the stratigraphy of these units. Fan avulsion is indicated by palaeosol layers exposed by downcutting of younger streams (Figure 5b, c).

 

The Musley fan characteristics are well documented by current and previous potash explorers in the basin as these permeable gravels and sands store a reliable water source for potential solution mining/ore processing in the Musley area and so has been cored by a number of proposed water wells. Internally, the fan is composed of interfingering layers and lenses of sand, gravel and clay (paleosols), with highly porous intervals in the sand and gravels (Figure 5b, c). Depth to the watertable varies from >2m to 60m, and salinities from 760 ppm to more than 23,400 ppm. The principal source of recharge is flash flooding, originating in Musley Canyon, which drains the Western Escarpment, along with minor inflows from the adjacent uplifted volcanic block and local highly intermittent rains (Figure 1a). Of six potential water wells drilled in the fan by the Ralph M. Parsons Company in the 1960s, four returned water of good quality (<2000 mg/l), while the other two had waters with salinities in excess of 20 g/l. Pumping test data indicate average transmissivity of the water-bearing beds around 870m2/day, with salinities in the fan increasing from west to east, approaching the saltflat.

Chemical sediments outcropping in the depression

Overall, surface sediment patterns in the Danakil depression define a depositional framework of brine drawdown, related to basin isolation from an earlier hydrographic (at surface) marine connection to the Red Sea, followed by stepped evaporative drawdown. This is indicated by fringing topographically-distinct belts or rims of now inactive coralgal carbonates and gypsum evaporites (aka “bathtub ring” patterns) that cover earlier Pleistocene and Neogene clastics (Figures 3a, e, Figure 4). These “rims” of marine limestone and subsequent gypsum were followed by today’s drawdown saline-pan halite-dominant hydrology (Figures 4, 7a-c). The current hydrological package of sediments encompassing the current drawdown episode lies atop and postdates the Pleistocene potash-hosting Lower Halite Formation in the depression and is probably equivalent to the uppermost part of the clastic overburden facies, as illustrated in the drilled and cored portions of the depression stratigraphy. As we shall discuss in the next blog, only the uppermost portion of the recovered core stratigraphy has equivalents in current depression hydrology (Figure 6). 


In earlier work, some authors interpreted the fringing belts, especially the exposed coralgal reef belt, as being possibly of Pliocene or even Miocene age. However, when one looks at the stratiform nature of the outcrop trace of both the reef belt and the gypsum belt, and the carapace nature of its depositional boundaries in the field, it is immediately apparent they must be younger (Figure 5a, c; Figure 7). Both the reefal and gypsum belts track horizontal hydrological intersections with the landscape, in what is an ongoing volcanogenic and tectonically active depression. When the reefal belt image is overlain by a DEM it shows the reef belt is consistently at sea level (Figure 1c). If the outcrops of the reef belt and the gypsum pavement were older than late Pleistocene or Holocene, then ongoing episodes of tectonism and volcanism would have modified the elevations of the two outcrop belts in the landscape, as is seen in Miocene redbed outcrops. These underlying and centripetal Miocene sections clearly show the influence of ongoing tilting and tectonism and hence why the flat-lying tops to the reef and gypsum belts imply a late Pleistocene-Holocene (Figure 5d).

That is, the topographic distribution of the top of the reef facies, which lies within a metre or two of current sea level, implies that the Danakil depression had a relatively recent connection to the Red Sea. The pristine preservation of aragonitic corals and sand dollars in the adjacent marls suggest the connection was either related to the penultimate interglacial (around 104, 000 years ago) or to an early Holocene transgression into the depression. Bannert et al. (1970) assign a C14 age of 25.4-34.5 ka to this formation. However, we consider this is unlikely as DEM overlay levelling shows the reef rim, wherever it outcrops, lies within a meter of current sealevel. World eustacy clearly shows that sealevel was more than 50-60m below its present level some 25,000-30,000 years ago. A 25-35 ka determination of the reef rim would require the whole basin was subject to a single basinwide wide vertical uplift event that did not fragment or disturb the lateral elevation of the rim.

The coralgal reef terrace indicates normal marine water were once present in the Dallol depression, while the occurrences of the stratiform gypsum pavement are consistent with a former arid lake hydrology at a somewhat lower elevation than the reef rim (Figures 1c, 5a). Like the reef rim, the gypsum pavement fringe defines a consistent elevation level or surface, most clearly visible along the western margin of the present salt flat. It is the result of gypsum deposition during a period of drawdown associated with brine level stability, subsequent to the isolation of the depression from its former “at-surface” marine connection. During this time gypsum accumulated as a stack of subaqueous aligned gypsum beds, along with a series of gypsiferous tufas and rhizoconcretions in zones about the more marginward spring-fed parts of the gypsiferous lake margin (Figure 7d-f). The evolution from marine waters that deposited the reefs and adjacent echinoid-rich lagoonal marls at a higher level in the depression (the lit zone) into a more saline seepage-fed system, with no ongoing marine surface connection to the Red Sea is indicated by the diagenetic growth of large lenticular (“bird’s-beak”) gypsum crystals within the marine marls and the dominant subqueous bottom-nucleated textures in the gypsum beds. In a similar way, the now-outcropping subaqueous-gypsum drawdown rim deposits, located at higher elevations than current saline pan levels typify other drawdown saline lakes in the Afar region, such as Lake Asal in Djibouti, all such occurrences indicate an earlier, somewhat less saline, hydrological equilibrium level (Warren, 2015).


Active today is the lowest parts of the Dallol saltflat is an ephemeral saltpan hydrology indicated by bedded salt crusts dominated by megapolygonal crusts made up of aligned-chevron halite stacks separated by mm-cm thick mud layers . This current pan hydrology is associated with even greater drawdown levels compared to the former gypsum-dominant hydrology (Figure 8). Current deposits, made up a series of stacked brine-pan salt sheets,  are still quarried as a renewable resource by the local tribesmen (Figure 3). These modern brine flats accumulate pan halite whenever the Lake Assele brine edge (strandline) is periodically blown back and forth over the modern brineflat. It driven by southerly winds, which are frequent in the annual weather cycle, and can move thin sheets of brine kilometres across the pan in a few hours (Figure 1a, Figure 8). Superimposed on this southerly supply of brine is an occasional land-derived sheetflood event, driven by rare rainstorms and the deposition of silt-mud layers from water sheets sourced from the adjacent wadi belt. This ephemeral brineflat hydrology is stable with respect to the current climate (groundwater inflow ≈ outflow). It means the current brineflat of the northern Danakil low is  accumulating bedded pan salt at an even lower topographic level in the basin than the surrounding gypsum pavement, so implying today’s halite-dominant pan beds form under more arid conditions (less humid, more drawndown) than that of the gypsum pavement.


This stepped (reef to gypsum to halite) late-Pleistocene-early Holocene hydrology, captured in the modern surficial geology of the Dallol Depression, likely postdates a somewhat wetter (humid) climatic period indicated by the widespread deposition of a clastic overburden unit, atop the Upper Halite Formation (UHF; Figure 6). That is, the modern hydrology in present-day Lake Assale, and the adjacent saline mud flats of the Dallol pan, is not the same hydrology as that which precipitated the massive salt of the Upper Halite Formation (UHF). A potash-free halite unit extensively cored beneath the present clastic-dominated saline pan (to be discussed in the next blog). Texturally and hydrologically the depositional system of stacked salt crusts, which dominates the upper part of the UHF in the cored wells, is similar to today's halite-dominated passage from the salt flat into the subaqueous Lake Assale. However, as we shall see, a wetter moister period, dominated by sheetfloods and higher amounts of clastics, separates the two hydrological events in all the cored wells. Today's outcrop geology of alternating saltpan and clastic beds are a different to marine-fed seepage hydrology formed the Lower Halite Formation (LHF), with its potash bittern cap (Houston Formation). 

Most importantly there is no evidence of primary potash deposition in the modern lake/ pan hydrology of the Dallol saltflat. It is clear that the world-famous bedded potash (mostly kainitite) units of the Danakhil accumulated in a bittern hydrology that is not present in today's Dallol depositional hydrology (Blog 2). As we shall see, Holocene potash only occurs in the vicinity of the Dallol Volcanic Mound, where uplift has moved older, formerly buried, potash beds into a more active hydrothermal hydrology (Blog 3).

References

Bannert, D., J. Brinckmann, K. C. Käding, G. Knetsch, M. KÜrsten, and H. Mayrhofer, 1970, Zur Geologie der Danakil-Senke: Geologische Rundschau, v. 59, p. 409-443.

Ercosplan, 2011, Resource Report for the Danakhil Potash Deposit, Afar State Ethiopia, comissioned by Allana Potash. Document EGB 11-008.

Hardie, L. A., 1990, The roles of rifting and hydrothermal CaCl2 brines in the origin of potash evaporites: an hypothesis: American Journal of Science, v. 290, p. 43-106.

Holwerda, J. G., and R. W. Hutchinson, 1968, Potash-bearing evaporites in the Danakil area, Ethiopia: Economic Geology, v. 63, p. 124-150.

Hutchinson, R. W., and G. G. Engels, 1970, Tectonic significance of regional geology and evaporite lithofacies in northeastern Ethiopia: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, v. A 267, p. 313-329.

Kebede, S., 2012, Groundwater in Ethiopia: Features, numbers and opportunities, Springer.

Kottek, M., J. Grieser, C. Beck, B. Rudolf, and F. Rubel, 2006, World Map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated: Meteorologische Zeitschrift, v. 15, p. 259-263.

Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporites through time: Tectonic, climatic and eustatic controls in marine and nonmarine deposits: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 98, p. 217-268.

Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p.


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