Salty Matters

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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

 


Introduction

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.

Implications

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.

References

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.

Sun, M.-g., and L.-c. Ma, 2018, Potassium-rich brine deposit in Lop Nor basin, Xinjiang, China: Scientific Reports, v. 8, p. 7676.

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

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

 

Life in modern Deepsea Hypersaline Lakes and Basins - DHALs and DHABs

John Warren - Sunday, September 30, 2018

 


Introduction

Exuded salt karst brine on the deep ocean floor has a much higher density that the overlying seawater and so if there is an ongoing supply it tends to pond in seafloor lows (Figure 1a). The longterm character (hydrological stability over hundreds to thousands of years) of such density-stratified brine lakes, which form the centrepieces in deepsea hypersaline anoxic basins (DHAB), facilitate longterm ecologic niche sthe tability. The upper surface of a brine lake is marked by a halocline, which typically defines one or more nutrient, thermal and salinity interfaces (Figure 1b). There a light-independent chemosynthetic seep and lake biota can grow and flourish (Figure 1a). Escaping subsurface brines can entrain both hydrocarbons (mostly methane) and H2S, which are nutrients in the base of the chemosynthetic food chain. The salinity layering created by the halocline can be positioned as ; 1) a pelagic biotal interface, or 2) a brine lake edge (or shore) interface or 3) out in the lake the brine column base (i.e. a hypersaline-sediment interface) (Figure 1b).

In other places on a deep seafloor, the escaping salt-karst brines, with entrained methane and H2S, can form diffuse outflow or seep areas, without ever developing into a free-standing brine lake (position 4 in Figure 1a). Highly specialised chemosynthetic communities tend to dolonise the resulting density and salinity-stratified interfaces. And so, some chemosynthetic communities occupy a halocline interface in a pelagic position atop an open brine lake, while others inhabit a benthic position where the halocline intersects the deep seafloor (Figure 1). Anoxic hypersaline brine can also pond on the shallow seafloor in high latitude regions where the formation of sea ice create cryogenic brines (Kvitek et al, 1998). But this style of cryogenic seaflooor brine lake is more ephemeral and is not tied to major evaporite deposits, so is not considered further.

Two groups of megafauna with symbiotic methanotrophic or thiotrophic bacteria dominate chemoosynthetic communities in the salt-floored Gulf of Mexico: 1) bivalves, including bathymodiolin mussels and multiple families of clams and 2) vestimentiferan tubeworms in the polychaete family Siboglinidae. Both the vestimentiferan siboglinids and clams harbour microbial endosymbionts that utilise sulphide as an energy source, whereas different species of bathymodiolin mussels harbour either methanotrophic, thiotrophic, or both, types of symbionts (Figure 2).

Along the brine pool edge in the Gulf of Mexico

Hence, the mussel-tubeworm dominated brine-lake edge and seep biostromes in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on chemosynthesising microbes as a food source. This community is the cold-water counterpart to warm-water chemosynthetic hydrothermal communities flourishing in high temperature waters the vicinity of black smoker vents (MacDonald, 1992; MacDonald et al., 2003). In both settings, it is methane and sulphide, not light, that provides the than DHALs energy source for the bacteria and archaea that make up the base of the chemosynthetic food chain.

Methanotrophic bacteria live symbiotically on a seep mussel’s gills, taking in methane and converting it to nutrients that nourish the mussels. The seep mussels (Bathymodiolus childressi and Calyptogena ponderosa continually waft methane-rich water through their gills to help their chemo-autotrophic bacterial symbionts grow and periodically harvest some of the excess growth. Their lifestyle means that seep mussels need to live near a supply of dissolved gas, so they can inhabit isolated seep outflows on the deep seafloor where gas is bubbling out, including the edges of mud volcano pools, but do best about the more stable and relatively quiescent edges of methane-saturated brine pools and lakes.


There they grow as a fringe to the brine pool, and exist about the pool rim, wherever they can keep their syphons above the halocline Figure 2a-d). They tend to construct a biogenic edge (biostrome) to the brine pool atop with sediment piles generally cemented by methanogenic calcite. Such rims typically extend some 5-10 metres behind the pool edge (Figure 2a; Smith et al., 2000). The inner edge of the mussel biostrome is elevated only a few centimetres from the surface of the pool and is distinguishable by an abundance of smaller individuals, present in high densities (Figure 2b). At the outer edge of the mussel biostrome, there is a high frequency of disarticulated shells and low densities of still living larger individuals.

Also living atop seafloor seeps and about some brine pools are knots and clusters of chemosynthetic polychaete tubeworms (Figures 2c, 3; Lamellibrachia luymesi and Seepiophila jonesi). Individual tubeworms (aka seep beard-worms) in a colony can be up to 2.5 m long with a microbe-dependent metabolism evolved to exploit the abundant H2S and methane seeping through the seafloor. Tubeworm colonies grow as rims and clumps atop H2S seeps, as at Bush Hill on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3a; Reilly et al., 1996; Dattagupta et al., 2006; McMullin et al., 2010). Tubeworm “bushes” in cold seep regions of the Gulf of Mexico are typically rooted in the H2S-rich muds (Figure 3b). Growing individual tubes actively extend down into the H2S-rich mud as well as up into the O2-rich water column giving the cluster a morphology similar to a tree or shrub. Their “roots” extend into the earth, while “branches” extend above. Continuing the plant analogy, it seems that tubeworm shrubs absorb H2S through their “roots” and O2 through their “branches” (Freytag et al., 2001; Bergquist et al., 2003). As a group, seep tubeworms are related to the giant rift tubeworm (Riftia pachptila), which inhabits active hydrothermal seeps in active seafloor rifts.


Via a specialised haemoglobin molecule, vestimentiferan tubeworms in the Gulf of Mexico provide H2S and O2 as nutrients to sulphur-oxidising bacteria living symbiotically in trophosome structures, which extend for up to 75% of the length of each tubeworm. Unlike hydrothermal tubeworms such as Riftia pachptila that grow to lengths of more than 2 metres in less than two years, Lamellibrachia luymesi grow very slowly for most of their lives. It takes from 170 to 250 years to grow to 2 meters in length, making them perhaps the longest living known invertebrate species (Bergquist et al., 2000). With five or six species currently known to flourish there, the brine-fed cold seeps of the Gulf of Mexico host the highest biodiversity of vestimentiferan siboglinid tubeworms worldwide.

There is a time-based evolution in the biotal make-up of chemosynthetic communities in the Gulf of Mexico (Glover et al., 2010 and references therein). The earliest stage of a cold seep is characterised by a high seepage rate and the release of large amounts of biogenic and thermogenic methane, H2S and oil (Sassen et al., 1994). As authigenic carbonates with specific negative δ13C values precipitate as a metabolic byproduct of microbial methanogenesis, they provide a necessary stable substrate for the settlement of larval vestimentiferans and seep mussels. These seep communities begin with mussel (Bathymodiolus childressi) beds containing high biomass communities of low diversity and high endemicity. Individual mussels live for 100–150 years, whereas mussel beds may persist for even longer periods, with growth rates of mussels primarily controlled by methane concentrations (Nix et al., 1995).

The next successional stage consists of vestimentiferan tubeworm aggregations dominated by Lamellibrachia luymesi and Seepiophila jonesi. Young tubeworm aggregations often overlap in time with, and usually persist past the stage of mussel beds. These tubeworm aggregations and their associated faunas go through a series of successional stages over a period of hundreds of years. Declines in seepage rates result from ongoing carbonate precipitation occluding pores and so forming aquitards, as well as the influence of L. luymesi on the local biogeochemistry as it extracts ever-larger volumes of H2S. In older tubeworm aggregations, biomass, density, and number of species per square metre decline in response to reduced sulphide concentrations.

Once seep habitat space becomes available, more of the non-endemic background species, such as amphipods, chitons, and limpets, can colonise the mussel and tubeworm aggregations. Due to the lowering concentrations of sulphide and methane, the free-living microbial primary productivity is reduced. The number of associated taxa is positively correlated with the size of the tubeworm-generated habitat, so diversity in this stage remains relatively high although the proportion of endemic species is smaller in the older aggregations. This final stage may last for centuries, as individual vestimentiferan tubeworms can live for over 400 years (Cordes et al., 2009).

Even as seepage of hydrocarbons declines in a particular seep site, the authigenic carbonate layers of relict seeps can still provide a stable seafloor substrate for marine filter feeders, such as cold-water corals. The scleractinians Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata, several gorgonian, anthipatharian, and bamboo coral species form extensive reef structures atop now inactive seeps on the upper slope of the Gulf of Mexico (Schroeder et al., 2005). The corals obtain their food supply form the water column and are not dependent on chemosynthetic microbes. The coral communities also harbour distinct associated assemblages, consisting mainly of the general background marine fauna, but also contain a few species exclusively associated with the corals and a few species that are common to both coral and seep habitats

Although individual tubeworms and molluscs in chemosynthetic brine pool communities may live for more than 300-400 years, vagaries in the rate of brine and nutrient supply to the seafloor mean many mussel and tubeworm colonies are overwhelmed by a rising halocline and so die in a shorter space of time. Their partially decomposed remains can spread out as part of the organic-rich debris atop the halocline, along with bacterial, algal and faecal residues, where it is acted upon by a rich community of aerobic and anaerobic decomposers. If the organic matter is mineralised or attaches to other interface precipitates such as pyrite, it sinks to the anoxic brine pool bottom, where it is largely preserved and protected from further biodegradation.

The inherently unstable nature of the seafloor in the vicinity of active salt allochthons and brine lakes means it is subject to slumping, especially in the vicinity of brine fed mud volcanoes. In such settings, parts of the carbonate-rich biostrome rim are periodically killed “en masse” as sediment about a brine pool edge collapses, slumps and slides into anoxic pool waters, carrying with it the chemosynthetic community. As well as further elevating levels of preserved organics in the brine pool bottom sediments, this process also creates potential fossil lagerstaette. Death of seep communities, even if survives such catastrophic events, ultimately comes when the supply of seep gases and liquid hydrocarbons is cut off to any single seep.


Hardgrounds, seafloor stability & stable isotopes

Associated with the brine-pool communities, and helping form an initial stable seafloor substrate for the colonising seep invertebrates, are calcite-cemented biogenic crusts. These cemented hardgrounds precipitate as a microbial byproduct wherever methane and H2S are bubbling up in and around brine pool edges, and gases are being metabolised by chemosynthetic archaea and bacteria (Canet et al., 2006; Fu Chen et al., 2007; Feng et al., 2009). The resulting biogenic calcite crusts have δ13CPDB values ranging to as low as -53‰, which is characteristic of methanogenic carbon (Figure 4a). Seep sediments retain a group of unsaturated 2,6,10,15,19-pentamethylicosane (PMID) compounds, also produced by methane-oxidising archaea, with δ13CPDB values ranging from -107.2 to -115.5‰. In combination, the isotope values, textures and biomarkers indicate a combination of bacterially catalysed methane oxidation and sulphate reduction plexi in the crusts.

Fabrics of the two flat sides of methanogenic calcite crusts crust are texturally distinct. The “top” side is composed entirely of microcrystalline calcite, while the bottom is composed entirely of “wormy” carbonate cement that is interpreted as a random, low fidelity replacement of bacteria. (Figure 4b) “Wormy” carbonate cement coats microcrystalline calcite in the interior of the thick crust and dispersed pyrite framboids appear to be indicators of collaborating colonies of methane-oxidising archaea and sulphate-reducing bacteria. Fu Chen et al., (2007) propose that the “wormy” carbonate texture, particularly with microcrystalline calcite and pyrite framboids present, is a likely indicator of biologically controlled fabrics produced during methane oxidation and sulphate reduction.


Hypersaline brines and entrained gases escaping and pooling on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor do so either into quiescent brine lakes and pools or as mud chimneys and volcanoes (Figure 5; Joye et al., 2009). Both environments are anoxic and hypersaline, brine pools are typified by low fluid-flow rates and waters free of suspended sediment, while flow rates in mud volcano chimneys are more vigorous and the waters tend to be more turbulent and carry more suspended load. The sharp salinity transition between hypersaline brine and seawater typifies the water column in both settings, and a higher suspended particle load underscores the more rapid fluid-flow regime of the mud volcano (Figure 5a, f). Brines in both are mildly sulphidic; concentrations of dissolved inorganic carbon are elevated relative to seawater. Microbial abundance is 100 times higher in brines than in the overlying seawater (Figure 5a, f), showing that brine-derived substrates produce high microbial biomass. The brines are gas charged; the dominant dissolved alkane is methane (94-99.9%) with a stable carbon isotopic composition, 13C, of -62‰.

The feeder brines to the chemosynthetic communities in much of the Gulf of Mexico form via halite dissolution and so contain little to no sulphate. Seawater sulphate diffuses into the brine, and concentrations decrease with depth, reflecting a combination of microbial consumption through sulphate reduction (both sites) and upward advection of sulphate-free brine in a mud volcano (Figure5b, g). The hydrogen profile in the mud volcano brine is relatively uniform (hundreds of nanomolar), reflecting the potential importance of autotrophic acetogenesis and/or hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis. In the brine pool, however, hydrogen concentration increases to micromolar levels between depths ≈25 and 100 cm and remains high (≈µ6 M) to 180 cm, promoting acetogenesis. Such high hydrogen concentrations indicate active fermentation and substantial inputs of labile organic matter. Concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) increases with depth (Figure 5b, g), suggesting a deep-subsurface DOC source (thermogenic?). In the brine pool, extra labile DOC, probably coming from the surrounding chemosynthetic community can further stimulate fermentation (Joye et al., 2009)

Rates of acetate production and levels of sulphate reduction are much higher in brine pools, whereas the mud volcano supports much higher rates of methane production (Figure 5d, i). Joye et al. (2009) found no evidence of anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM), despite high methane fluxes in both settings. It suggests both these systems are leaking methane into the overlying water column. Joye et al. conclude that the different halo-adapted microbial community compositions and metabolisms are linked to differences in dissolved-organic-matter input from the deep subsurface and different fluid advection rates between the two settings.

Clathrates and methane seeps in the Gulf of Mexico

Across the slope and rise in the Gulf of Mexico, where sea bottom temperatures are suitably low, methane hydrates (clathrates) form atop focused outflow zones and oil seeps are common at the sea surface above vent clathrates (Dalthorp and Naehr, 2011). Gas hydrate or clathrate is an ice-like crystalline mineral in which hydrocarbon and non-hydrocarbon gases are frozen within rigid molecular cages of water. They can be thought of gaseous permafrost. Their occurrence is not just tied to the cold temperature portion of the deep seafloor; clathrates are the dominant seals to large gas reservoirs in the permafrost regions of Siberia. Methane hydrates are common associations where methane, which can be thermogenically or biogenically sourced, occurs just below the deep cold seafloor. In much of world, it accumulates in seafloor regions independent of any underlying evaporite occurrence (Thakur and Rajput, 2011). Evaporite edges just tend to focus the outflow zones (Figure 6).


Clathrate formation on the seafloor requires bottom temperatures not encountered until the seafloor bottom lies beneath a water column 450-500 m deep. Beneath the clathrate-covered seafloor, temperature increases with depth and this limits the depth at which gas hydrates will occur, so below most clathrate layer is an accumulation of free gas is likely. Clathrates seeps in the vicinity off brine pools are not unique to, but are often very obvious about, salt allochthon edges where salt flow induces extensional faulting and funnels a focused rise of methane, degraded oil and H2S to the cold seafloor (Chapter 6). Hence, breaks in the lateral extent of the various salt sheets act as a focusing mechanism for escaping thermogenic and biogenic methane and other gases and fluids (Figures 3, 6; Fisher et al., 2000; MacDonald et al., 2003). Rapid burial of organic-entraining sediments in supra-allochthon minibasins encourages the creation of biogenic methane that sources much of the gas escaping to the seafloor away from salt-edge focused seeps. Hence, in the salt allochthon province of the northern Gulf of Mexico, there is a definite association between brine pool chemosynthetic communities, thicker gas hydrates and the edges of minibasins (Figure 6; Reilly et al., 1996; Milkov and Sassen, 2001).


In all these setting clathrates are a food source for various methanogenic microbes, and so there are different multi-cellular lifeforms dependent on these microbes. One obvious dependency is seen in the eco-niche occupied by a small 2-4 cm-long highly specialised polychaete called Hesiocaeca methanicola (Figure 7). It was discovered in 1997 flourishing in regions of methane hydrate atop the deep seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico (Fisher et al., 2000). These “ice worms” inhabit indentations (“burrows”) in blocks and layers of methane clathrate and glean or harvest biofilms of the methanotrophic bacteria that are metabolising methane on the block surface. In turn, the ice worm supplies oxygen to the methanotrophs and via its movement appears to contribute to the dissolution of hydrates. Mature ice worms can survive in an anoxic environment for up to 96 hours. The experiments oof Fisher et al., (2000) also showed that the larvae were dispersed by currents, and died after 20 days if they did not find a place to feed.

Brine lake biota in the Mediterranean Ridges

Eight brine lakes, L’Atalante, Bannock, Discovery, Kryos, Medee, Thetis, Tyro and Urania, have been discovered and studied in the Mediterranean Ridge region of the deep eastern Mediterranean over the last 20 years (Figure 8a; see part 1). The surfaces of these brine lakes lie between 3.0 and 3.5 km below sea level, and the salinity of their brines ranges from five to 15 times higher than that of seawater. In the Bannock Basin, the various brine-filled depressions or sub-basins create a closed outer moat around a central seafloor mound that is 10 km across (Figure 8b). The chemical composition of the Tyro Basin bottom brine is related to the dissolution of the underlying halite-dominated evaporites, while the chemical composition of the Bannock Basin (Libeccio Basin in the Bannock area) implies derivation from dissolving bittern salts (de Lange et al., 1990). In the “anoxic lakes region”, sodium chloride is predominantly sourced in the L’Atalante and Urania lakes, but L’Atalante is much richer in potassium chloride than the other lakes. The Discovery basin brine is almost exclusively the product of dissolution of magnesium chloride (bischofite) salts. It has a density of 1330 kg/m3, which makes it the densest naturally occurring brine yet discovered in the marine environment (Wallmann et al., 2002). Its concentration profile in sediment beneath the brine lake shows the age of this lake is between 700 and 2000 yr. The high concentration of magnesium chloride drives the dissolution of biogenic calcium carbonate but facilitates excellent preservation of siliceous microfossils and organic matter. In basin bottom muds there are large euhedral crystals of gypsum, up to 10cm across, precipitating from these brines (Cita 2006).

Of the Mediterranean brine lakes, Lake Medee is the largest, and fills a narrow depression at the Eastern edge of the abrupt cliffs of the small evaporite ridge located 70 nautical miles SW of Crete (Figure 8a). The lake depression is approximately 50 km in length with a surface area of about 110 km2 and a volume of nearly 9 km3, which places Lake Medee among the largest of the known DHALs in the deep-sea environment. Although all the Mediterranean DHALs lie geographically close to each other, their hydrochemical diversity suggests that dissolving salt mineralogies were different. Salinity levels are much higher in some dues to the presence off nearby bittern layers. For example, Discovery Lake and Lake Kryos have salinities and MgCl2 proportions indicative of bischofite dissolution. Even so, it seems like, mostly sulphate-reducers can still metabolise in the extremely saline MgCl2 waters of Lake Kryos (Steinle et al., 2018).

In contrast to the brine lakes and seeps in salt-allochthon terrane of the Gulf of Mexico, seep megafauna is so far absent in the various documented modern brine lakes along the Mediterranean Ridges (Figure 8d). The brine lakeshore edge communities are mostly microbial, as are the lifeforms that make up the pelagic biota off the halocline. Biological studies on the anoxic basins of the Eastern Mediterranean started after the discovery of gelatinous matter of organic origin in the brine lake sediments (Figure 8c; Brusa et al., 1997). The laminar gelatinous matter was observed within the cores containing anoxic sediments obtained during oceanographic expeditions for geological study of the Mediterranean Ridge. Microbiological and ultrastructural investigations were carried out on core sediment samples and on the overlying water. Various authors demonstrated the organic nature of the mucilaginous pellicles found in the cores and their relation with numerous microbic forms present in all the samples. Viable microorganisms, prevalently Gram-negative and aerobic as well as facultative anaerobes, were found in the halocline water samples. Different microbic forms were isolated in pure culture: a vibrio (Nitrosovibrio spp.), a coccus (Staphylococcus sp.) and some rods of the family Pseudomonadaceae. In addition, laminar formations were observed in a growth medium of mixed cultures that could be interpreted as the first stages of the mucilaginous pellicles seen in the cores. Earlier studies described the geological and physiochemical characteristics of such habitats (Erba et al. 1987; Cita et al. 1985). Subsequent work using metagenomic techniques have documented a prosperous microbial community inhabiting the halocline of most of the Mediterranean brine lakes.

DHAL interfaces in the Mediterranean Sea deeps act as hot spots of deep-sea microbial activity that significantly contribute to de novo organic matter production. Metabolically active prokaryotes are sharply stratified across the halocline interfaces in the various brine lakes and likely provide organic carbon and energy that sustain the microbial communities of the underlying salt-saturated brines. Since metagenomic analysis of DHALs is still in its infancy, the metabolic patterns prevailing in the organisms residing in the interior of DHALs remains mostly unknown. What is known is that the redox boundary at the brine/seawater interface provides energy to various types of chemolithic and heterotrophic communities. Aerobic oxidations of reduced manganese and iron, sulphide and intermediate sulphur species, diffusing from anaerobic brine lake interior to the oxygenated upper layers of the haloclines are highly exergonic processes capable of supporting an elevated biomass at DHAL interfaces (Yakimov et al., 2013). Depending on availability of oxygen and other electron acceptors bacterial autotrophic communities belonging to Alpha-, Gamma- and Epsilon-proteobacteria fix CO2 mainly via the Calvin-Benson-Bassham and the reductive tricarboxylic acid (rTCA) cycles, respectively.

Biomarker associations of the organics accumulating in the brine lakes define two depositional styles: typical marine and hypersaline (Burkova et al., 2000). For example, algal and bacterial biomarkers typical of saline environments were found in layers 0.60 to 0.75 m below the sediment surface in the Tyro Lake Basin, as well as standard marine indicators derived from pelagic fallout (“rain from heaven”). Saline indicators include; regular C-25 isoprenoids, squalane, lycopane, isolycopane, tetraterpenoid and tetrapyrrolic pigments, monoalkylcyclohexanes, tricyclic diterpanes, steranes, hopanes, bio- and geohopanes. According to Burkova et al. (2000), the saline organic signatures come from microbial mat layers, redeposited from a Messinian source into the sapropels of the modern depression. Alternatively, they may indicate the activities of a chemoautotrophic community, which flourishes at the halocline or around active brine vents. As in the Orca Basin, the organic content of the bottom sediments of the Mediterranean brine pools is much higher than is found in typical deep seafloor sediment (Figure 9a).


Anoxic hypersaline brines in Mediterranean brine lakes are highly sulphidic and among the most sulphidic bodies of water in the marine realm, with H2S concentrations consistently greater than 2-3 mmol (Table 1; Henneke et al., 1997). The brine body below the Urania chemocline is more than 100 m thick and contains up to 11 mM hydrogen sulphide, making it the most sulphidic water body in the known marine realm. In combination with the sulphide are very high levels of methane both in and below the halocline (≈5.56 mM; Borin et al., 2009). In contrast, there is little to no H2S in the anoxic bottom brine of the Orca Basin (Table 1). There the iron concentration is 2 ppm, a value more than 1000 times higher than in the overlying Gulf of Mexico seawater. Such high levels of reducible iron in the Orca Basin are thought to explain the lack of H2S in the bottom brine and a preponderance of framboidal pyrite and extractable iron in the bottom sediments (Sheu, 1987). Both the Orca Basin and the brine pools on the floor of the Mediterranean, show sulphate levels that can be more than twice that of the overlying seawater.


So, organic debris first formed at the halocline can then accumulated as pellicle layers within the pyritic bottom muds (laminites). Pellicular debris is also carried to the bottom during the emplacement of turbidites when the halocline is disturbed by turbid overflow (Figure 10; Erba, 1991). Hence, pellicular layers are typically aligned parallel to lamination, or are folded parallel to the sandy bases of the turbidite flows, or line up parallel to deformed layers within slumped sediment layers. Individual pellicle layers are 0.5 to 3 mm thick and dark greenish-grey in colour. Similar pellicular layers cover the surface of, or are locked within, recent gypsum crystals recovered from bottom sediments of the Bannock area. This gypsum is growing today on the bottom of the Bannock Basin, atop regions about the brine pool margin that are directly underlain by dissolving Miocene evaporites (Corselli and Aghib, 1987; Cita 2006). Other than the Dead Sea, it is one of the few modern examples of a deepwater evaporite, but its seepage-fed genesis means it is a poor analogue for deepwater basinwide salt units.

The community of bacteria and archaea flourishing at the halocline in sulphidic marine brine pools on the deep Mediterranean floor is quite diverse, mostly independent of primary production in the euphotic zone, with the number of identified unique halobacteria and haloarchea species expanding every year (Albuquerque et al., 2012). Bottom brine in the Urania brine lake has a salinity of 162‰, and the chemocline of the brine lake is some 3490m below the ocean surface, so only a minimal amount of phytoplanktonic organic carbon ever reaches the 20m thick chemocline. Yet the oxic waters of the upper part of the chemocline support a rich bacterial and archaeal assemblage in and below the interface between the hypersaline brine and the overlying seawater, much like the chemosynthetic bacterial community associated with the halocline in Lake Mahoney (Sass et al., 2001; Borin et al., 2009).


Sulphide concentration in the Urania Basin increases from 0 to 10 mM within a vertical interval of 5 m across the interface (Figure 11a). Within the halocline, the total bacterial cell counts and the exoenzyme activities are elevated and biogenic activity continues below the halocline. Bacterial sulphate reduction rates measured in this layer are ≈ 14 nmol SO4 cm-3 d-1 and are among the highest in the marine realm. They correspond to the zone of maximum bacterial activity in the chemocline (Figure 11b). Particulate organic content is 15 times greater than that in the overlying normal marine waters. A similar focus of microbial occurrence (bacterial and archaeal) is seen at the halocline in l’Atalante Basin and is probably typical of all chemocline layers in the various Bannock brine lakes (Yakimov et al., 2007)

Employing 11 cultivation methods, Sass et al. 2001 isolated a total of 70 bacterial strains from the chemocline in the Urania Basin (Figure 11a). These strains were identified as the flavobacteria, Alteromonas macleodii, and Halomonas aquamarina. All 70 strains could grow chemo-organoheterotrophically under oxic conditions. Twenty-one of the isolates could grow both chemo-organotrophically and chemo-lithotrophically (decomposers and fermenters). While the most probable numbers in most cases ranged between 0.006 and 4.3% of the total cell counts, an unusually high value of 54% was determined above the chemocline with media containing amino acids as the carbon and energy source.

Subsequent detailed work focused on the various layers that make up the Urania halocline showed the high sulphide levels in and below the halocline, make it a mecca for bacterial sulphate reducers, as do high levels of methane for the methanogens (Figure 11b; Borin et al., 2009). Microbial abundance showed a rapid increase by two orders of magnitude from 3.9 x 104 cells mL-1 in the deep oxic seawater immediately above the basin, up to 4.3 x 106 cells mL-1 in the first half of interface 1. Although less pronounced than in the first chemocline, a second increase in microbial counts occurred in interface 2. Deceleration of falling particulate organic matter from the highly productive interface 1, is probably responsible for stimulating microbial growth and hence cell numbers in interface 2. That is, compared to the overlying seawater column, bacterial cell numbers increased up to a hundred-fold in interface 1 and up to ten-fold in interface 2. This is a consequence of elevated nutrient availability, with higher numbers in the upper interface where the redox gradient was steeper. Bacterial and archaeal communities, analysed by DNA fingerprinting, 16S rRNA gene libraries, activity measurements, and cultivation, were highly stratified within the various layers of the chemocline and metabolically more active along the various chemocline layers, compared with normal seawater above, or the uniformly hypersaline brines below.

Detailed metagenome analysis of 16S rRNA gene sequences revealed that in both chemocline interfaces the e- and d-Proteobacteria were abundant, predominantly as sulphate reducers and sulphur oxidisers, respectively (Figure 11b). The only archaea in the first 50 cm of interface 1 were Crenarchaeota, which consist of organisms having sulphur-based metabolism, and hence could play a role in sulphur cycling in the upper interface. In the deepest layers of the basin below the halocline, MSBL1, putatively responsible for methanogenesis, dominated among archaea (Figure 11b). The work of Borin et al. (2009) illustrate that a well adapted and complex microbial community is thriving in the Urania basin’s extreme chemistry, The elevated biomass centred on the halocline is driven mainly by sulphur cycling and methanogenesis.

Similarly detailed studies of interface-controlled chemosynthetic communities in other Mediterranean DHALs have been documented in Lake Thetis (Ferrer et al., 2012; Oliveri et al., 2013) and Lake Medee (Yakimov et al., 2013). Medee Lake is the largest known DHAL on the Mediterranean seafloor and has two unique features: a complex geobiochemical stratification and an absence of chemolithoautotrophic Epsilonproteobacteria, which usually play the primary role in dark bicarbonate assimilation in DHALs interfaces worldwide. Presumably, because of these features, Medee is less productive and exhibits a reduced diversity of autochthonous prokaryotes in its interior brine layers. Indeed, the brine community almost exclusively consists of the members of euryarchaeal and bacterial KB1 candidate divisions which a ubiquitous in the DHAL biota worldwide. In Medee, as elsewhere, they are thriving on small organic molecules produced by a combination of degraded marine plankton and moderate halophiles living in the overlying stratified brine column.

Outside off the microbial makeup of DHAL communities, one of the more exciting discoveries in the brine lakes of the Mediterranean ridges is the likely discovery of multicellular life of the Phylum Loricifera (“Beard shells) capable of living and reproducing in the absence of oxygen. Loricifera (from Latin, lorica, corselet (armour) + ferre, to bear) is a phylum made up of very small to microscopic marine cycloneuralian sediment-dwelling animals with 37 described species. Their size ranges from 100 µm to ca. 1 mm and individuals are characterised by a protective outer case called a lorica and by their habitat, which is in the spaces between marine sediment particles. The phylum was first discovered in tidal sediments in 1983 and is among the most recently discovered groups of Metazoans. Individuals attach themselves quite firmly to the sediment substrate, and hence the phylum remained undiscovered for so long. In 2010, viable specimens of Spinoloricus cinziae, along with two other newly discovered species, Rugiloricus nov. sp. and Pliciloricus nov. sp., were found in the sediment core from below the anoxic L'Atalante basin of the Mediterranean Sea (Danovaro et al., 2010, 2016). The species cellular innards appear to be adapted for a zero-oxygen life as their mitochondria appear to act as hydrogenosomes, organelles which already provide energy in some anaerobic single-celled creatures known. Before their discovery, living and reproducing exclusively in an oxygen-free setting was thought to be a lifestyle open only to viruses and single-celled microorganisms. The ability of these anoxic brine-dwelling creatures to live solely in an oxygen-free environment is questioned still by other workers (Bernhard et al., 2015).

Neither Tyro nor Bannock Basin bottom sediments show a significant correlation between pyritic sulphur and the organic carbon in the bottom sediments, suggesting predominantly syngenetic pyrite evolution in bottom sediments of these brine lakes (Henneke et al., 1997). That is, both pyritic and humic sulphur preserved in the bottom sediments formed either in the lower water column or at the sediment-brine interface, not in the sediment itself. Ongoing diagenetic processes within the bottom sediments only form an additional 5% of the total pyrite. Van der Sloot et al. (1990) clearly showed that metal sulphides, as well as organics and other minerals, precipitate at the brine-seawater interface in the Tyro Basin, as they do in the Orca Basin. They found extremely high concentrations of Co (0.015%), Cu (1.35%) and Zn (0.28%) in suspended matter at the halocline. These high particulate Co, Cu and Zn concentrations correspond to sharp increases in dissolved sulphide across the interface (a redox front), and indicate precipitation of metal sulphides at the interface. Humic sulphur in the bottom sediments correlates with the pyritic sulphur distribution and is related to the amount of gelatinous pellicle derived from bacterial mats growing at the halocline between oxic seawater and bottom brine (Erba, 1991, Henneke et al., 1997).

Additionally, the degree of pyritisation in the sediments (DOP ≈ 0.62) indicates that present-day pyrite formation is limited by the reactivity of Fe in the Bannock and Tyro basins and not by the availability of organic matter, the latter being the process that limits pyrite formation in most normal marine settings (Figure 9b). The degree of pyritisation (DOP) is defined as [(pyritic iron)/(pyritic iron + reactive iron)]. Raiswell et al. (1988) showed that DOP in ancient sediments can distinguish anoxic from normal marine sediments. Anoxic sediments show DOP values between 0.55 and 0.93, while normal marine sediments have DOP values less than 0.42. The DOP levels in the Bannock and Tyro basins confirm observations made in ancient anoxic sediments. Thus, although the Tyro and Bannock basin brines differ in their major element chemistry, reflecting a different salt source, their reduced sulphur species chemistry appears to be similar, but is significantly different from standard marine systems and capable of precipitating metal sulphides above the sediment surface.


Life in the Red Sea brine deeps

The Atlantis II Deep marks the northern-most end of the Atlantis II Shagara- Erba Trough section, hosting numerous sub-deeps like the Discovery and Aswad Deep (Figure 12). In general, the Atlantis II Deep area has a smoother bathymetric character than the Thetis-Hadarba-Hatiba and Shagara-Aswad-Erba Troughs, due to massive inflow of salt and sediments from nearly all sides into the deep. In the Atlantis II deep, Siam et al. (2012) identified metagenomic archaeal groups in high relative abundance at the bottom of a sediment core from the Atlantis II Deep, which, as in the Kebrit Deep, are another case of the dominance of Archaea. Their results showed that the dominant archaeal inhabitants in the bottom layer (3.5 m depth to the seafloor) included Marine Benthic Group E, and the archaeal ANME-1 ( anaerobic methane consumers metagenome. The presence of the latter was also confirmed in a study of a barite mound in the Atlantis II Deep (Wang et al., 2015), but the former was not detected in this later study.

In metagenomic studies of the Atlantis II sediments, Cupriavidus (Betaproteobacteria) and Acinetobacter (Gammaproteobacteria) are the most abundant species in the surface layer (12 cm) and the bottom layer (222 cm) of a sediment core obtained in 2008. Both bacterial species were not the dominant inhabitants in the ABS core analysed in the present study. Due to tremendous differences between brine water and sediment chemistry in the Deep, their microbial communities differ remarkably. The lower convective layers of the Atlantis II and Discovery brine pools are dominated by Gammaproteobacteria, while Alphaproteobacteria and Betaproteobacteria are the major bacterial groups in the upper layers of Atlantis II sediment (Bougouffa et al., 2013). All the above discrepancies in composition of microbial communities in the two Deeps were probably caused by 1) primer selection for amplification of rRNA genes; 2) different microenvironments in the sampling sites; 3) taxonomic assignment criteria employed by different studies; 4) different experimental procedures, and 5) sampling bias due to low biomass in sampling sites. Except for these potential problems, this study demonstrates the profound changes in microbial communities in deep-sea hydrothermal sediment under the influence of extensive mineralisation process. Many of the groups detected in the S-rich Atlantis II section are likely to play a dominant role in the cycling of methane and sulphur due to their phylogenetic affiliations with bacteria and archaea involved in anaerobic methane oxidation and sulphate reduction.


In the Kebrit Deep on the deep floor of the Red Sea, an assemblage of halophilic archaea and bacteria similar to that of the DHALs of the Mediterranean Deeps flourish in hypersaline waters below the chemocline (Figure 13). Kebrit Deep (24°44’N, 36°17’E) measures 1 by 2.5 km, with a maximum depth of 1549 m and is one of the smallest salt allochthon-associated brine-pools of the Red Sea. It is located around 300 km nothwest the well-known metalliferous Atlantis II deep (see previous article). The Kebrit Deep is filled by an 84 m thick, anaerobic, slightly acidic brine lake (pH approximately 5.5) with a salinity of 260‰ and a temperature of 23.3°C (Antunes et al., 2011). The brine has a high gas content that is made up mainly of CO2, H2S, small amounts of N2, methane and ethane, with remarkably high quantities of H2S (12–14 mg S l-1; Hartmann et al., 1998). The presence of sulphur is self-evident by the strong, characteristic odour present in brine samples, and hence the name of the basin (Kebrit is the Arabic word for sulphur). Like the Atlantis II deep there are impregnated massive sulphides accumulations on the floor of Kebrit Deep. Kebrit samples are porous and fragile, and consist mainly of pyrite and sphalerite. Prior to gene sequencing studies, sulphur isotope values provided substantial evidence for biogenic sulphate reduction being involved in sulphide-forming processes in Kebrit Deep. They are linked to bacterial methane oxidation and sulphate reduction centred on the brine-seawater interface (see Chapter 15 in Warren 2016 for metallogenic details).

Most of the archaeal metagenomic sequences in Kebrit Deep cluster within the Thermoplasmatales (Marine group II, Marine Benthic group D, and the KTK-4A cluster) among the Euryarchaeota, while the remaining sequences do not show high similarity to any of the known phylogenetic groups (Figure 13). One of these sequences was shown to cluster with the later-described SA2 group, while another (accession number AJ133624) clusters together with two gene sequences from L’Atalante Basin waters, defining a novel deeply-branching phylogenetic lineage within the Crenarchaeota.

Gene sequencing studies on water samples from the brine-seawater interface in the Kebrit deep retrieved sequences from the KB1 group, as well as Clostridiales (mostly Halanaerobium), Spirochetes (ST12-K34/MSBL2 cluster), Epsilonproteobacteria and Actinobacteria, but no archaeal sequences were detected in these interface samples (Antunes et al.,2011). Under strictly anaerobic culture conditions, novel halophiles were isolated from samples of these waters and belong to the halophilic genus Halanaerobium. They are the first representatives of the genus obtained from deep-sea, anaerobic brine pools (Eder et al., 2001). Within the genus Halanaerobium, they represent new species that grow chemo-organotrophically at NaCl concentrations ranging from 5 to 34%. They contribute significantly to the anaerobic degradation of organic matter, which formed at the brine-seawater interface and is slowly settling into the bottom brine.

Similarities in the makeup of the Archaeal population, tied to similar metabolic process sets at the brine interface across various deep seafloor brine lakes in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Compared with other hydrothermal sediments around the world, the Atlantis II hydrothermal field is unique in that sulphur and nitrogen oxides are low in the pore water of the sediments. This probably leads to lack of ANME . It seems, different geochemical conditions of hydrothermal marine and cool seep sediments across the deepsea sub-seafloor resulted in various niche-specific microbial communities.

Life in the Dead Sea

As defined in the salty matters article previous to this, the Dead Sea can be considered a continental counterpart of a marine DHAL where there is no overlying body of marine water. Instead, the Dead Sea brine mass is in direct contact with the atmosphere.

The Dead Sea provides one of nature’s supreme tests of survival of life. The negative-water balance in the Dead Sea hydrology over recent decades resulted in ever-rising salinity and divalent-cation ratios, cumulating in the current highly drawdown situation (See Warren 2016, Chapter 4 for a summary of the relevant hydrological evolution. Today the brines have reached a salinity level more than 348 /l total dissolved salts, with a high ratio of (Ca + Mg) to Na. Water activity (Aw, a measure based on the partial pressure of water vapour in a substance, and correlated with the ability to support microorganisms) of the Dead Sea is extremely low (Aw ≈ 0.669), even lower than that of saturated-NaCl solution (Aw ≈ 0.753±0.004), and is thus unbearable for most life forms (Kis-Papo et al., 2014).

Nevertheless, a number of halobacteria (Archaea), one green algal species (Dunaliella parva), and several fungal taxa withstand these extreme conditions(Kis-Papo et al., 2014). Most organisms in the Dead Sea survive in fresher-water spring refugia or in their dormant stages or and only revive when salinity is temporarily reduced during rare massive flooding events (Ionescu et al., 2012.

Effects of occasional freshening on biomass in stratified brine columns that are supersaline, not mesohaline, is clearly seen in the present “feast or famine” productivity cycle of the Dead Sea (Warren, 2011; Oren and Gurevich, 1995; Oren et al., 1995; Oren 2005). Dunaliella sp, a unicellular green alga variously described in the past as Dunaliella parva or Dunaliella viridis, is the sole primary producer in the Dead Sea waters. Then there are several types of halophilic archaea of the family Halobacteriaceae (prokaryotes) which consume organic compounds produced by the algae.


Two distinct periods of organic productivity (feast) have been documented in the upper lake water mass since the Dead Sea became holomictic in 1979 (Oren, 1993, 1999). The first mass developments of Dunaliella sp. (up to 8,800 cells/ml) began in the summer of 1980 following dilution of the saline upper water layers by the heavy winter rains of 1979-1980 Figure 14a, b). The rains drove a rapid rise of 1.5 metres in lake level and an increase in the level of phosphates in the lake’s surface waters (Figure 14c). This bloom was quickly followed by a blossoming in the numbers of red halophilic archaea (2 x 107 cells/ml), Dunaliella numbers then declined rapidly following the complete remixing of the water column and the associated increase in salinity of the upper water mass. By the end of 1982, Dunaliella had disappeared from the main surface water mass. Archaeal numbers underwent a slower decline.

During the period 1983-1991 the lake was holomictic, halite-saturated and no Dunaliella blooms were observed. Viable halophilic and halotolerant archaea were probably present in refugia about the lake edge during this period but in meagre numbers. Then heavy rains and floods of the winter of 1991-1992 raised the lake level by 2 metres and drove a new episode of meromictic stratification as the upper five metres of the water column was diluted to 70% of its normal surface salinity (Figure 14d). High densities of Dunaliella reappeared in this upper less saline water layer (up to 3 x 104 cells/ml) at the beginning of May 1992, rapidly declining to less than 40 cells/ml at the end of July 1992 (Figure 15). An associated bloom of heterotrophic haloarchaea (3 x 107 cells/ml) continued past July and continued to impart a reddish colour to the surface and nearsurface waters.

Much of the archaeal community was still present at the end of 1993, but the amount of carotenoid pigment per cell had decreased two- to three-fold between June 1992 and August 1993 (Oren and Gurevich, 1995). A remnant of the 1992 Dunaliella bloom maintained itself at the lower end of the pycnocline at depths between 7 and 13 m (September 1992- August 1993), perhaps chasing nutrients rather than light. Its photosynthetic activity was low, and very little stimulation of archaeal growth and activity was associated with this algal community (Figure 15). It seems that once stratification ends and the new holomictic period begins, the remaining Archaeal community, which was primarily restricted to the upper water layers above the halocline, spreads out more evenly over the entire upper water column until it too dies out. No substantial algal and archaeal blooms have developed in the Dead Sea since the winter floods of 1992-1993 until today


Underwater freshwater to brackish springs are likely refugia to much of the life in the Dead Sea and are inhabited by interesting microbial communities including chemolithotrophs, phototrophs, sulphate reducers, nitrifiers, iron oxidisers, iron reducers, and others. The springs also host numerous cyanobacterial and diatomatous mats with sulfate-reducers near the base of the foood chain (Oren et al., 2008; Ionescu et al., 2012). Sequences matching the 16S rRNA gene of known sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) and sulphur oxidising bacteria (SOB) were detexcted in all microbial mats centered on freshwater springs as well as in the Dead Sea water column (Häusler et al., 2014). Generally, sequence abundance of SRB and SOB was higher in the microbial mats than in the Dead Sea, indicating that the conditions for both groups are more favorable in the spring environments.

The springs also supply nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter to the Dead Sea microbial communities. Due to frequent fluctuations in the freshwater flow volumes in the springs and local salinity, microorganisms that inhabit these springs must be capable of withstanding large and rapid salinity fluctuations and the population proportions vary according to the Spring chemistry (Ionescu et al., 2012).

Salt dissolution, seafloor salinity and halophilic extremophile populations

In most DHALs, the rate of vertical mixing across the extreme density gradients between brine and overlying seawater is extremely slow (Steinle et al., 2018). Hydrochemically, depending on the nature of the dissolving salt supply, seawater and DHAL brines can differ sharply in their solute composition, in particular, in the concentrations of the critical electron donors and acceptors so crucial to the functioning of life. In that a narrow (1– 3 m) chemocline (halocline) forms a transition zone between the two quite-different hydrologies that define a DHAL water column, microbial ecologies have evolved to inhabit particular portions of the halocline as well as the brine lake and the normal marine deepwater columns (Figure 16).

In contrast to the overlying seawater, the bottom brines are anoxic but contain electron acceptors other than oxygen most importantly sulphide and methane. Hence, hotspots of chemosynthetic (not photosynthetic) activity have evolved that flourish at these brine-seawater interfaces, where the principal reactions at the base of the food chain are anoxic and encompass sulphate reduction, methanogenesis, and microbial heterotrophy. Highly-adapted microbial life continues to function even in the most extreme hypersaline conditions found in some DHALs, such as in Lake Kryos where MgCl2-rich chemistries dominate, or in the Atlantis II Deep where there is a combination of extreme temperatures and salinities.


In the Gulf of Mexico, an endosymbiotic megafauna constructs methanogenically-cemented carbonate biostromes as lake fringe mussel-dominated communities or polychaete forests atop cool water H2S seeps. Both the microbial population and the megafauna that exploits this chemosynthetic base to the food chain flourish best in seafloor regions defined by the long-term focused escape of methane or H2S (Figure 16). Cool-seep brine lakes were first discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1980s, but similar hydrocarbon-dependent cool-seep communities with their own megafauna accumulations are now documented in other parts of the world characterised by the naturally-focused escape of hydrocarbons to the seafloor (for example, atop cool-water brine seeps along the slope and rise of the east and west coasts of North America and in the Black Sea.

The relative long-term stability of cool-seep ecology, tied to the chemical stability of the niche, is seen when lifespans of hydrothermal endosymbiotic communities living chemosynthetically about thermal vents along mid-oceanic ridges are compared to Gulf of Mexico communities. Endosymbiotic polychaete and clam species in the brine lakes and seeps of the Gulf of Mexico can live for a hundred or more years, while lifespans in similar endosymbiotic polychaete and clam species in hydrothermal ridges communities are less than 30-50 years.

Moving onshore, into the partial analogue offered by the salt-karst fed Dead Sea depression, we see Dead Sea biomass is subject to much shorter-term changes in the salinity and nutrient content of its uppermost water mass (Feast and Famine cycles as documented in Warren, 2011, 2016 Chapter 9). The freshening water mass above a lake halocline his ephemeral in the current longterm holomictic hydrology of the Dead Sea (see Warren 2016 chapter 4 for details). The changes in surface water salinity are tied to the periodic influx of a freshened upper water mass. These climatically-driven fluctuation to the the extent and activity of the halotolerant and halophilic community in the upper water mass, and the Feast or Famine responses of the Dead Sea biota, are different to the longterm niche stability created by the presence of a perennial oceanic water mass over a salt-karst induced halocline and brine lake in a DHAL sump on the deep seafloor. The latter is continually resupplied brine and chemosynthetic nutrients via the dissolution and focusing effect of the underlying salt sheet. The hydrology of a DHAL system only shuts down when all the mother salt is dissolved or cut off.

Accordingly, rather than the hundreds of years of longterm growth (albeit at relatively slow metabolic rates) that we see in a DHAL, in the Dead Sea we see that freshening facilitates a rapid spread of a halotolerant alga (Dunaliella sp.) and associated halophilic microbes and viruses. The propagation and persistence of a large biomass pulse in the Dead Sea is measured in timeframes of months. The halotolerant photo-synthesisers can only spread out from long-term refugia communities once the surface salinities fall to levels that allow the photosynthesising base too the Lake food chain inhabit fresher water springs regions about the lake margins. Comparison to the DHAL and Dead Sea communities underlines how life will evolve into any neighbourhood, even if conditions are extremely challenging

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