Salty Matters

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Non-solar thick salt masses: Part 1 - Mixing zone and cryogenic (freeze-dried) salts

John Warren - Saturday, May 18, 2019


Conceptually, what defines evaporite sediment is broad, within the general theme that the rock was precipitated initially during solar heating of a brine. Heating drives the loss of water as vapour and concentrates of the residual brine to elevated salinities where a suite of evaporite salts precipitate (Babel and Schreiber, 2014; Warren 2016). In a modern marine-fed brine pan the precipitative sequence evolves from carbonate through gypsum, to halite and on into the various bittern salts (Figure 1).

But, evaporite salts are also highly reactive. Even in a simple single-pan evaporation scenario, crystallising salts tend to alter, backreact, replace, dissolve and reprecipitate. Then, as bedded sedimentary salts attain the subsurface and are exposed to increasing temperature and pressure, they continue to alter. Hydrated minerals, such as gypsum or carnallite transform into anhydrous phases such as anhydrite or sylvite. At the same time, thick halite beds tend to flow into halokinetic salt structures with a complete loss of depositional textures.

Some authors restrict the term "evaporite" to sediments forged by evaporation and use "saline deposit" or "salt deposit" for units formed not only by evaporation but also by ongoing alteration, cooling, heating or salting out in hydrothermal and diagenetic settings. Hence, the term salt structure rather than evaporite structure to describe many subsurface features encompassing the outcomes of halokinesis (salt flow). Some authors have suggested other names for the various bedded salt rocks precipitated by mechanisms other than solar heating of a brine; however, these names (burial salt, hydrothermal salt, reactionite, mixing precipitate, thermalite, replacementite, etc.) are not in general use in the sedimentological community.

In the subsurface sedimentary realm, most of the diagenetic processes described in preceding paragraphs have acted on a mass of salt first deposited by solar heating of brine and so are considered "true evaporites". This is so even though textures, total volumes of salts and mineralogies may have changed. Diagenetic processes acting on evaporite masses may also have transposed portions of the original salt mass into nearby saline cements within adjacent non-evaporite lithologies. These diagenetic or burial salt sediments lie outside the focus of this present series of articles, which will discuss mechanisms capable of precipitating large volumes of salts on or near the earth's surface without solar-driven heating of a brine (see Warren, 2016; Chapter 1 and 8 for a discussion of diagenetic or burial salts).

Cryogenesis, brine-mixing and mantle-driven thermal processes are the main surface and shallow-subsurface processes capable of precipitating significant volumes of non-evaporite salts. Many of the salt bodies precipitated in this way have similar mineralogies to those found in evaporite successions. So this, and the next Salty Matters article focus on mechanisms and products created by non-evaporite precipitation. I will attempt to define criteria that allow their separation from "true" evaporites. In this first article, we focus on mechanisms of brine mixing and cryogenesis, in the second we shall look at salt masses crystallising from fluids created and driven by mantle heating and cooling.

Some basic salt chemistry

Before that, we need to discuss a few basic chemical properties that define a crystal's response to heating and cooling of an enclosing brine. The questions we must ask are; in the ambient conditions are we dealing with influencing a prograde or retrograde salt phase and does the particular salt of interest undergo congruent or incongruent dissolution?

Prograde or retrograde salt?

A prograde salt crystallises as a brine cools and dissolve as brine is heated. With prograde salts, the average kinetic energy of the molecules in brine increases with temperature. The increase in kinetic energy allows solvent molecules to more effectively break apart the solute molecules; hence solubility increases with temperature and decreases with cooling. Halite and sylvite are both prograde salts (Figure 2a). When a shallow surface brine rich in either NaCl or KCl at say 45-50°C cools overnight, it will precipitate halite or sylvite-carnallite on the pan floor. If it sinks into an underlying porous salt bed and cools, it will precipitate as intercrystalline cement. This is happening beneath the salt flats of Dabuxum Lake in the Qaidam Basin of China where intercrystalline carnallite fill pores in a halite bed. In the deeper crust, with ongoing magmatic heating, the solubility of sodium chloride increases to where just below its critical point (≈400°C), salt content in a NaCl brine could be as high as 40 weight percent (see next article).


A retrograde (temperature-inverse) salt precipitates with increasing temperature and dissolves if it sits in a cooling saturated brine. Anhydrite is a retrograde salt and like all retrograde salts produces heat when dissolved in water (exothermic reaction). In an exothermic reaction the resulting additional heat shifts the equilibrium towards the reactants (Ca + SO4 --> CaSO4) (Figure 3b). In contrast, the hydrated form of CaSO4, gypsum, follows a prograde solubility curve, whereby in the temperature range where gypsum is the stable CaSO4 phase (<40-45°C) it is increasingly soluble with increasing temperature (Figure 3a). At higher temperatures (>45-50°C) both gypsum (where stable) and anhydrite possess retrograde solubility. Thus, when two anhydrite-saturated waters of different temperatures mix in the subsurface, the result is supersaturated brine with a propensity to precipitate anhydrite. A combination of retrograde solubility and brine mixing helps explain why anhydrite is a commonplace hydrothermal precipitate in mid-oceanic ridges and smoker chimneys (see next article).

On land, beneath the immediate surface of Abu Dhabi and Saudi sabkhas, the heating of desert playa and sabkha waters, rising through the capillary zone, to temperatures above 35°C drives the precipitation of CaSO4 (as nodular anhydrite) in a fashion that Wood et al. (2002, 2005) terms a sabkha thermalite (see Warren, 2016 for sabkha discussion). A reverse thermal gradient (upward cooling) in the winter sabkha permits dissolution of some of the previously precipitated retrograde minerals. Because the negative thermal gradient is less in the winter than the positive thermal gradient of the summer, but with nearly the same water flux, the cooling water cannot dissolve all of the mineral mass that precipitated in the previous summer. Thus, there is a net accumulation of retrograde (thermalitic) anhydrite nodules and layers in the capillary zone of an Abu Dhabi sabkha (Wood et al. 2005 ).

Brine mixing drives precipitation or dissolution of salts

Van’t Hoff’s work in physical chemistry, which won him the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry, showed that salts would precipitate at chemically-suitable brine interfaces. At that interface, all that is needed is a mixing of waters of two saturation states, with respect to the mineral of interest (Figure 3a). When two waters that are saturated with a particular salt phase are mixed, the resulting solution can be undersaturated or supersaturated with respect to that particular phase (Figure 3a). The saturation state during mixing depends on the convex or concave shape of the solubility curve for the mineral phase of interest and the parameter of interest (ion concentration, temperature, salinity, etc.). The only requirement is that the solubility curve for that particular component is nonlinear.


Raup (1970, 1982) in several experiments showed how halite and gypsum could be precipitated by the mixing of two seawater brines of differing salinity and densities. Figure 3b plots experimental results for the mixing of various low and high-density seawater brines and the resulting amount of gypsum precipitated (Raup, 1982). A similar plot can be drawn for the mixing of more saline NaCl (seawater) brines (Figure 4a, b; Raup, 1970).

Hence blending brines with different temperatures or salinities can be an important salting-out mechanism in the calcium sulphate (gypsum/anhydrite) salt system where gypsum follows a nonlinear solubility trend, as do saturated brines in a halite-MgCl2 bittern system (Raup, 1970, 1982). Figure 2b shows the solubility curves of both gypsum and anhydrite plotted with respect to increasing temperature in pure water. For gypsum, it clearly shows that when two gypsum-saturated waters with different temperatures mix in its stability range then the resulting solution is undersaturated and so gypsum tends to dissolve (Upper left curve in Figure 2b). In contrast, gypsum drops out of solution when two brines of differing density mix, with the amount of gypsum dependent on the density contrast between the two brines (Figure 3b).

Anhydritic solubility drives complex diagenetic effects when CaSO4-saturated brines mix via dispersion into adjacent less saline brines (Figure 2b). This happens in brine reflux systems where dense CaSO4-saturated brine plumes, derived at the surface at halite saturation, sink into and interact with less saline brines held in underlying or adjacent anhydritic carbonates. If the temperature remains near constant the tendency in this zone of dispersion or mixing is to dissolve gypsum, creating vugular porosity in the interval below or adjacent to a thick salt sequence. If temperature decreases and the brine plume cools, with little change in ionic proportions due to mixing, then the tendency is to precipitate anhydrite. It is not a simple system, with temperature and mixing processes pulling the brine chemistry in opposite directions.

A similar salting-out of halite occurs when halite-saturated brine mix with either MgCl2 or CaCl2 brine (Figure 4a, b, respectively). In potash basins, MgCl2-saturated brines are created by the incongruent dissolution of carnallite, while CaCl2 brines can typify the brine products of basinal hydrothermal waters. In both cases, the result is a sparry, relatively inclusion-free halite cement. Depending or the location where this mixing occurred, the cement can be part of a bedded carnallite unit that is converting to sylvite, or it can be localised in a fracture fill or form an intergranular cement in a non-evaporite host lithology.

Salt precipitation, driven by brine mixing, occurs in many stratified at-surface and shallow subsurface diagenetic interfaces in evaporitic settings. But, it is in the context of the mixing of deeply circulating mantle brines that it may be capable of precipitating significant volumes of salt and it in this context we shall discuss it further in the next article.


Cryogenic salts

Cryogenic brines and associated salts require temperatures at or below the freezing point of the liquid phase. These salts crystallise from a cold, near-freezing, residual brine as it concentrates via the loss of its liquid phase, which is converting/solidifying to ice (Figure 5a). As brine concentration increases, the freezing temperature decreases and minerals such as ikaite, hydrohalite, mirabilite, epsomite, potash bitterns and antarcticite can crystallise from the freezing brine (Figure 5a, b; Table 1; Warren, 2016; Chapter 12). Brine freezing ends when the phase cehemistry attains the eutectic point is reached. This is the point when all compounds (including H2O) pass to the solid state. Depending on the initial mineralization and compostion of the brine, the eutectic point is reached between -21 and -54 °C (Marion et al., 1999; Strakhov, 1970).

Cryogenic concentration of seawater precipitates mirabilite at four times seawater salinity and hydrohalite at eight times. In contrast, evaporating seawater precipitates gypsum at 4-5 times the original concentration and halite and 10-11 times (Figure 6). Evaporative gypsum precipitation decreases the relative proportions of both Ca and SO4 in the brine, while cryogenic precipitation of mirabilite decreases the sulphate proportion and drives the inflexion of the Na cryogenic curve slightly earlier than Na inflexion created by the precipitation of evaporative halite. In both the freezing and the evaporation situations, the brine remains chloride dominant prior to bittern crystallisation. Freezing seawater becomes increasingly sulphate enriched to where sulphate levels exceed sodium around 20 times the initial concentration. Evaporating seawater remains a Na-Cl dominant brine until the bittern stage is reached around 60 times the initial concentration (Warren, 2016, Chapter 2).

Mirabilite (NaSO4.10H2O) is one of several sodium sulphate salts and is stable in sulphate brines at temperatures lower than a few centigrade degrees (Figure 7a). Hence, it is a commonplace cold-climate lacustrine precipitate (Figure 8a-d; Table 1). Mirabilite beds are commercially exploited in colder climates; their latitudinal and altitudinal occurrences illustrate an interesting climatic dichotomy inherent to economic deposits of the various sodium sulphate salts. One sodium sulphate grouping of exploited deposits is characterised by mirabilite precipitated via brine freezing, as in the Great Salt Lake, Karabogazgol and Hedong (Yucheng) salt lake (Table 1 and illustrated in Figure 8a-d). The other sodium sulphate salt grouping is characterised by varying combinations of glauberite (CaSO4.Na2SO4)/bloedite-astrakanite (Na2SO4.MgSO4.4H2O) salts, which crystallised at higher temperatures via the evaporation of continental brines in saline groundwater sumps in warm to hot arid climates (as discussed in Warren, 2016, Chapter 12).

The climatic dichotomy reflects the fact that sodium sulphate solubility in water changes as a nonlinear function of temperature (Figure 7a). Below 1.2°C, ice and mirabilite tend to precipitate as seawater or a sodium sulphate brine freezes. As the temperature increases above 0°C, increasing amounts of hydrous sodium sulphate (as the decahydrate, mirabilite) become soluble, while the anhydrous form (thenardite- NaSO4) becomes the precipitative phase in brines saturated with respect to the sodium sulphate. At 32.4°C in pure water, a transition point on the solubility curve is reached, whereby mirabilite melts in its water of crystallisation and thenardite crystallises. Presence of other dissolved salts changes the transition temperature and solubility characteristics of sodium sulphate due to the double salt effect.

Cryogenesis in saline lacustrine sumps

Every year, once the water temperatures drop below 5.5-6°C in late November in Karabogazgol, mirabilite precipitates as transparent crystals on the embayment bottom. The crystals are then transported by wind and wave action, especially during winter storms, into low dunes lining shore-zone (Figure 8b). By mid-March when the bay waters are heated to over 6°C, the mirabilite on the bay floor begins to redissolve. By July–August the entire precipitated mirabilite crop in the bay has redissolved. Historically, the period from November through March was a period of ‘‘harvesting’’ mirabilite on the bay shores. In summer with its arid climate, any remaining strandzone salt converts to thenardite (Na2SO4), and this too was gathered at the end of each summer.

Below the floor of Karabogazgol are four NaSO4 beds that are likely cryogenic remnants from colder climatic periods over the last 10,000 years (Figure 9; Karpychev, 2007). Back then, large amounts of mirabilite formed each winter, much like today but, unlike today, the colder more humid glacial climate meant the bay was not as subject to summer desiccation and warming. Dense residual bottom brines were perennially ponded and so preserved a summer-halite sealing bed. This allowed the underlying mirabilite/epsomite winter precipitates to be preserved across the lake floor. During the following winter, the process was repeated as mirabilite/epsomite/halite couplets stacked one atop the other to create a future ore horizon. In time, the combination of groundwater and exposure, especially nearer the Gulf’s strandzone, converted most of the mirabilite, along with epsomite, to astrakanite, and then both phases to glauberite in the upper three beds. This explains the association of the richer glauberite zones with the lake edges (Figure 9a; Strakhov, 1970). Water of crystallisation released by the subsequent mirabilite to thenardite conversion, slightly diluted any strong residual brines, facilitating a dominant sodium-sulphate mineral and brine composition across the bay (Kurilenko et al., 1988).

Winter mirabilite also crystallises cryogenically from Kuchuk Lake brines on the Kulunda Steppe, southwest of Novosibirsk, western Siberia (Kurilenko, 1997; Garrett, 2001. The lake area is 170 km2, and brine depth is around 3.2 metres. In 1938 that lake was estimated to contain some 540 million mt of equivalent sodium sulfate. Thick, glassy mirabilite occurs as two crystalline layers, the upper one is around 3 m thick, and both layers are pure containing <1% other soluble salts. In total, the crystalline mirabilite interval ranges up to 7 m thick, covers around 133 km2 and is overlain by a 0.05- to 2-m thick unconsolidated interval of mud and salt oozes. The ooze typically contains some 40.5% salts, 20.6% water, and 38.9% insolubles (including considerable gypsum). Much of the mirabilite in the upper ooze layer has been transformed into thenardite, with the previous water of crystallisation supply much of the dense brine held in the ooze, which also contains halite, glauberite, hydrohalite and epsomite.

Mirabilite crystallises from the lake brine during the winter and cool summer evenings (volume estimated to be ≈ 340-580 thousand mt/yr of mirabilite). Then, during the warm summer months, some of it converts to thenardite. A limited amount of insoluble accumulates with the crystals, forming thin layers of mud with the thenardite. Brine in the lake has a 10-31% soluble salt content, depending upon the season and lake level. Every every three years, at the end of summer this brine is pumped to solar ponds to allow cryogenic mirabilite to crystallise during the autumn (a process similar to the production of mirabilite in the Canadian Salt Lake (Warren 2016, Chapter 12). Residual brine in the ponds is returned to the lake before winter sets in, and the ponds are harvested as needed for the production of sodium sulfate (Charykova et al., 1996). For most of a year, the lake's surface brine is a magnesium chloride water, but during the summer it changes to a sodium sulfate base, because of the dissolving of the underlying mirabilite, thenardite, and glauberite held in the lake floor oozes.

Ebeity (Ebeyty) Lake, located 110 km west of Omsk, is another cryogenic salt lake with a cyclic pattern of mirabilite crystallising in the winter and having it dissolve in the summer (Garrett, 2001; Kolpakova et al., 2018). Brine concentration can reach 30-31% total salts by the end of summer and can begin to crystallise halite (which usually dissolves in the spring). Mirabilite deposition starts when the brine temperature in the lake is less than 18-19°C (which can be as early as August or September). At 0°C, 70% of the sodium sulfate has crystallised from the lake brine. At -10°C, 85% has been deposited, and at -15°C 98%. At -7°C some ice crystallizes with the mirabilite, and at -21.8°C hydrohalite forms. The lake does not freeze solid because of the insulating effect of surface layers of snow on top of floating mirabilite rafts, but brine temperatures of -23.5°C have been recorded (Strakhov, 1970). The winter deposit of mirabilite, with some hydrohalite, covers the entire lake bottom is 25-30 cm thick and is quite pure. Laboratory tests have shown the soluble salts in this mirabilite, including hydrohalite, can be almost completely removed (i.e., reduced to 0.08%) by a single stage of washing.

Hydrohalite is a stable precipitate in a freezing brine only when the water temperature is below 0°C. In a NaCl–H2O system in the laboratory, hydrohalite is a stable phase that begins to precipitate cryogenically at temperatures below 0.12 °C, forming hydrohalite and a brine solution until it reaches the eutectic point for a solution saturated with NaCl at −21.1°C, where the remaining solution freezes (Figure 7b). Above 0.12 °C hydrohalite melts incongruently and decomposes to NaCl and a NaCl-saturated solution, losing 54.3% of its volume (Craig et al., 1974, 1975; Light et al., 2009). Hydrohalite (NaCl.2H2O) crystals have pseudo-hexagonal cross sections and are found in a number of modern cold saline lakes and springs (Table 1, Figure 8e-f).

Cryogenesis in salty springs

The mutual occurrence and downdip evolution of mirabilite/thenardite and hydrohalite/halite in brine spring encrustations (barrage structures) downdip of Stolz diapir on Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Archipelago illustrate the ephemeral nature of cryogenic salts on the Earths surface, even in extremely cold settings (Fox-Powell et al., 2018; Ward and Pollard, 2018). The halite-exposed core of the Stolz dome rises some 250 m above the adjacent flood plain, while the salt/hydrohalite deposit occurs autochthonously within a narrow, steep-sided tributary valley carved by a small stream fed mainly by perennial groundwater discharge emanating from the base of the diapir. The host valley begins abruptly at the spring outlet and is incised through surficial colluvial and glacial sediments into steeply dipping bedrock (shale). The Stolz diapir is the only diapir within the archipelago where the halite core is exposed, and the surface is extensively karstified with a suffusion cover, along with several large sinkholes and collapse structures.

The cryogenically influenced part of the at-surface salt deposit is approximately 800 m long and is thickest at the spring outlet (≈4.0 m) and gradually thins down-valley until it fans out, creating a salt pan that extends 300 m into the Whitsunday River floodplain. The morphology of the deposit is characterised by a series of salty barrage structures that staircase down the valley until the dispersing and dissolving at the valley opening. The barrages are constructed of salts but morphologically resemble typical fluvial travertines and tufas and are predominantly curvilinear with a downstream convexity, particularly the larger dams in the upper valley.

Sub-zero air temperatures persist at the site for at least ten months of the year, and the spring’s outlet temperature is relatively constant at −1.9°C ±0.1°C, confirming the presence of permafrost and so facilitating the precipitation of mirabilite and hydrohalite via freezing of spring waters (Figure 8f). In July air temperatures reach 5° - 6°C.

Although initial precipitates in the permafrost zone of the spring outflow are cryogenic (mirabilite and hydrohalite) the presence of these cryogenic salts in the spring precipitates is ephemeral (Figure 10).

The main body of a deposit is layered (Figure 4a, b) with alternating light and dark bands interpreted by Ward and Pollard (2018) as alternating periods of winter hydrohalite deposition and periods of summer pool drainage, when hydrohalite decomposes, and halite/thenardite sediment is deposited (Figure 11). As layers likely reflect an annual couplet cycle, then single winter accumulations can be as thin as a few millimetres in some parts of the deposit and as much as half a meter in others. It appears the accumulation phase ends as pools drain in early May corresponding with mean daily temperatures rising above 0°C. The darker layers are generated during summer as the hydrohalite decomposes leaving a granular halite crust with a veneer of fine clastic sediment transported into the deposit by wind, rain and runoff from adjacent slopes (during the spring snowmelt). The contact between the primary sediment and halite is abrupt and unconformable. The excavation of the deposit revealed numerous thin frozen layers (Figure 4c). These layers first appear ≈47cm below the surface, and overlying unfrozen material is considered analogous to an active layer in permafrost (Ward and Pollard, 2018). Samples of frozen salt collected from this layer and exposed to ambient air temperatures in summer reverted to a mixture of brine and halite grains (Figure 4d-e). It is not clear if these are residual hydrohalite layers preserved by thicker precipitate accumulations or if they represent secondary hydrohalite formation.

The lack of mirabilite or thernadite within the upper portion of the stream/spring deposit is thought to be due to the low kinetic rates of precipitation for sulfate salts (Ward and Pollard, 2018). Below the halfway point, thernadite is present (Figure 8f). This is also reflected in the SO4 concentrations along the spring in winter, as the precipitation of mirabilite removes sulfate ions from solution beyond the halfway point. Based on the morphology of the crystals observed in the deposit, the low concentration of sulfate ions compared to chloride ions, as well as the extensive identification of halite in the XRD samples, the deposit is dominated by hydrohalite (not mirabilite), which decomposes to halite in the summer and at the same time the mirabilite that is present dehydrates to thenardite (Figure 11).

Glacial and sea-ice cryogenesis

Whenever polar seawater freezes, salts precipitate in the increasingly dense residual brines held in inclusions or fissures in the ice (Butler et al., 2016). Salts that are known to precipitate within the freezing brine include CaCO3.6H2O (ikaite), Na2SO4.10H2O (mirabilite), NaCl.2H2O (hydrohalite), KCl (sylvite), and MgCl2.12H2O (magnesium dichloride dodecahydrate), while hydrohalite is the most abundant salt to precipitate in sea ice (Light et al., 2009). In the seawater system, hydrohalite begins to precipitate at -22.9C, and further cooling results in additional precipitation until the source of Na is exhausted at the eutectic (Figure 7b).

Salts do not only accumulate in sea ice. As dense brines and inclusion waters in flowing glacial ice sink into underlying rocks they can accumulate in ice sheet fissures at the base of the ice, or in load-induced fractures in the ice understory (Herut et al., 1990). Residual dense interstitial saline brines are found in pore waters extracted from deep cores sampling submarine sediments in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (Frank et al., 2010). It seems that when ice sheets retreat, the at-surface cryogenic salts dissolve into a freshening at-surface hydrology, but dense hypersaline brines remain behind in deep fissures, held and preserved in the rock fractures (Starinsky and Katz, 2003).

In the extreme setting of at-surface brine freezing in small saline depressions in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, a solid form of calcium chloride, antarcticite, grows cryogenically in what is probably the most saline perennial natural water mass in the world (47% salinity in Don Juan Pond, Antarctica; Figure 8g-h; Horita et al., 2009).

Mirabilite beds are known to be exposed atop ice floes of the Ross Ice Shelf near immediately down dip of the Hobbs glacier, on Cape Barne on Ross Island and in the vicinity of Cape Spirit, Black Island (Figure 12a; Brady and Batts, 1981). The bed is made up of relatively pure mirabilite that in places is more than a metre thick (Figure 12b). It is exposed in three coast-parallel ice pressure ridge systems and may not be continuous between the three sampling sites. According to Brady and Batts (1981), the mirabilite formed in response to a recent retreat of the Ross Ice Shelf that began some 840 years ago.

The upper contact of the ice beneath the McMurdo mirabilite bed is not conformable as there are often small irregularities and undulations in its surface ranging from 2 to 6 cm high (Figure 12b). These undulations control the thickness of a silty sand interval (0-8cm thick) separating the ice from the mirabilite. The upper surface of the basal sediment layer defines a sharp conformable contact with the overlying mirabilite bed. This basal sediment layer is devoid of internal bedding and consists of 80% glacial flour mixed with sand and small pebbles. The sediment also contains many ice-crushed fragments of marine diatoms and sponge spicules (< 10 µm long).

The overlying mirabilite bed is massive up to 1/2m thick and primarily made up of transparent cm-scale crystal clusters. Locally crystals can aggregate into large granules up to 95 mm across, that when exposed to air are coated by an anhydrous sodium sulphate powder rind Although there is no apparent bedding in the mirabilite bed, small pods and layered stringers of pebbly sand do occur. These are usually parallel or sub-parallel to the salt bed layer itself and vary in thickness from 0 to 12 cm. Broken shell fragments occur as rare isolated individual fragments in the salt. When the mirabilite is dissolved in distilled water, some fine mud and rare sand grains are recovered, as well as a perfectly preserved flora of non-marine diatoms.

A lag of sediment, pebbles, cobbles, and boulders covers the mirabilite bed. The majority of the class are erratics, some of which are striated and come from the McMurdo alkaline volcanic province. There are also some erratics of gneiss, granite, and sandstone from continental suites. This lag is mostly overlain by a non-marine microbial mat (0-26 cm thick) but, in some places, the mat underlies or is mixed with the boulder lag. One mat sample collected 4 m above the level of the pool-and-channel systems on a pressure ridge at site 1, yielded a radiocarbon age of 870±70 years n.p. This single date cannot be used to date the whole mat since algae are still growing in pools in small depressions atop the salt deposit. The algal mat contains non-marine diatoms, but these are not as numerous as in nearby pools on the present-day ice shelf.

Debenham (1920) suggested that the mirabilite he had observed on the Ross Ice Shelf was formed under the ice shelf by precipitation from brines. But it is unlikely that extensive linear pods and beds of friable salt could be brought directly to the surface by anchor ice; furthermore, the salt beds contain non-marine diatoms that indicate surface precipitation (Brady and Batts, 1981). Since non-marine diatoms have only settled in the salt itself, it would seem that the basal sediment layer was formed immediately after the injection of a sub-ice-shelf brine and before non-marine algal production in the brine pools.

Hence, Brady and Batts (1981) conclude that mother brines first formed underneath an ice shelf from freezing sea-water. These brines were displaced to the ice-shelf surface by the weight of a large area of thick ice shelf as it grounded. Fine marine sediment carried in suspension by these brines settled to form an irregular thin discontinuous basal sediment layer containing marine diatoms. Mirabilite then crystallised cryogenically from this brine. During precipitation of the massive mirabilite beds, some non-marine diatoms, which can tolerate the high salt content of Antarctic saline lakes, were deposited with the salt. After the deposition of the mirabilite, massive non-marine algal production occurred, forming a thick irregular mat up to 26 cm thick on the mirabilite surface.

Mirabilite beds lying on the Ross Island coast near Cape Barne and on the mainland near Hobbs Glacier likely formed in the same manner as those at Cape Spirit. That is, they were stranded on the coast as the ice shelf retreated to its present position in the south of McMurdo Sound during the last interglacial period.

Extraterrestial cryogenic salts

Cryogenic gypsum is released via ice ablation and is spread widely by katabatic winds across the circumpolar Martian dunefields (Table 2). Hydrated and calcium perchlorate cryogenic salts grow seasonally in soils of Mars and typify slope lineae on parts of the Marian surface Lineae activity is possibly tied to periodic release of liquid water in paces on the Martian surface. More than 3 billion years ago, evaporitic halite once precipitated in impact sumps on the surface of Mars.

Cryogenesis explains the presence of hydrated magnesium sulphate salts in megapolygonal ice-crack fissures that crisscross the icy surfaces of Europa and Ganymede (moons of Jupiter) (Table 2; (Figure 13). The presence of hydrated magnesium sulphate and sodium carbonate salts indicates the presence of liquid salty oceans up to 100 km deep below an icy crust that is tens of kilometres thick (McCord et al., 1998; Craft et al., 2016. The fissures indicate an icy type of plate tectonics driven by strong tides in response to the varying gravitational pull of nearby Jupiter. Similar plumes of icy saline water escape from cracks and cryovolcanoes on the surface of Enceladus, an icy moon that circle Saturn. Spectral analysis shows the escaping plumes of Enceladus contain a variety of sodium and potassium salts (Postberg et al., 2011.

Recognition of ancient terrestrial cryogenic salts

Outside of relatively unaltered cool-temperature Quaternary lacustrine, permafrost and ice examples, as listed in Table 1, dehydration linked to the heating inherent to burial diagenesis will create mineralogical and textural difficulties in reliably interpreting the remains of ancient cryogenic salt beds. This is because all ionic salts forming in ambient surface conditions become metastable in the subsurface as they experience increased temperatures, pressures and evolving pore-fluid chemistries inherent to the diagenetic realm (Warren, 2016).

Across all subsurface and re-exhumed ancient examples, the original low-temperature cryogenic salts (mirabilite, hydrohalite) will be long gone. Anhydrous salty remnants (thenardite, halite) may be preserved but are typically altered, replaced and dissolved. This makes it more challenging to assign a depositional setting to a cryogenic salt than it is to a typical evaporite.

In their study of Miocene lacustrine thenardite in the Tajo Basin, Spain, Herrero et al. (2015) used three main criteria to suggest the conversion from a cold climate mirabilite precursor They were; 1) inclusion chemistry in the thenardite, 2) cooler climate mammal fauna synchronous with deposition of sodium sulphate salts and, 3) widespread dewatering structures tied to a burial transition from mirabilite to thenardite. A perusal of the depositional settings in the Quaternary examples listed in Table 1, underlines the conclusion that a glaciogenic association should be added as a fourth recognition criterion. Almost every case is either underlain or overlain by varying combinations of glacial till, glacial flour or glacial laminites with dropstones (Table 3).

In terms of pre-Quaternary deposits of sodium sulphate salts, it was noted by Warren (2010, 2016), that the greater majority of economic deposits are Neogene sediments. Pre-Neogene cryogenic deposits are typically so diagenetically altered that no significant volumes of the original metastable NaSO4 cryogenic salts remain. Across all pre-Neogene greenhouse climate settings, that is across times that lack permanent polar ice sheets, there is little documentation of preserved volumes of cryogenic salts. Worldwide warmer temperatures mean it is unlikely there were extensive cryogenic salt beds. This leaves past periods in Earth history when the planet was in ice-house mode as possible times of cryogenic salt deposits were possible. As yet, no pre-Neogene cryogenic salt beds are known. Mirabilite/hydrohalite deposits have been inferred to be reasonable at tropical latitudes during the Neoproterozoic snowball period (Light et al. 2009; Carns et al., 2015)). Their presence has bee inferred to have increased albedo in tropical ice sublimation regions and so modify climate models, but as yet no evidence of their existence is known either then or in younger Ordovician or Permo-Carboniferous ice-age sediments. Likewise, the presence of glauberite in Permian lithologies is not diagnostic; glauberite forms from evaporating marine waters at times of MgSO4 -enriched oceans (Hardie 1985; Warren, 2016).

Cryogenic salts are an extreme end-member of the concept of "the salt that was." Across past geological time, beyond Neogene remnants, even with isotopic and inclusion techniques, it is next to impossible to identify a cryogenic evaporite reliably.

As W. Edwards Deming (Engineer and statistician, 1900-1993) once said "...Without data, you're just another person with an opinion."


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Brine evolution and origins of potash - primary or secondary. Ancient potash ores: Part 3 of 3

John Warren - Monday, December 31, 2018


In the previous two articles in this series on potash exploitation, we looked at the production of either MOP or SOP from anthropogenic brine pans in modern saline lake settings. Crystals of interest formed in solar evaporation pans and came out of solution as: 1) Rafts at the air-brine interface, 2) Bottom nucleates or, 3) Syndepositional cements precipitated within a few centimetres of the depositional surface. In most cases, periods of more intense precipitation tended to occur during times of brine cooling, either diurnally or seasonally (sylvite, carnallite and halite are prograde salts). All anthropogenic saline pan deposits examples can be considered as primary precipitates with chemistries tied to surface or very nearsurface brine chemistry.

In contrast, this article discusses ancient potash deposits where the chemistries and ore textures are responding to ongoing alteration processes in the diagenetic realm. Unlike the modern brine pans where brines chemistries and harvested mineralogies are controllable, at least in part, these ancient deposits show ore purities and distributions related to ongoing natural-process overprints.

Table 1 lists some modern and ancient potash deposits and prospects by dividing them into Neogene and Pre-Neogene deposits (listing is extracted and compiled from SaltWork® database Version 1.7). The Neogene deposits are associated with a time of MgSO4-enriched seawaters while a majority of the Pre-Neogene deposits straddle times of MgSO4 enrichment and depletion in the ocean waters.

Incongruent dissolution in burial

Many primary evaporite salts dissolve congruently in the diagenetic realm; i.e., the composition of the solid and the dissolved solute stoichiometrically match, and the dissolving salt goes entirely into solution (Figure 1a). This situation describes the typical subsurface dissolution of anhydrous evaporite salts such as halite or sylvite. However, some evaporite salts, typically hydrated salts, such as gypsum or carnallite, dissolve incongruently in the diagenetic realm, whereby the composition of the solute in solution does not match that of the solid (Figure 1b). This solubilisation or mineralogical alteration is defined by the transformation of the "primary solid" into a secondary solid phase, typically an anhydrous salt, and the loss of water formerly held in the lattice structure. The resulting solution generally carries ions away in solution.

More than a century ago, van't Hoff (1912) suggested that much subsurface sylvite is the result of incongruent solution of carnallite yielding sylvite and a Mg-rich solution. According to Braitsch (1971, p. 120), the incongruent alteration (dissolution) of carnallite is perhaps the most crucial process in the alteration of subsurface potash salts and the formation of diagenetic (secondary) sylvite.

Widespread burial-driven incongruent evaporite reactions in the diagenetic realm include the burial transition of gypsum to anhydrite (reaction 1)

CaSO4.2H2O --> CaSO4 + 2 H2O ... (1)

and the in-situ conversion of carnallite to sylvite via the loss of magnesium chloride in solution (reaction 2)

KMgCl3.6H2O --> KCl + Mg++ + 2Cl- + 6H2O ...(2)

Typically, a new solid mineral remains, and the related complex solubility equilibrium creates a saline pore water that may, in turn, drive further alteration or dissolution as it leaves the reaction site (Warren, Chapters 2 and 8). Specifically for ancient potash, reaction 2 generates magnesium and chloride in solution and has been used to explain why diagenetic bischofite and dolomite can be found in proximity to newly formed subsurface sylvite. Bischofite is a highly soluble salt and so is metastable in many subsurface settings where incongruent dissolution is deemed to have occurred, including bischofite thermal pool deposits in the Dallol sump in the Danakhil of Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015). In many hydrologically active systems, solid-state bischofite is flushed by ongoing brine crossflow and so help drive the formation of various burial dolomites. Only at high concentrations of MgCl2 can carnallite dissolve without decomposition.

Laboratory determinations

In the lab, the decomposition of carnallite in an undersaturated aqueous solution is a well-documented example of incongruent dissolution (Emons and Voigt, 1981; Xia et al., 1993; Hong et al., 1994; Liu et al., 2007; Cheng et al., 2015, 2016). When undersaturated water comes into contact with carnallite, the rhombic carnallite crystals dissolve and, because of the common ion effect, small cubic KCl crystals form in the vicinity of the dissolving carnallite. As time passes, the KCl crystals grow into larger sparry subhedral forms and the carnallite disappears.

Carnallite’s crystal structure is built of Mg(H2O)6 octahedra, with the K+ ions are situated in the holes of chloride ion packing meshworks, with a structural configuration similar to perovskite lattice types (Voigt, 2015). Potassium in the carnallite lattice can be substituted by other large single-valence ions like NH4+, Rb+, Cs+ or Li(H2O)+, (H3O)+ and Cl- by Br- and I-. These substitutions change the lattice symmetry from orthorhombic in the original carnallite to monoclinic.

When interpreting the genesis of ancient potash deposits and solutions, the elemental segregation in the lattice means trace element contents of bromide, rubidium and caesium in primary carnallite versus sylvite daughter crystals from incongruent dissolution can provide valuable information. For example, in a study by Wardlaw, (1968), a trace element model was developed for sylvite derived from carnallite that gave for Br and Rb concentration ranges of 0.10–0.90 mg/g and 0.01–0.18 mg/g, respectively. In a later study of sylvite derived by fresh-water leaching of magnesium chloride under isothermal conditions at 25 °C. Cheng et al. (2016), defined a model whereby primary sylvites precipitated from MgSO4-deficient sea water, gave Br and Rb concentration ranges of 2.89–3.54 mg/g and 0.017–0.02 mg/g, respectively (no evaporation occurred at saturation with KCl). In general, they concluded sylvite derived incongruently from carnallite would contain less Br and more Rb than primary sylvite (Figure 2; Cheng et al., 2016).

Subsurface examples

The burial-driven mechanism widely cited to explain the incongruent formation of sylvite from carnallite is illustrated in Figure 3 (Koehler et al., 1990). Carnallite precipitating from evaporating seawater at time 1 forms from a solution at 30°C and atmospheric (1 bar) pressure, and so plots as point A, which lies within the carnallite stability field (that is, it sits above the dashed light brown line). With subsequent burial, the pressure increases so that the line defining carnallite-sylvite boundary (solid dark brown line) moves to higher values of K. By time 2, when the pressure is at 1 Kbar (corresponds to a lithostatic load equivalent to 2-3 km depth), the buried carnallite is thermodynamically unstable and so is converting to sylvite + solution (as the plot field now lies in the sylvite + solution field (Figure 3). If equilibrium is maintained the carnallite reacts incongruently to form further sylvite and MgCl2-solution. Thus, provided the temperature does not rise substantially, increasing pressure as a result of burial will favour the breakdown of carnallite to sylvite. However, as burial proceeds, the temperature may become high enough to favour once again the formation of carnallite from sylvite + solution (that is the solution plot point from A moves toward the right-hand side of the figure and back into the carnallite stability field).

Sylvite, interpreted to have formed from incongruent dissolution of primary carnallite, is reported from the Late Permian Zechstein Formation of Germany (Borchert and Muir, 1964), Late Permian Salado Formation of New Mexico (Adams, 1970), Early Mississippian Windsor Group of Nova Scotia (Evans, 1970), Early Cretaceous Muribeca Formation of Brazil and its equivalents in the Gabon Basin, West Africa (Wardlaw, 1972a, b; Wardlaw and Nicholls, 1972; Szatmari et al., 1979; de Ruiter, 1979), Late Cretaceous of the Maha Sarakham Formation, Khorat Plateau, Thailand and Laos (Hite and Japakasetr, 1979), Pleistocene Houston Formation, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Holwerda and Hutchinson, 1968), and Middle Devonian Prairie Formation of western Canada (Schwerdtner, 1964; Wardlaw, 1968) (See Table 1).

This well-documented literature base supports a long-held notion that there is a problem with sylvite as a primary (first precipitate) marine bittern salt, especially if the mother seawater had ionic proportions similar to those present in modern seawater (see Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990 for an excellent, if 30-year-old, review). We know from numerous evaporation experiments, that sylvite does not crystallise during the evaporation of modern seawater at 25°C, except under metastable equilibrium conditions (Braitsch, 1971; Valyashko, 1972; Hardie, 1984). The sequence of bitterns crystallising from modern seawater bitterns was illustrated in the previous Salty Matters article in this series (see Figure 1 in October 31 2018).

Across the literature documenting sylvite-carnallite associations in ancient evaporites, the dilemma of primary versus secondary sylvite is generally solved in one of three ways. Historically, many workers interpreted widespread sylvite as a diagenetic mineral formed by the incongruent dissolution of carnallite (Explanation 1). Then there is the interpretation that some sylvite beds, perhaps associated with tachyhydrite, were precipitated in the evaporite bittern part of a basin hydrology that was fed by CaCl2-rich basinal hydrothermal waters (Explanation 2: see Hardie, 1990 for a good discussion    of this mechanism). Then there is the third, and increasingly popular explanation of primary or syndepositional sylvite at particular times in the chemical evolution of the world oceans (MgSO4-depleted oceans).

Changes in the relative proportions of magnesium, sulphur and calcium in the world’s oceans are well supported by brine inclusion chemistry of co-associated chevron halite (Figure 4). Clearly, there are vast swathes of times in the earth’s past when the chemistry of seawater changed so that MgSO4 levels were lower than today and it was possible that sylvite was a primary marine bittern precipitate (see Lowenstein et al., 2014 for an excellent summary).

In my opinion, there is good evidence that all three explanations are valid within their relevant geological contexts but, if used exclusively to explain the presence of ancient sylvite, the argument becomes somewhat dogmatic. I would say that that, owing to its high solubility, the various textures and mineralogical associations of carnallite/sylvite and sulphate bitterns found in ancient potash ore beds reflect various and evolving origins. Ambient textures and mineralogies are dependent on how many times and how pervasively in a potash sequence’s geological burial history an evolving and reactive pore brine chemistry came into contact with parts or all of the extent of highly reactive potash beds (Warren, 2000; 2010; 2016).

In my experience, very few ancient examples of economic potash show layered textures indicating primary precipitation on a brine lake floor, instead, most ancient sylvite ores show evidence of at least one episode of alteration. That is, various forms and textures in potash may dissolve, recrystallise and backreact with each other from the time a potash salt is first precipitated until it is extracted. The observed textural and mineralogical evolution of a potash ore association depends on how open was the hydrology of the potash system at various stages during its burial evolution. The alteration can occur syndepositionally, in brine reflux, or later during flushing by compactional or thermobaric subsurface waters or during re-equilibration tied to uplift and telogenesis. Tectonism (extensional and compactional) during the various stages of a basin’s burial evolution acts as a bellows driving fluid flow within a basin, so forcing and speeding up the focused circulation of potash-altering waters.


A similar, but somewhat less intense, textural evolution tied to incongruent alteration is seen in the burial history of other variably hydrated evaporite salts. For example, CaSO4 can flip-flop from gypsum to anhydrite and back again depending on temperature, pore fluid salinity and the state of uplift/burial. Likewise, with the more complicated double salt polyhalite, there are mineralogical changes related to whether it formed in a MgSO4 enriched or depleted world ocean and the associated chemistry of the syndepositional reflux brines across extensive evaporite platforms (for a more detailed discussion of polyhalite see Salty Matters, July 31, 2018). Kainite-kieserite-carnallite also show evidence of ongoing incongruent interactions. This means that, as in gypsum/anhydrite/polyhalite or kain ite/kieserite sequences, there will be primary and secondary forms of both carnallite and sylvite that can alternate during deposition, during burial and any deep meteoric flushing and then again with uplift. In Quaternary brine factories these same incongruent chemical relationships are what facilitate the production of MOP (sylvite) from a carnallitite feed or SOP from kainite/kieserite/schoenite feed (see articles 1 and 2 in this series).


To document the three end-members of ancient sylvite-carnallite decomposition/precipitation we will look at three examples; 1) Oligocene potash in the Mulhouse Basin where primary sylvite textures are commonplace, 2) Devonian potash ores in western Canada, where multiple secondary stages of alteration are seen, and 3) Igneous-dyke associated sylvite in east Germany where thermally-driven volatisation (incongruent melting) forms sylvite from dehydrated carnallite.

Oligocene Potash, Mulhouse Basin France

Moving backwards into deep time, this 34 Ma deposit contains some of the first indications of well preserved primary marine-fed sylvinite (MOP) textures exemplified by laterally-continuous mm-scale alternations of potash and halite layers and lamina (Figure 5a-c). Interestingly, all solid-state potash deposits laid down in the post-Oligocene period contain increased proportions of MgSO4 salts, making them much more difficult to economically mine and process (see Table 1 and Salty Matters, May 12, 2015)

From 1904 until 2002, potash was conventionally mined in France from the Mulhouse Basin (near Alsace, France). With an area of 400 km2, the Mulhouse Basin is the southernmost of a number of Lower Oligocene evaporite basins that occupied the upper Rhine Graben, which at that time was a narrow adiabatic-arid rift valley (Figure 6a). The graben was a consequence of the collision between European and African plates during the Paleogene. It is part of a larger intracontinental rift system across Western Europe that extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, stretching some 300 km from Frankfurt (Germany) in the north, to Basel (Switzerland) in the south, with an average width of 35 km (Cendon et al., 2008). The southern extent of the graben is limited by a system of faults that place Hercynian massifs and Triassic materials into contact with the Paleogene filling. Across the north, a complex system of structures (including salt diapirs) put the basin edges in contact with Triassic, Jurassic and Permian materials. In the region of the evaporite basins, the Paleogene fill of the graben lies directly on the Jurassic basement. The sedimentary filling of this rift sequence is asymmetrical with the deeper parts located at the southwestern and northeastern sides of the Graben (Rouchy, 1997).

Palaeogeographical reconstructions place the potential marine seaway seepage feed to the north or perhaps also southeast of the Mulhouse Basin, while marginal continental conglomerates tend to preclude any contemporaneous hydrographic connection with Oligocene ocean water (Blanc-Valleron, 1991; Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). At the time of its hydrographic isolation, some 34 Ma, the basin was located 40° north of the equator. Total fill of Oligocene lacustrine/marine-fed sediments in the graben is some 1,700m thick. The saline stage is dominated by anhydrite, halite and mudstone. The main saline sequence is underlain by non-evaporitic Eocene continental mudstones, with lacustrine fossils and local anhydrite beds. Evaporite bed continuity in the northern part of the basin is disturbed by (Permian-salt cored) diapiric and or erosional/fault movement. Consequently, these northern basins are not considered suitable for conventional potash mining (Figure 6a).

The Paleogene fill of the basin is divided into 6 units; a pre-evaporitic series, Lower Salt Group (LSG), Middle Salt Group (MSG), an Upper Salt Group (USG - with potash), Grey Marls Fm., and the Niederroedern Fm (Figure 7; Cendon et al., 2008). The LSG and lower section of the MSG are interpreted as lacustrine in origin, based on the limited palaeontologic and geochemical data. However, based on the presence of Cenozoic marine nannoplankton, shallow water benthic foraminifera, and well-diversified dinocyst assemblages in the fossiliferous zone below Salt IV, Blanc-Valleron (1991) favours a marine influence near the top of the MSG, while recognising the ambiguity of marine proportions with brackish faunas. Many marine-seepage fed brine systems have salinities that allow halotolerant species to flourish in marine-fed basins with no ongoing marine hydrographic connection (Warren, 2011). According to Blanc-Valleron and Schuler (1997), the region experienced a Mediterranean climate with long dry seasons during Salt IV member deposition.

In detail, the Salt IV member is made up of some 210 m of evaporitic sequence, with two relatively thin potash levels (Ci and Cs). The stratigraphy associated with this potash zone is, from base to top (Figure 7):

S2 Unit: 11.5 m thick with distinct layers of organic-rich marls, often dolomitic, with dispersed anhydrite layers.

S1 Unit: 19 m thick, evenly-bedded and made up of alternating metre-scale milky (inclusion-rich) halite layers, with much thinner marls and anhydrite layers. Marls show a sub-millimetric lamination formed by micritic carbonate laminae alternating with clay, quartz, and organic matter-rich laminae. Hofmann et al. (1993a, b) interpreted these couplets as reflecting seasonal variations. Anhydrite occasionally displays remnant swallowtail ghost textures, which suggest that at least part of the anhydrite first precipitated as subaqueous gypsum. Halite shows an abundance of growth-aligned primary chevron textures, along with fluid-inclusion banding suggesting halite was subaqueous and deposited beneath shallow brine sheets (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

S Unit: Is 3.7 m thick and consists of thin marl layers and anhydrite, similar to the S2 Unit, with a few thin millimetric layers of halite.

Mi Unit: With a thickness of 6 m, it is mostly halite with similar characteristics to the S1 Unit. Sylvite was detected in one sample, but its presence is probably related to the evolution of interstitial brines (Cendon et al., 2008).

Ci Unit (“Couche inférieure”): Is formed by 4 m of alternating marls/anhydrite, halite, and sylvite beds (Figure 7).

The Ti unit consists of alternating beds of halite, marl and anhydrite. The top of the interval is the T unit, which is similar to the S unit and consists of alternating beds of marl and anhydrite. Above this is the Ms or upper Marl, near identical to the lower marl Mi. The Mi is overlain by the upper potash bed (Cs), a thinner, but texturally equivalent, bed compared to the sylvinitic Ci unit.

Thus, the Oligocene halite section includes two thin, but mined, potash zones: the Couche inferieure (Ci; 3.9m thick), and Couche superieure (Cs; 1.6m thick), both occur within Salt IV of the Upper Salt group (Figures 5, 7).

Both potash beds are made up of stacked, thin, parallel-sided cm-dm-thick beds (averaging 8 cm thickness), which are in turn constructed of couplets composed of grey-coloured halite overlain by red-coloured sylvite (Figure 5b). Each couplet has a sharp base that separates the basal halite from the sylvite cap of the underlying bed. In some cases, the separation is also marked by bituminous partings. The bottom-most halite in each dm-thick bed consists of halite aggregates with cumulate textures that pass upward into large, but delicate, primary chevrons and cornets. Clusters of this chevron halite swell upward to create a cm-scale hummocky boundary with the overlying sylvite (Figure 5c; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

The sylvite member of a sylvinite couplet consists of granular aggregates of small transparent halite cubes and rounded grains of red sylvite (with some euhedral sylvite hoppers) infilling the swales in the underlying hummocky halite (Figure 5b,c). The sylvite layer is usually thick enough to bury the highest protuberances of the halite, so that the top of each sylvite layer, and the top of the couplet, is flat. Dissolution pipes and intercrystalline cavities are noticeably absent, although some chevrons show rounded coigns. Intercalated marker beds, formed during times of brine pool freshening, are composed of a finely laminated bituminous shale, with dolomite and anhydrite.

The sylvite-halite couplets record combinations of unaltered settle-out and bottom-nucleated growth features, indicating primary chemical sediment accumulating in shallow perennial brine pools (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Based on the crystal size, the close association of halites with sylvite layers, their lateral continuity and the manner in which sylvite mantles overlie chevron halites, the sylvites are interpreted as primary precipitates. Sylvite first formed at the air-brine surface or within the uppermost brine mass and then sank to the bottom to form well-sorted accumulations. As sylvite is a prograde salt it, like halite, probably grew during times of cooling of the brine mass (Figure 8a). These times of cooling could have been diurnal (day/night) or weather-front induced changes in the above-brine air temperatures. Similar cumulate sylvite deposits form as ephemeral bottom accumulations on the floor of modern Lake Dabuxum in China during its more saline phases.

The subsequent mosaic textural overprint seen in many of the Mulhouse sylvite layers was probably produced by postdepositional modification of the crystal boundaries, much in the same way as mosaic halite is formed by recrystallisation of raft and cumulate halite during shallow burial. Temperature-based inclusion studies in both the sylvite and the halites average 63°C, suggesting solar heating of surface brines as precipitation took place (Figure 8b; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Similar high at-surface brine temperatures are not unusual in many modern brine pools, especially those subject to periodic density stratification and heliothermometry (Warren 2016; Chapter 2).

Mineralogically, potash evaporites in the Mulhouse Basin in the Rhine Graben (also known as the Alsatian (Alsace) or Wittelsheim Potash district) contain sylvite with subordinate carnallite, but lack the abundant MgSO4 salts characteristic of the evaporation of modern seawater. The Rhine graben formed during the Oligocene, via crustal extension, related to mantle upwelling. It was, and is, a continental graben typified by high geothermal gradients along its rift axis. In depositional setting, it is not dissimilar to pree-120,000-year potash fill stage in the Quaternary Danakil Basin or the Dead Sea during deposition of potash salts in the Pliocene Sedom Fm. The role of a high-temperature geothermal inflow in defining the CaCl2 nature of the potash-precipitating brines, versus a derivation from a MgSO4-depleted marine feed, is considered significant in the Rhine Graben deposits, but is poorly understood and still not resolved (Hardie, 1990; Cendón et al., 2008). World ocean chemistry in the Oligocene is on a shoulder between the MgSO4-depleted CaCl2-rich oceans of the Cretaceous and the MgSO4-enriched oceans of the Neogene (Figure 4).

Cendón et al. (2008) conclude brine reaction processes were the most important factors controlling the major-ion (Mg, Ca, Na, K, SO4, and Cl) evolution of Mulhouse brines (Figure 9a-d). A combined analysis of fluid inclusions in primary textures by Cryo-SEM-EDS with sulphate- d34S, d18O and 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios revealed likely hydrothermal inputs and recycling of Permian evaporites, particularly during the more advanced stages of evaporation that laid down the Salt IV member. Bromine levels imply an increasingly concentrated brine at that time (Figure 9a). The lower part of the Salt IV (S2 and S1) likely evolved from an initial marine input (Figure 9b-d).

Throughout, the basin was disconnected from direct marine hydrographic connection and was one of a series of sub-basins formed in an active rift setting, where tectonic variations influenced sub-basin interconnections and chemical signatures of input waters. Sulphate-d34S shows Oligocene marine-like signatures at the base of the Salt IV member (Figure 9c, d). However, enriched sulphate-d18O reveals the importance of synchronous re-oxidation processes.

As evaporation progressed, other non-marine or marine-modified inputs from neighbouring basins became more important. This is demonstrated by increases in K concentrations in brine inclusions and Br in halite, sulphate isotopes trends, and 87Sr/86Sr ratios (Figure 9b, c). The recycling (dissolution) of previously precipitated evaporites of Permian age was increasingly important with ongoing evaporation. In combination, this chemistry supports the notion of a connection of the Mulhouse Basin with basins situated north of Mulhouse. The brine evolution eventually reached sylvite precipitation. Hence, the chemical signature of the resulting brines is not 100% compatible with global seawater chemistry changes. Instead, the potash phase is tied to a hybrid inflow, with significant but decreasing marine input.

There was likely an initial marine source, but this occurred within a series of rift-valley basin depressions for which there was no direct hydrographic connection to the open ocean, even at the time the Middle Salt Member (potash-entraining) was first deposited (Cendon et al., 2008). That is, the general hydrological evolution of the primary textured evaporites in the Mulhouse basin sump is better explained as a restricted sub-basin with an initial marine-seepage stage. This gradually changed to ≈ 40% marine source near the beginning of evaporite precipitation, with the rest of hydrological inputs being non-marine. There was a significant contribution of solutes from recycled, in part diapiric, Permian evaporites, likely remobilised by the tectonics driving the formation of the rift valley (Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). The general proportion of solutes did not change substantially over the time of evaporite precipitation. However, as the basin restriction increased, the formerly marine inputs changed to continental, diapiric or marine-modified inputs, perhaps fed from neighbouring basins north of Mulhouse basin. As in the Ethiopian Danakhil potash-rift, it is likely brine interactions occurred both during initial and early post-depositional reflux overprinting of the original potash salt beds.

West Canadian potash (Devonian)

The Middle Devonian (Givetian) Prairie Evaporite Formation is a widespread potash-entraining halite sequence deposited in the Elk Point Basin, an early intracratonic phase of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB; Chipley and Kyser, 1989). Today, it is the world’s predominant source of MOP fertiliser (Warren, 2016). The flexure that formed the basin and its subsealevel accommodation space was a distal downwarp to, and driven by, the early stages of the Antler Orogeny (Root, 2001). Texturally and geochemically the potash layers in the basin show the effects of multiple alterations and replacements of its potash minerals, especially interactions between sylvite and carnallite in a variably recrystallised halite host.

Regionally halite constitutes a large portion of the four formations that make up the Devonian Elk Point Group (Figure 10): 1) the Lotsberg (Lower and Upper Lotsberg Salt), 2) the Cold Lake (Cold Lake Salt), 3) the Prairie Evaporite (Whitkow and Leofnard Salt), and 4) the Dawson Bay (Hubbard Evaporite). Today the remnants of the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite Formation constitute a bedded unit some 220 metres thick, which lies atop the irregular topography of the platform carbonates of the Winnipegosis Fm. Extensive solutioning of the various salts has given rise to an irregular thickness to the formation and the local absence of salt (Figure 11a).

The Elk Point Group was deposited within what is termed the Middle Devonian “Elk Point Seaway,” a broad intracratonic sag basin extending from North Dakota and northeastern Montana at its southern extent north through southwestern Manitoba, southern and central Saskatchewan, and eastern to northern Alberta (Figure 11a). Its Pacific coast was near the present Alberta-British Columbia border, and the basin was centred at approximately 10°S latitude. To the north and west the basin was bound by a series of tectonic ridges and arches; but, due to subsequent erosion, the true eastern extent is unknown (Mossop and Shetsen, 1994). In northern Alberta, the Prairie Evaporite is correlated with the Muskeg and Presqu’ile formations (Rogers and Pratt, 2017).

Hydrographic isolation of the intracratonic basin from its marine connection resulted in the deposition of a drawndown sequence of basinwide (platform-dominant) evaporites with what is a uniquely high volume of preserved potash salts deposited within a clayey halite host. The potash resource in this basin far exceeds that of any other known potash basin in the world.

Potash geology

Potash deposits mined in Saskatchewan are all found within the upper 60-70 m of the Prairie Evaporite Formation, at depths of more than 400 to 2750 metres beneath the surface of the Saskatchewan Plains. Within the Prairie Evaporite, there are four main potash-bearing members, in ascending stratigraphic order they are: Esterhazy, White Bear, Belle Plaine and Patience Lake members (Figure 11b). Each member is composed of various combinations of halite, sylvite, sylvinite, and carnallitite, with occurrences of sylvite versus carnallite reliably definable using wireline signatures (once the wireline is calibrated to core or mine control - Figure 12; Fuzesy, 1982).

The Patience Lake Member is the uppermost Prairie Evaporite member and is separated from the Belle Plaine by 3-12 m of barren halite (Holter, 1972). Its thickness ranges from 0-21 m and averages 12 m, its top 7-14 m is made up halite with clay bands and stratiform sylvite. This is the targeted ore unit in conventional mines in the Saskatoon and Lanigan areas and is the solution-mined target, along with the underlying Belle Plaine Member, at the Mosaic Belle Plaine potash facility. The Belle Plaine member is separated from the Esterhazy by the White Bear Marker beds made up of some 15 m of low-grade halite, clay seams and sylvinite. The Belle Plaine Member is more carnallite-prone than the Patience Lake member (Figure 12). It is the ore unit in the conventional mines at Rocanville and Esterhazy (Figure 11b) where its thickness ranges from 0-18 m and averages around 9 m. In total, the Prairie Evaporite Formation does not contain any significant MgSO4 minerals (kieserite, polyhalite etc.) although some members do contain abundant carnallite. This mineralogy indicates precipitation from a Devonian seawater/brine chemistry somewhat different from today’s, with inherently lower relative proportions of sulphate and lower Mg/Ca ratios (Figure 4).

The Prairie Evaporite Fm. is nonhalokinetic throughout the basin, it is more than 200 m thick in the potash mining district in Saskatoon and 140 m thick in the Rocanville area to the southeast (Figure 11a; Yang et al., 2009). The Patience Lake member is the main target for conventional mining near Saskatoon. The Esterhazy potash member rises close to the surface in the southeastern part of Saskatchewan near Rocanville and on into Manitoba. This is a region where the Patience Lake Member is thinner or completely dissolved (Figure 11b). Over the area of mineable interest in the Patience Lake Member, centred on Saskatoon, the ore bed currently slopes downward only slightly in a westerly direction, but deepens more strongly to the south at a rate of 3-9 m/km. Mines near Saskatoon are at depths approaching a kilometre and so are nearing the limits of currently economic shaft mining.

The main shaft for the Colonsay Mine, which took IMC Global Inc. more than five years to complete through a water-saturated sediment column, finally reached the target ore body at a depth of 960 metres. Such depths and a southerly dip to the ore means that the conventional shaft mines near Saskatoon define a narrow WNW-ESE band of conventional mining activity (Figure 11c). To the south potash is recovered from greater depths by solution mining; for example, the Belle Plaine operation leaches potash from the Belle Plaine member at a depth of 1800m.

The Prairie Evaporite typically thins southwards in the basin; although local thickening occurs where carnallite, not sylvite, is the dominant potash mineral (Worsley and Fuzesy, 1979). The Patience Lake member is mined at the Cory, Allan and Lanigan mines, and the Esterhazy Member is mined in the Rocanville area (Figure 11c). Ore mined from the 2.4 m thick Esterhazy Member in eastern Saskatchewan contain minimal amounts of insolubles (≈1%), but considerable quantities of carnallite (typically 1%, but up to 10%) and this reduces the average KCl grade value to an average of 25% K2O. The converse is true for ore mined from the Patience Lake potash member in western Saskatchewan near Saskatoon, where carnallite is uncommon in the Cory and Allan mines. The mined ore thickness is a 2.74-3.35 metre cut off near the top of the 3.66-4.57metre Prairie Lake potash member. Ore grade is 20-26% K2O and inversely related to thickness (Figure 12). The insoluble content is 4-7%, mostly clay and markedly higher than in the Rocanville mines.

A typical sylvinite ore zone in the Patience Lake member can be divided into four to six units, based on potash rock-types and clay seams (Figures 12, 13a; M1-M6 of Boys, 1990). Units are mappable and have been correlated throughout the PCS Cory Mine with varying degrees of success, dependent on partial or complete loss of section from dissolution. Potash deposition appears to have been early and related to short-term brine seaway cooling and syndepositional brine reflux. So the potash layering (M1-M6) is cyclic, expressed in the repetitive distribution of hematite and other insoluble minerals (Figure 13). Desiccation polygons, desiccation cracks, subvertical microkarst pits and chevron halite crystals indicate that the Patience Lake member that encompasses the potash ore was deposited in and just beneath a shallow-brine, salt-pan environment (Figure 13b; Boys, 1990; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990; Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; pers. obs).

Clay seams form characteristic thin stratigraphic segregations throughout the potash ore zone(s) of the Prairie Evaporite, as well as disseminated intervals, and constitute about 6% of the ore as mined. For example, the insoluble minerals found in the PCS Cory samples are, in approximate order of decreasing abundance: dolomite, clay [illite, chlorite (including swelling-chlorite/chlorite), and septechlorite, quartz, anhydrite, hematite, and goethite. Clay minerals make up about one-third of the total insolubles: other minor components include: potassium feldspar, hydrocarbons, and sporadic non-diagnostic palynomorphs (Figure 13; Boys, 1990).

In all mines, the clays tend to occur as long continuous seams or marker layers between the potash zones and are mainly composed of detrital chlorite and illite, along withauthigenic septechlorite, montmorillonite and sepiolite (Mossman et al., 1982; Boys, 1990). Of the two chlorite minerals, septechlorite is the more thermally stable. The septechlorite, sepiolite and vermiculite very likely originated as direct products of settle-out, syndepositional dissolution or early diagenesis under hypersaline conditions from a precursor that was initially eolian dust settling to the bottom of a vast brine seaway. The absence of the otherwise ubiquitous septechlorite from Second Red Beds west of the zero-edge of the evaporite basin supports this concept (Figure 9, 10).

Potash Textures

Texturally, at the cm-scale, potash salt beds in the Prairie Evaporite (both carnallitite and sylvinite) lack the lateral continuity seen in primary potash textures in the Oligocene of the Mulhouse Basin (Figure 14). Prairie potash probably first formed as syndepositional secondary precipitates and alteration products at very shallow depths just beneath the sediment surface. These early prograde precipitates were then modified to varying degrees by ongoing fluid flushing in the shallow burial environment. The cyclic depositional distribution of disseminated insolubles as the clay marker beds was possibly due to a combination of source proximity, periodic enrichment during times of brine freshening and the strengthening of the winds blowing detritals out over the brine seaway. Possible intra-potash disconformities, created by dissolution of overlying potash-bearing salt beds, are indicated by an abundance of residual hematite in clay seams with some cutting subvertically into the potash bed. Except in, and near, dissolution levels and collapse features, the subsequent redistribution of insolubles, other than iron oxides, is not significant.

In general, halite-sylvite (sylvinite) rocks in the Prairie Evaporite ore zones generally show two end member textures; 1) the most common is a recrystallised polygonal mosaic texture with individual crystals ranging from millimetres to centimetres and sylvite grain boundaries outlined by concentrations of blood-red halite (Figure 14a). 2) The other end member texture is a framework of euhedral and subhedral halite cubes enclosed by anhedral crystals of sylvite (Figure 14b). This is very similar to ore textures in the Salado Formation of New Mexico interpreted as early passive precipitates in karstic voids.

Petrographically, the halite-carnallite (carnallitite) rocks display three distinct textures. Most halite-carnallite rocks contain isolated centimetre-sized cube mosaics of halite enclosed by poikilitic carnallite crystals (Figure 14c); 1) Individual halite cubes are typically clear, with occasional cloudy crystal cores that retain patches of syndepositional growth textures (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). 2) The second texture is coarsely crystalline halite-carnallite with equigranular, polygonal mosaic textures. In zones where halite overlies bedded anhydrite, most of the halite is clear with only the occasional crystal showing fluid inclusion banding.

Bedded halite away from the ore zones generally retains a higher proportion of primary depositional textures typical of halite precipitation in shallow ephemeral saline pans (Figure 14d; Brodylo and Spencer, 1987). Crystalline growth fabrics, mainly remnants of vertically-elongate halite chevrons, are found in 50-90% of the halite from many intervals in the Prairie Evaporite. Many of the chevrons are truncated by irregular patches of clear halite that formed as early diagenetic cements in syndepositional karst.

In contrast, the halite hosting the potash ore layers lacks well-defined primary textures but is dominated by intergrown mosaics. From the regional petrology and the lower than expected Br levels in halite in the Prairie Evaporite Formation, Schwerdtner (1964), Wardlaw and Watson (1966) and Wardlaw (1968) postulated a series of recrystallisation events forming sylvite after carnallite as a result of periodic flushing by hypersaline solutions. This origin as a secondary precipitate (via incongruent dissolution) is supported by observations of intergrowth and overgrowth textures (McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968), collapse and dissolution features at various scales and timings (Gendzwill, 1978; Warren 2017), radiometric ages (Baadsgaard, 1987) and palaeomagnetic orientations of the diagenetic hematite linings associated with the emplacement of the potash (Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997).

Dating of clear halite crystals in void fills within the ore levels shows that some of the exceptionally coarse and pure secondary halites forming pods in the mined potash horizons likely precipitated during early burial, while other sparry halite void fills formed as late as Pliocene-Pleistocene (Baadsgard, 1987). Even today, alteration and remobilisation of the sylvite and carnallite and the local precipitation of bischofite are ongoing processes, related to the encroachment of the contemporary dissolution edge or the ongoing stoping of chimneys fed by deep artesian circulation (pers obs.).

Fluid inclusion studies support the notion of primary textures (low formation temperatures in chevron halite in the Prairie evaporite and an associated thermal separation of non-sylvite and sylvite associated halite (Figure 15; Chipley et al., 1990). Most fluid inclusions found in primary, fluid inclusion-banded halite associated with the Prairie potash salts contain sylvite daughter crystals at room temperature or nucleate them on cooling (e.g. halite at 915 and 945 m depth in the Winsal Osler well; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). In contrast, no sylvite daughter crystals have been observed in fluid inclusions outlining primary growth textures from chevron halites away from the potash deposits.

The data illustrated as Figure 15 clearly show that inclusion temperatures in primary halite chevrons are cooler than those in halites collected in intervals nearer the potash levels. Sylvite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in the cloudy centres of halite crystals associated with potash salts are generally warmer (Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Sylvite and carnallite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in fluid inclusion banded halite from bedded halite-carnallite are the hottest. This mineralogically-related temperature schism establishes that potash salts occur in stratigraphic intervals in the halite where syndepositional surface brines were warmer. In the 50° - 70°C temperature range there could be overlap with heliothermal brine lake waters. Even so, these warmer potash temperatures imply parent brines would likely be moving via a shallow reflux drive and are not the result of primary bottom nucleation (in contrast to primary sylvite in the Mulhouse Basin). Whether the initial Prairie reflux potash precipitate was sylvite or carnallite is open to interpretation (Lowenstein and Hardie, 1990).

Fluid evolution from mineral and isotope chemistry

Analysis of subsurface waters from various Canadian potash mines and collapse anomalies in the Prairie Evaporite suggest that, after initial potash precipitation, a series of recrystallising fluids accessed the evaporite levels at multiple times throughout the burial history of the Prairie Formation (Chipley, 1995; Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997). Likewise, the isotope systematics and K-Ar ages of sylvite in both halite and sylvite layers indicate that the Prairie Evaporite was variably recrystallised during fluid overprint events (Table 2; Figure 16). These event ages are all younger than original deposition (≈390Ma) and likely correspond to ages of various tectonic events that influenced subsurface hydrology along the western margin of North America.

Chemical compositions of inclusion fluids in the Prairie Evaporite, as determined by their thermometric properties, reveal at least two distinct waters played a role in potash formation: a Na-K-Mg-Ca-Cl brine, variably saturated with respect to sylvite and carnallite; and a Na-K-Cl brine (Horita et al., 1996). That is, contemporary inclusion water chemistry is a result in part of ongoing fluid-rock interaction. The ionic proportions in some halite samples are not the result of simple evaporation of seawater to the sylvite bittern stage (Figure 17a; Horita et al., 1996). There is a clear separation of values from chevron halites in samples from the Lanigan and Bredenbury (K-2 area) mines, which plot closer to the concentration trend seen in halite from modern seawater and values from clear or sparry halite. The latter encompass much lower K and higher Br related to fractionation tied to recrystallisation. Likewise, the influence of ongoing halite and potash salt dissolution is evident in the chemistry of shaft and mine waters with mine level waters showing elevated Mg and K values, (Figure 17b; Wittrup and Kyser, 1990; Chipley, 1995). What is more the mine waters of today show  substantial overlap with waters collected more than thirty years ago (Jensen et al., 2006)

This notion of ongoing fluid-rock interaction controlling the chemistry of mine waters is supported by dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in both halite and sylvite, which range from -146 to 0‰ and from -17.6 to -3.0‰, respectively (Figure 18). Most of the various preserved isotope values are different from those of evaporated seawater, which should have dD and d18O values near 0‰.

Furthermore, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids are probably not the result of precipitation of the evaporite minerals from a brine that was a mixture of seawater and meteoric water. The low latitude position of the basin during the Middle Devonian (10-15° from the equator), the required lack of meteoric water to precipitate basinwide evaporites, and the expected dD and d18O values of any meteoric water in such a setting, make this an unlikely explanation. Rather, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in the halites reflect ambient and evolving brine chemistries as the fluids in inclusions in the various growth layers were intermittently trapped during the subsurface evolution of the Prairie Formation in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. They also suggest that periodic migration of nonmarine subsurface water was a significant component of the crossflowing basinal brines throughout much of the recrystallisation history (Chipley, 1995).

Prairie carnallite-sylvite alteration over time

Ongoing alteration of carnallite to sylvite and the reverse reaction means a sylvite-carnallite bed must be capable of gaining or losing fluid at the time of alteration. That is, any reacting potash beds must be permeable at the time of the alteration. By definition, there must be fluid egress to drive incongruent alteration of carnallite to sylvite or fluid ingress to drive the alteration of sylvite to carnallite. There can also be situations in the subsurface where the volume of undersaturated fluid crossflow was sufficient to remove (dissolve) significant quantities of the more soluble evaporite salts. Many authors looking at the Prairie evaporite argue that the fluid access events during the alteration of carnallite to sylvite or the reverse, or the complete leaching of the soluble potash salts was driven by various tectonic events (Figure 16). In the early stages of burial alteration (few tens of metres from the landsurface) the same alteration processes can be driven by varying combinations of brine reflux, prograde precipitation and syndepositional karstification, all driven by changes in brine level and climate, which in turn may not be related to tectonism (Warren, 2016; Chapters 2 and 8 for details).

In the potash areas of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, the notion of 10-100 km lateral continuity is a commonly stated precept for both sylvinite and carnallitite units across the extent of the Prairie Evaporite. But when the actual distribution and scale of units are mapped based on mined intercepts, there are numerous 10-100 metre-scale discontinuities (anomalies) present indicating fluid ingress or egress (Warren, 2017).

Sometimes ore beds thin and alteration degrades the ore level (Section A-A1-A2), other times these discontinuities can locally enrich sylvite ore grade (B-B1; Figure 19). Discontinuities or salt anomalies are much more widespread in the Prairie evaporite than mentioned in much of the potash literature (Figure 19). Mining for maintenance of ore grade shows that unexpectedly intersecting an anomaly in a sylvite ore zone can have a range of outcomes ranging from the inconsequential to the catastrophic, in part because there is more than one type of salt anomaly or “salt horse" (Warren, 2017).

Figure 20 summarises what are considered the three most common styles of salt anomaly in the sylvite ore beds of the Prairie Evaporite, namely 1) Washouts, 2) Leach anomalies, 3) Collapse anomalies. These ore bed disturbances and their occurrence styles are in part time-related. Washouts are typically early (eogenetic) and defined as... “salt-filled V- or U-shaped structures, which transect the normal bedded sequence and obliterate the stratigraphy” (Figure 20a; Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983, p. 60). They are typically enriched in, or filled by, insoluble materials in their lower one-third and medium-coarse-grained sparry halite in the upper two thirds. Up to several metres across, when traced laterally they typically pass into halite-cemented paleo-sinks and cavern networks (e.g. Figure 20b). Most washouts likely formed penecontemporaneous to the potash beds they transect, that is, they are preserved examples of synkarst, with infilling of the karst void by a slightly later halite cement. They indicate watertable lowering in a potash-rich saline sump. This leaching was followed soon after by a period of higher watertables and brine saturations, when halite cements occluded the washouts and palaeocaverns. Modern examples of this process typify the edges of subcropping and contemporary evaporite beds, as about the recently exposed edges of the modern Dead Sea. As such, “washouts” tend to indicate relatively early interactions of the potash interval with undersaturated waters, they may even be a part of the syndepositional remobilisation hydrology that focused, and locally enriched, potash ore levels.

In a leach anomaly zone, the stratabound sylvinite ore zone has been wholly or partially replaced by barren halite, without significantly disturbing the normal stratigraphic sequence (clay marker beds) which tend to continue across the anomaly (Figure 20b). Some loss of volume or local thinning of the stratigraphy is typical in this type of salt anomaly. Typically saucer-shaped, they have diameters ranging from a few metres up to 400m. Less often, they can be linear features that are up to 20 m wide and 1600m long. Leach zones can form penecontemporaneously due to depressions and back-reactions in the ore beds, or by later low-energy infiltration of Na-saturated, K-undersaturated brines. The latter method of formation is also likely on the margins of collapse zones, creating a hybrid situation typically classified as a leach-collapse anomaly (Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983; McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968).

Of the three types of salt anomaly illustrated, leach zone processes are the least understood. Historically, when incongruent dissolution was the widely accepted interpretation for loss of unit thickness in the Prairie Evaporite, many leach anomalies were considered metasomatic. Much of the original metasomatic interpretation was based on decades of detailed work in the various salt mines of the German Zechstein Basin. There, in an endemic halokinetic terrane, evaporite textures were considered more akin to metamorphic rocks, and the term metasomatic alteration was commonly used when explaining leach anomalies (Bochert and Muir, 1964, Braitsch, 1971). In the past two decades, general observations of the preservation of primary chevron halite in most bedded evaporites away from the potash layers in the Prairie Evaporite have led to reduced use of notions of widespread metamorphic-like metasomatic or solid-state alteration processes in bedded evaporites. There is just too much preserved primary texture in the bedded salt units adjacent to potash beds to invoke pervasive burial metasomatism of the Prairie Evaporite.

So how do leach anomalies, as illustrated in Figure 20b, occur in nonhalokinetic settings? One possible explanation is given by the depositional textures documented in anomalies in the Navarra Potash Province (Figure 21). There, the underlying and overlying salt stratigraphy is contiguous, while the intervening sylvite passed laterally into a syndepositional anomaly or “salt horse” created by an irregular topography on the salt pan floor prior to the deposition of onlapping primary sylvinite layers (see Warren 2016, 2017 for detailed discussion)

On the other hand, in halokinetic situations (which characterises much Zechstein salt) solid-state alteration via inclusion related migration in flowing salt beds is a well-documented set of texture-altering processes (diffusion metasomatism). Most workers in such halokinetic systems would agree that there must have been an original stratiform potassium segregation present during or soon after deposition related to initial precipitation, fractional dissolution and karst-cooling precipitation. But what is controlling potassium distribution now in the Zechstein salts is a recrystallised and remobilised set of textures, which preserve little or no crystal-scale evidence of primary conditions (Warren, 2016; Chapter 6). The complex layering in such deposits may preserve a broad depositional stratigraphy, but the decimetre to metre scale mineral distributions are indications of complex interactions of folds, overfolds, and disaggregation with local flow thickening. We shall return to this discussion of Zechstein potash textures in the next section dealing with devolatisation of hydrated salts such as carnallite. in zones of local heating

Collapse zones in the Prairie Evaporite are characterized by a loss of recognizable sylvinite ore strata, which is replaced by less saline brecciated, recemented and recrystallized material, with the breccia blocks typically made of the intrasalt or roof lithologies (Figure 20c), so angular fragments of the Second Red beds and dolostones of the Dawson Bay Formation are the most conspicuous components of the collapse features in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. When ore dissolution is well developed, all the halite can dissolve, along with the potash salts, and the overlying strata collapse into the cavity (these are classic solution collapse features). Transitional leached zones typically separate the collapsed core from normal bedded potash. Such collapse structures indicate a breach of the ore layers by unsaturated waters, fed either from below or above. For example, in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, well-developed collapse structures tend to occur over the edges and top Devonian mud mounds, while in the New Mexico potash zone the collapse zones are related to highs in the underlying Capitan reef trend (Warren, 2017). Leaching fluids may have come from below or above to form collapse structures at any time after initial deposition. When connected to a water source, these are the subsurface features that when intersected can quickly move the mining operation out of the salt into an adjacent aquifer system, a transition that led to flooding in most of the mine-lost operations listed earlier.

Identifying at the mine scale the set of processes that created a salt anomaly in a sylvite bed also has implications in terms of its likely influence on mine stability whatever decision is made on how to deal with it as part of the ongoing mine operation (Warren, 2016, 2017). Syndepositional karst fills and leach anomalies are least likely to be problematic if penetrated during mining, as the aquifer system that formed them is likely no longer active. In contrast, penetration or removal of the region around a salt-depleted collapse breccia may lead to uncontrollable water inflows and ultimately to the loss of the mine.

Unfortunately, in terms of production planning, the features of the periphery of a leach anomaly can be similar if not identical to those in the alteration halo that typically forms about the leached edge a collapse zone. The processes of sylvite recrystallisation that define the edge of collapse anomaly can lead to local enrichment in sylvite levels, making these zones surrounding the collapse core attractive extraction targets (Boys 1990, 1993). Boundaries of any alteration halo about a collapse centre are not concentric, but irregular, making the prediction of a feature’s geometry challenging, if not impossible. The safest course of action is to avoid mining salt anomalies, but longwall techniques make this difficult and so they must be identified and dealt with (see Warren 2017).

Cooking sylvite: Dykes & sills in potash salts


In addition to; 1) primary sylvite and 2) sylvite/carnallite alteration via incongruent transformation in burial, there is a third mode of sylvite formation related to 3) igneous heating driving devolatisation of carnallitite, which can perhaps be considered a form of incongruent melting (Warren, 2016). And so, at a local scale (measured in metres to tens of metres) in potash beds cut by igneous intrusions, there are a number of documented thermally-driven alteration styles and thermal haloes. Most are created by the intrusion of hot doleritic or basaltic dykes and sills into cooler salt masses, or the outflow of extrusive igneous flows over cooler salt beds (Knipping, 1989; Grishina et al, 1992, 1998; Gutsche, 1988; Steinmann et al., 1999; Wall et al., 2010). Hot igneous material interacts with somewhat cooler anhydrous salt masses to create narrow, but distinct, heat and mobile fluid-release envelopes, also reflected in the resulting salt textures. At times, relatively rapid magma emplacement can lead to linear breakout trends outlined by phreatomagmatic explosion craters, as imaged in portions of the North Sea (Wall et al., 2010) and the Danakhil/Dallol potash beds in Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015).

Based on studies of inclusion chemistry and homogenization temperatures in fluid inclusions in bedded halite near intrusives, it seems that the extent of the influence of a dolerite sill or dyke in bedded salt is marked by fluid-inclusion migration, evidenced by the disappearance of chevron structures and consequent formation of clear halite with a different set of higher-temperature inclusions. Such a migration envelope is well documented in bedded Cambrian halites intruded by end-Permian dolerite dykes in the Tunguska region of Siberia (Grishina et al., 1992).

Defining h as the thickness of the dolerite intrusion in these salt beds, and d as the distance of the halite from the edge of the intrusion, then the disappearance of chevrons occurs at greater distances above than below the intrusive sill. For d/h < 0.9 below the intrusion, CaCl2, CaCl2, KCl and nCaCl2, mMgCl2 solids occur in association with water-free and liquid-CO2 inclusions, with H2S, SCO and orthorhombic or glassy S8. For a d/h of 0.2-2 above the intrusion, H2S-bearing liquid-CO2 inclusions are typical, with various amounts of water. Thus, as a rule of thumb, an alteration halo extends up to twice the thickness of the dolerite sill above the sill and almost the thickness of the sill below (Figure 22).

In a series of autoclavation laboratory experiments, Fabricius and Rose-Hampton (1988) found that; 1) at atmospheiric pressure carnallite melts incongruently to sylvite and hydrated MgCl2 at a temperature of 167.5°C. 2) the melting/transformation temperature increase to values in excess of 180°C as the pressure increases (Figure 23).

A similar situation occurs in the dyke-intruded halite levels exposed in the mines of the Werra-Fulda district of Germany (Steinmann et al., 1999; Schofield, et al., 2014). There the Herfa-Neurode potash mine is located in the Werra-Fulda Basin in the Hessian district of central Germany (Figure 24a). The targeted ore levels consist of the carnallite-rich Kaliflöz Hessen (K1H) and Kaliflöz Thüringen (K1Th) intervals, which form part of the Zechstein 1 (Z1) bedded Werra salt succession (Warren, 2016). In the mine the K1H and K1Th units range in thickness from 2 m to 10 m, are generally subhorizontal and occur at a depth of 650–710 m below the present-day surface.

In the later Tertiary, basaltic melts intruded these Zechstein evaporites as numerous sub-vertical dykes, but only a few dykes attained the Miocene landsurface. Basaltic melt production was related to regional volcanic activity some 10 to 25 Ma. Basalts exposed in the mine walls, where it cuts non-hydrous units of halite or anhydrite, are typically subvertical dykes, rather than subhorizontal sills. The basalts are phonolitic tephrites, limburgites, basanites and olivine nephelinites. Dyke margins are usually vitrified, forming a microlitic limburgite glass along dyke edges in contact with halite (Figure 24b; 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 metre-scale alteration is an anhydrous alteration halo, the halite did not melt (melting temperature of 804°C), rather than migrating, the fluid driving recrystallisation was mostly from entrained brine/gas 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.

Heating of hydrated (carnallitic) salt layers, adjacent to a dyke or sill, tends to drive off the water of crystallisation (chemical or hydration thixotropy) at much lower temperatures than that at which anhydrous salts, such as halite or anhydrite, thermally melt (Figure 24c; Table 3). For example, in the Fulda region, the thermally-driven release of water of crystallisation within carnallitic beds creates thixotropic or subsurface “peperite” textures as carnallitite alters to sylvinite layers. These are 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 subhorizontal horizons in the salt mass, wherever hydrated salt layers were present. In contrast, dyke and sill margins are much sharper and narrower in zones of contact with anhydrous salt intervals and the intrusive is sub-vertical to steeply dipping (Figure 24b versus 24c).

Accordingly, away from the immediate vicinity of the direct thermal aureole, heated and overpressured dehydration waters can enter carnallite halite bed, and drive the creation of extensive soft sediment deformation and peperite textures in hydrated layer (Figure 24c). Mineralogically, sylvite and coarse recrystallised halite dominate the salt fraction in the peperite intervals of the Herfa-Neurode mine. Sylvite in the altered zone is a form of dehydrated carnallite, not a primary-textured salt. Across the Fulda region, such altered zones and deformed units can extend along former carnallite layer to tens or even a hundred or more metres from the dyke feeder. Ultimately, the deformed potash bed passes back out into the unaltered bed, which retains abundant inclusion-rich halite and carnallite (Schofield et al., 2014).

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 mobilised 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 and gases originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite. This brine/gas mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

The contrast in alteration extent between anhydrous and hydrous salt layers shows alteration effects are minimal wherever the emplacement temperature of the magma is below that of the anhydrous salt body as it is next to a basalt dyke. If this is the mechanism driving entry of igneous-related volatiles (gases and liquids) into a salt body, then the distribution of products (including CO2) will be highly inhomogeneous and related to the minerally of the salt unit adjacent to the intrusive. 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 (Figure 24c) 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 (Figure 22 vs 24). 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.

In summary, sylvite formed from a carnallite precursor 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. This brine mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

How do we produce potash salts?


Over this series of three articles focused on current examples of potash production, we have seen there are two main groups of potash minerals currently utilised to make fertiliser, namely, muriate of potash (MOP) and sulphate of potash (SOP). MOP is both mined (generally from a Pre-Neogene sylvinite ore) or produced from brine pans (usually via processing of a carnallitite slurry). In contrast, large volumes of SOP are today produced from brine pans in China and the USA but with only minor production for solid-state ore targets. Historically, SOP was produced from solid-state ores in Sicily, the Ukraine, and Germany but today there are no conventional mines with SOP as the prime output in commercial operation (See Salty Matters, May 12, 2015).

The MgSO4-enriched chemistry of modern seawater makes the economic production of potash bitterns from a seawater-feed highly challenging. Today, there is no marine-fed plant anywhere in the world producing primary sylvite precipitates. However, sylvite is precipitating from a continental brine feed in salt pans on the Bonneville salt flat, Utah. There, a brine field, drawing shallow pore waters from saltflat sediments, supplies suitably low-MgSO4 inflow chemistry to the concentrator pans. Sylvite also precipitates in solar evaporator pans in Utah that are fed brine circulated through the abandoned workings of the Cane Creek potash mine (Table 1).

Large-scale production of MOP fertiliser from potash precipitates created in solar evaporation pans is taking place in perennially subaqueous saline pans of the southern Dead Sea and the Qaidam Basin. In the Dead Sea, the feed brine is pumped from the waters of the northern Dead Sea basin, while in the Qaidam sump the feed is from a brine field drawing pore brines with an appropriate mix of river and basinal brine inputs. In both cases, the resulting feed brine to the final concentrators is relatively depleted in magnesium and sulphate. These source bitterns have ionic proportions not unlike seawater in times of ancient MgSO4-depleted oceans. Carnallitite slurries, not sylvinite, are the MOP precipitates in pans in both regions. When feed chemistry of the slurry is low in halite, then the process to recover sylvite is a cold crystallisation technique. When halite impurity levels in the slurry are higher, sylvite is manufactures using a more energy intensive, and hence more expensive, hot crystallisation technique. Similar sulphate-depleted brine chemistry is used in Salar Atacama, where MOP and SOP are recovered as byproducts of the production of lithium carbonate brines.

Significant volumes of SOP are recovered from a combination of evaporation and cryogenic modification of sulfate-enriched continental brines in pans on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and Lop Nur, China. When concentrated and processed, SOP is recovered from the processing of a complex series of Mg-K-SO4 double salts (schoenitic) in the Odgden pans fed brines from the Great Salt Lake. The Lop Nur plant draws and concentrates pore waters from a brine field drawing waters from glauberite-polyhalite-entraining saline lake sediments.

All the Quaternary saline lake factories supply less than 20% of the world's potash; the majority comes from the conventional mining of sylvinite ores. The world's largest reserves are held in Devonian evaporites of the Prairie Evaporite in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. Textures and mineral chemistry show that the greater volume of bedded potash salts in this region is not a primary sylvite precipitate. Rather the ore distribution, although stratiform and defined by a series of clay marker beds, actually preserves the effects of multiple modifications and alterations tied to periodic egress and ingress of basinal waters. Driving mechanisms for episodes of fluid crossflow range from syndepositional leaching and reflux through to tectonic pumping and uplift (telogenesis). Ore distribution and texturing reflect local-scale (10-100 metres) discontinuities and anomalies created by this evolving fluid chemistry. Some alteration episodes are relatively benign in terms of mineralogical modification and bed continuity. Others, generally tied to younger incidents (post early Cretaceous) of undersaturated crossflow and karstification, can have substantial effects on ore continuity and susceptibility to unwanted fluid entry. In contrast, ore textures and bed continuity in the smaller-scale sylvinite ores in the Oligocene Mulhouse Basin, France, indicate a primary ore genesis.

What makes it economic?

Across the Quaternary, we need a saline lake brine systems with the appropriate brine proportions, volumes and climate to precipitate the right association of processable potash salts. So far, the price of potash, either MOP or SOP, and the co-associated MgSO4 bitterns, precludes industrial marine-fed brine factories.

In contrast, to the markedly nonmarine locations of potash recovery from the Quaternary sources, almost all pre-Quaternary potash operations extract product from marine-fed basinwide ore hosts during times of MgSO4-depleted and MgSO4-enriched oceans (Warren, 2016; Chapter 11). This time-based dichotomy in potash ore sources with nonmarine hosts in the Quaternary deposits and marine evaporite hosted ore zones in Miocene deposits and older, reflects a simple lack of basinwide marine deposits and appropriate marine chemistry across the Neogene (Warren, 2010). As for all ancient marine evaporites, the depositional system that deposited ancient marine-fed potash deposits was one to two orders of magnitude larger and the resultant deposits were typically thicker stacks than any Quaternary potash settings. The last such “saline giant” potash system was the Solfifera series in the Sicilian basin, deposited as part of the Mediterranean “salinity crisis,” but these potential ore beds are of the less economically attractive MgSO4- enriched marine potash series.

So, what are the factors that favour the formation of, and hence exploration for, additional deposits of exploitable ancient potash? First, large MOP solid-state ore sources are all basinwide, not lacustrine deposits. Within the basinwide association, it seems that intracratonic basins host significantly larger reserves of ore, compared to systems that formed in the more tectonically-active plate-edge rift and suture association. This is a reflection of: 1) accessibility – near the shallow current edge of a salt basin, 2) a lack of a halokinetic overprint and, 3) the setup of longterm, stable, edge-dissolution brine hydrologies that typify many intracratonic basins. Known reserves of potash in the Devonian Prairie evaporite in West Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) are of the order of 50 times that of next largest known deposit, the Permian of the Upper Kama basin, and more than two orders of magnitude larger than any other of the other known exploited deposits (Table 1).

Part of this difference in the volume of recoverable reserves lies in the fact that the various Canadian potash members in the WCSB are still bedded and flat-lying. Beds have not been broken up or steepened, by any subsequent halokinesis. The only set of processes overprinting and remobilising the various potash salts in the WCSB are related to multiple styles and timings of aquifer encroachment on the potash units, and this probably took place at various times since the potash was first deposited, driven mainly by a combination of hinterland uplift and subrosion. In contrast, most of the other significant potash basins listed in Table 10 have been subjected to ongoing combinations of halokinesis and groundwater encroachments, making these beds much less laterally predictable. In their formative stages, the WCSB potash beds were located a substantial distance from the orogenic belt that drove flexural downwarp and creation of the subsealevel sag depression. Like many other intracratonic basins, the WCSB did not experience significant syndepositional compression or rift-related loading.


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Brine evolution and origins of potash: primary or secondary? SOP in Quaternary saline lakes: Part 2 of 2

John Warren - Friday, November 30, 2018



This, the second in this series of articles on potash brine evolution deals with production of sulphate of potash in plants that exploit saline hydrologies hosted in Quaternary saline sumps. There are two settings where significant volumes of sulphate of potash salts are economically produced at the current time; the Ogden salt pans on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Lop Nur in China. Although potassium sulphate salts precipitate if modern seawater is evaporated to the bittern stage, as yet there is no operational SOP plant utilising seawater. This is due to concurrent elevated levels of magnesium and chlorine in the bittern, a combination that favours the precipitation of carnallite concurrently with the precipitation of double sulphate salts, such as kainite (Figure 1). Until now, this makes the processing of the multi-mineralogic precipitate for a pure SOP product too expensive when utilising a marine brine feed.


Potash in Great Salt Lake, USA (SOP evolution with backreactions)

Today sulphate of potash fertiliser is produced via a combination of solar evaporation and brine processing, using current waters of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, as the brine feed into the Ogden salt pans, which are located at the northeastern end of the Great Salt Lake depression in Utah (Figure 2a). A simpler anthropogenic muriate of potash (MOP) brine evolution occurs in the nearby Wendover salt pans on the Bonneville salt flats. There, MOP precipitates as sylvinite in concentrator pans (after halite). The Bonneville region has a bittern hydrochemistry not unlike like the evolved Na-Cl brines of Salar de Atacama, as documented in the previous article, but it is a brinefield feed without the elevated levels of lithium seen in the Andean playa (Figure 3b).

Great Salt Lake brine contains abundant sulphate with levels sufficiently above calcium that sulphate continues to concentrate after most of the Ca has been used up in the precipitation of both aragonite and gypsum. Thus, as the brines in the anthropogenic pans at Ogden approach the bittern (post halite) stage, a series of sulphate double salts precipitate (Figure 4), along with carnallite and sylvite.

Great Salt Lake brines

The ionic proportions in the primary brine feed that is the endorheic Great Salt Lake water depends on a combination of; 1) the inflow volumes from three major rivers draining the ranges to the east, 2) groundwater inflow, 3) basin evaporation, and 4) precipitation (rainfall/snowfall) directly on the lake (Jones et al., 2009). Major solute inputs can be attributed to calcium bicarbonate-type river waters mixing with sodium chloride-type springs, which are in part hydrothermal and part peripheral recycling agents for NaCl held in the lake sediments. Spencer et al. (1985a) noted that prior to 1930, the lake concentration inversely tracked lake volume, which reflected climatic variation in the drainage. However, since that time, salt precipitation, primarily halite and mirabilite, and dissolution have periodically modified lake brine chemistry and led to density stratification and the formation of brine pockets of different composition.

Complicating these processes is repeated fractional crystallisation and re-solution (backreaction) of lake mineral precipitates. The construction of a railway causeway has restricted circulation, nearly isolating the northern from the southern part of the lake, which receives over 95% of the inflow. Given that Great Salt Lake waters are dominated by Na and Cl, this has led to halite precipitation in the north (Figures 2a, 3a; Gwynn, 2002). Widespread halite precipitation also occurred before 1959, especially in the southern area of the lake, associated with the most severe droughts (Jones et al., 2009; Spencer et al., 1985a). Spencer et al. (1985a) also described the presence of a sublacustrine ridge, which probably separated the lake into two basins at very low lake stands in the Quaternary. Fluctuating conditions emphasise brine differentiation, mixing, and fractional precipitation of salts as significant factors in solute evolution, especially as sinks for CaCO3, Mg, and K in the lake waters and sediments. The evolution of these brine/rock system depends on the concentration gradient and types of suspended and bottom clays, especially in relatively shallow systems.

Brine evolution across the Ogden pans

Figure 3a plots the known hydrochemistry of the inflow waters to the Great Salt Lake and their subsequent concentration. Evolving lake waters are always Na-Cl dominant, with sulphate in excess of magnesium in excess of potassium, throughout. Any post-halite evaporite minerals from this set of chemical proportions will contain post-halite potash bittern salts with elevated proportions of sulphate and magnesium and so will likely produce SOP rather than MOP associations. Contrast these hydrochemical proportions with the inflow and evolution chemistry in the pore brines of the Bonneville salt flat (Figure 3b) the Dead Sea and normal marine waters. Across all examples, sodium and chlorine are dominant and so halite will be the predominant salt deposited after aragonite and gypsum (Figure 4). Specifically, there are changes in sulphate levels with solar concentration (Figure 3b). In brines recovered from feeder wells in the Bonneville saltflat, unlike the nearby bajada well waters, the Bonneville salt flat brines show potassium in excess of sulphate and magnesium. In such a hydrochemical system, sylvite, as well as carnallite, are likely potassium bitterns in post-halite pans. The Wendover brine pans on the Bonneville saltflat produce MOP, not SOP, along with a MgCl2 brine, and have done so for more than 50 years (Bingham, 1980; Warren, 2016).

The mineral series in the Ogden pans

Figure 5 illustrates a laboratory-based construction of the idealised evolution of a Great Salt Lake feed brine as it passes through the various concentration pans. Figure 5 is a portion of the theoretical 25°C sulphate-potassium-magnesium phase diagram for the Great Salt Lake brine system and shows precipitates that are in equilibrium with brine at a particular concentration. Figures 4 and 5 represent typical brine concentration paths at summertime temperatures (Butts, 2002). Importantly, these figures do not describe the entire brine concentration story and local variations; mineralogical complexities in the predicted brine stream are related to thermal stratification, retention times and pond leakage. Effects on the chemistry of the brine due to the specific day-by-day and season-by-season variations of concentration and temperature, which arise in any solar ponding operation, require onsite monitoring and rectification. Such ongoing monitoring is of fundamental import when a pilot plant is constructed to test the reality of a future brine plant and its likely products.


Figure 6 illustrates the idealised phase evolution of pan brines at Ogden in terms of a K2SO4 phase diagram (no NaCl or KCl co-precipitates are shown; Felton et al., 2010). Great Salt Lake brine is pumped into the first set of solar ponds where evaporation initially proceeds along the line shown as Evap 1 until halite reaches saturation and is precipitated. Liquors discharged from the halite ponds are transferred to the potash precipitation ponds where solar evaporation continues as line Evap 2 on the phase diagram and potassium begins to reach saturation after about 75% of the water is removed. Potassium, sodium levels rise with further evaporation and schoenite precipitates in the schoenite crystalliser. After some schoenite precipitation occurs, the liquor continues to evaporate along the Evap 3 line to the point that schoenite, sylvite, and additional halite precipitate. Evaporation continues as shown by line Evap 3 to the point that kainite, sylvite and halite become saturated and precipitate. From this plot, the importance of the relative levels of extraction/precipitation of sulphate double salts versus chloride double salts is evident, as the evaporation plot point moves right with increasing chloride concentrations. That is, plot point follows the arrows from left to right as concentration of chloride (dominant ion in all pans) increases and moves the plot position right.

Production of SOP in the Great Salt Lake

To recover sulphate of potash commercially from pan bitterns fed from the waters of Great Salt Lake, the double salts kainite and schoenite are first precipitated and recovered in post-halite solar ponds (Figures 6, 7). The first salt to saturate and crystallise in the concentrator pans is halite. This is successively followed by epsomite, schoenite, kainite, carnallite, and finally bischofite. To produce a desirable SOP product requires ongoing in-pan monitoring and an on-site industrial plant whereby kainite is converted to schoenite. The complete salt evolution and processing plant outcome in the Ogden facility is multiproduct and can produce halite, salt cake and sulphate of potash and a MgCl2 brine product. Historically, sodium sulphate was recovered from the Great Salt Lake brines as a byproduct of the halite and potash production process, but ongoing low prices mean Na2SO4 has not been economically harvested for the last decade or so.

The complete production and processing procedure is as follows (Figure 7; Butts, 2002, 2007; Felton et al., 2010): 1) Brine is pumped from the Great Salt Lake into solar evaporation ponds where sodium chloride precipitates in the summer. 2) When winter weather cools the residual (post-halite) brine in the pans to -1 to -4°C, sodium sulphate crystals precipitate as mirabilite in a relatively pure state. Mirabilite crystals can be picked up by large earth-moving machinery and stored outdoors each winter until further processing takes place. 3) The harvested mirabilite can be added to hot water, and anhydrous sodium sulphate precipitated by the addition of sodium chloride to the heated mix to reduce sodium sulphate solubility through the common ion effect. The final salt cake product is 99.5% pure Na2SO4. 4) To produce SOP, Great Salt Lake brines are allowed to evaporate in a set of halite ponds, until approaching saturation with potassium salts. The residual brine is then transferred to a mixing pond, where it mixes with a second brine (from higher up the evaporation series, that contains a higher molar ratio of magnesium to potassium. 5) This adjusted brine is then allowed to evaporate to precipitate sodium chloride once more, until it is again saturated with respect to potassium salts. 6) The saturated brine is then transferred to another pond, is further evaporated and precipitates kainite (Figures 5, 6). Kainite precipitation continues until carnallite begins to form, at which time the brine is moved to another pond and is allowed to evaporate further to precipitate carnallite. 6) Some of the kainite-depleted brine is recycled to the downstream mixing pond to maintain the required molar ratio of magnesium to calcium in this earlier mixing pond (step 4). 7) Once carnallite has precipitated, the residual brine is transferred to deep storage and subjected to winter cooling to precipitate additional carnallite as it is a prograde salt. 8) Cryogenically precipitated carnallite can be processed to precipitate additional kainite by mixing it with a kainite-saturated brine. 9) MgCl2-rich end-brines in the post-carnallite bittern pans are then further processed to produce either MgCl2 flakes or a 32% MgCl2 brine. These end-bitterns are then used as a feedstock to make magnesium metal, bischofite flakes, dust suppressants, freeze preventers, fertiliser sprays, and used to refresh flush in ion exchange resins.

Some complexities in the observed mineral precipitation series in the Ogden Pans

Under natural solar pond conditions in the Ogden Pans, the brine temperature fluctuates with the air temperature across day-night and seasonal temperature cycles, and there is a lag time for temperature response in waters any brine pan, especially if the pan is heliothermic. Atmosphere-driven fluctuations in temperature results in changes in ion saturations, which can drive selective precipitation or dissolution of salts in the brine body. Air temperature in the Ogden pans may be 35°C during the day and 15°C at night. Brine at point A in figure 5 may favour the formation of kainite during the daytime and schoenite at night. The result of the diurnal temperature oscillation is a mixture of both salts in a single pond from the same brine. In terms of extracted product, this complicates ore processing as a single pan will contain both minerals, produced at the same curing stage, at the same time, yet one double salt entrains KCl, the other K2SO4, so additional processing is necessary to purify the product stream (Butts, 2002).

The sulphate ion in the pan waters is particularity temperature sensitive, and salts containing it in GSL pans tend to precipitate at cooler temperatures. Surficial cooling during the summer nights can cause prograde salts to precipitate, but the next day's heat generally provides sufficient activation energy to cause total dissolution of those salts precipitated just a few hours before (Butts, 2002). It is not unusual to find a 0.5 cm layer of hexahydrite (MgSO4.6H2O) at the bottom of a solar pond in the morning, but redissolved by late afternoon.

Under controlled laboratory conditions, brine collected from the hypersaline north arm of the Great Salt Lake will not crystallise mirabilite  until the brine temperature reaches 2°C or lower. Yet, in the anthropogenic solar ponds, mirabilite has been observed to crystallise at brine temperatures above 7°C. During the winter, as the surface temperature of the GSL pan brine at night becomes very cold (2°C or lower), especially on clear nights, and mirabilite rafts will form on and just below the brine surface and subsequently sink into the somewhat warmer brine at the floor of the pond. Because there is insufficient activation energy in this brine to completely redissolve the mirabilite, it remains on the pan floor, until warmer day/night temperatures are attained. However, it is also possible for salts precipitated by cooling to be later covered by salts precipitated by evaporation, which effectively prevents dissolution of those more temperature-sensitive salts that would otherwise redissolve (Butts, 2002).

There are also longer terms seasonal influences on mineralogy. Some salts deposited in June, July, and August (summer) will convert to other salts, with a possible total change in chemistry, when they are exposed to colder winter temperatures and rainfall. Kainite, for example, may convert to sylvite and epsomite and become a hardened mass on the pond floor; or if it is in contact with a sulphate-rich brine, it can convert to schoenite. Conversely, mirabilite will precipitate in the winter but redissolve during the hot summer months.

The depth of a solar pond also controls the size of the crystals produced. For example, if halite (NaCl) is precipitated in a GSL pond that is either less than 8 cm or more than 30cm deep, it will have a smaller crystal size than when precipitated in a pond between 8 and 30 cm deep. Smaller crystals of halite are undesirable in a de-icing product since a premium price is paid for larger crystals.

In terms of residence time, some salts require more time than others to crystallise in a pan. Brine that is not given sufficient time for crystallisation before it is moved into another pond, which contains brine at a different concentration, will produce a different suite of salts. For example, if a brine supersaturated in ions that will produce kainite, epsomite, and halite (reaction I), is transferred to another pond, the resulting brine mixture can favour carnallite (reaction 2), while kainite salts are eliminated.

Reaction 1: 9.75H2O + Na+ + 2Cl- + 2Mg2+ + K+ + 2SO42+ —> MgSO4.KCl +2.75H2O + MgSO4.7H2O + NaCl

Reaction 2: 12H2O + Na+ + 4Cl- + 2Mg2+ + K+ + 2SO42+ —> MgCl2.6H2O +MgSO4.6H2O + NaCl

Reaction 1 retains more magnesium as MgCl2 in the brine; reaction 2 retains more sulphate. In reaction 2, it is also interesting to note the effect of waters-of-hydration on crystallization; forcing out salts with high waters of crystallization results in higher rates of crystallization. The hydrated salts remove waters from the brine and further concentrate the brine in much the same way as does evaporation.

Pond leakage and brine capture (entrainment) in and below the pan floor are additional influences on mineralogy, regardless of brine depth or ponding area. As mentioned earlier, to precipitate bischofite and allow for MgCl2 manufacture, around ninety-eight percent of the water from present North Arm brine feed must evaporate. If pond leakage causes the level of the ponding area to drop too quickly, it becomes near impossible to reach saturation for bischofite (due to brine reflux). Control of pond leakage in the planning and construction phases is essential to assure that the precipitated salts contain the optimal quantity of the desired minerals for successful pond operation.

The opposite of leakage is brine retention in a precipitated layer; it can also alter brine chemistry and recovery economics. Brine entrained (or trapped) in the voids between salt crystals in the pond floor is effectively removed from salt production and so affects the chemistry of salts that will be precipitated as concentration proceeds and can also drive unwanted backreactions. The time required to evaporate nearly ninety percent of the water from the present north arm Great Salt Lake brine in the Ogden solar pond complex, under natural steady state conditions, is approximately eighteen months.

Summary of SOP production procedures in Great Salt Lake

Sulphate of potash cannot be obtained from the waters of the Great Salt Lake by simple solar evaporation (Behrens, 2002). As the lake water is evaporated, first halite precipitates in a relatively pure form and is harvested. By the time evaporative concentration has proceeded to the point that saturation in a potash-entraining salt occurs, most of the NaCl has precipitated. It does, however, continue to precipitate and becomes the primary contaminant in the potassium-bearing salt beds in the higher-end pans.

Brine phase chemistry from the point of potassium saturation in the evaporation series is complicated, and an array of potassium double salts are possible, depending on brine concentration, temperature and other factors. Among the variety of potash minerals precipitated in the potash harvester pans, the majority are double salts that contain atoms of both potassium and magnesium in the same molecule, They are dominated by kainite, schoenite, and carnallite. All are highly hydrated; that is, they contain high levels of water of crystallisation that must be removed during processing. SOP purification also involves removal of the considerable quantities of sodium chloride that are co-precipitated, after this the salts must be chemically converted into potassium sulphate.

Controlling the exact mineralogy of the precipitated salts and their composition mixtures is not possible in the pans, which are subject to the vagaries of climate and associated temperature variations. Many of the complex double salts precipitating in the pans are stable only under fixed physiochemical conditions, so that transitions of composition may take place in the ponds and even in the stockpile and early processing plant steps.

While weathering, draining, temperature and other factors can be controlled to a degree, it is essential that the Great Salt Lake plant be able to handle and effectively accommodate a widely variable feed mix (Behrens 2002). To do this, the plant operator has developed a basic process comprising a counter-current leach procedure for converting the potassium-bearing minerals through known mineral transition stages to a final potassium sulfate product (Figure 7). This set of processing steps is sensitive to sodium chloride content, so a supplemental flotation circuit is used to handle those harvested salts high in halite. It aims to remove the halite (in solution) and upgrade the feed stream to the point where it can be handled by the basic plant process.

Solids harvested from the potash ponds with elevated halite levels are treated with anionic flotation to remove remaining halite (Felton et al., 2010). To convert kainite into schoenite, it is necessary to mix the upgraded flotation product with a prepared brine. The conversion of schoenite to SOP at the Great Salt Lake plant requires that new MOP is added, over the amount produced from the lake brines. This additional MOP is purchased from the open market. The schoenite solids are mixed with potash in a draft tube baffle reactor to produce SOP and byproduct magnesium chloride.

The potassium sulfate processing stream defining the basic treatment process in the Great Salt Lake plant is summarised as Figure 7, whereby once obtaining the appropriate chemistry the SOP product is ultimately filtered, dried, sized and stored. Final SOP output may then be compacted, graded, and provided with additives as desired, then distributed in bulk or bagged, by rail or truck.

Lop Nur, Tarim Basin, China (SOP operation)

Sulphate of potash (SOP) via brine processing (solution mining) of lake sediments and subsequent solar concentration of brines is currently underway in the fault-bound Luobei Hollow region of the Lop Nur playa, in the southeastern part of Xinjiang Province, Western China (Liu et al., 2006; Sun et al., 2018). The recoverable sulphate of potash resource is estimated to be 36 million tonnes from lake brine (Dong et al., 2012). Lop Nur lies in the eastern part of the Taklimakan Desert (Figure 8a), China’s largest and driest desert, and is in the drainage sump of the basin, some 780 meters above sea level in a BSk climate belt. The Lop Nur depression first formed in the early Quaternary, due to the extensional collapse of the eastern Tarim Platform and is surrounded and typically in fault contact with the Kuruktagh (to the north), Bei Shan (to east) and Altun (to the south) mountains (Figure 8b).

The resulting Lop Nur (Lop Nor) sump is a large groundwater discharge playa that is the terminal point of China’s largest endorheic drainage system, the Tarim Basin, which occupies an area of more than 530,000 km2 (Ma et al., 2010). The Lop Nur sump is the hydrographic base level to local and regional groundwater and surface water flow systems, and thus collectively captures all river and subsurface flow originating in the surrounding mountainous regions. The area has been subject to ongoing Quaternary climate and water supply oscillations, which over the last few hundred years has driven concentric strandzone contractions on the playa surface, to form what is sometimes called the “Great Ear Lake" of the Lop Nur sump (Liu et al., 2016a).

Longer term widespread climate oscillations (thousands of years) drove precipitation of saline glauberite-polyhalite deposits, alternating with more humid lacustrine mudstones especially in fault defined grabens with the sump. For example, Liu et al. (2016b) conducted high-resolution multi-proxy analyses using materials from a well-dated pit section (YKD0301) in the centre of Lop Nur and south of the Luobei depression. They showed that Lop Nur experienced a progression through a brackish lake, saline lake, slightly brackish lake, saline lake, brackish lake, and playa in response to climatic changes over the past 9,000 years.

Presently, the Lop Nur playa lacks perennial long-term surface inflow and so is characterised by desiccated saline mudflats and polygonal salt crusts. The upward capillary flux from the shallow groundwater helps to maintain a high rate of evaporation in the depression and drives the formation of a metre-thick ephemeral halite crust that covers much of the depression (Liu et al., 2016a).

Historically, before construction of extensive irrigation systems in the upstream portion of the various riverine feeds to the depression and the diversion of water into the Tarim-Kongqi-Qargan canal, brackish floodwaters periodically accumulated in the Lop Nur depression. After the diversion of inflows, terminal desiccation led to the formation of the concentric shrinkage shorelines, that today outline the “Great Ear Lake” region of the Tarim Basin (Figure 8b; Huntington, 1907; Chao et al., 2009; Liu et al., 2016a).

The current climate is cool and extremely arid (Koeppen BSk); average annual rainfall is less than 20 mm and the average potential evaporation rates ≈3500 mm/yr (Ma et al., 2008, 2010). The mean annual air temperature is 11.6°C; higher temperatures occur during July (>40°C), and the lower temperatures occur during January (<20°C). Primary wind direction is northeast. The Lop Nor Basin experiences severe and frequent sandstorms; the region is well known for its wind-eroded features, including many layered yardangs along the northern, western and eastern margins of the Lop Nur salt plain (Lin et al., 2018).

Salinity and chemical composition of modern groundwater brine varies little in the ‘‘Great Ear” area and appears not to have changed significantly over the last decade (Ma et al., 2010). Dominant river inflows to the Lop Nor Basin are Na-Mg-Ca-SO4-Cl-HCO3 waters (Figure 9). In contrast, the sump region is characterised by highly concentrated groundwater brines (≈350 mg/l) that are rich in Na and Cl, poor in Ca and HCO3+CO3, and contain considerable amounts of Mg, SO4 and K, with pH ranging from 6.6 to 7.2 (Figure 9). When concentrated, the Luobei/Lop Nur pore brines is saturated with respect to halite, glauberite, thenardite, polyhalite and bloedite (Ma et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2018).

Groundwater brines, pooled in the northern sub-depression, mostly in the Luobei depression, are pumped into a series of pans to the immediate south, where sulphate of potash is produced via a set of solar concentrator pans. Brines in the Luobei depression and adjacent Xingqing and Tenglong platforms are similar in chemistry and salinity to the Great Ear Lake area but with a concentrated saline reserve due to the presence of a series of buried glauberite-rich beds (Figure 9; Hu and Wang, 2001; Ma et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2018).

K-rich mother brines in the Luobei hollow also contain significant MgSO4 levels and fill open phreatic pores in a widespread subsurface glauberite bed, with a potassium content of 1.4% (Liu et al., 2008; Sun et al., 2018). Feed brines are pumped from these evaporitic sediment hosts in the Luobei sump into a large field of concentrator pans to ultimately produce sulphate of potash (Figure 8a).

Brine chemical models, using current inflow water and groundwater brine chemistries and assuming open-system hydrology, show good agreement between theoretically predicted and observed minerals in upper parts of the Lop Nor Basin succession (Ma et al., 2010). However, such shallow sediment modelling does not explain the massive amounts of glauberite (Na2SO4.CaSO4) and polyhalite (K2SO4MgSO4.2CaSO4.2H2O) recovered in a 230 m deep core (ZK1200B well) from the Lop Nor Basin (Figure 9a).

Hydrochemical simulations assuming a closed system at depth and allowing brine reactions with previously formed minerals imply that widespread glauberite in the basin formed via back reactions between brine, gypsum and anhydrite and that polyhalite formed via a diagenetic reaction between brine and glauberite. Diagenetic textures related to recrystallisation and secondary replacement are seen in the ZK1200B core; they include gypsum-cored glauberite crystals and gypsum replacing glauberite. Such textures indicate significant mineral-brine interaction and backreaction during crystallisation of glauberite and polyhalite (Liu et al., 2008). Much of the glauberite dissolves to create characteristic mouldic porosity throughout the glauberite reservoir intervals (Figure 10, 11b)

Mineral assemblages predicted from the evaporation of Tarim river water match closely with natural assemblages and abundances and, in combination with a model that allows widespread backreactions, can explain the extensive glauberite deposits in the Lop Nor basin (Ma et al., 2008, 2010). It seems that the Tarim river inflows, not fault-controlled upwelling hydrothermal brines, were the dominant ion source throughout the lake history. The layered distribution of minerals in the more deeply cored sediments documents the evolving history of inflow water response to wet and dry periods in the Lop Nor basin. The occurrence of abundant glauberite and gypsum below 40 m depth, and the absence of halite, polyhalite and bloedite in the same sediment suggests that the brine underwent incomplete concentration in the wetter periods 10b).

In contrast, the increasing abundance of halite, polyhalite and bloedite in the top 40 m of core from the ZK1200B well indicate relatively dry periods (Figure 10a), where halite precipitated at lower evaporative concentrations (log Concentration factor = 3.15), while polyhalite and bloedite precipitated at higher evaporative concentrations (log = 3.31 and 3.48 respectively). Following deposition of the more saline minerals, the lake system once again became more humid in the later Holocene, until the anthropogenically-induced changes in the hydrology over the last few decades, driven by upstream water damming and extraction for agriculture (Ma et al., 2008). These changes have returned the sump hydrology to the more saline character that it had earlier in the Pleistocene.

The Lop Nur potash recovery plant/factory and pan system, located adjacent to the LuoBei depression (Figures 8, 11a), utilises a brine-well source aquifer where the potash brine is reservoired in intercrystalline and vuggy porosity in a thick stacked series of porous glauberite beds/aquifers.

Currently, 200 boreholes have been drilled in the Lop Nor brine field area showing the Late-Middle Pleistocene to Late Pleistocene strata are distributed as massive, continuous, thick layers of glauberite with well-developed intercrystal and mouldic porosity, forming storage space for potassium-rich brine (Figure 11b; Sun et al., 2018). However, buried faults and different rates of creation of fault-bound accommodation space, means there are differences in the brine storage capacity among the three brinefield extraction areas; termed the Luobei depression, the Xingqing platform and the Tenglong platform areas (Figures 9a, 11a).

In total, there are seven glauberitic brine beds defined by drill holes in the Luobei depression, including a phreatic aquifer, W1L, and six artesian aquifers, W2L, W3L, W4L, W5L, W6L, and W7 (Figure 10b; Sun et al., 2018). At present, only W1L, W2L, W3L, and W4L glauberite seams are used as brine sources. There are two artesian brine aquifers, W2X and W3X, exposed by drill holes in the Xinqing platform and there are three beds in the Tenglong extraction area, including a phreatic aquifer, W1T, and two artesian aquifers, W2T and W3T (Figure 10b).

W1L is a phreatic aquifer with layered distribution across the whole Luobei depression, with an average thickness of 17.54 m, water table depths of 1.7 to 2.3 m, porosities of 6.98% to 38.45%, and specific yields of 4.57% to 25.89%. Water yield is the highest in the central and northeast of the depression, with unit brine overflows of more than 5000 cubic meters per day per meter of water table depth (m3/dm). In the rest of the aquifer, the unit brine overflows range from 1000 to 5000 m3/dm (Sun et al., 2018). The W2L artesian aquifer is confined, nearly horizontal with a stratified distribution, and has an average thickness of 10.18 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 20 to 40 m, porosities of 4.34% to 37.8%, and specific yields of 1.08% to 21.04%. The W3L artesian aquifer is confined, with stratified distribution and an average thickness of 8.50 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 40 to 70 m, porosities of 2.85% to 19.97%, and specific yields of 1.10% to 13.37%. The W3L aquifer is also confined with stratified distribution, with an average thickness of 7.28 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 70 to 100 m, porosities of 5.22% to 24.72%, and specific yields of 1.03% to 9.91%. The lithologies of the four brine storage layers are dominated by glauberite, and occasional lacustrine sedimentary clastic rocks, such as gypsum (Figure 10a).

The Xinqing platform consists of two confined potassium-bearing brine aquifers (Figure 10b). Confined brines have layered or stratified distributions. The average thicknesses of the aquifers are 4.38 to 7.52 m. Due to the F1 fault, there is no phreatic aquifer in the Xinqing platform, but this does not affect the continuity of the brine storage layer between the extraction areas. The W2X aquifer is confined, stratified, and distributed in the eastern part of this ore district with a north-south length of 77.78 km, east-west width of 16.82 km, and total area of 1100 km2. Unit brine overflows are 2.25 to 541.51 m3/dm, water table depths are 10 to 20 m, porosities are 3.89% to 40.69%, and specific yields are 2.01% to 21.15%. The W3X aquifer is also confined and stratified, with a north-south length of 76.10 km, east-west width of 18.81 km, and total area of 1444 km2. Unit brine overflows are 1.67 to 293.99 m3/d m, water table depths are 11.3 to 38 m, porosities are 4.16% to 26.43%, and specific yields are 2.11% to 14.19%23.

The Tenglong platform consists of a phreatic aquifer and two confined aquifers. W1T is a phreatic, stratified aquifer and is the main ore body, and is bound by the F3 fault (Figure 10b). It is distributed across the northern part of the Tenglong extraction area, with a north-south length of about 33 km, east-west width of about 20 km, and total area of 610 km2. Water table depths are 3.26 to 4.6 m, porosities are 2.03% to 38.81%, and specific yields are 22.48% to 1.22%. On the other side of the F3 fault, in the southern part of the mining area, is the W2T confined aquifer (Figure 10b). Water table depths are 16.91 to 22 m, porosities are 3.58% to 37.64%, and specific yields are 1.35% to 18.69%. W3T is also a confined aquifer, with a stratified orebody distributed in the southern part of the mining area, with a north-south length of about 29 km, east-west width of about 21 km, and total area of 546 km2. Water table depths are 17.13 to 47 m, porosities are 2.69% to 38.71%, and specific yields are 1.26% to 17.64%.

Lop Nur is an unusual potash source

The glauberite-hosted brinefield in the Luobei depression and the adjacent platforms makes the Lop Nur SOP system unique in that it is the world's first large-scale example of brine commercialisation for potash recovery in a Quaternary continental playa aquifer system with a non-MOP brinefield target. Elsewhere, such as in the Dead Sea and the Qarhan sump, Salar de Atacama and the Bonneville salt flats, the brines derived from Quaternary lacustrine beds and water bodies are concentrated via solar evaporation in semi-arid desert scenarios. Potash plants utilising these Quaternary evaporite-hosted lacustrine brine systems do not target potassium sulphate, but process either carnallitite or sylvinite into a commercial MOP product

 Glauberite is found in a range of other continental Quaternary evaporite deposits around the world but, as yet,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       outside of Lop Nur is not economically exploited to produce sulphate of potash. For example, glauberite is a significant component in Quaternary cryogenic beds in Karabogazgol on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in Quaternary evaporite beds in Laguna del Rey in Mexico, in saline lacustrine beds in the Miocene of Spain and Turkey, and in pedogenic beds in hyperarid nitrate-rich soils of the Atacama Desert of South America (Warren, 2016; Chapter 12).

In most cases, the deposits are commercially exploited as a source of sodium sulphate (salt cake). In a saline Quaternary lake in Canada, SOP is produced by processing saline lake waters. This takes place in Quill Lake, where small volumes of SOP are produced via mixing a sylvite feed (trucked into the site) with a cryogenic NaSO4 lake brine.

The Lop Nur deposit is mined by the SDIC Xinjiang Luobupo Hoevellite Co. Ltd, and the main product is potassium sulfate, with a current annual production capacity of 1.3 million tons. Pan construction began in 2000, and the plant moved in full -cale operation in 2004 when it produced ≈50,000 tons. The parent company, State Development and Investment Corporation (SDIC), is China’s largest state-owned investment holding company. The company estimates a potash reserve ≈ 12.2 billion tons in the sump. This makes Lop Nur deposit the largest SOP facility in the world, and it is now a significant supplier of high premium fertiliser to the Chinese domestic market.


A study of a few of the Quaternary pans worldwide manufacturing economic levels of potash via solar evaporation shows tha,t independent of whether SOP or MOP salts are the main product, all retain abundant evidence that salt precipitates continue to evolve as the temperature and the encasing brine chemistry change. As we shall see in many ancient examples discussed in the next article, ongoing postdepositional mineralogical alteration dominates the textural and mineralogical story in most ancient potash deposits.

As we saw in the previous article, which focused on MOP in solar concentrator plants with brine feeds from Quaternary saline lakes, SOP production from brine feeds in Quaternary saline lakes is also related strongly to cooler desert climates (Figure 12). The Koeppen climate at Lop Nur is cool arid desert (BWk), while the Great Salt Lake straddles cool arid steppe desert and a temperate climate zone, with hot dry summer zones (BSk and Csa)

Outside of these two examples, there are a number of other Quaternary potash mineral occurrences with the potential for SOP production, if a suitable brine processing stream can be devised (Warren, 2010, 2016). These sites include intermontane depressions in the high Andes in what is a high altitude polar tundra setting (Koeppen ET), none of which are commercial (Figure 12b).

Similarly, there a number of non-commercial potash (SOP) mineral and brine occurrences in various hot arid desert regions in Australia, northern Africa and the Middle East (Koeppen BWh). Today, SOP in Salar de Atacama is currently produced as a byproduct of lithium carbonate production, along with MOP, as discussed in the previous article in this series.

As for MOP, climatically, commercial potash brine SOP systems are hosted in Quaternary-age lacustrine sediments are located in cooler endorheic intermontane depressions (BWk, BSk). The association with somewhat cooler desert and less arid cool steppe climates underlines the need for greater volumes of brine to reside in the landscape in order to facilitate the production of significant volumes of potash bittern.

Put simply, in the case of both MOP and SOP production in Quaternary settings, hot arid continental deserts simply do not have enough flowable water to produce economic volumes of a chemically-suitable mother brine. That is, currently economic Quaternary MOP and SOP operations produce by pumping nonmarine pore or saline lake brines into a set of concentrator pans. Mother waters reside in hypersaline perennial lakes in steep-sided valleys or in pores in salt-entraining aquifers with dissolving salt compositions supplying  a suitable ionic proportions in the mother brine. In terms of annual volume of product sold into the world market, Quaternary brine systems supply less than 15% The remainder comes from the mining of a variety of ancient solid-state potash sources. In the third and final article in this series, we shall discuss how and why the chemistry and hydrogeology of these ancient potash sources is mostly marine-fed and somewhat different from the continental hydrologies addressed so far.


Behrens, P., 2002, Industrial processing of Great Salt lake Brines by Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemical Corporation, in D. T. Gywnne, ed., Great Salt Lake: A scientific, historical and economic overview, Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, Bulletin 116, p. 223-228.

Bingham, C. P., 1980, Solar production of potash from brines of the Bonneville Salt Flats, in J. W. Gwynn, ed., Great Salt Lake; a scientific, history and economic overview. , v. 116, Bulletin Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, p. 229-242.

Butts, D., 2002, Chemistry of Great Salt Lake Brines in Solar Ponds, in D. T. Gywnne, ed., Great Salt Lake: A scientific, historical and economic overview, Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, Bulletin 116, p. 170-174.

Butts, D., 2007, Chemicals from Brines, Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 784-803.

Chao, L., P. Zicheng, Y. Dong, L. Weiguo, Z. Zhaofeng, H. Jianfeng, and C. Chenlin, 2009, A lacustrine record from Lop Nur, Xinjiang, China: Implications for paleoclimate change during Late Pleistocene: Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, v. 34, p. 38-45.

Dong, Z., P. Lv, G. Qian, X. Xia, Y. Zhao, and G. Mu, 2012, Research progress in China's Lop Nur: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 111, p. 142-153.

Felton, D., J. Waters, R. Moritz, D., and T. A. Lane, 2010, Producing Sulfate of Potash from Polyhalite with Cost Estimates, Gustavson Associates, p. 19.

Hu, G., and N.-a. Wang, 2001, The sand wedge and mirabilite of the last ice age and their paleoclimatic significance in Hexi Corridor: Chinese Geographical Science, v. 11, p. 80-86.

Huntington, E., 1907, Lop-Nor. A Chinese Lake. Part 1. The Unexplored Salt Desert of Lop: Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, v. 39, p. 65-77.

Jones, B., D. Naftz, R. Spencer, and C. Oviatt, 2009, Geochemical Evolution of Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA: Aquatic Geochemistry, v. 15, p. 95-121.

Lin, Y., L. Xu, and G. Mu, 2018, Differential erosion and the formation of layered yardangs in the Loulan region (Lop Nur), eastern Tarim Basin: Aeolian Research, v. 30, p. 41-47.

Liu, C., W. Mili, J. Pengcheng, L. I. Shude, and C. Yongzhi, 2006, Features and Formation Mechanism of Faults and Potash-forming Effect in the Lop Nur Salt Lake, Xinjiang, China: Acta Geologica Sinica - English Edition, v. 80, p. 936-943.

Liu, C.-A., H. Gong, Y. Shao, Z. Yang, L. Liu, and Y. Geng, 2016a, Recognition of salt crust types by means of PolSAR to reflect the fluctuation processes of an ancient lake in Lop Nur: Remote Sensing of Environment, v. 175, p. 148-157.

Liu, C. L., M. L. Wang, P. C. Jiao, W. D. Fan, Y. Z. Chen, Z. C. Yang, and J. G. Wang, 2008, Sedimentary characteristics and origin of polyhalite in Lop Nur Salt Lake,Xinjiang: Mineral Deposits.

Liu, C. L., J. F. Zhang, P. C. Jiao, and S. Mischke, 2016b, The Holocene history of Lop Nur and its palaeoclimate implications: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 148, p. 163-175.

Ma, C., F. Wang, Q. Cao, X. Xia, S. Li, and X. Li, 2008, Climate and environment reconstruction during the Medieval Warm Period in Lop Nur of Xinjiang, China: Chinese Science Bulletin, v. 53, p. 3016-3027.

Ma, L., T. K. Lowenstein, B. Li, P. Jiang, C. Liu, J. Zhong, J. Sheng, H. Qiu, and H. Wu, 2010, Hydrochemical characteristics and brine evolution paths of Lop Nor Basin, Xinjiang Province, Western China: Applied Geochemistry, v. 25, p. 1770-1782.

Spencer, R. J., H. P. Eugster, and B. F. Jones, 1985b, Geochemistry of Great Salt Lake, Utah II: Pleistocene-Holocene evolution: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 49, p. 739-747.

Spencer, R. J., H. P. Eugster, B. F. Jones, and S. L. Rettig, 1985a, Geochemistry of Great Salt Lake, Utah I: Hydrochemistry since 1850: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 49, p. 727-737.

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Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3): Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.


Brine evolution and origins of potash ore salts: Primary or secondary? Part 1 of 3

John Warren - Wednesday, October 31, 2018


There is a dichotomy in mineralogical associations and precipitation series in both modern and ancient potash ore deposits. Interpretations of ancient potash ore mineralogies across time are generally tied to the evolution of the hydrochemical proportions in modern and ancient oceans. We have already discussed this in previous Salty Matters articles and will not repeat the details here (see August 10, 2015; July 31, 2018).

At times in the past, such as in the Devonian and the Cretaceous, the world ocean was depleted in Mg and SO4 relative to the present-day ocean (Figure 1a). In the relevant literature, this has led to the application of the term MgSO4-depleted versus MgSO4-enriched oceans. In terms of brine evolution, this is related to the gypsum divide, with the term MgSO4-enriched used to describe the ocean chemistry of today and other times in the past, such as in the Permian, when MgSO4 bittern salts typify co-precipitates with sylvite/carnallite (Figure 1b).

The validity of the ocean chemistry argument is primarily based on determinations of inclusion chemistries as measured in chevron halites (Figure 1a; Lowenstein et al., 2014). Inclusions in growth-aligned primary halite chevrons are assumed to preserve the chemical proportions in the ambient oceanic brine precipitating the halite. That is, the working assumption is that pristine aligned-halite chevrons have not been subject to significant diagenetic alteration once the salt was deposited and permeability was lost due to ongoing halite cementation in the shallow (eogenetic) subsurface realm.

The same assumption as to the pristine nature of chevron halite is applied to outcomes of biological experiments where Permian archaeal/halobacterial life has been re-animated using ancient salt samples (Vreeland et al., 2000).

Primary potash ore?

But does the same assumption of pristine texturing across time also apply to the halite layers associated with the world’s potash ores? In my experience of subsurface potash ores and their textures, I have rarely seen primary-chevron halite interlayered with potash ore layers of either sylvite or carnallite. An obvious exception is the pristine interlayering of chevron halite and sylvite in the now-depleted Eocene potash ores of the Mulhouse Basin, France (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). There, the sylvite layers intercalate at the cm-scale with chevron halite, and the alternating layering is thought to be related to precipitation driven by temperature fluctuations in a series of shallow density-stratified meromictic brine lakes (documented in the third Salty Matters article).

More typically, ancient potash ore textures are diagenetic and indicate responses to varying degrees of dissolution, brine infiltration and alteration. The simpler styles of brine infiltration consist of a background matrix dominated by cm-dm scale chevron halite layers that have been subject to dissolution and karstification during shallow burial. Resultant cm-dm scale voids typically retain a mm-thick selvedge of CaSO4 lathes and needles, followed by fill of the remaining void by varying amounts of sparry halite, carnallite and sylvite. This type of texture dominates Quaternary stratoid potash layers in the southern Qaidam Basin in China and Cretaceous carnallite-rich layers in the Maha Sarakham Fm in NE Thailand and southern China (Warren, 2016). Then there are the even more altered and recrystallised, but still bedded, textures in the potash ore zones of Devonian Prairie Evaporite of western Canada (Wardlaw, 1968) and potash layers in the Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico (Lowenstein, 1988; Holt and Powers, 2011). Beyond this level of diagenetic texturing are the flow-orientated and foliated structural textures of the Permian potash ores in potash mines in the diapiric Zechstein evaporites of Germany and Poland, the Kungurian diapirs of the Cis-Urals of Russia and the Devonian diapirs of the Pripyat Basin.

And so, herein lies the main point of discussion for this and the next two Salty Matters articles, namely, what, where and when is(are) the mechanism(s) or association(s) of hydrochemical mechanisms that sufficiently concentrate or alter a brine’s chemistry to where it precipitates economic levels of a variety of potash salts, as either muriate of potash or sulphate of potash. Notably, there are no Quaternary-age solid-state ore systems that are mined for potash.

In this article, we look at the main modern brine systems where muriate of potash (MOP) is produced economically by solar evaporation (Salar de Atacama, Chile; Qarhan sump, China; and the southern Basin of the Dead Sea). In the second article we will focus on sulphate of potash (SOP) production in Quaternary saline sumps (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). In the third article we shall discuss depositional and diagenetic characteristics of solid-state potash ores some of the world’s more substantial deposits (e.g. Devonian of western Canada) and relate the observations of ancient potash texture to time-based evolution of potash precipitating brines, and subsequent alteration or the ore textures, which are typically driven by later cross-flushing by one or more pulses of diagenetically-evolved brines.

Potash from brine in Salar de Atacama (MOP in a simple near-uniserial set of brine concentration pans)

Potash production in Salar de Atacama is a byproduct of the output of lithium carbonate from shallow lake brines pumped into a series of solar concentration pans (Figure 2). The inflow feed to the concentrator pans comes from fields of brine wells extracting pore waters from the salt nucleus facies across the central and southern part of the Atacama saltflats (Figure 3a,b). However, Atacama pore brines are not chemically homogeneous across the salar (Alonso and Risacher, 1996; Risacher and Alonso, 1996; Carmona et al., 2000; Pueyo et al. 2017). The most common primary inflow brines to the Atacama sump are sulphate-rich (SO4/Ca > 1), but there are areas in the salt flat at the southern end of the playa, such as those near the Península de Chépica, where pore brines are richer in calcium (SO4/Ca < 1- Figure 4). These brines also contain elevated levels of lithium (Figure 3c; Risacher et al., 2003).

Ion proportions in the natural salar inflows and pore waters are dominated by sodium and chloride, followed by potassium, then magnesium then sulphate in the more saline regions of the salar sump (Figure 4; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). In addition, owing to the progressive reduction of porosity with depth, driven mainly by diagenetic halite cementation, the pore brine in the upper 40 meters of the salar sediment column accumulates by advection in the area of greatest porosity, i.e., in this top 40 m of sediments of the salt flat at the southern end of Atacama (Pueyo et al., 2017). When pumped from the hosting salar sediments into the concentrator pans, the final brines contain elevated levels of lithium chloride (≈ 6000 ppm). These lithium-enriched acidic waters are then pumped to a nearby industrial plant and processed to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

In a benchmark paper, Pueyo et al. (2017) document the brine evolution and products recovered in the solar pans of Rockwood Lithium GmbH (Figure 2b; formerly Sociedad Chilena del Litio) in the Península de Chépica. There, a bittern paragenesis of salts precipitates that is mostly devoid of magnesium sulphate salt due to the low levels of sulphate attained in the various concentator pans via widespread precipitation of gypsum in the early concentrator pans (Figures 4, 5).

The depletion of sulphate levels in the early concentrators is done via artificial manipulation of ionic proportions in the feeders. Without alteration of the ionic proportion in halite-stage brines, the evaporation of the saltflat brine feeds, which are rich in sulfate, would result in assemblages that, in addition to potassic chlorides, would contain contain problematic magnesium sulfates (such as schoenite, kainite, glaserite as in Great Salt Lake). The presence of such sulphate salts and ions in the liquor feeding the lithium carbonate plant would complicate the lithium carbonate extraction process. So the aim in the Atacama pans is to remove most of the sulphate via constructing a suitably balanced chemistry in the early concentrator brine stage (compare ionic proportion in sulphate between early and end-stage bitterns, as illustrated in Figures 4 and Figure 5a).

Such a sylvite/carnallite brine paragenesis, sans sulphate (as seen in Figure 5), is similar to that envisaged as the feed chemistry for ancient Mg-sulphate-free marine potash deposits (Braitsch, 1971). That is, as the brines pass through the concentrators, with successive pans transitioning to higher salinities, the potash salts carnallite and sylvite precipitate, without the complication of the widespread magnesium sulphate salts, which complicate the processing of modern marine-derived bitterns. Such MgSO4 double-salts typify SOP production in the Ogden Salt flats, with their primary feed of sulphate-rich Great Salt Lake waters. Relative proportions of sulphate are much higher in the Great Salt Lake brine feed (see article 2 in this series).

Once the balance is accomplished by mixing a Ca-rich brine from further up the concentration series, with the natural SO4-brine in an appropriate ratio, the modified brines are then pumped and discharged into the halite ponds of the saltwork circuit (ponds number 17 and 16, as seen in Figures 5 and 6). In these ponds, halite precipitates from the very beginning with small amounts of accessory gypsum as brines are saturated with both minerals. Subsequently, the brines are transferred to increasingly smaller ponds where halite (ponds 15 and 14), halite and sylvite (pond 13), sylvite (ponds 12, 11 and 10), sylvite and carnallite (pond 9), carnallite (pond 8), carnallite and bischofite (pond 7), bischofite (ponds 6, 5 and 4), bischofite with some lithium-carnallite [LiClMgCl26H2O] (pond 3), and lithium-carnallite (ponds 2 and 1) precipitate. The brines of the last ponds (R-1 to R-3), whose volumes undergo a reduction to 1/50th of the starting volume, are treated at the processing factory to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

As documented in Pueyo et al. (2017), the average daily temperature in the Salar de Atacama ranges between 22 °C in February and 8 °C in July, with a maximum oscillation of approximately 14 °C. Wind speed ranges daily from< 2 ms−1 in the morning to 15 ms−1 in the afternoon. Rainfall in the area of the salt flat corresponds to that of a hyperarid desert climate with an annual average, for the period 1988–2011, of 28 mm at San Pedro de Atacama, 15.1 mm at Peine and 11.6 mm at the lithium saltworks, in the last case ranging between 0 and 86 mm for individual years. The adjoining Altiplano to the east has an arid climate with an average annual rainfall of approximately 100 mm. The average relative humidity in the saltpan area, for the period 2006–2011, is 19.8% with a maximum around February (27%) and a minimum in October (15%) and with a peak in the morning when it may reach 50%. The low relative humidity and the high insolation (direct radiation of 3000 kWh m−2 yr−1) in the salt flat increase the efficiency of solar evaporation, giving rise to the precipitation and stability of very deliquescent minerals such as carnallite and bischofite. The average annual evaporation value measured in the period 1998–2011, using the salt flat interstitial brine, is approximately 2250 mm with a peak in December–January and a minimum in June–July. This cool high-altitude hyperarid climatic setting, where widespread sylvite and carnallite accumulates on the pan floor, is tectonically and climatically distinct from the hot-arid subsealevel basinwide desert seep settings envisaged for ancient marine-fed potash basins (as discussed in the upcoming third article in this series).

MOP from brine Dabuxum/Qarhan region, Qaidam Basin, China

The Qarhan saltflat/playa is now the largest hypersaline sump within the disaggregated lacustrine system that makes up the hydrology of Qaidam Basin, China (Figure 7a). The Qaidam basin sump has an area of some 6,000 km2, is mostly underlain by bedded Late Quaternary halite. Regionally, the depression is endorheic, fed by the Golmud, Qarhan and Urtom (Wutumeiren) rivers in the south and the Sugan River in the north, and today is mostly covered by a layered halite pan crust. Below, some 0 to 1.3m beneath the playa surface, is the watertable atop a permanent hypersaline groundwater brine lens (Figure 7b).

The southern Qaidam sump entrains nine perennial salt lakes: Seni, Dabiele, Xiaobiele, Daxi, Dabuxum (Dabsan Hu), Tuanjie, Xiezuo and Fubuxum north and south lakeshore (Figure 7). Dabuxum Lake, which occupies the central part of the Qarhan sump region, is the largest of the perennial lakes (184 km2; Figures 7b, 8a). Lake water depths vary seasonally from 20cm to 1m and never deeper than a metre, even when flooded. Salt contents in the various lakes range from 165 to 360 g/l, with pH ranging between 5.4 and 7.85. Today the salt plain and pans of the Qarhan playa are fed mostly by runoff from the Kunlun Mountains (Kunlun Shan), along with input from a number of saline groundwater springs concentrated along a fault trend defining an area of salt karst along the northern edge of the Dabuxum sump, especially north of Xiezuo Lake (Figure 8a).

The present climate across the Qaidam Basin is cool, arid to hyperarid (BWk), with an average yearly rainfall of 26 mm, mean annual evaporation is 3000–3200 mm, and a yearly mean temperature 2-4° C in the central basin (An et al., 2012). The various salt lakes and playas spread across the basin and contain alternating climate-dependent evaporitic sedimentary sequences. Across the basin the playa sumps are surrounded by aeolian deposits and wind-eroded landforms (yardangs). In terms of potash occurrence, the most significant region in the Qaidam Basin is the Qarhan sump or playa (aka Chaerhan Salt Lake), which occupies a landscape low in front of the outlets of the Golmud and Qarhan rivers (Figure 7a, b). Overall the Qaidam Basin displays a typical exposed lacustrine geomorphology and desert landscape, related to increasing aridification in a cool desert setting. In contrast, the surrounding elevated highlands are mostly typified by a high-alpine tundra (ET) Köppen climate.

Bedded and displacive salts began to accumulate in the Qarhan depression some 50,000 years ago (Figure 9). Today, outcropping areas of surface salt crust consist of a chaotic mixture of fine-grained halite crystals and mud, with a rugged, pitted upper surface (Schubel and Lowenstein, 1997; Duan and Hu, 2001). Vadose diagenetic features, such as dissolution pits, cavities and pendant cements, form wherever the salt crust lies above the watertable. Interbedded salts and siliciclastic sediments underlying the crust reach thicknesses of upwards of 70m (Kezao and Bowler, 1986).

Bedded potash, as carnallite, precipitates naturally in transient volumetrically-minor lake strandzone (stratoid) beds about the northeastern margin of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 8a) and as cements in Late Pleistocene bedded deposits exposed in and below nearby Lake Tuanje in what is known as the sediments of the Dadong ancient lake (Figure 8b). Ongoing freshened sheetflow from the up-dip bajada fans means the proportion of carnallite versus halite in the evaporite unit increases with distance from the Golmud Fan across, both the layered (bedded) and stratoid (cement) modes of occurrence.

At times in the past, when the watertable was lower, occasional meteoric inflow was also the driver for the brine cycling that created the karst cavities hosting the halite and carnallite cements that formed as prograde cements during cooling of the sinking brine (Figure 9). Solid bedded potash salts are not present in sufficient amounts to be quarried, and most of the exploited potash resource resides in interstitial brines that are pumped and processed using solar ponds.

Modern halite crusts in Qarhan playa contain the most concentrated brine inclusions of the sampled Quaternary halites, suggesting that today may be the most desiccated period in the Qarhan-Tuanje sump recorded over the last 50,000 years (values in the inset in figure 9 were measured on clear halite-spar void-fill crystals between chevrons). Inclusion measurements from these very early diagenetic halite show they formed syndepositionally from shallow groundwater brines and confirm the climatic record derived from adjacent primary (chevron) halite. The occurrence of carnallite-saturated brines in fluid inclusions in the diagenetic halite in the top 13 m of Qarhan playa sediments also imply a prograde diagenetic, not depositional, origin of carnallite, which locally accumulated in the same voids as the more widespread microkarst halite-spar cements.

Today, transient surficial primary carnallite rafts can accumulate along the northern strandline of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 9; Casas, 1992; Casas et al., 1992). Compositions of fluid inclusions in the older primary (chevron) halite beds hosting carnallite cements in the various Qarhan salt crusts represent preserved lake brines and indicate relatively wetter conditions throughout most of the Late Pleistocene (Yang et al., 1995). Oxygen isotope signatures of the inclusions record episodic freshening and concentration during the formation of the various salt units interlayered with lacustrine muds. Desiccation events, sufficient to allow halite beds to accumulate, occurred a number of times in the Late Quaternary: 1) in a short-lived event ≈ 50,000 ka, 2) from about 17 - 8,000 ka, and 3) from about 2,000 ka till now (Figure 9).

The greatest volume of water entering Dabuxum Lake comes from the Golmud River (Figure 7b). Cold springs, emerging from a narrow karst zone some 10 km to the north of the Dabuxum strandline and extending hundreds of km across the basin, also supply solutes to the lake. The spring water discharging along this fault-defined karst zone is chemically similar to hydrothermal CaCl2 basin-sourced waters as defined by Hardie (1990), and are interpreted as subsurface brines that have risen to the surface along deep faults to the north of the Dabuxum sump (Figure 9, 10; Spencer et al., 1990; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). Depths from where the Ca–Cl spring waters rise is not known. Subsurface lithologies of the Qaidam Basin in this region contains Jurassic and younger sediments and sedimentary rock columns, up to 15 km thick, which overlie Proterozoic metamorphic rocks (Wang and Coward, 1990).

Several lakes located near the northern karst zone (Donglin, North Huobusun, Xiezhuo, and Huobusun) receive sufficient Ca–Cl inflow, more than 1 part spring inflow to 40 parts river inflow, to form mixtures with chemistries of Ca equivalents > equivalents HCO3 + SO4 to create a simple potash evaporation series (this is indicated by the Ca-Cl trend line in Figure 10a). With evaporation such waters, after precipitation of calcite and gypsum, evolve into Ca–Cl-rich, HCO3–SO4-poor brines (brines numbered 5, 7-12 in figure 11a).

Dabuxum is the largest lake in the Qarhan region, with brines that are Na–Mg–K–Cl dominant, with minor Ca and SO4 (Figure 10d, 11a). These brines are interpreted by Lowenstein and Risacher (2009) to have formed from a mix of ≈40 parts river water to 1 part spring inflow, so that the equivalents of Ca ≈ equivalents HCO3 + SO4 (Figure 10b). Brines with this ratio of river to spring inflow lose most of their Ca, SO4, and HCO3 after precipitation of CaCO3 and CaSO4, and so form Na–K–Mg–Cl brines capable of precipitating carnallite and sylvite (Figure 11a). This chemistry is similar to that of ancient MgSO4-depleted marine bitterns (Figure 1)

The chemical composition of surface brines in the various lakes on the Qarhan Salt plain vary and appear to be controlled by the particular blend of river and spring inflows into the local lake/playa sump. In turn, this mix is controlled geographically by proximity to river mouths and the northern karst zone. Formation of marine-like ionic proportions in some lakes, such as Tuanje, Dabuxum and ancient Dadong Lake, engender bitterns suitable for the primary and secondary precipitation of sylvite/carnallite (Figures 10b-d; 11a). The variation in the relative proportion of sulphate to chloride in the feeder brines is a fundamental control on the suitability of the brine as a potash producer.

Figure 11b clearly illustrates sulphate to chloride variation in pore waters in the region to the immediate north and east of Dabuxum Lake. Brine wells in the low-sulphate area are drawn upon to supply feeder brines to the carnallite precipitating ponds. The hydrochemistry of this region is a clear indication of the regional variation in the sump hydrochemistry (Duan and Hu, 2001), but also underlines why it is so important to understand pore chemistry, and variations in aquifer porosity and permeability, when designing a potash plant in a Quaternary saline setting.

Compared to the MOP plant in Atacama, there as yet no lithium carbonate extraction stream to help ameliorate costs associated with carnallite processing. Lithium levels in the Qaidam brines, whilee levated, are much lower than in the Atacama brine feeds. Regionally, away from the Tuanje-Dadong area, most salt-lake and pore brines in the Qaidam flats are of the magnesium sulphate subtype and the ratio of Mg/Li can be as high as 500. With such brine compositions, the chemical precipitation approach, which is successfully applied to lithium extraction using low calcium and magnesium brines (such as those from Zabuye and Jezecaka Lake on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Andean Altiplano), would consume a large quantity of chemicals and generate a huge amount of solid waste. Accordingly, brine operations in the Qarhan region are focused on MOP production from a carnallitite slurry using extraction techniques similar to those utilised in the Southern Dead Sea. But owing to its cooler climate compared to the Dead Sea sump, the pond chemistry is subject to lower evaporation rates, higher moisture levels in the product, and a longer curing time.

Potash in the Qarhan region is produced by the Qinghai Salt Lake Potash Company, which owns the 120-square-kilometer salt lake area near Golmud (Figure 7). The company was established and listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 1997. Currently, it specialises in the manufacture of MOP from pore brines pumped from appropriate low-sulphate regions in the lake sediments (Figure 12). The MOP factory processes a carnallite slurry pumped from pans using a slurry processing stream very similar to the dual process stream utilized in the pans of the Southern Basin in the Dead Sea and discussed in the next section.

The final potash product in the Qaidam sump runs 60-62% K2O with >2% moisture and is distributed under the brand name of “Yanqiao.” With annual production ≈3.5 million tonnes and a projected reserve ≈ 540 million tonnes, the company currently generates 97% of Chinese domestic MOP production. However, China’s annual agricultural need for potash far outpaces this level of production. The company is jointly owned by Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Group and Sinochem Corporation and is the only domestic producer of a natural MOP product.

Dead Sea Potash (MOP operation in the Southern Basin)

The Dead Sea water surface defines what is the deepest continental position (-417 m asl) on the earth’s current terrestrial surface. In the Northen Basin is our only modern example of bedded evaporitic sediments (halite and gypsum) accumulating on the subaqueous floor of a deep brine body, where water depths are hundreds of metres (Warren, 2016). This salt-encrusted depression is 80 km long and 20 km wide, has an area of 810 km2, is covered by a brine volume of 147 km3 and occupies the lowest part of a drainage basin with a catchment area of 40,650 km2 (Figure 13a). However, falling water levels in the past few decades mean the permanent water mass now only occupies the northern part of the lake, while saline anthropogenic potash pans occupy the Southern Basin, so that the current perennial “Sea” resides in the Northern Basin is now only some 50 km long (Figure 13b).

Rainfall in the region is 45 to 90 mm, evaporation around 1500 mm, and air temperatures between 11 and 21°C in winter and 18 to 40°C in summer, with a recorded maximum of 51°C. The subsiding basin is surrounded by mountain ranges to the east and west, producing an orographic rain shadow that further emphasises the aridity of the adjacent desert sump. The primary source of solutes in the perennial lake is ongoing dissolution of the halokinetic salts of the Miocene Sedom Fm (aka Usdum Fm) a marine evaporite unit that underlies the Dead Sea and approaches the surface in diapiric structures beneath the Lisan Straits and at Mt. Sedom (Garfunkel and Ben-Avraham, 1996).

A series of linked fractionation ponds have been built in the Southern Basin of the Dead Sea to further concentrate pumped Dead Sea brine to the carnallite stage (Figure 13). On the Israeli side this is done by the Dead Sea Works Ltd. (owned by ICL Fertilisers), near Mt. Sedom, and by the Arab Potash Company (APC) at Ghor al Safi on the Jordanian side. ICL is 52.3% owned by Israel Corporation Ltd.(considered as under Government control), 13.6% shares held by Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and 33.6% shares held by various institutional investors and the general public (33.64%). In contrast, PotashCorp owns 28% of APC shares, the Government of Jordan 27%, Arab Mining Company 20%, with the remainder held by several small Middle Eastern governments and a public float that trades on the Amman Stock Exchange. This gives PotashCorp control on how APC product is marketed, but it does not control how DSW product is sold.

In both the DSW and APC brine fields, muriate of potash is extracted by processing carnallitite slurries, created by sequential evaporation in a series of linked, gravity-fed fractionation ponds. The inflow brine currently pumped from the Dead Sea has a density of ≈1.24 gm/cc, while after slurry extraction the residual brine, with a density of ≈1.34 gm/cc, is pumped back into the northern Dead Sea basin water mass. The total area of the concentration pans is more than 250 km2, within the total area of 1,000 km2, which is the southern Dead Sea floor. The first stage in the evaporation process is pumping of Dead Sea water into header ponds and into the gravity-fed series of artificial fractionation pans that now cover the Southern Basin floor. With the ongoing fall of the Dead Sea water level over the past 60 years, brines from the Northern Basin must be pumped higher and over further lateral distances. This results in an ongoing need for more powerful brine pumps and an increasing problem with karst dolines related to lowered Dead Sea water levels. Saturation stages of the evolving pan brines are monitored and waters are moved from pan to pan as they are subject to the ongoing and intense levels of natural solar evaporation (Figure 13b, c; Karcz and Zak, 1987).

The artificial salt ponds of the Dead Sea are unusual in that they are designed to trap and discard most of the halite precipitate rather than harvest it. Most other artificial salt ponds around the world are shallow pans purpose-designed as ephemeral water-holding depressions that periodically dry out so that salts can be scrapped and harvested. In contrast, the Dead Sea halite ponds are purpose-designed to be permanently subaqueous and relatively deep (≈4m). Brine levels in the ponds vary by a few decimetres during the year, and lowstand levels generally increase each winter when waste brine is pumped back into the northern basin.

As the Dead Sea brine thickens, minor gypsum, then voluminous halite precipitates on the pan floor in the upstream section of the concentration series, where the halite-precipitating-brines have densities > 1.2 gm/cc (Figure 13c). As the concentrating brines approach carnallite-precipitating densities (around 1.3 gm/cc), they are allowed to flow into the carnallite precipitating ponds (Figure 13c). Individual pans have areas around 6-8 km2 and brine depths up to 2 metres. During the early halite concentration stages, a series of problematic halite reefs or mushroom polygons can build to the brine surface and so compartmentalise and entrap brines within isolated pockets enclosed by the reefs. This hinders the orderly downstream progression of increasingly saline brines into the carnallite ponds, with the associated loss of potash product.

When the plant was first designed, the expectation was that halite would accumulate on the floor of the early fractionation ponds as flat beds and crusts, beneath permanent holomictic brine layers. The expected volume of salt was deposited in the pans each year (Talbot et al., 1996), but instead of accumulating on a flat floor aggrading 15-20 cm each year, halite in some areas aggraded into a series of polygonally-linked at-surface salt reefs (aka salt mushrooms). Then, instead of each brine lake/pan being homogenized by wind shear across a single large subaqueous ponds, the salt reefs separated the larger early ponds into thousands of smaller polygonally-defined inaccessible compartments, where the isolated brines developed different compositions (Figure 14). Carnallitite slurries crystallised in inter-reef compartments from where it could not be easily harvested, so large volumes of potential potash product were locked up in the early fractionation ponds (Figure 14a, b). Attempts to drown the reefs by maintaining freshened waters in the ponds during the winters of 1984 and 1985 were only partly successful. The current approach to the salt reef problem in the early fractionation ponds is to periodically breakup and remove the halite reefs and mushrooms by a combination of dredging and occasional blasting (Figure 14c).

Unlike seawater feeds to conventional marine coastal saltworks producing halite with marine inflow salinities ≈35‰, the inflow brine pumped into the header ponds from the Dead Sea already has a salinity of more than 300‰ (Figure 15). Massive halite precipitation occurs quickly, once the brine attains a density of 1.235 (≈340‰) and reaches a maximum at a density of 1.24 (Figure 13c). Evaporation is allowed to continue in the initial halite concentrator ponds until the original water volume pumped into the pond has been halved. Concentrated halite-depleted brine is then pumped through a conveyance canal into a series of smaller evaporation ponds where carnallite, along with minor halite and gypsum precipitates (Figure 13c). Around 300–400 mm of carnallite salt slurry is allowed to accumulate in the carnallite ponds, with 84% pure carnallite and 16% sodium chloride as the average chemical composition (Figure 6a; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). The carnallite bed is harvested (pumped) from beneath the brine in slurry form and is delivered through corrosion-resistant steel pipes to the process refineries via a series of powerful pumps.

This carnallitite slurry is harvested using purpose-specific dredges floating across the crystalliser ponds. These dredges not only pump the slurry to the processing plant but also undertake the early part of the processing stream. On the dredge, the harvested slurry is crushed and size sorted, with the coarser purer crystals separated for cold crystallisation. The remainder is slurried with the residual pan brine and then further filtered aboard the floating dredges. At this stage in the processing stream the dredges pipe the treated slurries from the pans to the refining plant.

On arrival at the processing plant, raw product is then used to manufacture muriate of potash, salt, magnesium chloride, magnesium oxide, hydrochloric acid, bath salts, chlorine, caustic soda and magnesium metal (Figure 16a). Residual brine after carnallitite precipitation contain about 11-12 g/l bromide and is used for the production of bromine, before the waste brine (with a density around 1.34 gm/cc) is returned to the northern Dead Sea water mass. The entire cycle from the slurry harvesting to MOP production takes as little as five hours.

In the initial years of both DSW and APC operations, MOP was refined from the carnallite slurry via hot leaching and flotation. In the coarser-crystalline carnallitite feed, significant volumes of sylvite are now produced more economically in a cold crystallisation plant (Figure 16b). The cold crystallisation process takes place at ambient temperature and is less energy-intensive than the hot crystallisation unit. The method also consumes less water but requires a higher and more consistent grade of carnallite feed (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). Both hot (thermal) and cold production methods can be utilized in either plant, depending on the quality of the slurry feed.

Sylvite is produced via cold crystallisation using the addition of water to incongruently dissolve the magnesium chloride from the crystal structure. If the carnallite slurry contains only a small amount of halite, the solid residue that remains after water flushing is mostly sylvite. As is shown in Figure 16b, if the MgCl2 concentration is at or near the triple-saturation point (the point at which the solution is saturated with carnallite, NaCl, and KCl), the KCl solubility is suppressed to the point where most of it will precipitate as sylvite. For maximum recovery, the crystallising mixture must be saturated with carnallite at its triple-saturation point. If the mixture is not saturated, for example, it contains higher levels of NaCl, then more KCl will dissolve during the water flushing of the slurry. Industrially, the cold crystallizers are usually fed with both coarse and fine carnallite streams, such that 10% carnallite remains in the slurry, this can be achieved by adjusting addition of process water (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007).

Successful cold crystallisation depends largely on a consistent high-quality carnallite feed. If a large amount of halite is present in the feed slurry, the resulting solid residue from cold crystallisation is sylvinite, not sylvite. This needs to be further refined by hot crystallisation, a more expensive extraction method based on the fact that the solubility of sylvite varies significantly with increasing temperature, while that of salt remains relatively constant (Figure 16c). As potash brine is hot leached from the sylvinite, the remaining halite is filtered off, and the brine is cooled under controlled conditions to yield sylvite.

Residual brine from the crystallisation processes then undergoes electrolysis to yield chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and hydrogen. Chlorine is then reacted with brine filtered from the pans to produce bromine. The caustic soda is sold, and the hydrogen is used to make bromine compounds, with the excess being burnt as fuel. Bromine distilled from the brine is sold partly as elemental bromine, and partly in the form of bromine compounds produced in the bromine plant at Ramat Hovav (near Beer Sheva). This is the largest bromine plant in the world, and Israel is the main exporter of bromine to Europe. About 200,000 tons of bromine are produced each year.

Residual magnesium chloride-rich solutions created by cold crystallisation are concentrated and sold as flakes for use in the chemical industry and for de-icing (about 100,000 tons per year) and dirt road de-dusting. Part of the MgCl2 solution produced is sold to the nearby Dead Sea Periclase plant (a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals Ltd.). At this plant, the brine is decomposed thermally to give an extremely pure magnesium oxide (periclase) and hydrochloric acid. In Israel, Dead Sea Salt Work’s (DSW) production has risen to more than 2.9 Mt KCl since 2005, continuing a series of increments and reflecting an investment in expanded capacity, the streamlining of product throughput in the mill facilities, and the amelioration of the effects salt mushrooms, and increased salinity of the Dead Sea due to extended drought conditions (Figure 17).

On the other side of the truce line in Jordan, the Arab Potash Co. Ltd. (APC) output rose to 1.94 Mt KCl in 2010 The APC plant now has the capacity to produce 2.35 Mt KCl and like the DSW produces bromine from bittern end brines. Early in the pond concentration stream, APC also has to remove salt mushrooms from its ponds, a process which when completed can increase carnallite output by over 50,000 t/yr. Currently, APC is continuing with an expansion program aimed at increasing potash capacity to 2.5 Mt/yr.

MOP brines and Quaternary climate

As mentioned in the introduction, exploited Quaternary potash deposits encompass both MOP and SOP mineral associations across a range of climatic and elevation settings. This article focuses on the three main MOP producing examples, the next deals with SOP Quaternary producers (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). Interestingly, both sets of Quaternary examples are nonmarine brine-fed depositional hydrologies. All currently-active economic potash plants hosted in Quaternary systems do not mine a solid product but derive their potash solar evaporation of pumped hypersaline lake brines. For MOP processing to be economic the sulphate levels in the brines held in bittern-stage concentrator pans must be low and Mg levels are typically high, so favoring the precipitation of carnallite over sylvite in all three systems.

In Salar de Atacama the low sulphate levels in the bittern stage is accomplished by artificially mixing a CaCl2 brine from further up the evaporation stream with a less saline more sulphate-enriched brine. The mixing proportions of the two brine streams aims to maximise the level of extraction/removal of CaSO4 in the halite pans prior to the precipitation of sylvite and carnallite. In the case of the pans in the Qarhan sump there is a similar but largely natural mixing of river waters with fault-fed salt-karst spring waters in a ratio of 40:1 that creates a hybrid pore brine with a low sulphate chemistry suitable for the precipitation of both natural and pan carnallite. In the case of the Dead Sea brine feed, the inflowing Dead Sea waters are naturally low in sulphate and high in magnesium. The large size of this natural brine feed systems and its homogeneous nature allows for a moderate cost of MOP manufacture estimated in Warren 2016, chapter 11 to be US$ 170/tonne. The Qarhan production cost is less ≈ US$ 110/tonne but the total reserve is less than in the brine system of the Dead Sea. In Salar de Atacama region the MOP cost is likely around US$ 250-270/tonne, but this is offset by the production of a bischofite stage brine suitable for lithium carbonate extraction.

Outside of these three main Quaternary-feed MOP producers there are a number of potash mineral occurrences in intermontane depressions in the high Andes in what is a high altitude polar tundra setting (Koeppen ET), none of which are commercial (Figure 18a). Similarly, there a number of non-commercial potash (SOP) mineral and brine occurrences in various hot arid desert regions in Australia, northern Africa and the Middle East (Koeppen BWh) that we shall look at in the next article. In the Danakhil depression there is the possibility of a future combined MOP/SOP plant (see Salty Matters April 19, 2015; April 29, 2015; May 1, 2015; May12, 2015 and Bastow et al., 2018). In the Danakhil it is important to distinguish between the current non-potash climate (BWh - Koeppen climate) over the Dallol saltflat in Ethiopia, with its nonmarine brine feed and the former now-buried marine fed potash (SOP)/halite evaporite system. The latter is the target of current exploration efforts in the basin, focused on sediments now buried 60-120m below the Dallol saltflat surface. Nowhere in the Quaternary are such dry arid desert climates (BWh) associated with commercial accumulations of potash minerals.

Climatically most commercial potash brine systems in Quaternary-age sediments are located in cooler endorheic intermontane depressions (BWk, BSk) or in the case of the Dead Sea an intermontane position in the sump of the Dead Sea, the deepest position of any continental landscape on the earth’s surface (-417 msl). The association with somewhat cooler and or less arid steppe climates implies a need for greater volumes of brine to reside in a landscape in order to facilitate the precipitation of significant volumes of potash bitterns (Figure 18a,b).

In summary, all three currently economic Quaternary MOP operations are producing by pumping nonmarine pore or saline lake brines into a series of concentrator pans. The final bittern chemistry in all three is a low-sulphate liquour, but with inherently high levels of magnesium that favors the solar pan production of carnallite over sylvite that is then processed to produce the final KCl product. The brine chemistry in all three examples imitates the ionic proportions obtained when evaporating a ancient sulphate-depleted seawater (Figure 1). The next article will discuss the complexities (the double salt problem at the potash bittern stage when concentrating a more sulphate-enriched mother brine.


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Stable isotopes in evaporite systems: Part III - 18O (Oxygen)

John Warren - Sunday, July 01, 2018



Oxygen isotope determinations in evaporitic sediments are typically based on: 1) using oxygen held in the water molecule itself (H2O); 2) oxygen in the carbonate anion held in evaporitic dolomites or limestones or; 3) in sulphate from evaporitically precipitated gypsum or anhydrite. Oxygen measures on the water molecule can be co-associated with deuterium (D - heavy hydrogen) determinations. So isotopic sampling of evaporitic limestone and dolomites means carbon isotope values can be co-determined from the same mineral phase (CO3 source). Likewise, with the calcium sulphates, the sulphur isotope is always available for co-study (SO4 source in gypsum or anhydrite).

We have already discussed sulphur and carbon isotope variations in evaporitic settings in the previous two articles (30 April 2018 and 31 May 2018, respectively). So, in this article, we shall look at how oxygen isotope values vary with the co-associated deuterium, carbon and sulphur isotope phases. We focus on three sources for isotope samples (water molecules in a brine, evaporitic carbonate minerals, calcium sulphate minerals) and show that when oxygen values are co-plotted against deuterium, carbon or sulphur isotope values, it becomes a handy tool in defining depositional and diagenetic evolution in a range of evaporitic settings.

Oxygen isotope fractionation in water molecules in evaporating brines

The stable isotope community has long known of the potentially extreme effects of evaporation on the isotopic composition of liquids and the residual enrichment of the heavier isotope in the remaining brine. After all, Urey himself applied this knowledge when he demonstrated the existence of deuterium through evaporative enrichment of liquid hydrogen (Urey et al., 1932). Enrichment in heavier isotopes in the residual brine is documented in settings as diverse as evaporating Dead Sea brines (Gat, 1984) and degassing epithermal systems (Zheng, 1990).

As any water (brine) evaporates there is a commensurate preferential escape of the lighter 16O water molecules, this leaves behind an increasing proportion of heavier water molecules containing 18O. Hence, with increasing degrees of evaporation the δ18O signature in the remaining water mass becomes increasingly positive (Figure 1). Co-variance of deuterium with increasing oxygen isotope values in a concentring brine is a long-established observation (Figure 2; Cappa et al., 2003), and defines a type of Raleigh fractionation or distillation.

There is another factor involved in the degree of enrichment of the heavier isotopes of oxygen or deuterium, and that is the humidity of the air above the evaporating brine. Humidity controls the extent of evaporative concentration, and there is a differential level of isotope enrichment in the residual brine tied to changing humidity (Figure 2). It is a response to the lowering of the evaporation rate with increasing humidity. The humidity effect in evaporative settings is documented both experimentally and in natural settings such as modern sabkhas and salinas (Chapter 2 in Warren 2016, for a summary of literature). As a general rule, the lower the humidity, the greater the degree of enrichment of the heavier isotope. Horton et al., (2016) show that δ18OSMOW values of saline lake waters from are often shifted by >+10‰ relative to source waters discharging into the lake (Figure 3, especially 3c).

Up until February 1979, the Dead Sea was a permanently stratified hypersaline water body (see Warren 2016, Chapter 4 for hydrological and sedimentological details). Both the upper and lower water masses were moderately enriched in δ18OSMOW (Figure 4: Gat 1984). After the overturn and mixing the surface waters, the degree of enrichment in δ18O in the surface waters constitutes a balance between the dilution by freshwater influx and the isotope fractionation (enrichment) which accompanies evaporative water loss and vapour exchange with the atmospheric moisture. Gat's modelling of the seasonal cycle and long-term trends of δ18OSMOW in response to the changes in the environmental parameters, shows that the dominant control on isotope enrichment in the surface waters, post overturn, is exercised by the salinity of the surface waters, through its effect on the vapour pressure gradient between the lake's surface and the atmosphere. Interestingly, before the overturn event the upper water mass was more homogenous in terms of salinity and isotope enrichment and its enriched isotope values mostly tracked those of the much more stable and somewhat more saline lower water mass.

Deuterium-oxygen isotope plots of water molecules can also be useful in studying the origin of hydrated salts such as gypsum, but only if there has been minimal postdepositional alternation of the primary precipitate. A classic paper focusing on the composition of structural water held in the gypsum lattice of Messinian (Late Miocene) evaporites of Sicily was published by Bellanca et al., 1986. In Sicily, there are two main types of texture in gypsum-dominated outcrops in the Messinian sub-basins of Sicily (laminated and massive). The laminar gypsum, locally known as balatino, is a shallow-water saltern deposit, the other is a massive form of gypsum typically interpreted as a diagenetic replacement of either primary gypsum of anhydrite.

The different isotopic compositions of hydration water in the two gypsum lithotypes are shown in Figure 6. Laminar gypsum shows a predominance of positive values for both oxygen (range-1.59‰ < δ18OSMOW < +6.02‰) and deuterium (range -7.3‰ < δD < +22.7‰), while both oxygen and deuterium ranges in the massive gypsum are negative (-4.21‰ < δ18OSMOW > -2.23‰; -40.9‰ < δD < -34.4‰).

In Figure 5 the majority of points representative of the laminar gypsum mother waters fall to the right of the meteoric water line of Craig ( 1961) and lie on a path characterised by a positive slope (δD = 3.97δ18OSMOW - 0.59) and includes the SMOW point. Such a distribution is consistent with an origin of the gypsum by direct pre­cipitation from an evaporating solution saturated with respect to gypsum and is close to those of mother waters in recent gypsum samples precipitated in Mediterranean salinas and, there­fore, suggest that the solutions from which the laminar gypsum precipitated were marine waters concentrated by evaporation. A few other examples show δ18O and δD values shifted towards negative values, which indicate stages of dilution with large masses of continental waters poured into the deposition basin during the crystallisation of gyp­sum (Bellanca et al., 1986).

In contrast, the waters from Massive Gypsum plot along a line with a negative slope (δD = -2.66 δ18OSMOW -46.73). Clearly, these structural waters have a different origin. Bellanca (op. cit) argues these distinctive signatures are indicative of rehydration from anhydrite; others argue massive gypsum is a result of subsurface recrystallisation of primary gypsum without an intervening anhydrite stage (see Testa and Lugli (2000) for the detailed discussion of this topic)

Carbon and oxygen isotope co-variations in evaporitic carbonates

The isotopic makeup of residual water molecules evolving into a brine is not the only phase affected by the chemical consequences of evaporation (Horton et al., 2016; Warren 2016). As any natural water evaporates, its chemistry changes, as concentrating dissolved phases and increasing alkalinity force changes in equilibrium conditions. One of the most obvious consequences of evaporation is the formation of sedimentary evaporites, including brine pool carbonates (e.g. calcite, aragonite, dolomite, trona). The coupled δ18O and δ13C enrichment during evaporation, and the precipitation of endogenic Holocene carbonates is documented and discussed at some length in a number of review papers (Horton et al., 2016; Pierre, 1988).

Horton et al. (2016) document a general tendency for calcites precipitated in lakes located in somewhat less humid climates to show enrichment in the heavier isotope. The observed average lake carbonate δ18OPDB values from the 57 lakes plotted in Figure 6 are more positive than the modelled summer month meteoric water derived calcite δ18O values (Horton et al., 2016). Lake calcites precipitating in humid environments generally plot closer to the 1:1 line, suggesting lakes in these environments are less impacted by evaporative modification. Yet, 46 of the 57 lake records analysed (i.e. 81%) plot to the right of the 1:1 line consistent with evaporative modification of lake water δ18O. Forty-two percent of the lake carbonate δ18O records are >5‰ shifted towards more positive δ18O values than would be expected for summer-month carbonate precipitates derived from unmodified local meteoric water. Although many lakes with vastly different modern aridity index values show similar offsets between modelled and observed δ18O, lakes from currently arid and semi-arid environments have a much larger average δ18O offset (5.4‰) than sub-humid and humid environment lakes (2.0‰).

The dolomite forming lakes of the Coorong region show a similar set of enrichment in both oxygen and carbon isotopes within that type of Holocene dolomite precipitating directly from evaporating surface brines (dolomite Type-A; Rosen et al., 1989; Warren 1990, 2000). The other type of Holocene dolomite in the Coorong lakes (dolomite-B) shows no noticeable C-O covariant trend related to Raleigh distillation (Figure 7a). Type-A dolomite has a heavier oxygen isotope signature than type-B and is 3 - 6‰ heavier in 13C (Figure 7a). Type-A dolomite also has distinct unit cell dimensions (Rosen et al., 1989).

Type A tends to be magnesium-rich with up to 3-mole percent excess MgCO3, while type-B is near stoichiometric or calcian-rich. Type-A dolomite typically occurs in association with magnesite and hydromagnesite, Type B with Mg-calcite. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) shows that Type A dolomites have a heterogeneous microstructure due to closely spaced random defects, while type B dolomites exhibit a more homogeneous microstructure implying excess calcium ions are more evenly distributed throughout the lattice. TEM studies show that the two types of Coorong dolomite are distinct and are not intermixed with other mineral phases; they are primary precipitates, and not replacements and are not transitional (Miser et al., 1987).

Within the lake stratigraphy the dolomites occupy two distinct positions, Type A dolomites occur as surficial 'yoghurt' textured gels that in each water-filled winter season are washed and blown across the lake surface. By late spring and through summer these surface waters have dried up (summer salinities ≈ 120‰), and the lake sediment surface is a mud-cracked interval of massive carbonate (Warren, 1990; 2016). Type B dolomites occur in the laminated unit that underlies the laminated with signatures implying precipitation from waters with bicarbonates, perhaps showing a stronger strong input from organic materials and are especially prevalent in the more marginward part of the laminated fille where meteoric groundwaters are continually flowing into the edges of the lakes and mixing with lake pore brines.

Figure 7b places these two Coorong dolomites in the context of other areas of primary dolomite accumulations within Holocene carbonate depositional settings. Today sulphate-reducing bacteria or archeal methanogens have been called upon to explain the primary precipitation of dolomite in bacterial biofilms in almost all these other settings. It is not my intention to question the importance of bacterial metabolism in these other dolomite-accumulating settings, only to point out the bicarbonate from which the Coorong type A dolomites have precipitated show a positive and co-variant enrichment in both carbon and oxygen valued that are more typical of evaporative concentration. Evaporative enrichment in carbon values tied CO2 degassing in highly saline waters was documented in the Dead Sea by Stiller et al., 1985 and discussed in last month's article (31 May 2018).

Evaporitic carbonates especially when interbedded with calcium sulphate beds can also dissolve and alter (Warren, 2016; Chapter 7). Evaporite-derived dedolomites are often associated with evaporite dissolution breccias, which indicates the stratigraphic position of the now dissolved calcium sulphate bed that supplied the excess calcium needed to dedolomitise (Lee, 1994; Fu et al., 2008). Dedolomite under this scenario forms via the reaction of calcium sulphate-rich solutions with pre-existing dolomite to produce calcite with magnesium sulphate as a possible byproduct. The latter is rarely preserved, as it is highly soluble, and either remains as dissolved ions in the escaping waters or is quickly redissolved and flushed by through-flowing groundwaters (Shearman et al., 1961). The CaSO4 dissolution process is often driven by meteoric flushing of nearsurface oxidising waters and former ferroan dolomites are preferentially replaced. The resulting calcitised dolomites are outlined by intervals stained red with iron oxides and hydroxides.

With uplift-related (telogenetic) dedolomites the distribution and isotopic composition of dedolomite can reflect variations in the regional hydrology. This can be seen in the dedolomites of the Lower Cretaceous Edwards Group in the Balcones fault zone area of south-central Texas (Ellis, 1985, 1986). The Edwards Group consists of 120-180 metres of porous limestone and dolomite that accumulated on the Comanche shelf in shallow-water subtidal, intertidal, and supratidal marine environments. During early burial diagenesis, carbonate mud neomorphosed to calcitic micrite, aragonite and Mg-calcitic allochems were altered to calcite or were leached, and evaporites formed in tidal-flat sediments. Each of these phases had a characteristic stable isotope signature (Figure 8). Dolomite is widespread and formed in environments ranging from hypersaline to fresh-water as shown by the two isotope clusters in the Edwards dolomite (meteoric versus evaporitic reflux).

Late Tertiary faulting along the Balcones fault zone, tied to Jurassic salt withdrawal, initiated a circulating, fresh-water aquifer system to the west and north of a fairly distinct “bad-water line,” which roughly parallels the Balcones fault zone. To the south of the bad-water line, interstitial fluids remained relatively stagnant and contain over 1000 mg/l dissolved solids. Because of the differences in the chemistry of the interstitial fluids, post-faulting diagenesis in the two zones has been very different.

Water in the bad-water zone can be saturated with respect to calcite, dolomite, gypsum, celestite, strontianite, and fluorite, whereas water in the fresh-water zone is saturated only with respect to calcite. Due to the change in water chemistry, rocks in the fresh-water zone have been extensively recrystallised to coarse microspar and pseudospar, extensive dedolomitization has occurred, and late sparry calcite cements have precipitated. This creates a suite of covariant isotope trends and clusters with the dedolomite showing a distinctive set of carbon and oxygen values relate to soil water influences indicated by calcites with more negative carbon values (Figure 8 indicated by brown shading). In contrast, rocks in the bad-water zone retain fabrics associated with pre-Miocene diagenesis, and there is little or no evidence of widespread dedolomite, indicated by pink shading in Figure 8.

The importance of meteoric diagenesis in the formation of dedolomite in shallow, subsurface telogenetic environments is illustrated by the fact that the Edwards Group had a stable mineralogy of calcite and dolomite before the circulation of fresh water began and drove the precipitation of meteoric spar, microspar and dedolomite. Isotopic values for the dedolomites follow a similar trend to those of the microspars and pseudospars. As with the microspars and pseudospars formed by the entry of telogenetic water, it can be shown that dedolomites are in isotopic equilibrium with Edwards water on a regional scale, which supports the contention that the dedolomites are still forming from crossflows of present-day formation-water (Ellis, 1985).

Sulphur and oxygen relationships in calcium sulphate

Modern seawater sulphate has a homogeneous and well-defined isotopic composition for both sulphur and oxygen:

34SSO4 = +20 ± 0.5‰ CDT

18OSO4 = +9.5 ± 0.5‰ SMOW

Likewise, the fractionation of sulphur and oxygen, which occurs during the transition from aqueous to the solid state of sulphate is also near constant at earth surface temperatures. For gypsum, the mean values of the isotope enrichment factor are (Pierre, 1988):

δ34Sgypsum—SO4 = 1.65‰


δ18Ogypsum—SO4 = 3.5‰

Thus the δ34S and δ18O values of sulphate evaporites are directly related to the state of the aqueous sulphate reservoir wherever precipitation occurred. A plot of ancient marine CaSO4 evaporites shows the sulphur curve for seawater has varied across time from +30‰ in the Cambrian, to around +10‰ in the Permian and that it increased irregularly into the Mesozoic to its present value of +20‰. Oceanic oxygen isotope values show much less variability. Sulphur is largely resistant to isotopic fractionation during the increasing temperatures associated with burial alteration and transformation (Worden et al., 1997). All of these aspects are discussed in detail in the April 30, 2018 article.

With this knowledge of the relative lack of fractional in the subsurface compared to the much greater susceptibility of oxygen isotopes in the mesogenetic and telogenetic realms let us now look in more detail at the significance of oxygen variation in a variety of sulphate entraining settings.

Isotopically, the effects of dissolution and brine recycling in fracture-filling fibrous gypsum cements of various ages emplaced in a formation's burial evolution can be used define the sequential development of the superimposed diagenetic textures in the original gypsum unit (Figures 9, 10; Moragas et al., 2013). The upper Burdigalian Vilobí Gypsum Unit, located in the Vallès Penedès half-graben (NE Spain) and consists of a 60-m thick succession of laminated-to-banded primary and secondary gypsum. The unit is variably affected by Neogene extension in the western part of Mediterranean Sea. Tertiary extensional events are recorded in the evaporitic gypsum unit as six fracture sets and fills (faults and joints - S1 - S5), which can be linked with basin-scale deformation stages.

Combined structural, petrological and isotopic study of the unit by Moragas et al. (2013) established a chronology of fracture formation and infilling, from oldest to youngest as: (i) S1 and S2 normal faults sets with formation and precipitation of sigmoidal gypsum fibres; (ii) S3 joint sets with perpendicular fibres; (iii) S4 inverse fault sets, infilled by oblique gypsum fibres and associated with thrust-driven deformation of the previous fillings; and (iv) S5 and S6 joint sets tied to later dissolution processes and infilled by macrocrystalline gypsum cements likely related to the telogenetic realm. The fractures provided ongoing pathways for focused fluid circulation within the Vilobí Unit. The oxygen, sulphur and strontium isotope compositions of the original host rock and the various precipitates in the fractures imply ongoing convective recycling processes across the host-sulphates to the fracture infillings, as recorded by a general enrichment trend toward heavier S–O isotopes, from the oldest precipitates (sigmoidal fibres) to the youngest (macrocrystalline cements). The marine strontium signal is mostly preserved in the various postdepositional infillings, unlike the oxygen and to a lesser extent the sulphur isotope signals, which are evolving with the origin and temperature of the waters flowing in the fracture sets (Figure 10).

In any ancient silicified anhydrite nodule or bedded silicified succession, not all silica-replacing anhydrite in a particular region need come from the same source or be emplaced by the same set of processes. Silicified nodules within middle-upper Campanian (Cretaceous) carbonate sediments from the Laño and Tubilla del Agua sections of the Basque-Cantabrian Basin, northern Spain preserve cauliflower morphologies, together with anhydrite laths enclosed in megaquartz crystals and spherulitic fibrous quartz (quartzine-lutecite). All this shows that they formed by ongoing silica replacement of nodular anhydrite (Figures 10, 11; Gómez-Alday et al., 2002).

Anhydrite nodules at Laño were produced by the percolation of saline marine brines, during a period corresponding to a depositional hiatus. They have δ34S and δ180 mean values of +18.8‰ and +13.6‰, respectively, both consistent with Upper Cretaceous seawater sulphate values. Higher δ34S and δ180 (mean values of + 21.2‰ and 21.8‰ characterise nodules in the Tubilla del Agua section and are interpreted as indicating a partial bacterial sulphate reduction process in a more restricted marine environment (Figure 11a). Later calcite replacement and precipitation of geode-filling calcite in the siliceous nodules occurred in both sections, with δ13C and δ180 values indicating the participation of meteoric waters in both regions (Figure 11b). Synsedimentary activity of the Penacerrada diapir (Kueper salt - Triassic), which lies close to the Laño section, played a significant role in driving the local shallowing of the basin and in the formation of the silica in the nodules. In contrast, eustatic shallowing of the inner marine series in the Tubilla del Agua section led to the generation of morphologically similar quartz geodes, but from waters not influenced by brines derived from the groundwater halo of a diapir.


This and the previous two articles have underlined the utility of stable isotope samples of brine or precipitates in better understanding the origin of a range of brines and their associated precipitates. But other than the sampling of water molecules in modern brines, the interpretation of all isotope values is equivocal without a petrographic understanding of how and when the sampled textures formed. Stable isotopes of evaporitic minerals with sulphur, carbon and oxygen are the mainstays of isotope work in the study of most evaporite basins, both modern and ancient. Other isotopes that may be useful are 11B and 37Cl, and we shall look at their application to evaporitic sediments in a later blog.


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Lithium in saline settings

John Warren - Sunday, July 30, 2017



Historically, until the electronic revolution, lithium located near the top of the periodic table, was of little economic interest. With an atomic number of 3 and an atomic weight of 6.9, lithium is exceptionally small and light, with a high charge/radius ratio. Estimates of the average crustal abundance of lithium vary, but it is likely to be approximately 17–20 parts per million (ppm). In igneous rocks, the abundance is typically 28–30 ppm, but in sedimentary rocks, it can be as high as 53–60 ppm (Evans, 2014; Kunasz, 2006).Lithium-prone hypersaline brines can attain values as high as 6000 ppm, but such high levels are unusual.

Lithium compounds are consumed in the production of ceramics, lubricants, glass, and primary aluminium (Figure 1). Its high specific heat capacity makes lithium ideal in heat transfer technology where it is used in welding and metallurgical applications. Its light weight and its high electrochemical potential (it is most electronegative metal known) and its high electrical conductivity make it amenable to battery applications requiring low weight and high storage potential.

Compared to nickel metal hydride batteries, the type of battery currently powering most hybrid electric vehicles, Li-ion batteries are lighter, less bulky, and more energy efficient. Lithium batteries have three times the energy of nickel hydride at one-third of the weight, and they operate at very low temperatures with a longer battery life. The use of Li-ion batteries in electric cars and electronic devices has increased the global demand for lithium, a trend that is likely to continue. Currently, lithium‐rich saline brines are the most economically recoverable Li source on the planet. (Kesler et al., 2012; Grosjean et al., 2012).

Economically recoverable forms of lithium occur in four types of deposits (Table 1; Figure 1)

(1) Pegmatites,

(2) Continental saline brines

(3) Hydrothermally altered saline lacustrine clays,

(4) Geothermal and basinal brines.

Figure 2 plots know occurrences of lithium in saline deposits. There are four main clusters of hypersaline brine-related lithium occurrences, 1) Andean Altiplano, 2) Tibetan Highlands, 3) Qaidam Basin and 4) Playa brines in the Basin and Range of the south-west USA. Then there are the lesser volumes, as yet un-economic lithium accumulations, associated with lacustrine clays near Hector, California and in the Jadar Valley, Serbia. Basinal (oilfield) brines are known to entrain elevated levels of lithium in the Smackover Fm, USA and the Fox Creek region of Canada. Geothermal brines below the Salton Sea can also contain elevated levels of lithium.

Lithium‐rich continental brine sources account for about three‐fourths of the current world lithium production with the remainder from pegmatites (Figure 3; U.S. Geological Survey, 2017). Only the geology of hypersaline brine sources and associated saline sediment hosts, basin brines and clay replacements are discussed in detail in this article. For information on pegmatites and oilfield brines the interested reader is referred to Garrett (2004), Kesler et al.(2012) and Evans (2014). All three articles contain a broader discussion of occurrences of lithium raw materials and their processing.

In natural brines, most lithium salts are highly soluble and tend to stay in solution until lithium concentrations approach and exceed 6000 ppm. Lithium can be to be absorbed by saline playa clays at lower concentrations, as in the hectorite beds in Clayton Playa, Nevada or hydrothermally from hypersaline saline waters as formed jadarite nodules in the Jadar Valley, Serbia. Actual lithium carbonate precipitates are highly soluble and so very rare in sedimentary basins; lithium carbonate (zabuyelite) is a natural precipitate from the high-altitude hypersaline waters of Lake Zabuye on the Tibetan Plateau.

Lithium carbonate brines

Production from hypersaline pore brines in South American salars dominates current world lithium brine production, with Chile and Argentina producing some two-thirds of the documented world brine production (Figure 2). Chile has emerged as the largest lithium carbonate producer from a lake brine, largely through the exploitation of brines in Salar de Atacama. China and Argentina are the other main producers of lithium from saline lake brines (Figure 3).

Lithium in salar brines of the Andes

Salar de Atacama lies on the Tropic of Capricorn at an altitude of 2,300 m in the Desierto de Atacama, some 200 km inland from Antofagasta. In its more central portions this salt-encrusted playa contains a massive halite unit (nucleus) that is more than 900 m thick, with an area ≈ 1,100 km2. Fringing saline muds, with an area ≈ 2,000 km2, surround the nucleus (Figure 4a, b).

The current salt crust atop this halite nucleus contains a sodium chloride interstitial brine that is rich in Mg, K, Li, and B ((Figure 4c; Figure 5; Alonso and Risacher, 1996). Lithium contents of the pore brine range from 200-300 ppm in the marginal zone, some 500-1,600 ppm in the intermediate zone and 1,510-6,400 ppm in the salt nucleus). The nucleus zone averages 4,000 ppm lithium and is asymmetric with respect to the salar centre due to the sump offset via ongoing faulting. Main inflows to the salar drain volcanic formations of the Andean Highlands located to the east of the basin.

Salts dissolved in inflow waters have a double origin. Weathering of volcanic rocks supplies K, Li, Mg, B and, to a lesser extent, Na and Ca. Leaching of ancient halokinetic evaporites sourced in a mother salt layer beneath and piercing the volcanic formations provides additional amounts of Na, Ca, Cl, SO4 to the most saline inflow waters. The mass-balance of the upper halite nucleus in the salar shows a strong excess of NaCl with respect to the bittern solutes Mg, K, Li, B. According to Alonso and Risacher (1996), this suggests that the nucleus did not originate from evaporation of inflow waters similar to the present groundwaters. Rather, the excess of NaCl is due to NaCl-rich inflow waters that formerly drained the Cordillera de la Sal, a Tertiary-age evaporitic ridge along the western rim of the present-day salar (Figure 4b).

Although annual salt accretion rates in a salar salt nucleus facies in an Andean salar can be as high as 5-6 cm/year (Ruch et al., 2012), the average sedimentation rate of halite in the Atacama lake centre is ≈ 0.1 mm/year, based on the age of an ignimbrite interbedded with the salt. This slow aggradation rate implies a climatic setting of long dry periods and inactivity alternating with short wet periods during which large amounts of water, and so large amounts of salt are first recycled and then accumulate in the halite crusts of the basin sump. The lack of peripheral lacustrine deposits and the high purity of the Atacama salt also suggest that the main salt unit is not the remnant of an ancient deep saline lake, but originated mostly from evaporation of waters supplied by subsurface and subterranean saline seeps.

Once Li-rich lake brines are pumped to the surfac,e they flow into a series of evaporation pans where three main economic products (halite, potash and lithium salts) are recovered. To achieve this controlled salt-series production, the brines are first pumped from 30 metre deep boreholes that penetrate the porous salt nucleus layer into a series of solar evaporation ponds (Figure 6a). Over the successive passage through the concentrator pons, liquors are concentrated by a factor of 25, generating a final brine strength of 4.3% Li (Figure 6b). During evaporation and processing for production of halite, potassium chloride and potassium sulphate from lithium precursor brines, the ion ratios are continuously monitored and adjusted to avoid the precipitation of a lithium potassium sulphate salt. This combination of solar concentration and brine processing, proceeds as follows:

1) Sodium chloride (common salt) precipitates first. If required, this salt can be scrape-harvested as a by-product.

2) At the appropriate level of concentration, the brine is transferred to a second set of ponds in which a mixture of sodium chloride (salt) and potassium chloride (potash, in the form of sylvinite) is precipitated. These salts usually are harvested and the two components separated in a flotation plant.

3) The remaining brine is piped to another set of evaporation ponds where it remains until the concentration increases to 6000 ppm Li (essentially the saturation point of lithium chloride - saturated brines typically show a green colour as visible in Figure 6b). Ripe brine is then transferred to a recovery plant where impurities such as magnesium and boron are removed. When soda ash (sodium carbonate) is added to the ripe brines, lithium carbonate drops out. Brine with low magnesium levels is the preferred feed brine as this makes for simpler processing.

The high initial lithium content of the Atacama brines and the extremely arid setting (3200 mm pan evaporation and <15 mm precipitation) means that only 90 hectares of evaporation ponds are required in one of the current brine operations on the salar, this is only 5% of the area required at Clayton Valley, Nevada with its milder climate and lower Li concentration in the feeder brine (Figure 7). Borate (as perborate) is recovered at levels of 0.84 g/l during lithium extraction at Atacama. Increasing volumes of lithium are also produced by new salar brine processing facilities in nearby Salar de Hombre Muerto, Argentina and Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. All these salars have lower levels of Li in the primary brine feed than Atacama.

Lithium brines in the USA

Clayton Valley is host to the only commercially producing lithium project in North America, Albemarle’s Silver Peak brine evaporation pond project (Figure 7). Historically, the Clayton Valley playa produced about one-third of the US lithium requirements, but its economic viability suffered from fierce market competition, especially from South America, and a largely depleted brine supply. Originally, the central valley area contained 100–800 ppm Li, and the discovery well at 229 m depth contained 678 ppm when pumped at 450 gpm (Garrett, 2004). The average brine analysis when commercial production of lithium carbonate began in 1966 was about 400 ppm (Figure 7). Since that time the feed concentration of lithium has been slowly declining, and in 1998 the concentration was about 100–300 ppm Li (averaging 160 ppm, Harben and Edwards, 1998).

The Silver Peak Playa has an area of 50 km2 and an elevation of 1300- 1400 m (Figure 7). It lies in the rain-shadow of the Sierra Nevada, with an annual rainfall ≈130 mm and an evaporation rate of ≈1380 mm. Near-surface sediments consist of a mixture of clays (smectite, illite, chlorite, kaolin) and salts (halite and gypsum) and widespread pedogenic calcite. Lithium in the brines is derived from weathering and leaching of volcaniclastics in the Tertiary Esmeralda Formation and Quaternary ash-fall tuffs (Davis et al., 1986). Lithium content is highest on the eastern side of the playa adjacent to the outcropping marls of the Esmeralda Fm. Before it is leached, lithium is held in the clay fraction of the playa sediments and is probably part of the clay structure (hectorite is a widespread but minor component in the Clayton Valley clays - see later)).

Lithium-rich brine feed to the plant averages 0.023% (230 ppm) lithium in a background NaCl concentration of 200,000 ppm, is pumped from depths of 100-300m in the Clayton Valley (Silver Peak) playa via a number of gravel-packed wells. The lithium (and potassium) in the deposit probably originated from hot springs along the Silver Peak Fault, with the current brine composition being a blend of evaporated water from these springs and surface and ground water that drains into the basin (Garrett, 2004). Modern saline spring outflows contain 9280–10,000 ppm Na, 786–826 ppm K and 24–43 ppm Li. Unusually high brine temperatures in some areas of the deposit (up to 44°C at fairly shallow depths ≈ 25m) tend to support a volcanic/geothermal origin for the lithium. Some of the brine feeder wells show elevated levels of radon gas.

Pumped brine progresses through a series of fractionating evaporation ponds (Figure 7; Zampirro, 2004). Lithium concentration in the liquor increases to 6,000 ppm over the course of 12 to 18 months in the solar evaporation pans. When the lithium chloride level reaches optimum concentration, the liquor is pumped to a recovery plant and treated with soda ash to precipitate lithium carbonate, which is then removed by filtration, dried, and shipped.

Lithium from brine, when the Clayton Valley first produced product in the 1970s, was considered a unique deposit. Its operations established the technology and economic viability of lithium recovery from saline brine, which led to the development of brine production from the salars of South America that now dominate world production of lithium from brine.

Lithium brine in Chinese salt lakes: Zabuye (Zhabei) and Qaidam basins

The lithium brine resource of China is mostly stored in two saline lake regions in high altitude zones, Lake Zabuye region in the Alpine tundra climate zone on the Tibetan Plateau and four salt lakes in the cold arid steppe climate region of the Qaidam Basin on the Mongolian Plateau (Figure 2). Something like 80% of brine lithium resource found in China is contained in the four salt lakes of the Qiadam: Bieletan, DongTaijinaier, XiTaijinaier, and Yiliping (Figure 8; Yu et al., 2013). Zabuye lake on the Tibetan Plateau is probably the most geologically interesting as the Li content of the lake waters are so elevated that it is the only known lacustrine location where lithium carbonate, zabuyelite, is a natural brine precipitate (Figure 9. Nie et al., 2009; Gao et al., 2012).

Qaidam Lakes

Detailed sedimentological and hydrological work in the Qaidam by Yu et al. (2013) has shown that: (1) Some 748.8 tonnes of lithium is transported annually into the lower catchment of the four salt lakes via the Hongshui-Nalinggele river (H-N river in Figure 8), which is the largest river draining into the Qaidam Basin, (2) Li-rich brines are formed only in those salt lakes in the Qaidam that are associated with inflowing rivers with Li concentrations greater than 0.4 mg/l, and (3) the water's Li concentration is positively correlated with elevated levels in both the inflowing river and the associated subsurface brine. Their findings show that long-term input of Li+ from the Hongshui-Nalinggele river controls the formation of lithium brine deposits. They conclude that the source of the lithium in the lake brines is ultimately from hydrothermal fields, where two active faults converge in the upper reach of the Hongshui River. These hydrothermal fields are associated with a magmatic heat source, as suggested by the high Li+ and As3+ content water in geysers in the geothermal field. Based on the assumption of a constant rate of lithium influx, they estimate that the total reserves of lithium in the Qaidam were likely formed since the postglacial period.

Field mapping and coring indicate that lithium reserves in each of the four salt lakes depend on the influx of Li+-bearing water from the H-N River. The data also suggest that during the progradation of the alluvial Fan I, the Hongshui-Nalinggele drained mostly into the Bieletan salt lake, until the Taijinaier River shifted its watercourse to the north and began to feed the salt lakes of the DongTaijinaier, XiTaijinaier and Yiliping salt lakes, while also driving Fan II progradation (Figure 8).

One of the You et al. (2013) major findings in terms of lithium enrichment models is the importance of the contrasting hydroclimatic conditions between the high mountains containing ice caps and the terminal salt lakes. The greater than 4000 m of relief in the watershed enables a massive amount of ions, such as K+, to be weathered and transported, together with detrital material from the extensive, relatively wet alpine regions to the concentration sumps in hyperarid terminal salt lakes, where intense evaporation rapidly enriches the lake water, resulting in evaporite deposition and associated K- and Li-rich brines. It is no surprise that a saline lake at the foot of the nearby Golmud River fan is one of the few places in the modern world where carnallitite is found (Casas and Lowenstein, 1992).

Lake Zabuye

Lake Zabuye is located some 1000 km west of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and lies in the ET Köppen high altitude climate zone of the Tibetan Plateau (Figures 2, 9). The lake is perennial, and water levels can vary by metres each year; in 2008 the water level was some 4422 m above sea level. At this level, the lake’s area is approximately 247 km2. Salinity varies from 360 to 440 ‰, depending on seasonal differences in water input and evaporation rate. The volume of lithium product at the lake is currently limited by the sulphate-rich nature of the primary lake brine, prior to concentration in solar pans (Gao et al., 2012).

When concentrated, the crystallisation sequence of salts from highly concentrated Zabuye lake brine at 25°C is (Figure 10a; Nie et al., 2009):

halite (NaCl) --> aphthitalite (3K2SO4•Na2SO4) --> zabuyelite (Li2CO3) --> sylvite (KCl) --> trona (Na2CO3•NaHCO3•2H2O) and thermonatrite (Na2CO3•H2O)

The lake’s brine is naturally supersaturated with NaCl and other salts, so millions of metric tons of halite, potash, trona, and other minerals have accumulated on the bottom of the lake in the past few thousand years (Zheng and Liu, 2010). Lithium carbonate and sylvite precipitate, via a combination of brine concentration and cooling, and higher levels of lithium carbonate precipitation in the end brine can be induced by the addition of soda ash, as is done in the South American salars (Figure 10b, c).

The problem with the natural lake chemistry of the Zabuye salt lake is that a lithium sulphate salt Li2SO4.3Na2SO4. 12H2O precipitates naturally in the early stages of the low-temperature evaporation process, so reducing the levels of lithium carbonate in the end-stage brines. If the brine concentration series in the pans can be artificially held at mirabilite concentration, then the amount of lithium lost to the sulphate salt is reduced, so levels of lithium in the end-stage brines improve (Gao et al., 2012).

Zabuye Lake is of significant economic value as it is a new type of exploited saline lacustrine deposit (compared to the salars of South America) in that contains it precipitates lithium and borate salts in addition to significant volumes of potash, halite, natron and Glauber’s salt. Lake waters also retain elevated levels of caesium, rubidium and bromine.

Lithium in minerals soaked in saline brines

Two saline minerals in sedimentary basins known to have significant lithium contents are hectorite and jadarite. Hectorite [Na0.33(Mg,Li)3Si4O10(F,OH)2] is a clay mineral of the smectite group, where the replacement of aluminium by lithium and magnesium is essentially complete. It has a lithium content of more than 1%, a hardness of 1–2 on Mohs scale, and a density of 2–3 kg/m3. To date, an economically viable technology for extracting lithium from hectorite, rather than from brines that enclose some of these clay deposits, has yet to be developed (Evans, 2014). Jadarite [LiNaB3SiO7(OH)], is a newly recognised mineral with up to 5.7% Li and 14.7% B. Jadarite is a white porcellanous borosilicate mineral with a Moh hardness of 4-5, and a density of 2.45 gm/cc. It is associated with borate salts such as colemanite in the Oligocene-Pliocene lacustrine host sediments in its type area in the Jadar Valley in Serbia (Stanley 2007). Hectorite is probably associated with crossflows of moderate salinity hydrothermal waters, while jadarite requires a bath of hypersaline hydrothermal waters to form.


Hectorite has a soft, greasy texture, a candlewax-like appearance and feels like modelling clay when squeezed between the fingers. As a colloid, hectorite’s unique thixotropic properties for emulsion stabilising, gelling, suspending, binding, bodying and disintegrating, means it sells for more than US$2,000 a ton, generally as a lubricant to the oil and gas industry. Associated authigenic clays include stevensite and saponite, and in its type area at Hector California lies adjacent to a colemanite deposit.

Hectorite is mined periodically (not as a lithium source) in its type area, the Hector Mine, near Barstow, California. There, hectorite is the main clay mineral in a sequence of altered volcanic ash beds that are interbedded with lake sediments and travertines along an 8 km fault zone (Figure 11; Ames et al., 1958). The hectorite is thought to have formed through hydrothermal alteration of the ash by saline fluids moving up the fault zone (Sweet, 1980). Lithium-bearing volcanic rocks that probably formed in the same way have also been described from Arizona, and the Clayton and King Valleys in Nevada (Brenner-Tourtelot and Glanzman, 1978; Kesler et al., 2012). Hectorite is not considered to be a prime lithium resource in any of these occurrences. It is, however, considered of co-indicator of the former, or current, presence of Li-rich saline brines and as such is considered a pointer mineral to a possible lithium brine resource.

Hectorite is thought to be a result of the combination of three distinct geological processes: 1) the alteration of volcanic ash or glass; 2) precipitation of authigenic phases from saline lacustrine pore waters; and/or 3) the incorporation of lithium into existing smectite clay deposits (Asher-Bolinder, 1991). To form hectorite, all three processes require an arid environment and are associated with lithium-enriched saline alkaline waters, volcanic rocks and hot springs that can also co-precipitate travertines and fine-grained amorphous silica (Zientek & Orris, 2005).

The same association of processes explains the lithium-rich hectorite clays in King Valley (Nevada Lithium prospects) Nevada. There, layers of hectorite occur in a sequence of sedimentary and tuffaceous rocks in moat sediments along the western side of the McDermitt caldera (Figure 12; Kesler et al., 2012). Volcanic activity at the McDermitt caldera complex has yielded precise 40Ar/39Ar ages of 16.5 to 16.1 million years ago and was characterised by extrusion of early metaluminous and peralkaline rhyolite, followed by the eruption of a voluminous ignimbrite with peralkaline rhyolite to metaluminous dacite compositions (Carew and Rossi, 2016). After collapse, the central part of the caldera complex was the site of resurgence, and a moat-like lake formed between this resurgent dome and the caldera walls. The lake was the site of deposition of volcaniclastic sediments that now form a nearly continuous ring within the caldera and host the various hectorite lenses(Figure 11).

Hectorite layers ranging from 1 to 90 m in thickness and have been recognised over a length of about 20 km. Individual layers or groups of layers extending for several km and are annotated as stage 1-5 lenses. The Stage 1 lens of the Lithium Nevada deposit (informally known as the King Valley deposit) has proven and probable reserves of 50 million tonnes, averaging 0.312% Li (Carew and Rossi, 2016). As in the type area in the Hector Mine in California, hectorite in the various lenses is the main lithium-bearing clay mineral in a sequence of altered volcanic ash beds. These ash beds are interbedded with saline lake sediments and travertines, and are hosted in the sedimentary moat facies adjacent to an 8 km fault zone. That is the hectorite formed through hydrothermal alteration of volcaniclastic ash in regions where moderately saline hydrothermal fluids moved up a fault zone.

Hectorite clays are also found in the Sonora Lithium Project, 11 km south of Bacadehuachi in the Sonora state of north-west Mexico. The resource statement, in an April 2016 report, lists 839,000 tonnes of contained lithium in the indicated category and a further 515,000 tonnes in the inferred category, within two distinct lacustrine clay units situated below basaltic caprocks (Pittuck and Lepley, 2016). A pre-feasibility study has been completed, which proposes a two-phase open-pit mine with lithium carbonate processing facility and a mine life of 20 years. A pilot plant has also been constructed, and discussions have commenced regarding possible off-take agreements.

None of these hectorite occurrences are currently mined as a lithium resource.


Jadarite was discovered in 2007 by Rio Tinto and the Jadar deposit, near the town of Loznica, and at that time was estimated to contain an inferred resource of 125.3 million tonnes at a weighted average of 1.8% Li2O, in addition to an inferred resource of boron minerals. Jadarite has so far only been identified in significant amounts within the 20-km long Jadar Basin of Serbia. The Jadar Basin entrains oil shales, dolomicrites, pyroclastic sediments and evaporites which are believed to have accumulated in an intermontane lacustrine environment.

The jadarite occurs both in massive form, several metres thick, and also as small nodules within a fine-grained carbonate matrix (Stanley, et al., 2007). At the main Jadar deposit, a layer containing nodular colemanite (Ca2B6O115H2O) overlies three separate layers or lenses containing jadarite LiNaB3SiO7(OH). Jadarite likely formed via a hydrothermally-facilitated interaction between saline brine and clastic/evaporitic sediment, either in a tuffaceous or clay host (Kesler et al., 2012).

In May 2017, Rio Tinto announced that the Jadar area contains one of the largest lithium deposits in the world, lifting their estimate for Lower Jadar's deposits to 138 million tonnes. Extraction is scheduled to begin in 2023, with a projected underground exploitability of 50 years. As of June 2017, construction of a mine has not begun. A jadarite processing plant is also planned next to the mines, that plant will process the ore into lithium carbonate and boric acid.


Characteristics that appear to be essential to define a potential lithium carbonate brine resource are; i) an arid climate and, ii) a closed, tectonically active basin, with significant elevation and tectonically activity, which can entrain brines with elevated lithium contents (Figure 15; Bradley et al., 2013; Yu et al., 2013; Warren, 2010, 2016). Sources of lithium can be deeply circulated magmatic or recycled basinal fluids. Magnesium levels in the brine should not be too high as this complicates brine processing during lithium carbonate extraction. A co-occurring potash resource, extractable from the same brine, if present can reduce processing costs.

Another possible requirement—or at least a favourable characteristic—is elevated heat flow, as evident from young volcanoes or hot springs and the associated increase in Li-rich juvenile waters flushing the surrounding drainage basin, as is occurring beneath the Andean Altiplano. Volcanogenic source rocks in the lake drainage, such as felsic, vitric tuffs that have abundant and readily leached lithium are favourable, but perhaps not essential, since lithium is present in most crustal rocks at tens of parts per million. Worldwide all the exploited salt lakes have lithium levels in their lake brines that are well above typical (Figure 14).

Another possible favourable indication of a lithium brine is the existence of hectorite or jadarite in associated clays in the bajada rims.

All known and potential lithium brine deposits are located in arid tectonically active areas, typically in subduction or collision belts with deep-faulted suture systems (Figure 2). At the world scale, lithium-prone saline deposits are latitudinally restricted to cool arid Koeppen climate belts within endorheic brine sumps surrounded by high altitude drainage basins (Figures 2, 15b; Warren, 2010). Borates as evaporite salts are generally tied to the same setting (Warren, 2010).

Active faulting appears to be involved in forming a suitable spring-fed hydrology for all known economic lithium brine basins. Fault-related subsidence also creates accommodation space, without which only a thin veneer of arid basin sediments and brines can accumulate. Thus, a thick basin fill is needed to provide an aquifer of sufficient volume to hold a viable lithium brine resource.

In contrast, saline lakes atop shallow, superficial basins in intracratonic regions such as the Sahara Desert and most inland Australian deserts largely lack active fault control and associated rapid subsidence, and are not known to be prospective for lithium brines.

Salt fills in some lithium basin lacustrine sumps are cut by active intrabasinal faults (known from boreholes and seismic) but have no surface expression due to rapid infill and levelling of the accommodation space by salt precipitation. Significantly, the brine pools in Clayton Valley, Salar de Atacama and the Qaidam sumps are localized along active intrabasinal faults, which also control the distribution of aquifers and influence groundwater movement patterns, as well as the position of maximum stacking of concentrates and brines in the halite nucleus, along with porosity retention levels in the subsurface halite host (Zampirro, 2004; Jordan and others, 2002).

Porosity levels in a host halite aquifer are a major constraint on the potential economics of any salar or salt lake lithium brine resource. Most halite units lose their effective porosity and permeability by depths of 50-60 metres (Warren, 2016; Chapter 1). Thus, most Quaternary lithium brine operations hosted in a halite bed/aquifer will have an economic basement to brine recovery at around this depth. It is unlikely that recovery operations in Salar de Atacama and planned projects in Salar de Uyuni can recover economic brine volumes at much greater depths. There may be a 900m thick halite-dominant succession infilling Salar de Atacama and a number of halite beds to a depth of 120m in Salar de Uyuni, but economic porosities in the halite will likely only be present in the upper portions of the halite fill in both salars.

Postulating likely lithium resources, in a salar of a salt lake, to depths greater than 50-60m should only be done after salar-hydrology-aware drilling has established the presence of economic permeabilities in the hosting halite aquifer and this is likely related to the presence of active faults-. Such measurements require drilling and sampling equipment that facilitates reliable “in-situ” determinations of porosity and permeability in the halite mass and Li measurements in the brine that are related to actual content at the level of measurement, with minimal contamination by waters from outside the measured horizon.


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Silica mobility and replaced evaporites: 3 - Archean cherts

John Warren - Sunday, August 28, 2016


The two previous articles on silica mobility in evaporitic settings emphasised Phanerozoic examples and discussed silica textures largely tied to the replacement of sulphate evaporite nodules. This article will extend the time frame back to the Archean and also discuss scale controls on massive marine-derived evaporite beds in the early earth. The next article after this focuses on the Proterozoic. In order to extend our discussion into saline Precambrian successions, we must consider changes in ionic proportions and temperatures of the world’s oceans that this involves, and also include the background context of biological evolution of silica-extracting organisms.

Chert deposits clearly preserve a record of secular change in the oceanic silica cycle cross the Precambrian and the Phanerozoic (Maliva et al., 2005), with the chert nodule-evaporite association most obvious in alkaline brine-flushed areas in Phanerozoic sediments (previous 2 articles). Many silicified Phanerozoic evaporite examples co-occur with significant volumes of salts deposited in marine-fed megahalite and megasulphate basins. The evolutionary radiation of silica-secreting organisms across a deep time background is reflected in the transition from abiogenic silica deposition, characteristic of marine and nonmarine settings in the Archean and Proterozoic eons, to the predominantly biologically-controlled marine silica deposits of the Phanerozoic.

Silica levels in the Archean ocean

Estimated silica concentration in Precambrian seawater is 60 ppm SiO2 or more, while silica concentration of much of the modern ocean is controlled by silica-secreting organisms at values of 1 ppm or less to a maximum of 15 ppm (Perry and Lefticariu, 2014). There is no conclusive fossil evidence that such organisms were present in the Precambrian in sufficient abundance to have had a significant influence on the silica cycle, although some later Neoproterozoic protists likely had scales that were siliceous, and Ediacaran sponges certainly produced siliceous spicules. This contrasts with the Phanerozoic, during which the appearance of radiolaria and diatoms changed the locus of silica precipitation (both primary and replacement) from the peritidal and shallow shelf deposits characteristic of the Neoproterozoic, Mesoproterozoic, and much of the Paleoproterozoic, to the deep ocean biogenic deposits since the mid to late Phanerozoic. Comparative petrography of Phanerozoic and Precambrian chert shows an additional early change in nonbiogenic chert deposition occurred toward the end of the Paleoproterozoic era and was marked by the end to widespread primary and early diagenetic silica precipitation in normal marine subtidal environments (Table 1; ca. 1.8 Ga Maliva et al., 2005). Interestingly, the Precambrian transition corresponds to the onset of a plate tectonic regime resembling that of today (Stern, 2007). It was also the time when sulphate levels in the world’s oceans had risen to where gypsum became a primary marine evaporite, as evidenced by large silicified anhydrite nodules (with anhydrite relics) in the late Paleoproterozoic Mallapunyah Fm in the McArthur Basin, Australia (Warren, 2016). Paleoproterozoic early diagenetic “normal marine” cherts generally formed nodules or discontinuous beds within carbonate deposits with similar depositional textures. It seems these “normal marine” cherts formed primarily by carbonate replacement with subsidiary direct silica precipitation. In saline settings cauliflower cherts are also obvious from this time onwards.


Some of these Paleoproterozoic peritidal cherts were associated with iron formations and are distinctly different from younger cherts and appear to have formed largely by direct silica precipitation at or just below the seabed. These primary cherts lack ghosts or inclusions of carbonate precursors, have fine-scale grain fracturing (possibly from syneresis), exhibit low grain-packing densities, and are not associated with unsilicified carbonate deposits of similar depositional composition (Perry and Lefticariu, 2014). Cherts in some Paleoproterozoic iron formations (e.g., the Gunflint Formation, northwestern Lake Superior region) are composed of silica types similar to those in Phanerozoic sinters (e.g., the Devonian Rhynie and Windyfield chert sinters, Scotland, both of which preserved fine-scale cellular detail of Devonian plants, fungi and cyanobacteria, as well as elevated gold levels in the fault feeder system). Such “normal marine cherts lie outside the evaporite focus of this series of articles and for more detail the reader is referred to Perry and Lefticariu, 2014 and references therein.

Archean crustal tectonics and silicification of world-scale evaporites

Archean evaporites were not deposited as saline giants within subsealevel restricted basins created by sialic continent-to-continent proximity setting. In the greenstone terranes that typified the early Archean these tectonic settings simply could not yet exist (Warren, 2016, Chapter 2). Stern (2007) defines plate tectonics as the horizontal motion of Earth’s thermal boundary layer (lithosphere) over the convecting mantle (asthenosphere), and so it is a world-scale system or set of processes mostly driven by lithosphere sinking (subduction pull). He argues that the complete set of processes and metamorphic indicators, associated with modern subduction zones, only became active at the beginning of the Neoproterozoic (≈ 1 Ga). Stern interprets the older record to indicate a progression of tectonic styles from active Archaean tectonics and magmatism (greenstone belts), to something akin to modern plate tectonics at around 1.9 Ga (Figure 1). If so, then modern world-scale plate tectonics only began in the early Neoproterozoic, with the advent of deep subduction zones (blueschists) and associated powerful slab pull mechanisms. Flament et al. (2008) argue that the world’s continents were mostly flooded (mostly covered with shallow ocean waters) until the end of the Archaean and that only 2–3 % of the Earth’s area consisted of emerged continental crust by around 2.5 Ga (aka “water-world”).

It is very likely that the Archaean Earth’s surface was broken up into many smaller plates with volcanic islands and arcs in great abundance (greenstone terranes). Small protocontinents (cratons) formed as crustal rock was melted and remelted by hot spots and recycled in subduction zones. There were no large continents in the Early Archaean, and small protocontinents were probably the norm by the MesoArchaean, when the higher rate of geologic activity (hotter core and mantle) prevented crustal segregations from coalescing into larger units (Figures 1 and 3 ). During the Early-Middle Archaean, Earth’s heat flow was almost three times higher than it is today, because of the greater concentration of radioactive isotopes and the residual heat from the Earth’s accretion, hence the higher ocean temperatures (Figure 2; Eriksson et al. 2004). At that time of a younger cooling earth there was considerably greater tectonic and volcanic activity; the mantle was more fluid and the crust much thinner. This resulted in rapid formation of oceanic crust at ridges and hot spots, and rapid recycling of oceanic crust at subduction zones with oceanic water cycling through hydrothermally active zones somewhat more intensely than today (Zegers and van Keken 2001; Ernst 2009; Flament et al. 2008).

In the Pilbara craton region of Australia significant crustal-scale delamination occurred ≈ 3.49 Ga, just before the production of voluminous TTG (tonalite, trondhjemite, and granodiorite) melts between 3.48 and 3.42 Ga and the accumulation sonic evaporites (Figure 3; Zegers and van Keken 2001). Delamination resulted in rapid uplift, extension, and voluminous magmatism, which are all features of the 3.48–3.42 Ga Pilbara succession. As the delaminated portion was replaced by hot, depleted mantle, melts were produced by both decompressional melting of the mantle, resulting in high-MgO basalts (this is the Salgash Subgroup in the Pilbara craton), and melting of the gabbroic and amphibolitic lower crust, so producing TTG melts. Partial melting of the protocrust to higher levels can be envisaged as a multistep process in which heat was conducted to higher levels and advection of heat occurs by intrusion of partial melts in subsequently higher levels (indicated by purple arrows in Figure 3). TTG melt products that were first intruded were subsequently metamorphosed and possibly partially melted, as can be inferred from the migmatitic gneisses of the Pilbara. This multistep history explains the complex pattern of U-Pb zircon ages of gneisses and granodiorites found within the Pilbara batholiths and the range in geochemical compositions of the Pilbara TTG suite.

Key to the formation of early Archaean evaporites, which indicate a sodium bicarbonate ocean at that time (see next section), is the observation that crustal delamination and the creation of TTG melts led to up to 2 km of crustal uplift (Figure 3). This would have driven some regions of what were submarine sedimentary systems into suprasealevel positions in the Archean waterworld, so creating the potential for hydrographically-isolated subsealevel marine seepage sumps in those portions of the uplifted crust above the zones of delamination. It also explains the centripetal nature of much shallow marine sedimentation of that time. This is cardinal at the broad tectonic scale when comparing the distribution of Archaean and Phanerozoic evaporites (Warren, 2016). Most Archaean evaporite are remnants that are pervasively silicified and underlain by layered igneous complexes, which were dominant across the greenstone seafloor and are associated with bottom-nucleated baryte beds tied to hydrothermal seeps.

Felsic protocontinents (suprasealevel cratons) hosting silicified evaporite remnants probably formed atop Archaean hot spots from a variety of sources: mafic magma melting more felsic rocks, partial melting of mafic rock, and from the metamorphic alteration of felsic sedimentary rocks. Although the first continents formed during the Archaean, rock of this age makes up only 7% of the world’s current cratons; even allowing for erosion and destruction of past formations, evidence suggests that only 5–40 % of the present volume continental crust formed during the Archaean. 

Archean oceans and silicified sodic evaporites 

Chert styles and occurrences in saline settings across deep time clearly show that we cannot carry Phanerozoic silica mobility models in saline lacustrine or CaSO4 evaporite associations directly across time into the deep Precambrian. Rather, comparisons must be made in a context of the evolution of the earth’s atmosphere and associated ocean chemistry, both of which are in part related to the earth's tectonic evolution.

Levels of early Archaean sulphate in the world ocean were probably less than a few percent of the current levels and probably remained so until the evolution of an oxygen-reducing biota into the Proterozoic (Habicht and Canfield 1996; Kah et al. 2004; Warren, 2016). Grotzinger and Kasting (1993) argue that high levels of atmospheric CO2 meant HCO3/Ca ratios were much higher in the Archaean and the Paleoproterozoic oceans than today. All the calcium in seawater was deposited as marine cement-stones and other alkaline earth precipitates well before bicarbonate was depleted and there was no Ca left over to precipitate as gypsum. The early Archaean waterworld ocean was likely a Na–Cl–HCO3 sea, and not the Na–Cl ocean of today (Kempe and Degens 1985; Maisonneuve 1982). This early Archaean hydrosphere had a chemistry similar to that found in modern soda lakes like Lake Magadi and Lake Natron (pathway I brines) and hence the term “soda-lake oceans.” This rather different marine brine chemistry would have precipitated halite and trona/nahcolite, not halite/gypsum. It probably meant that if gypsum/anhydrite did ever precipitate directly from evaporating Archaean seawater it did so only in minor amounts well after the onset of halite precipitation.


The case for nahcolite (NaHCO3) as a primary evaporite (Figure 4a-d), along with halite, in the 3.42 Ga rocks of the Barberton greenstone belt was first documented by Lowe and Fisher-Worrell,1999), both the nahcolite and the halite are silicified. Beds of these silicified sodic evaporite define 5 types of precipitates: (1) large, pseudohexagonal prismatic crystals as much as 20 cm long that increase in diameter upward; (2) small isolated microscopic pseudohexagonal crystals; (3) small, tapering-upward prismatic crystals as much as 5 cm long; (4) small acicular crystallites forming halos around type 1 crystals; and (5) tightly packed, subvertical crystal aggregates within which individual crystals cannot be distinguished. Measurement of interfacial angles between prism and pinacoid faces on types 1 and 2 crystals show four interfacial angles of about 63° and two of about 53°. The morphologies and interfacial angles of these crystals correspond to those of nahcolite, NaHCO3 (Figure 4e). There is no clear evidence for the presence of gypsum in these beds. Sugitani et al. (2003) reported silicified nahcolite (the high CO2 form of sodium carbonate salts; see Warren, 2016, chapter 2) in ≈ 3.2 Ga rocks in the northern part of the Eastern Pilbara block, Western Australia (Figures 4, 5). Coarse, upward-radiating, silicified evaporite crystals in the ca. 3.47–3.46 Ga Strelley Pool Chert (Lowe 1983) show the same habit, geometry, and environmental setting as silicified nahcolite pseudomorphs in the Kromberg Fm. in the Barberton belt, South Africa, and also probably represent silicified NaHCO3 precipitates (Lowe and Tice 2004). Depositional reconstructions in both regions imply a strong hydrothermal association to the silicification of the evaporites in both regions as do bottom-nucleated baryte layers that define seafloor seeps fed by hydrothermal waters moving up faults (Figure 4f; Nijman et al., 1999; van den Boorn et al., 2007).

The pervasive presence of type 1 brines as ocean waters in the early Archean, along with elevated silica levels in most surface ocean waters, compared to the Phanerozoic, implies a significant portion of Archean cherts may also have had a volcanogenic sodium silicate precursor, much like the silicification seen in the modern African rift valley lakes (Eugster and Jones, 1968 and article 1 in this series of articles on silica mobilisation). So in order to decipher possible evaporite-silicification associations we must include aspects of hydrothermal fluid inherent to the Archean, as well as the likely higher surface temperatures that typified highly reducing (anoxic) waters of the early Archean ocean (Figure 3).

Archean evaporite deposition and silicification

Worldwide, the most widespread Archaean depositional environment, especially in early Archaean greenstone terranes, was the mafic plain environment (Condie 2016; Lowe 1994). In this setting, large volumes of basalt and komatiite were erupted to form widespread mostly submarine mafic plains characteristic by ubiquitous pillow structures in the lava interlayers. A second significant sedimentary environment was a deepwater, nonvolcanic setting, where chemical and biochemical cherts, banded iron formation, and carbonate laminites were deposited. The typical lack of evaporite indications in these mostly deepwater sediments indicates an ongoing lack of hydrologic restriction while the sediments were accumulating (waterworld association). The third association, a greywacke-volcanic association becomes more widespread in later Archaean greenstones, which typically sit stratigraphically atop mafic plain units. This association is composed chiefly of greywackes and interbedded calc-alkaline volcanics, hydrothermal precipitates and, in some shallower parts, silicified evaporites. It was perhaps mostly an island arc system and dominantly more open marine as it typically lacks widespread indicators of former marine evaporites. However, more locally it also preserves fluvial and shallow-marine detrital sediments, that were probably deposited locally in Archaean pull-apart basins, and associated with mineralogically mature sediments (quartzarenites, etc.). These more continental associations typified the shallowest to emergent parts of these continental rifts.

Unlike the other two early Archean  greenstone terranes this third terrane type can in places, such as the Pilbara, be tied to sedimentary indicators of a surfacing seafloor, indicated by particular chert and volcaniclastic layers showing mud cracks, wave ripples, tidalites interbedded with hyaloclastics, vuggy cherts, banded iron formations, carbonates and thick now-dissolved and altered type 1 evaporite masses (breccias), perhaps residues of beds formerly dominated by sodium carbonate and halite salts (Figure 5). The Warrawoona Group, preserves many such silicified examples that retain fine detail of primary textures such as mud cracks, oolites, and evaporite crystal casts and pseudomorphs, all indicating shallow-water to emergent deposition atop the mafic plain. In terms of crystal outlines there few if any casts of possible gypsum crystals, more typically, they indicate bladed pseudo-hexagonal, bottom-nucleated nahcolite, trona and in some instances, halite pseudomorphs (Figure 4).

Depositionally, to acquire the needed high salinities, these cherty evaporite units must have risen, at least locally, to shallow near-sealevel depths and at time become emergent, allowing local hydrographically-isolated lacustrine/rift evaporite subaqueous deposition or precipitation of local seepage drawdown salts. Associated primary-textured carbonate and baryte layers interbedded with the cherts are typically minor, bottom-nucleated baryte textures that may likely indicate hydrothermal vent deposits (Figure 4f; Nijman et al., 1999).

Inherent high solubility of any sodium bicarbonate and/or halite salts in what was a hotter burial system, more strongly influenced by hydrothermal circulation than today, meant most of the original sodic evaporite salts were not preserved, unless silicified in early burial. But their presence as silicified pseudomorphs in less-altered greenschist terranes intercalated with volcanics (Figure 4), such as in the Yilgarn, Pilbara and Kaapvaal cratons, clearly shows two things; (1) at times in the early Archaean waterworld there was sufficient hydrographic restriction to allow marine sodian carbonate and sodian chloride evaporites to form and (2) this marine restriction/seepage inflow was probably driven by ongoing volcanism and associated uplift, with evaporites restricted to particular basinwide stratigraphic indicator levels. In the East Pilbara, the early Archaean evaporite stratigraphic level is the Strelley Pool chert, in the Warrawoona group (Figure 5). This is also the level with some of the earliest indications of cellular life-forms (Wacey 2009).

For the original sodic evaporites, it marks the hydrological transition from open marine seafloor to a restricted hydrographically-isolated marine-fed sump basin, surrounded by granite-cored highs with the required uplift likely driven by delamination at the level of the mantle transition (Figures 1 and 3). Given the intimate association of chemical sediments to volcanism in early Archaean greenstone basins, and the sodium bicarbonate ocean chemistry then, compared to the Phanerozoic evaporite hydrochemistries, we can expect a higher proportion of CO2 volatilisation, a higher boron content (tourmalinites) in early Archaean, and a higher level of silicification.

Is the present the key to the past?

The study of silicified evaporites and associated sediments, formed in the early stages of the Earth’s 3.5 Ga sedimentary record, shows that not only has ocean chemistry evolved (see August 24, 2014 blog), the earth’s lithosphere/ plate tectonic character has also evolved (Eriksson et al. 2013). The further back in time, the less reliable is the application of the current plate tectonic paradigm with its strongly lateral movements of crustal blocks and associated plate-scale evaporite basin controls. Phanerozoic evaporites, and the associated silicified sulphate nodules, define a marine-fed seep system where subsealevel continental rifts and continent-continent collision belts favour the formation of mega-evaporite basins (Warren, 2010). Instead, in a substantial portion of the earlier part of the 2 billion year earth history that is the Archaean, shows early-earth evaporite deposition was favored by hydrographic isolation created by strong vertical movement of earth’s crust related to upwelling mantle plumes and crustal delamination with more intense hydrothermal circulation and silicification. There is still no real consensus as to actual time when plate tectonics, as it operates today, actually began, but there is consensus that the present, in terms of plate tectonics, plate-edge collision and evaporite distribution, is not the key to much of the Archaean (Stern 2007; Rollinson 2007).

Uplift and the local accumulation of sodium carbonate Archean evaporites occurred in a depositional setting that was dominated by volcaniclastics,hydrothermal vents and extensional tectonics. Tectonic patterns in these settings have a strongly vertical flavor. In contrast, Phanerozoic salts formed from marine waters with a NaCl dominance with minor bicarbonate compared to calcium, and located mostly in subsealevel sumps formed at interacting sialic plate margins where the dominant tectonic flavor is driven the lateral movement of plates atop a laterally moving asthenosphere and the relative proportion of vilified salts is lower.

Whatever and wherever the onset of Archaean evaporite deposition, all agree that the mechanisms and aerial proportions world-scale plate tectonics were different in early earth history compared to the Phanerozoic. The current argument as to how different is mostly centred on when earth-scale plate tectonic processes became similar to those of today. Given much higher crustal heat flows, it is likely that hydrographically isolated subsealevel depressions, required to form widespread marine evaporites were more localized in the Archaean than today and were more susceptible to hydrothermal alteration, metamorphism and silicification. Appropriate restricted brine sumps would have tended to occur in magmatically-induced uplift zones atop incipient sialic segregations, with crestal subsealevel grabens, which were hydrographically isolated by their surrounds created by supra-sealevel uplift. Once deposited, the higher heat flow in Archaean crust and mantle would also have meant any volumetrically significant evaporites masses were more rapidly recycled, silicified and replaced via diagenetic and metamorphic processes than today.

Some authors have noted that there are no widespread marine evaporites in the Archaean and in the sense of actual preserved salts, this is true. But when one considers that the Archaean crust was much hotter than today and hydrothermal circulation was more active and pervasive, then widespread burial preservation of the primary salts seems highly unlikely. Even in the Neoproterozoic, lesser volumes of the original salt masses remain (Hay et al. 2006). The lack of preserved salts in earlier Precambrian strata is perhaps more a matter of great age, polycyclic metamorphic alteration and the typical proximity to shallow hydrothermal fluids in emergent evaporite forming regions of the Archean waterworld. However we must also ask if the onset of modern styles of plate tectonics also played a role in the relative absence of preserved saline giants in strata older than 1Ga, In the next article we shall look how cooling and the onset of sialic plate tectonics similar to today, altered the types, styles and distributions of silicified and other evaporite salts as the world's oceans moved toward a chemistry more akin to that of today.



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Salt as a Fluid Seal: Article 1 of 4: External fluid source

John Warren - Saturday, December 19, 2015



In the next few articles, I plan to discuss salt’s ability to act as a fluid seal in a variety of halokinetic settings, as well as looking at the nature of the sealing salt. Of particular interest are formative mechanisms driving textural and permeability variations in zones that typify the salt side of the sealing boundaries in sub-vertical salt stems versus the lower contact transitions in sub-horizontal allochthons. In the first few articles, we shall focus on local-scale scenarios and salt seal textures, including situations where salt has leaked, and the intercrystalline or tetrahedral/polyhedral pores contain fluid or mineralogical evidence of leakage and crystal boundary dissolution. Within the salt mass, this is usually indicated by occurrences of “black” or “dark” salt in anomalous salt zones, some of which are intersected by workings in a number of salt mines. In contrast, in most oil exploration scenarios we only have wireline signatures to interpret the deeper and typically offshore seal horizons. Following on from that discussion, we shall look at more regional examples of cross-formational leakage. Finally, we will discuss implications of possible leakage in terms of understanding and predicting outcomes with respect to both waste storage and hydrocarbon sealing

“Black” or “dark” salt in anomalous salt zones

The geological term “black salt” covers a variety of salt textures and associated mechanisms of formation. The term “black” salt also has a non-technical culinary association (kala namak[1]) but, other than in the footnote, I will not discuss it further in this series of articles. The geological descriptor “black” or “dark” salt is widely used in the US salt mining industry as a pointer to possible zones of current or past natural fluid entry into the salt mass. Colouring fluids can be brine, oil or gas, often with solid impurities dominated by shale, anhydrite or calcite-dolomite. These intrasalt “black” or “dark” salt zones in a mine were also referred to as “shear” zones and considered pointers to what are often unstable regions, liable to fluid entry, gassy outbursts and roof or wall collapse. “Shear”, “black” and “dark” salt zones are better described under the broader term “anomalous salt” zones, many of which were or are  in fluid contact with the enclosing non-salt sediment mass (Kupfer, 1990).

In a somewhat related fashion, the term “black salt” is used by the oil industry in Oman and Europe to indicate subsurface zones of overpressured salt, where natural hydrofracturing has occurred, and hydrocarbons have penetrated up to 100 m into the sealing salt mass. Hence its dark color (naturally hydrofractured salt and its textures are the focus of the second article in this series on salt leakage). Fluid entry in this type of “black’ salt is ascribed to temperature-related changes in the dihedral angle of the halite crystals in “black” salt zones. In a similar fashion, the term “black” salt was used in a recent paper in Science by Ghanbarzadeh et al. (2015) and the dihedral angle changes are ascribed to temperature increases in halokinetic salt intervals in the offshore Gulf of Mexico. There the authors argue temperature increases have changed the intercrystalline dihedral angle in a salt mass, and so facilitated the entry of fluids from adjacent strata into the salt body.

So, the term “black” salt is used in the geological community without reference to geological criteria that can separate what I consider are at least two distinct styles of “black” or “dark” salt formation and leakage. One type of salt leakage occurs when the salt is relatively shallow and subject to dissolution driven by the entry of meteoric and other near-surface undersaturated waters into folded and refolded shear (anomalous) salt zones in and about salt stems and décollements. This typically occurs when the flowing salt crest is relatively shallow and tends to occur in regions where the leaking “black” salt zone is in contact with the nonsalt boundary edges of the halokinetic salt mass. This process set ultimately leads to an accumulation of insoluble residues (clays, anhydrite, gypsum, calcite, etc.) that define a unit called a caprock. The term “cap” is somewhat of a misnomer as “caprock” units also form on the sides and undersides of a salt mass, wherever the salt unit is in contact with undersaturated cross-flowing formational waters (Warren, 2016). The other type of “black salt, exemplified by the Ara salt in Oman is related to deeper salt burial, salt flow and an association with intrasalt pressurized fluids (a focus of next article in this series on salt leakage). Accordingly, if we are not to confuse styles of “black” salt genesis (meteoric or undersaturated fluid entry versus intrasalt overpressures) then a better non genetic term should be used to describe zones of "black" or "dark" salt. Although less euphonious, the better term is “anomalous” salt. This describes all zones within halite-dominant intervals with features that are not typical of the bulk of the main diapiric salt mass (Kupfer, 1990).

In this first article we look at various types of anomalous salt in salt mines, largely related to the entry of, or interaction with, undersaturated relatively shallow formation waters. The next article focuses on salt leakage and "black" salt related to overpressure. Then, as we shall see in the third article on salt leakage, there are significant implications of occurrences of anomalous salt with respect to practicalities of safe intrasalt storage and fluid contamination with respect to separating the two types of black salt. This is especially so when working in the subsurface without the luxury of core or mine wall exposures. Ignoring the origins of “black” or “dark” salt, and the associated implications for wireline interpretation, means any conclusions in terms of waste storage outcomes and/or hydrocarbon seal potential, by generalizing lab-based experimental results on leaking salt to all “black” salt occurrences in halokinetic settings, will be somewhat confused (e. g. Ghanbarzadeh et al., 2015).

Black salt (dark salt) in anomalous salt in response to undersaturated fluid entry

Intervals of “black” or dark salt are described in US Gulf Coast salt mines in publications by Balk (1953), Kupfer (1976, 1990) and Looff et al., (2010), the following observations are largely based on their work. Nearsurface (<1-2 km) portions of mined or cored diapirs with “black” salt zones in the Gulf Coast USA and Germany are segmented into a number of intradiapir zones showing differential movement between adjacent salt spines or flowing masses. The more homogenous intervals of consistently mineable salt ore are separated by anomalous zones, formerly called “shear” zones. This association of homogenous spines separated by narrower shear or anomalous zones was first mapped in mine walls in the Jefferson Island salt dome by Balk (1953). His work was one of a series of classic papers mapping the internal structural complexities and shears in various mined salt diapirs in the US Gulf Coast and the Zechstein of Germany. Subsequent work by Kupfer (1976) on the same US Gulf Coast Five-Island salt mines (Jefferson Island, Avery Island, Weeks Island, Cote Blanche and Belle Isle) further refined notions of internal shear and occurrences of “black” or “dark” salt in diapirs. Today, only the Cote Blanche and Avery Island salt mines are still in operation along the Five Island Salt Dome Trend (Figure 1)

A shear zone in a diapiric structure forms where adjacent parts of a salt structure are moving (rising or falling) at different rates. Such zones tend to dominate the perimeter of a salt structure across which salt mass is rising or falling with respect to the adjacent sediment and so grade outward from the salt spine into a boundary “shale sheath”. Older shear zones and shale sheaths also are commonplace in re-folded intervals within a salt stem. Mapping of these zones by Balk (1953), Muehlberger and Claubaugh (1968) and Kupfer (1976) across many salt mines showed salt in a diapir must flow at different rates at different times. Otherwise, the complex and highly variable internal refolded drape and napkin folds seen in diapirs in all the world’s salt mines could not form. Figure 2 illustrates some internal complexities the diapir scale typifying various diapiric salt structures across the world and the dominantlyvertical flow fabrics in diapir stems and subhorizonatal flow textures in overhangs and salt tongues. Figure 3 shows that same vertical dominance (biaxial elongation) of salt crystals from cores collected in diapir stems cored various salt mines, while Figure 4 shows the typical vertical banding fold style that typifies diapir stems.

Walden and Jacoby (1963) were the first to call attention to a Gulf Coast anomalous salt zone. They documented a fault zone in the Avery Island salt mine that separated the region of salt being mined, across an anomalous zone, from the domal core. To call attention to the zonal ductile, not brittle, nature of intradiapir salt flow, Kupfer, 1974 changed the description of such anomalous zones from "fault” zones to "shear” zones and concluded most intradiapir shear zones were not faulted zones (defined by brittle fracture offset). In a later paper, he suggested abandoning of the genetic and misleading term "shear zone" and proposed replacement with the broader nongenetic term "anomalous salt zone" (Kupfer, 1990).

The term “anomalous salt,” as defined by Kupfer (1990), is based on his then more than twenty years experience in various salt mines in the US Gulf Coast. An anomalous salt zone is defined broadly as a zone of anomalous features in salt of whatever origin. He noted that typical anomalous salt zone features are different to the majority of features in the adjacent salt and involve varying combinations of anomalous features that include:

Textures--Coarse-grained, piokiloblastic, friable

Inclusions--Sediments, hydrocarbons, brine, gases

Structures--Sheared salt, gas outbursts, brine leaks, undue roof and wall slabbing, jointing, voids, and slight porosity development

Compositions--Potash/magnesium, high anhydrite content, very black salt (made up of disseminated fluid and solid impurities.

The terms “anomalous salt” and “anomalous zones” as defined by Kupfer (1990), are based on observations across the various Five Island salt mines of South Louisiana (Figure 1). As later refined in Kupfer et al. (1998), anomalous salt is a rocksalt zone that deviates from what are considered typical domal salt. Typical Gulf Coast rocksalt according to Kupfer is reasonably pure halite (97%+/- 2%), with minor amounts of disseminated anhydrite (CaSO4) being the primary non-halite impurity. Grainsize is considered to be uniform with grain diameters of 3 – 10 mm (0.12 – 0.39 inches). With continued mapping of Five Island mines, Kupfer et al. (1998) and Looff et al. (2010) documented an even wider variety of anomalous salt zone characteristics and concluded that the creation of anomalous zones need not be related to faulting or shearing, but also can be related to fluid entry and salt dissolution (Figure 5). Anomalous salt can be defined by impurity content, structure, colour, or other features. Anomalous features may not have sharp contacts or uniform thickness, and most are not continuous over long distances. Individual anomalous features commonly disappear for tens of metres (hundreds of feet) only to appear over some horizontal distance. The internal salt fabric of a salt dome is always composed of both typical (volumetrically dominant) and anomalous salt. Kupfer (op. cit.) noted that other salt deposits, including horizontally bedded nonhalokinetic salt deposits in the Permian of West Texas and the Devonian of Western Canada, all have anomalous zones of various origins.

Further work in both the salt mines and salt cavern storage industry has increasingly invoked the concept of anomalous features, anomalous zones and boundary shear zones although there is still a significant confusion over the appropriate use of the terminology (Looff et al., 2010). Because of the flow experienced by diapiric salt, most anomalous salt features parallel the near vertical internal banding of the salt. Many anomalous salt features may create zones of differing creep, strength, or dissolution characteristics that can impact the solution mining and operation of a salt storage cavern and some are tied to zones of problematic fluid entry in a mine. An anomalous zone is any zone in a salt diapir that contains 3 or more dissimilar anomalous features (Kupfer, 1990). The term “anomalous” implies nothing regarding the genesis of the zone. While many anomalous zones may extend laterally over hundreds of metres in length, they are variable in nature, near vertical, and parallel to layering (Figure 5). Typical widths are poorly known but are commonly in the order of 30-50m; however individual structures or anomalous features within the anomalous zone may be as thin as millimetres.

Boundary Shear Zones (BSZ) and Edge Zones (EZ) are the two types of anomalous zones that have a genetic interpretation (Looff et al., 2010). Boundary shear zones are those zones that bound an active salt spine where the salt experiences increased shear stress due to differential salt movement. An edge zone is similar to a boundary shear zone except, instead of being internal within the dome, it is confined to the periphery of the salt stock. Anomalous salt is not restricted to shear zones, however within and about as diapir edge one can expect most anomalous salt to be associated with shear zones (Kupfer, 1990; Looff, 2000).

Anomalous zones within a salt spine are in many cases the remnants of relict BSZ’s from older spines incorporated into younger active salt spines and this especially obvious with those boundary zones associated with clastic impurities (Figure 6). Boundary shear zones and edge zones around the dome tend to be more problematic for storage caverns as they are likely to contain greater occurrences of anomalous salt, higher impurity content (including gas and brine) and structural features that may degrade salt quality and enable leakage. Thus salt caverns can be constructed within boundary salt zones, but if possible, they should be avoided as they can result in non-optimal operating conditions, long-term operational difficulties and in the most severe cases contribute to the loss of cavern integrity (Looff et al., 2010). In the case of edge zones, additional distance to the edge of the salt dome needs to be maintained not only to cover any uncertainty regarding the placement of the edge of salt with respect of mine workings but also to account for the potential for degraded salt quality and to provide a sufficient pillar of good quality salt between the mine or cavern wall and the edge of dome.

A top-of-salt boundary between aggradational and dissolutional components atop diapirs in the Five Islands salt landscape typically coincides with underlying anomalous zones of differential shear within the underlying diapir typically indicated by “black” or “dark” salt zones in the various diapirs (Kupfer, 1976; Lock, 2000). Where such interior anomalous “black” salt zones have intersected the edge of the salt mass, they tend to create intervals with a greater propensity for water entry or gas outbursts and unstable roof zone liable to slabbing and collapse (Figure 6). Such anomalous zones can leak water into a mine, and over the longer term create stability problems, as illustrated by problems in; the now abandoned Weeks Island oil storage facility, the Avery Island Salt Mine, and the likely association of a subvertical zone with anomalous salt, and the enhanced fluid entry that occurred during the Lake Peigneur collapse, which was tied to 1980 flooding of the former Jefferson Island Salt Mine. Today, only two of the former mines in the Five Island Salt Dome trend remain unflooded. For a more detailed discussion of these and other salt leakage scenarios tied to undersaturated fluid entry into salt mines and caverns, see case histories in Chapter 13, Warren 2016.

“Black” or “Dark” Salt zones and leakage into the former Weeks Island storage facility

In the walls of the now-flooded Weeks Island salt mine, Kupfer (1976) noted that wide black beds of the internal “shear” zone are unusual and not found over most of the rest of the mine where salt was extracted. In places, the anomalous zone beds contain black clay (Room J-21), orange sandstone (S-20), and other fragments of clastic material (Paine et al., 1965). These clastic remnants typically occur as balls or roundish blebs ranging in size up to tens of cm in diameter. Petroleum leaked out of seams in this black salt zone and seams in the surrounding salt; the escaping fluid ranged from yellow grease and heavy, blue oil to very light, straw-yellow distillate. Methane and carbon dioxide were also common. The width (surmised) and structural complexity of the anomalous zone suggest that internal salt movement continued after a clastic boundary sheath-zone was incorporated into the salt stock (Figure 7).

The cause of the drainage and abandonment of the Weeks Island oil storage facility was an active subsidence sinkhole some 10 metres across and 10 metres deep, first noted near the edge of the SPR facility in May 1992, and perhaps reaching the surface about a year earlier. The growing doline depression was located on the south-central portion of the island, directly over a subsurface trough, which was obvious in the top-of-salt contours based on former mine records before conversion to a hydrocarbon storage facility (Figure7; Neal and Myers, 1995). Earlier shallow exploratory drilling around the Department of Energy service and production shafts in 1986 had identified the presence of irregularities and brine-filled voids along the top of salt mass across this region. A second, much smaller sinkhole was noticed in early February 1995, but it did not constitute a serious threat as it lay outside the area of cavern storage.

The first sinkhole occurs in a position of sharp change in landform slope (transition from high island to gully fill) and lies atop the projected alignment of what is known as Shear Zone E (a dark salt zone) in the underlying salt (Autin and McCulloh, 1995). Neal (1994) pointed out that Kupfer’s 1976 map of that part of the Weeks Island salt mine, located beneath the first sinkhole, was defined by black salt (also shown as Figure 8 which is based on the more recent Kupfer et al. (1998) map). Miners always avoided such “black” salt or “dark” salt zones in the various subsurface workings and the lateral extent of workings in many of the Five Island mines extended only as far as intersections with significant “black” or “dark” salt regions (Figure 6 & 7).

The volume of the first Weeks Island sinkhole (estimated as 650 m3 when first noted), its occurrence over a trough in the top of salt, and its position directly above the oil-filled mine caverns, meant it was of urgent concern to the SPR authorities, especially in terms of the stability of the roof of the storage cavern. This feature did not form overnight; it lies atop a shear zone that formed during the diapiric rise of the salt and capped by a rockhead valley containing Pleistocene sediment fill. Salt extraction during mine operations probably created tension across the shear zone, thereby favouring fracture enlargement in the anomalous salt zone, as early perhaps as 1970 (Figure 6; Waltham et al., 2005). Eventually, an incursion of undersaturated groundwater traversed the fracture zone across some 107 m, from a level equivalent to the rockhead down to the mine where it emerged. Over time, ongoing dissolution enlarged a void at the top of the anomalous salt zone, creating the collapse environment for the sinkhole first noted at the land surface in 1991. Investigations were undertaken in 1994 and 1995 into the cause of active at-surface sinkholes verified that water from the aquifer above the Weeks Island salt dome was seeping into the underground oil storage chamber at the first sinkhole site (Figures 7& 8; Neal and Myers, 1995; Neal et al., 1995, 1997). Drainage and decommissioning of the Weeks Island facility followed.

Beginning in 1994, and continuing until the abandonment of the facility, saturated brine was injected directly into the throat of the first sinkhole, which lay some 75 metres beneath the surface. This essentially arrested further dissolution and bought time for DOE (Department of Energy) to prepare for the safe and orderly transfer of crude oil to another storage facility. To provide added insurance during the oil transfer stage, a “freeze curtain” was constructed in 1995. It consisted of a 54 well installation around the principal sinkhole, which froze the overburden and uppermost salt to a depth of 67 metres (Figure 9; Martinez et al., 1998). Until the mine was filled with brine and its hydrocarbons removed, this freeze wall prevented groundwater flow into the mine via the region of black salt around the sinkhole. Dealing with this sinkhole was costly. Mitigation and the removal and transfer of oil, including the dismantling of infrastructure (pipelines, pumps, etc.), cost a total of nearly US$100 million; the freeze curtain itself cost nearly $10 million.

Following oil fill in 1980-1982, the Weeks Island facility had stored some 72.5 million BBL of crude oil in abandoned mine chambers. Then in November 1995, the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated oil drawdown procedures, along with brine refill and oil skimming, plus numerous plugging and sealing activities. In 1999, at the end of this recovery operation, about 98% of the crude oil had been recovered and transferred to other SPR facilities in Louisiana and Texas; approximately 1.47 MMBL remains in the now plugged and abandoned mine workings. In hindsight, based on an earlier leak into the mine, while it was an operational mine, and the noted presence of black salt in a shear zone in the mined salt, one might fault the initial DOE decision to select this mine for oil storage. In 1978 groundwater had already leaked into a part of the mine adjacent to the sinkhole and this was forewarning of events to come (Martinez et al., 1998). Injection of cement grout into the flow path controlled the leak into the operation mine at that time, but it could just as easily have become uncontrollable and formed a sinkhole then.

Black salt zones in the now-flooded Jefferson Island Salt Mine and the 1980 Lake Peigneur collapse

The most recently risen part of the Jefferson Island stock crest is now 250 m (800 ft) higher than the adjacent flat-topped salt mass, which is also overlain by a cap rock (Figure 10). The boundary separating the spine from the less active portion of the crest is a finer-grained and a “shale-rich” anomalous zone, penetrated by the former Jefferson Island mine workings. It defined a limit to the extent of salt mining in the diapir, which was focused on extracting the purer salt within the Jefferson Island spine. The spine and its boundary “shear” are reflected in the topography of the Jefferson Island landscape, with a solution lake, called Lake Peigneur, defining the zone of shallower salt created by the active spine. There on November 20, 1980, one of the most spectacular sinkhole events associated with oilwell drilling occurred atop the Jefferson Island dome just west of New Iberia. Lake Peigneur disappeared as it drained into an underlying salt mine cavern and a collapse sinkhole, some 0.91 km2 in area, developed in the SE portion of the lake (Figure 11; Autin, 2002; Warren 2016). In the 12 hours following the first intersection the underlying mine had flooded and the lake was completely drained. The lake is about 2.4 km in diameter, has a bean-shaped configuration, with a topographic promontory along the southeast shore of the lake rising to more than 23 m above sea level and the surrounding delta plain (Figure 10).

Drainage and collapse of the lake began when a Texaco oilrig, drilling from a pontoon in the lake, breached an unused section of the salt mine some 1000 feet (350 metres) below the lake floor (Figure 11). Witnesses working below ground described how a wave of water instantly filled an old sump in the mine measuring some 200 ft across and 24 feet deep. This old sump was in contact with a zone of anomalous “black” (shear zone) salt. The volume of floodwater engulfing the mine corridors couldn’t be drained by the available pumps. At the time of flooding the mine had four working levels and one projected future level. The shallowest was at 800 feet, it was the first mined level and had been exploited since 1922. The deepest part of the mine at the time of flooding was the approach rampways for a planned 1800 foot level. Some 23-28 million m3 of salt had been extracted in the preceding 58 years of mine life. The rapid flush of lake water into the mine, probably augmented by the drainage of natural solution cavities in the anomalous salt zone and associated collapse grabens below the lake floor, meant landslides and mudflows developed along the perimeter of the Peigneur sinkhole, so that post flooding the lake was enlarged by 28 ha.

With water filling the mine workings, the surface entry hole in the floor of Lake Peigneur quickly grew into a half-mile-wide crater. Eyewitnesses all agreed that the lake drained like a giant unplugged bathtub—taking with it trees, two oil rigs (worth more than $5 million), eleven barges, a tugboat and a sizeable part of the Live Oak Botanical Garden. It almost took local fisherman Leonce Viator Jr. as well. He was out fishing with his nephew Timmy on his fourteen-foot aluminium boat when the disaster struck. The water drained from the lake so quickly that the boat got stuck in the mud, and they were able to walk away! The drained lake didn’t stay dry for long, within two days it was refilled to its normal level by Gulf of Mexico waters flowing backwards into the lake depression through a connecting bayou (Delcambre Canal, aka Carline Bayou) former what was a waterfall with the highest drop in the Stat of Louisiana. Since parts of the lake bottom had slumped into the sinkhole during the collapse, the final water level in some sections of the lake was higher than before relative to previous land features. This ground movement and subsidence left one former lakefront house aslant under 12 feet of water.

Implications for other salt mines with anomalous salt zone intersections.

The Peigneur disaster had wider resource implications as it detrimentally affected the profitability of other salt mines in the Five Islands region (Autin, 2002). Even as the legal and political battles at Lake Peigneur subsided, safe mining operations at the nearby Belle Isle salt mine came into contention with public perceptions questioning the structural integrity of the salt dome roof. During ongoing operations, horizontal stress on the mineshaft near the level where the Louann Salt contacts the overlying Pleistocene Prairie Complex across a zone of anomalous salt had caused some mine shaft deterioration. Broad ground subsidence over the mine area was well documented and monitored, as was near continuous ground water leakage into the mine workings. The Peigneur disaster meant an increased perception of continued difficulty with mine operations and an increased risk of catastrophic collapse was considered a distinct possibility. In 1985, a controlled flooding of the Belle Isle Salt m\Mine was completed as part of a safe closure plan.

Subsidence over the nearby Avery Island salt mine (operated by Cargill Salt) has been monitored since 1986 when small bead-shaped sinkholes were initially noticed in the above mine region. Subsidence monitoring post-1986 defined a broad area of bowl-shaped subsidence, within associated areas of gully erosion (Autin, 2002). Avery mine is today the oldest operating salt mine in the United States and has been in continual operation since the American Civil War. The mine underwent a major reconstruction and a improved safety workover after the Lake Peigneur disaster. Subsidence is still occurring today along the active mine edge, which coincides with a topographic saddle above an anomalous salt zone, which is located inside the mined salt area. At times, ground water has seeped into the mine, and there are a number of known soil gas anomalies and solution dolines on the island. These are natural features that predate mining. Much of the subsidence on Avery Island is a natural process as differential subsidence occurs atop any shallow salt structure with the associated creation of zones of anomalous salt (Warren, 2016). Dating of middens and human artifacts around salt-solution induced, water-filled depressions atop the dome, shows dissolution-induced subsidence is a natural process, as are short episodes of lake floor collapse, slumping and the creation of water-filled suprasalt dolines (circular lakes). Such landscape events and their sedimentary signatures have histories that extend back well beyond the 3,000 years of human occupation documented on Avery Island (Autin, 2002).

Compared to the other salt domes of the Five Islands region of Louisiana, the Cote Blanche Island salt mine has benefited from a safe, stable salt mine operation throughout the mine life (Autin, 2002). Reasons for this success to date are possibly; (i) mining operations have not been conducted as long at Cote Blanche Island as other nearby domes, (ii) the Cote Blanche salt dome may have better natural structural integrity than other islands, thus allowing for greater mine stability (although it too has anomalous salt zones, a salt overhang, and other structural complexities), and (iii) the Cote Blanche Salt Mine is surrounded by more clayey (impervious) sediments than the other Five Islands diapirs, all with sandier surrounds, perhaps allowing for lower rates of undersaturated fluid crossflow and greater hydrologic stability.


And so, today, we know that anomalous salt zones near diapirs crests are often tied to subvertical fault or shear zones, and that many are also associated with the presence of past crossflows of undersaturated waters. Across the various US Gulf Coast mines (present and past) the anomalous (“shear”) salt zones within diapirs are known to be potential problematic leakage zones and so are avoided, if possible, during mining operations. This style of black salt distribution and the potential for intrasalt leakage must be taken into account when near-crestal and shallower portions of domes are to be utilised for any fluid or waste storage. Without an understanding of the significance of such “black” salt or anomalous salt layers, there are potential undefined leakage problems within some salt structures (Looff et al., 2010; Warren 2016).



Autin, W. J., 2002, Landscape evolution of the Five Islands of south Louisiana: scientific policy and salt dome utilization and management: Geomorphology, v. 47, p. 227-244.

Autin, W. J., and R. P. McCulloh, 1995, Quaternary geology of the Weeks and Cote Blanche islands salt domes: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 45, p. 39-46.

Balk, R., 1953, Salt Structure of Jefferson Island Salt Dome, Iberia and Vermilion Parishes, Louisiana: Bulletin American Association Petroleum Geologists, v. 37, p. 2455-2474.

Ghanbarzadeh, S., M. A. Hesse, M. Prodanović, and J. E. Gardner, 2015, Deformation-assisted fluid percolation in rock salt: Science, v. 350, p. 1069-1072.

Kupfer, D., 1976, Shear zones inside Gulf Coast salt stocks help to delineate spines of movement: Bulletin American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 60, p. 1434-1447.

Kupfer, D., 1980, Problems associated with anomalous zones in Louisiana salt stocks, USA, in A. H. Coogan, and H. Lukas, eds., Fifth Symposium on Salt (Hamburg, Germany, June 1978), v. 1: Cleveland OH, Northern Ohio Geological Society, p. 119-134.

Kupfer, D. H., 1974, Boundary shear zones in salt stocks: in Fourth Symposium on Salt. Northern Ohio Geological survey, v. 1, p. 215-225.

Kupfer, D. H., 1990, Anomalous features in the Five Islands salt stocks, Louisiana: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 40, p. 425-437.

Kupfer, D. H., B. E. Lock, and P. R. Schank, 1998, Anomalous Zones Within the Salt at Weeks Island, Louisiana: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 48, p. 181-191.

Lock, B. E., 2000, Geologic Mapping of Salt Mines in Salt Diapirs: Approaches and Examples from South Louisiana: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 50, p. 567-582.

Looff, K. M., 2000, Geologic and Microstructural Evidence of Differential Salt Movement at Weeks Island Salt Dome, Iberia Parish, Louisiana: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions, v. 50, p. 543-555.

Looff, K. M., K. M. Looff, and C. Rautman, 2010, Salt spines, boundary shear zones and anomalous salts: Their characteristics, detection and influence on salt dome storage caverns: Paper presented at Solution Mining Research Institute Spring 2010 Technical Conference, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA, 26-27 April 2010, 23 p.

Martinez, J. D., K. S. Johnson, and J. T. Neal, 1998, Sinkholes in Evaporite Rocks: American Scientist, v. 86, p. 38.

Muehlberger, W. R., and P. S. Clabaugh, 1968, Internal Structure and Petrofabrics of Gulf Coast Salt Domes: AAPG Memoir, v. 8, p. 90-98.

Neal, J. T., 1994, Surface features indicative of subsurface evaporite dissolution: Implications for storage and mining: Solution Mining Research Institute, Meeting paper, 1994 Spring meeting, Houston Texas.

Neal, J. T., S. Ballard, S. J. Bauer, B. L. Ehgartner, T. E. Hinkebein, E. L. Hoffman, J. K. Linn, M. A. Molecke, and A. R. Sattler, 1997, Mine-Induced Sinkholes Over the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) Storage Facility at Weeks Island, Louisiana: Geologic Mitigation Prior to and During Decommissioning, SAND96-2387A.: Presented at 6th Multidisciplinary Conference on Sinkholes and the Engineering & Environmental Impacts of Karst, Springfield, Missouri, April 6-9, 1997. Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM.

Neal, J. T., S. J. Bauer, and B. L. Ehgartne, 1995, Sinkhole Progression at the Weeks Island, Louisiana, Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) Site: Solution Mining Research Institute, Fall Meeting, San Antonio, Texas, October 1995. Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM.

Neal, J. T., and R. E. Myers, 1995, Origin, Diagnostics, and Mitigation of a Salt Dissolution Sink-hole at the U,S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve Storage Site, Weeks Island Louisiana,: Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM. Report Sandia SAND95-0222C Paper presented at the Fifth International Symposium on Land Subsidence, The Hague, October 1995. Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Land Subsidence, IAHS Publ. No. 234.

Paine, W. R., M. W. Mitchell, R. R. Copeland Jr., and L. d. A. Gimbrede, 1965, Frio and Anahuac Sediment Inclusions, Belle Isle Salt Dome, St. Mary Parish, Louisiana: American Association Petroleum Geologists - Bulletin, v. 49, p. 616-620.

Walden, W., and C. H. Jacoby, 1963, Exploration by horizon­tal drilling at Avery Island, Louisiana, in A. C. Bersticker, ed., Symposium on Salt (First): Cleveland, OH, Northern Ohio Geo­logical Society, p. 367-376.

Waltham, T., F. Bell, and M. Culshaw, 2005, Sinkholes and Subsidence: Karst and Cavernous Rocks in Engineering and Construction: Berlin Heidelberg, Springer Praxis Books, 382 p.

Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released Jan-Feb. 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.



[1] Pungent-smelling condiment Kala Namak (black salt) is widely used in South Asia, it consists primarily of sodium chloride with trace impurities of sodium sulphate, sodium bisulphate, sodium bisulphite, sodium sulphide. Kala Namak is also known as Himalayan Black Salt, Sulemani Namak, Bit Lobon , Kala Noon or as Bire Noon in Nepal. Its characteristic smell and taste is mainly due to its elevated sulfur content, which to a western nose is reminiscent of rotten eggs, largely due to the presence of greigite. The various iron impurities impart a brownish pink to dark violet colour to the coarse translucent crystals and, when ground into a powder, transform into a light purple to pink color.

Traditionally, mined salt was transformed from the raw natural form of salt into commercially-sold kala namak through a reductive chemical process. This heating transforms some of the naturally occurring iron oxidew and sodium sulfates in the raw salt into pungent hydrogen sulfide and sodium sulfide daughter products (along with greigite.[ The various sulphate salt impurities in the halite typify the partially recrystallised meteoric overprints that typify textures and structures in nearsurface salt residues in the Himalayan thrust belt (see Richards et al., 2015 for documentation of the geological and structural characteristics of this salt – this article can be downloaded from the publications page on this website).

Historically, the transformation of Himalayan thrust belt salt into kala namak involved firing the raw salt in a furnace for 24 hours, while sealed in a ceramic jar containing charcoal along with small quantities of harad seeds, amla, bahera, babul bark, or natron. The fired salt was then cooled, stored, and aged prior to sale. Kala namak is still prepared in this manner in northern India with production concentrated in Hisar district, Haryana. Although the kala namak can still be produced from natural salts with the required compounds, it is now common to now manufacture it synthetically using halite from non-Himalayan sources. This is done through combining sodium chloride with smaller quantities of sodium sulfate, sodium bisulfate and ferric sulfate, which are then chemically reduced with charcoal in a furnace. Reportedly, it is also possible to create similar products through reductive heat treatment of sodium chloride, 5–10% of sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, and some sugar.




Seawater chemistry (1 of 2): Potash bitterns and Phanerozoic marine brine evolution

John Warren - Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The significance of evaporites as indicators of the chemical evolution of seawater across time and in relation to potash bitterns is considered in the next two Salty Matters articles. This article focuses on Phanerozoic seawater chemistry, where actual salts are widespread and the proportions of potash bittern salts are a useful pointer to the chemical makeup of the mother brine. Throughout both articles, the term “lower salinity” refers to marine brines with salinities between one and ten times that of ambient seawater. The second article considers seawater chemistry based on Precambrian evaporites, where much of the evidence of mother brine composition comes from salt pseudomorphs, rather than remnants of actual salts. In the second article we shall see that atmospheric conditions in the Early Precambrian were reducing and hotter than today, so that seawater was more saline, warmer, anoxic, with higher levels of calcium and bicarbonate compared to Phanerozoic seawater. Gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O), which requires free sulphate, was a rare precipitate during concentration of Archean seawater. Changing atmospheric proportions of CO2, CH4 and O2 meant sodium carbonate salts were significant lower-salinity early Archean marine-brine precipitates. Yet today, sodium carbonate salts, such as trona (NaHCO3.Na2CO3), nahcolite (NaHCO3) and shortite (2CaCO3.Na2CO3) cannot precipitate from a brine with the ionic proportions of modern seawater. The presence of sodium carbonate salts in any evaporite succession across the Phanerozoic is a reliable indicator of a nonmarine mother brine (Figure 1).

A Phanerozoic dichotomy: evolving marine potash bitterns

Consistently across the last 550 million years, halite and gypsum (mostly converted to anhydrite in the subsurface) are the dominant lower-salinity marine salts. But potash-bittern evaporite associations plotted across the same time framework define two end-members (Figure 1):

1) Sulphate-enriched potash deposits, with ores typically composed of halite (NaCl) with carnallite (MgCl2.KCl.6H2O) and lesser sylvite (KCl), along with varying combinations of MgSO4 salts, such as polyhalite (2CaSO4.MgSO4.K2SO4.H2O), kieserite (MgSO4.H2O) kainite (4MgSO4.4KCl.11H2O) and langbeinite (2MgSO4. K2SO4); and

2) Sulphate-depleted potash deposits are composed of halite with sylvite and carnallite, and entirely free or very poor in the magnesium-sulphate salts. The sulphate-depleted association typifies more than 65% of the world’s exploited Phanerozoic potash deposits. Sylvite ores with this association have properties that are easier to process cheaply (Warren 2016; see also blog 4 of 4 in the Salty Matters Danakhil articles).

The sulphate-enriched group of ancient potash salts contains a bittern mineral suite predicted by the evaporation and backreaction of seawater with proportions similar to modern marine brine. In contrast, the sulphate-depleted group of bittern salts must have precipitated from Na-Ca-Mg-K-Cl brines with ionic proportions quite different from that of concentrated modern seawater. The separation between the two bittern associations is defined by brine evolution across the gypsum divide. That is, once gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O) and halite (NaCl) have precipitated in the lower salinity spectrum, are the remaining brines enriched in sulphate or calcium (Figure 1)? The greater suitability for potash utilisation of the sulphate depleted bitterns makes understanding and hence predicting occurrences of the sulphate-depleted association in time and space a useful first-order potash exploration tool.

Why the dichotomy?

In the older literature dealing with Phanerozoic salt chemistry, MgSO4-depleted potash evaporites were often explained as diagenetically-modified marine evaporite brines, thought to result from backreactions during burial diagenesis of normal marine waters (Borchert, 1977; Dean, 1978; Wilson and Long, 1993). If so, then the mother seawater source across the Phanerozoic had ionic proportions like those of today, but diagenetically altered via; a) dolomitisation, b) sulphate-reducing bacterial action, c) mixing of brines with calcium bicarbonate-rich river water, or d) rock-fluid interaction during deep burial diagenesis. As another option, Hardie (1990) suggested MgSO4-depleted potash bitterns formed by the evaporative concentration of sulphate-depleted nonmarine inflow waters seeping into an evaporite basin via springs and faults. Such springs were sourced either from CaCl2-rich hot hydrothermal brines or via cooling of deep basinal brines. Such fault-fed deeply-circulating CaCl2 brines source the various springs feeding the Dead Sea, the Qaidam Basin, the Salton Sea and the Danakil Depression. In all these cases, the elevated salinities of inflow waters are related, at least in part, to the dissolution of buried evaporites. Upwelling of brines in these regions is driven either by thermally-induced density instabilities, related to magma emplacement, or by the creation of tectonically-induced topographic gradients that force deeply-circulated basinal brines to the surface. Ayora et al. (1994) demonstrated that such a deeply-circulating continental Ca–Cl brine system operated during deposition of sylvite and carnallite in the upper Eocene basin of Navarra, southern Pyrenees, Spain.

Today, a more widely accepted explanation for SO4-enriched versus SO4-depleted Phanerozoic potash bitterns, is that seawater chemistry has evolved across deep time. Background chemistry of the marine potash dichotomy is simple and can be related to brine evolution models published by Hardie more than 30 years ago (Hardie, 1984). He found that the constituent chemical proportions in the early stages of concentration of any marine brine largely controls the chemical makeup of the subsequent bittern stages. These ionic proportions control how a brine passes through the lower salinity CaCO3 and gypsum divides (Figure 1). That is, a marine brine’s bittern make-up is determined by the ionic proportions in the ambient seawater source. It determines the carbonate mineralogy during the precipitation of relatively insoluble evaporitic carbonates (aragonite, high-magnesium calcite, or low-magnesium calcite) which in turn controls its constituent chemistry as it attains gypsum saturation. These two stages are called the CaCO3 and gypsum divides. Hence, the chemical passage of a bittern is controlled by the ionic proportions in the original ambient seawater. The CaCO3 divide kicks in when a concentrating seawater brine attains a salinity around twice that of normal seawater (60‰). The gypsum divide occurs when brine concentrations are around 4-5 times that of normal seawater (140-160‰). Normal seawater has a salinity around 35-35‰ and the various potash bittern salts precipitate when concentrations are around 40-60 times that of the original seawater (Figure 2 – lower part).

As seawater concentrates and calcium carbonate mineral(s) begin to precipitate at the CaCO3 divided then, depending on the relative proportions of Ca and HCO3 in the mother seawater, either Ca is used up, or the HCO3 is used up. If the Ca is used up first, an alkaline brine (pH>10) forms, with residual CO3, along with Na, K, SO4 and Cl, but no remaining Ca (Figure 1). With ongoing concentration this brine chemistry will then form sodium bicarbonate minerals, it cannot form gypsum as all the Ca is already used up. Such an ionic proportion chemistry likely defined oceanic waters in the early Archaean but is not relevant to seawater evolution in the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic, as evidenced by widespread gypsum (anhydrite) or pseudomorphs in numerous post-Archean marine-evaporite basins. At higher concentrations, early Archean marine brines would have produced halite and sylvite bittern suites, but with no gypsum or anhydrite (Figure 1).

If, instead, HCO3 is used up during initial evaporitic carbonate precipitation, as is the case for all Phanerozoic seawaters, the concentrating brine becomes enriched in Ca and Mg, and a neutral brine, depleted in carbonate, is formed. Then the ambient Mg/Ca ratio in a concentrating Phanerozoic seawater will control whether the first-formed carbonate at the CaCO3 divide is aragonite (Mg/Ca>5) or high-magnesium calcite (2>Mg/Ca>5), or low-Mg calcite(Mg/Ca>2). The latter Mg/Ca ratio is so low it is only relevant to concentrating Cretaceous seawaters. Elevated Mg/Ca ratios favouring the precipitation of aragonite over high Mg-calcite typify modern marine seawater brines, which have Mg/Ca ratios that are always >5 (Figure 2). At lower salinities, modern marine brines are Na-Cl waters that with further concentration and removal of Na as halite evolve in Mg-SO4-Cl bitterns (Figure 2)


The next chemical divide reached by concentrating marine Phanerozoic brines (always depleted in HCO3 at the carbonate divide) occurs when gypsum precipitates at around 4-5 times the concentration of the original seawater (Gypsum divide in Figure 1). As gypsum continues to precipitate, either the Ca in the brine is used up, or the SO4 in the brine is used up. If the Ca is depleted, a calcium-free brine rich in Na, K, Mg, Cl, and SO4 will be the final product and the diagnostic bittern minerals will include magnesium sulphate minerals. This is the pathway followed by modern seawater bitterns. If, however, the sulphate is used up via gypsum precipitation, the final brine will be rich in Na, K, Mg, Ca, and Cl. Such a sulphate-depleted brine precipitates diagnostic potassium and magnesium chloride minerals such as sylvite and carnallite. If calcium-chloride levels are very high, then diagnostic (but uncommon) minerals such as tachyhydrite (CaCl2.2MgCl2.12H2O), and antarcticite (CaCl2.6H2O) can precipitate from this brine. But both these assemblages contain no sulphate bittern minerals, making potash processing relatively straightforward (Warren, 2016). In Phanerozoic marine salt assemblages, tachyhydrite, which is highly hygroscopic, is present in moderate quantities only in Cretaceous (Aptian) marine sylvite-carnallite associations in the circum-Atlantic potash basins and the Cretaceous (Albian) Maha Sarakham salts of Thailand, along with its equivalents in Laos and western China. The CaCl2-entraining bittern mineral assemblages of these deposits imply ionic proportions of Cretaceous seawater differ from those of today.

Inclusion evidence

Based on a study of brine inclusion chemistry preserved in halite chevrons, from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian, 121.0–112.2 Ma) of the Sergipe Basin, Brazil, the Congo Basin, Republic of the Congo, and the Early to Late Cretaceous (Albian to Cenomanian, 112.2–93.5 Ma) of the Khorat Plateau, Laos and Thailand, Timofeeff et al. (2006) defined a very different chemical makeup for Cretaceous seawater, compared to that of today. Brine proportions in the fluid inclusions in these halites indicate that Cretaceous seawaters were enriched several fold in Ca, depleted in Na and Mg, and had lower Na/Cl, Mg/Ca, and Mg/K ratios compared to modern seawater (Table 1). 

Elevated Ca concentrations, with Ca>SO4 at the gypsum divide, allowed Cretaceous seawater to evolve into Mg–Ca–Na–K–Cl brines lacking measurable sulphate. Aptian seawater was extreme in its Ca enrichment, more than three times higher than present day seawater, with a Mg/Ca ratio of 1.1–1.3. Younger, Albian-Cenomanian seawater had lower Ca concentrations, and a higher Mg/Ca ratio of 1.2–1.7. Cretaceous (Aptian) seawater has the lowest Mg/Ca ratios so far documented in any Phanerozoic seawater from fluid inclusions in halite, and lies well within the range chemically favourable for precipitation of low-Mg calcite ooids and cements in the marine realm.

Likewise, a detailed analysis of the ionic make-up of Silurian seawater using micro-inclusion analysis of more than 100 samples of chevron halite from various Silurian deposits around the world was published by Brennan and Lowenstein (2002), clearly supports the notion that ionic proportions in the world’s Silurian oceans were different from those of today (Figure 3). Samples were from three formations in the Late Silurian Michigan Basin, the A-1, A-2, and B Evaporites of the Salina Group, and the Early Silurian in the Canning Basin (Australia) in the Mallowa Salt of the Carribuddy Group. The Silurian ocean had lower concentrations of Mg, Na, and SO4, and much higher concentrations of Ca relative to the ocean’s present-day composition (Table 1). Furthermore, Silurian seawater had Ca in excess of SO4. Bittern stage evaporation of Silurian seawater produced KCl-type potash minerals that lack the MgSO4-type late stage salts formed during the evaporation of present-day seawater and allowed sylvite as a primary precipitate. In a similar fashion, work by Kovalevych et al. (1998) on inclusions in primary-bedded halite from many evaporite formations of Northern Pangaea, and subsequent work using micro-analyses of fluid inclusions in numerous chevron halites (Lowenstein et al., 2001, 2003), shows that during the Phanerozoic the chemical composition of marine brines has oscillated between Na-K-Mg-Ca-Cl and Na-K-Mg-Cl-SO4 types. The former does not precipitate MgSO4 salts when concentrated, the latter does (Figure 3). A recent paper by Holt et al. (2014), focusing on chevron halite inclusions from various Carboniferous evaporite basins, further refined the transition from the Palaeozoic CaCl2 high Mg-calcite sea into a MgSO4-enriched aragonite ocean of the Permo-Carboniferous, so showing CaCl2 oceanic chemistry (and sylvite-dominant bitterns) extend somewhat further across the Palaeozoic than previously thought (Figure 4).


More recent work has shown varying sulphate levels in the Phanerozoic ocean rather than Mg/Ca variations are perhaps more significant in controlling aragonite versus calcite at the CaCO3 divide and the associated evolution of MgSO4-enriched versus MgSO4-depleted bittern suites in ancient evaporitic seaways than previously thought. Bots et al. (2011) found experimentally that an increase in dissolved SO4 decreases the Mg/Ca ratio at which calcite is destabilized and aragonite becomes the dominant CaCO3 polymorph in an ancient seaway (Figure 5). This suggests that the Mg/Ca and SO4 thresholds for the onset of ancient calcite seas are significantly lower than previous estimates and that Mg/Ca levels and SO4 levels in ancient seas are mutually dependent. Rather than variations in Mg/Ca ratio in seawater being the prime driver of the aragonite versus calcite ocean chemistries across the Phanerozoic, they conclude sulphate levels are an equally important control.


There is now convincing inclusion-based evidence that the chemistry of seawater has varied across the Phanerozoic from sulphate-depleted to sulphate-enriched, what is not so well understood are the various worldscale processes driving the change (Figure 4). Spencer and Hardie (1990) and Hardie (1996) argued that the level of Mg in the Phanerozoic oceans has been relatively constant across time, but changes in the rate of seafloor spreading have changed the levels of Ca in seawater. This postulate is also supported in publications by Lowenstein et al. (2001, 2003). Timing of the increase of Ca in the world’s oceans was likely synchronous with a decrease in the SO4 ion concentration, which at times was as much as three times lower than the present.

Simple mixing models show that changes in the flux rate of mid-oceanic hydrothermal brines can generate significant changes in the Mg/Ca, Na/K and SO4/Cl ratios in seawater (Table 1). Changes of molal ratios in seawater have generated significant changes in the type and order of potash minerals at the bittern stage. For example, Spencer and Hardie’s (1990) model predicts that an increase of only 10% in the flux of mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal brine over today’s value would create a marine bittern that precipitates sylvite and calcium-chloride salts, as occurred in the Cretaceous instead of the Mg-sulphate minerals expected during bittern evaporation of modern seawater. Such Ca-Cl potash marine bitterns correspond to times of “calcite oceans” and contrast with the lower calcium, higher magnesium, higher sulphate “aragonite oceans” of the Permo-Triassic and the Neogene (Figure 3; Hardie, 1996; Demicco et al., 2005).

Ocean crust, through its interaction with hydrothermally circulated seawater, is a sink for Mg and a source of Ca, predominantly via the formation of smectite, chlorite, and saponite via alteration of pillow basalts, sheeted dykes, and gabbros (Müller et al., 2013). Additional removal of Mg and Ca occurs during the formation of vein and vesicle-filling carbonate and carbonate-cemented breccias in basalts via interaction with low-temperature hydrothermal fluids. Hence, changing rates of seafloor spreading and ridge length likely influenced ionic proportions in the Phanerozoic ocean and this in turn controlled marine bittern proportions.

According to Müller et al., 2013, hydrothermal ocean inputs are and the relevant ionic proportions in seawater are driven by supercontinent cycles and the associated gradual growth and destruction of mid-ocean ridges and their relatively cool flanks during long-term tectonic cycles, thus linking ocean chemistry to off-ridge low-temperature hydrothermal exchange. Early Jurassic aragonite seas were a consequence of supercontinent stability and a minimum in mid-ocean ridge length and global basalt alteration. The breakup of Pangea resulted in a gradual doubling in ridge length and a 50% increase in the ridge flank area, leading to an enhanced volume of basalt to be altered. The associated increase in the total global hydrothermal fluid flux by as much as 65%, peaking at 120 Ma, led to lowered seawater Mg/Ca ratios and marine hypercalcification from 140 to 35 Ma. A return to aragonite seas with preferential aragonite and high-Mg calcite precipitation was driven by pronounced continental dispersal, leading to progressive subduction of ridges and their flanks along the Pacific rim.

Holland et al. (1996), while agreeing that there are changes in ionic proportion of Phanerozoic seawater and that halite micro-inclusions preserve evidence of these changes, recalculated the effects of changing seafloor spreading rates on global seawater chemistry used by Hardie and others. They concluded changes in ionic proportions from such changes in seafloor spreading rate were modest. Instead, they pointed out that the composition of seawater can be seriously affected by secular changes in the proportion of platform carbonate dolomitised during evaporative concentration, without the need to invoke hydrothermally driven changes in seawater composition. In a later paper, Holland and Zimmermann (2000) suggest changes in the level of Mg in seawater were such that the molar Mg/Ca ratio of the more saline Palaeozoic global seawater (based on dolomite volume) was twice the present value of 5.

Using micro-inclusion studies of halites of varying ages, Zimmermann (2000a, b) has proposed that the evolving chemistry of the Phanerozoic ocean is more indicative of changing volumes of dolomite than it is of changes in the rates of seafloor spreading . Using halite inclusions, she showed that the level of Mg in seawater has increased from ≈38 mmol/kg H2O to 55 mmol/kg H2O in the past 40 million years (Figure 6). This increase is accompanied by an equimolar increase in the level of oceanic sulphate. Over the longer time frame of the Palaeozoic to the present the decrease in Mg/Ca ratio corresponds to a shift in the locus of major marine calcium carbonate deposition from Palaeozoic shelves to the deep oceans, a change tied to the evolution of the nannoplankton. Prior to the evolution of foraminifera and coccoliths, some 150 Ma, the amount of calcium carbonate accumulating in the open ocean was minimal. Since then, a progressively larger portion of calcium carbonate has been deposited on the floor of the deep ocean. Dolomitization of these deepwater carbonates has been minor.


In a study of boron isotopes in inclusions in chevron halite, Paris et al. (2010) mapped out the changes in marine boron isotope compositions over the past 40 million years (Figure 7). They propose that the correlation between δ11BSW and Mg/Ca reflects the influence of riverine fluxes on the Cenozoic evolution of oceanic chemical composition. Himalayan uplift is a major tectonic set of events that probably led to a 2.5 times increase of sediment delivery by rivers to the ocean over the past 40 m.y. They argue that chemical weathering fluxes and mechanical erosion fluxes are coupled so that the formation of the Himalaya favoured chemical weathering and hence CO2 consumption. The increased siliciclastic flux and associated weathering products led to a concomitant increase in the influx levels of Mg and Ca into the mid to late Tertiary oceans. However the levels of Ca in the world’s ocean are largely biologically limited (mostly by calcareous nannoplankton and plankton), so leading to an increase in the Mg/Ca ratio in the Neogene ocean.


a study of CaCO3 veins in ocean basement, utilising 10 cored and documented drilled sites, Rausch et al. (2013) found for the period from 165 - 30 Ma the Mg/Ca and the Sr/Ca ratios were relatively constant (1.22-2.03 mol/mol and 4.46-6.62 mmol/mol respectively (Figure 8). From 30 Ma to 2.3 Ma there was a steady increase in the Mg/Ca ratio by a factor of 3, mimicking the brine inclusion results in chevron halite. The authors suggest that variations in hydrothermal fluxes and riverine input are likely causes driving the seawater compositional changes. They go on to note that additional forcing may be involved in explaining the timing and magnitude of changes. A plausible scenario is intensified carbonate production due to increased alkalinity input to the oceans from silicate weathering, which in turn is a result of subduction-zone recycling of CO2 from pelagic carbonate formed after the Cretaceous slow-down in ocean crust production rate. However, world-scale factors driving the increase in Mg in the world’s oceans over the past 40 million years are still not clear and are even more nebulous the further back in time we look.


Changes in Phanerozoic ocean salinity

As well as changes in Mg/Ca and SO4, the salinity of the Phanerozoic oceans shows a fluctuating but overall general decrease from the earliest Cambrian to the Present (Figure 9; Hay et al. 2006). The greatest falls in salinity are related to major extractions of NaCl into a young ocean (extensional continent-continent proximity) or foreland (compressional continent-continent proximity) ocean basins (Chapter 5). Phanerozoic seas were at their freshest in the Late Cretaceous, some 80 Ma, not today. This is because a substantial part of the Mesozoic salt mass, deposited in the megahalites of the circum-Atlantic and circum-Tethyan basins, has since been recycled back into today’s ocean via a combination of dissolution and halokinesis. Periods characterised by marked decreases in salinity (Figure 9) define times of mega-evaporite precipitation, while periods of somewhat more gradual increases in salinity define times when portions of this salt were recycled back into the oceans (Chapter 5).

The last major extractions of salt from the ocean occurred during the late Miocene in the various Mediterranean Messinian basins created by the collision of Eurasia with North Africa. This was shortly after a large-scale extraction of ocean water from the ocean to the ice cap of Antarctica and the deposition of the Middle Miocene (Badenian) Red Sea rift evaporites. Accordingly, salinities in the early Miocene oceans were between 37‰ and 39‰ compared to the 35‰ of today (Figure 9). The preceding Mesozoic period was a time of generally declining salinity associated with the salt extractions in the opening North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico (Middle to Late Jurassic) and South Atlantic (Early Cretaceous) and the earliest Cambrian oceans also had some of the highest salinities in the Phanerozoic. Recently, work by Blättler and Higgins (2014) utilising Ca isotopes studies of selected Phanerozoic evaporites has confirmed the dichotomous nature of Phanerozoic ocean chemistry that was previously defined by micro-inclusion studies of chevron halite (Figure 3).

So what?

In summary, based on a growing database of worldwide synchronous changes in brine chemistry in fluid inclusions in chevron halite, echinoid fragments, vein calcites at spreading centres and Ca isotope variations, most evaporite workers would now agree that there were secular changes in Phanerozoic seawater chemistry and salinity. Ocean chemistries ranged from MgSO4-enriched to MgSO4-depleted oceans, which in turn drove the two potash endmembers What is not yet clear is what is the dominant plate-scale driving mechanism (seafloor spreading versus dolomitisation versus uplift/weathering) that is driving these changes.

In terms of marine bitterns controlling favourable potash ore associations, it is now clear that the variation in ionic proportions in the original seawater controls whether or not potash-precipitating bitterns are sulphate enriched or sulphate depleted. A lack of MgSO4 minerals as co-precipitates in a sylvite ore makes the ore processing methodology cheaper and easier (Warren, 2016). Understanding the ionic proportion chemistry of Phanerozoic seawater is a useful first-order exploration tool in ranking potash-entraining evaporite basins across the Phanerozoic.


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