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.

 

Salt Dissolution (4 of 5): Anthropogenically-enhanced geohazards

John Warren - Thursday, November 30, 2017

 

Introduction

As we saw in the previous article the dissolution and collapse of nearsurface and at-surface salt is a natural and ongoing process. When salt bodies experiencing natural dissolution and alteration are penetrated by drilling or parts of the salt mass are extracted in a poorly supervised fashion, the resulting disturbance can speed up natural solution and collapse, sometimes with unexpected environmental consequences (Figure 1; Table 1). To minimise the likelihood of unexpected environmental consequences tied to enhanced rates of salt dissolution in the vicinity of engineered structures the same rule applies as is applied to safe salt mining, namely "Stay in the salt" (Warren, 2016) In this context, here is a quote from Zuber et al. (2000) in a paper dealing with flooding and collapse events in Polish salt mines.


“Catastrophic inflows to salt mines, though quite frequent, are seldom described in the literature, and consequently students of mining and mine managers remain, to a high degree, ignorant in this respect. Contrary to common opinion, inflows are seldom caused by unavoidable forces of nature. Though some errors were unavoidable in the past, modern geophysical methods are, most probably, quite sufficient to solve the majority of problems (e.g., to determine a close presence of the salt boundary). Detailed study of the recent catastrophic floods, which happened in Polish salt mines, shows that they usually occur, or have strong negative impacts, due to human errors. Most probably similar human errors caused catastrophic inflows to salt mines in other countries. It seems that a knowledge of the real history of catastrophes, better education of mine engineers and the application of modern geophysical methods could lead to the reduction of floods in salt mines.”

This article, the 4th of 5 in Salty Matters, focuses on the anthropogenic enhancement of salt dissolution, however, it discusses only a few of the many documented examples of problems that result from enhanced dissolution brought about by human activity. For a more comprehensive documentation of relevant case histories and an expanded discussion that includes mine collapse, brinefield subsidence and collapse and industrial accidents associated with salt cavity storage, the interested reader should refer to Chapters 7 and 13 in Warren (2016).


As wells as mine floods and mine losses, poorly monitored then abandoned brinefield and solution cavities can be areas with major environmental problems especially where old extraction wells are undocumented and unmonitored. Like areas of natural solution collapse; they can become zones of catastrophic ground failure. This is especially problematic if located near cities or towns (Tables 1, 2). Some of the most outstanding examples of how not to solution mine a resource and how not to control ground subsidence effects are to be found in east European countries that are still trying to deal with the environmental outcomes of being former satellite states of the Soviet Union. But caving problems have been tied also to mines and boreholes in the United States and Canada, where once again human error, greed or ignorance has created many of these problem structures (Table 1 and Figure 1).


Ocnele Mari Brinefield, Romania

SALROM, a government-owned company, solution mines Badenian (Miocene) halite in the Valcea Prefecture of Romania (Figure 2). Production from Field 2 was shut down on March 5, 1991, after significant earth vibrations were noted by SALROM workers. A subsequent sonar survey showed that poorly monitored brinefield leaching between 1971 and 1991 had created a gigantic merged cavern as salt pillars separating adjoining caverns were inadvertently dissolved (Figure 2); the upper parts of the captive boreholes 363, 364, 365, 366, 367 and 369 had merged into a common cavern. The cavern was filled with some 4.5 million cubic metres of brine, was less than a hundred metres below the landsurface, was more than 350 metres across and was overlain by loosely consolidated sandy marls (von Tryller, 2002; Zamfirescu et al., 2003). The cavern was overlain by a bowl of subsidence and, even though mining operations in the region of the cavern completely stopped in 1993, the ground above continued to subside to a maximum of 2.2 metres prior to the September 2001 collapse. In the period 1993 - 2001 the cavern continued to enlarge and the northern part of the cavity expanded by some 25-35 m (see inset in Figure 3 showing sonar surveys 1995 -2001).


The 1993 sonic survey of the cavern showed it was so large and shallow that its roof must ultimately collapse, predicting when was the unknown. The fear was that if it collapsed catastrophically, it could release a flood of at least a million cubic metres of brine. Brine could be released either over several hours (least damaging scenario) or instantly forming a wave of escaping water several metres high that would flood the nearby Sarat River valley for many kilometres downstream. There were 22 homes on top of the cavern that would be immediately affected; also at risk were the hundreds and perhaps thousands of residents in the area of the saltworks and river valley below, as well as the local ecology and the civil/industrial infrastructure. Ongoing brine delivery from other nearby operational SALROM caverns to the large Oltchem and Govora chemical plants would also be disrupted. When collapse did ultimately occur (twice in the period 2001 - 2004), each episode took place over a number of hours and so a catastrophic wave of water did not eventuate.

According to Solution Mining Research Institute, there was no good engineering solution to prevent the Ocnele cavern roof from collapsing. Prior to collapse, brine in the cavern exerted pressure against the roof helping to hold it up; removing even a small amount of brine would remove hydraulic pressure that could possibly trigger a catastrophic collapse. Nor was it practical to fill the cavern with sand and industrial wastes as suggested by the Romanian government. It would take too long and it was unsafe to place men and equipment on top of the still expanding cavern. Even if it could be done, only the areas directly below the injection wells would be filled. The best solution was to construct a dam as close to the cavern as possible, and then perhaps trigger a controlled collapse by pumping out the cavern brine.

A partial collapse of the cavern roof atop well 377 occurred on 12 September of 2001, the ensuing brine flood killed a child and injured an older man. The collapse began at 7 pm with brine spilling out of wells 365 and 367. Southward of well 377 a collapse cone some 10 metres across started to form and fill with brine. The cone continued to expand and fill with water until its southern lip was breached. Water spilled out of the cone and down the hill slope. The flow rate of the expelled flow reached a maximum of 17 m3/sec at 3 am on September 13th, with flow continuously exceeding 10 m3/sec for a period of more than 6 hours around that time. By 7 am flow was down to 4-5 m3/sec and by 7 pm, 24 hours after the flow began the flow rate was 0.4-0.5 m3/sec. Some 24 hours after the onset, roof collapse had formed a water-filled lake with an area of 2.4 ha (Figures 2, 3; Zamfirescu et al., 2003).


A second roof collapse occurred on July 13, 2004. Realitatea Romaneasca, Romania, reported that ground collapse occurred at 9:30 pm July 13, 2004, possibly triggered by heavy, recent rains. The wellhead of bore 365 was destroyed in this collapse, and many other well heads in Field 2 had been destroyed by ongoing subsidence in the period 2001-2004. This collapse was the culmination of a series of collapse-related events that began on Monday July 11. It was planned that a purpose-built earthen dam would contain the brine flood. But when the roof fall occurred at 9:30 pm, the dam was breached 30 minutes later by some 250,000 m3 of salt water. Flow rate through the breach reached a maximum of 6 m3/sec. Collapse did not occur until just after local authorities had evacuated people from 50 homes in the area around the cavern. Most of the brine forced out by the roof collapse escaped into the Sarat (Olt) River. The government attempted to dilute the effects of this flush of salt water by releasing fresh water into the river from nearby dams. Fortunately, unlike the 2001 event, there was no loss of life.


Induced collapse, Gellenoncourt saltworks, France

Gellenoncourt is one of three sites that exploit halite beds of the Lower Keuper in the eastern part of the Paris Basin. The deposits extend from Cezanne in the west to Nancy with a length of 250 km and a width of 50 to 70 km. Salt production utilising solution mining techniques is focused on three sites along the Meurthe river, which all lie immediately to the east of Nancy.

On March 4, 1998, a sinkhole more than 50 m across and 40 m deep formed atop the SG4 and SG5 brinefield caverns in the Gellenoncourt saltworks near Lorraine, France (Figure 4; Buffet, 1998). It was an induced collapse designed to prevent a possible uncontrolled future ground collapse. The problem started in 1967 with the beginning of the exploitation of Triassic salt layers in the Keuper Fm. In total the Keuper is more than 150 m thick with five salt layers at its base, passing up into variegated and poorly consolidated marls and sandstones and capped by the Dolomite du Beaumont. The top of the salt is some 220 m below the surface and divided into five beds numbered 1 to 5 from top to bottom, with the solution mining program designed to leach beds 1 through 3 in the region of SG4 and SG5 caverns (Figure 5). Five wells, SG1 to SG5, were joined using hydrofracturing in February 1967. Theoretically, the process was designed to leave a substantial salt pillow atop all the cavities and so separate the solution cavities from the overlying marls (Figure 5; 1967-1971). The SG4 and SG5 caverns unexpectedly joined in 1971. Brine injection to these two wells was stopped, but crossflowing brines flowing to the producing SG1 well continued to excavate these two caverns. By 1982 the salt cushion in the roof of the SG4-SG5 cavern had completely dissolved away, placing the cavity roof in direct contact with the base of the marls.


From 1982 until October 1992 there was no further upward growth of the cavern roof. Then a 25 m-thick section of the variegated marls in the roof broke free and fell to the cavern floor, leaving a large section of the cavity roof in direct contact with the brittle Dolomite de Beaumont. This stiff dolomite layer prevented any further immediate collapse of the roof and consequent propagation of the cavity to the surface. But continued growth of the roof span beneath the dolomite would mean a later, larger, perhaps catastrophic collapse. In 1995 the operator tried to induce a controlled collapse by placing a submerged pump in the cavity and pumping out brine to create an exposed upper face. But this didn’t work. The next approach was to further enlarge the roof span by injecting 300,000 m3 of freshwater into the cavity. Collapse occurred on March 4, 1998, forming a 50 m wide crater. To protect the surrounding countryside from any brineflood damage a dam was constructed to capture any brine overflow, but in the actual event it was not needed.

Retsof Mine, New York State, USA

The Retsof Mine collapse is perhaps one of the best documented examples of an operational mine being lost to dissolution features and consequent flooding, yet even here the exact causes of the mine loss are still argued. Was it because of the intersection of the expanding mine workings with a natural water-saturated salt dissolution and fracture system, or the insection of the mine workings with brine filled cavities formed by wild brining operations in the 1800s, or was it a result of mine roof instabilities related to a change in room and pillar sizes?

At the time it was operational, the 24 km2 area of subsurface workings in the AKZO-Retsof salt mine made it the largest underground salt mine in the USA, and the second largest salt mine in the world (Figure 6, 7).


Operational history

Retsof Mine started operating in 1885 after completion of the 3.7× 4.9-meter wide, 303.5-meter-deep Shaft #1. The mine claimed an initial 5,460-metric-tons per day hoist capacity (Goodman et al., 2009). Early main haulage ways were driven east and west while production headings were driven north (updip) for salt-tramming ease. Room heights in the 6-meter-thick salt bed were 2 to 4 meters, with salt left in both the floor and roof. Four-meter-high rooms were worked in two benches. Rooms were 9.2 meters wide and separated by 9.2-meter pillars. At that time there was no timbering, the mine was dry, mine air temperature was 17°C, and the mine was largely gas-free.

By 1958, the Retsof Mine was connected to the former Sterling Mine for ventilation and emergency escape purposes [Figure 6a; Gowan et al., 1999]. By the late 1960s, the mine had advanced beneath the modern Genesee River and Valley (Figure 6b). By the early 1970s, the Retsof Mine operators had installed an underground surge bin, fed by a new conveyor system, and the old rail-haulage system was eliminated. Mainline conveyors led to yard or panel belts feeding each mining section, where a Stamler feeder-breaker crushed salt delivered by diesel-powered Joy shuttle cars. In the early 1980s, the shuttle cars were gradually replaced by load-haul-dump vehicles (LHDs). In 1969, Netherlands-based Akzo Corporation acquired International Salt Company and operated the Retsof mine until its abandonment due to flooding in 1995.

During April 1975, an explosion occurred in the original Sterling B Shaft during efforts to control water inflow into the Retsof Mine from this abandoned and partially collapsed shaft (Goodman et al. 2009). The leaky B Shaft had not been used or maintained for years. By 1975, International Salt was concerned that freshwater inflow from the B Shaft could pose a salt dissolution, collapse, and flooding risk to the then-connected Retsof Mine. Removal of a partial shaft blockage of timber and rock debris was attempted as a means of regaining airflow needed to safely access, rehabilitate, and grout off the water inflow to the shaft and mine below. A maintenance crew attempted to dislodge the shaft obstruction by pushing a large boulder into the shaft that was to drop down and knock through the debris. A methane explosion occurred upon impact. The upward force of the explosion killed four people on the surface near the shaft collar and injured others. On November 19, 1990, a roof fall resulted in two fatalities. Deformation and fracture of roof salt can occur because of a concentration of stresses; i.e., punching of the roof by stiff pillars. After the fatalities, the mine tested smaller, yielding pillars to alleviate roof falls (Figure 6b). Positive test results led to the adoption of a yield-pillar design.

The Retsof mine was lost to water flooding in 1994-1995.Before abandonment, the mine had been in operation since 1885, exploiting the Silurian Salina Salt and prior to shut down was producing a little over 3 million tons of halite each year. At that time it supplied more than 50% of the total volume of salt used to de-ice roads across the United States.

Geology and hydrology in the vicinity of Retsof Mine

The Genesee Valley sediments preserve evidence of several complex geologic processes that include; (1) tectonic uplift of Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks and subsequent fluvial down cutting, (2) waxing and waning glacial events that drove erosion of bedrock and the subsequent deposition of as much as 750ft of glacial sediments; and (3) ongoing erosion and deposition by postglacial streams (Figure 7a; Yager, 2001; Young and Burr, 2006). The Genesee Valley spans through western New York north to south from Avon, NY to Dansville, NY, including the Canaseraga Creek up through its mergence with Genesee River. A detailed section from Palaeozoic rocks and younger have been recorded in the Genesee River Valley (Figure 7a, b); however, detailed analysis of glacial sediments and till are still somewhat scarce. The B6 salt bed (Retsof Bed) of the Vernon Formation was the salt unit extracted at the Retsof Mine (Figures 7b). Several other salt layers exist in the Salina Group both above and below the B6. These salt layers include two horizons in Unit D at the base of the Syracuse Formation approximately 50 m (160 feet) above the B6 salt level.

Quaternary-age sediment in the Genesee Valley consists mostly of unconsolidated glacial sediments ranging up to 750 feet thick. These sediments encompass gravel, sand, silt and clays that were deposited mostly during the middle and late Wisconsin deglaciation and filled the lower parts of the pre-existing glacial scour valley. End moraines consisting of glacial debris were deposited in lobes to the south of the slowly retreating glacier. As the glacier had scoured through the valley, carving out bedrock and accumulating sediment, steep-sided valley walls were cut and pro-glacial lakes formed. The glacial lake sediments are dominated by muds, but also include large boulders and cobbles carried to the lake depressions by glacial ice. Fluvial sediment from the Genesee River and Canaseraga Creek also drained into these glacial lakes. A final pro-glacial lake formed as the Fowlerville end moraine was deposited. The Fowlerville end moraine extends approximately 4.5 to 8 miles north of the Retsof collapse site (Figure 7a). The various glacial lakes and moraines disrupted the normal flow fluvial patterns of most local drainages and creeks in the valley. Alluvium is the uppermost layer of the surface and is variable in thickness throughout the valley, but normally ranges about fifty feet thick and is still being deposited across the Genesee River Valley floodplain (Yager, 2001).

The aquifer system is hosted within the glacial valley-fill and consists of three main aquifers separated by two confining layers. It is underlain by water-bearing zones in fractured Palaeozoic bedrock (Yager, 2001). The glacial aquifers are bounded laterally by the bedrock valley walls. The uppermost aquifer consists of alluvial sediments 20 to 60 ft thick (unit 1 in Figure 7b); the middle aquifer consists of glaciofluvial sand and gravel less than 10 ft thick (unit 3 in Figure 7b); and the lower aquifer consists of glaciofluvial sand and gravel about 25 ft thick overlying the bedrock valley floor (unit 5 in Figure 7b). These aquifers are separated by aquitards dominated by muds and clays (Units 2 and 4 in Figure 7b).

The now abandoned Retsof Mine lies 550 to 600 ft below the eroded valley floor (Figure 7b). Hence, the upper and middle aquifers are separated by an upper confining layer of lacustrine sediments and till as much as 250 ft thick, and the two confined aquifers are separated by a lower confining layer of undifferentiated glaciolacustrine sediments as much as 250 ft thick. The principal water-bearing zone in the bedrock overlying the mine consists of fractured carbonates and sands near the contact between the Onondaga and Bertie Limestones. The fractured aquifer that occurs at this level in the stratigraphy supplied a significant volume of the water that ultimately flooded the Retsof Mine. The glacial aquifers are hydraulically connected at the edges of the confining layers and in subcrop zones, where water-bearing zones in the bedrock intersect a fractured and karstified bedrock surface.

Ground water within the valley generally flowed northward and updip before the mine collapse (Yager, 2001). The hydraulic head distribution in the confined aquifers under natural (precollapse) conditions is assumed to have been similar to that in the upper aquifer before the collapse, but water levels in the confined aquifers were probably above the water table beneath the valley floor. Much of the ground water reservoired along the fractured Onondaga/Bertie Limestone contact also flowed northward to escape at the Bertie Limestone subcrop, now located in the valley north of the Fowlerville Moraine (Figure 7c).

Water influx tied to changes in room and pillar mining?

In 1993, ceiling falls began to occur in rooms in the deepest part of the Retsof mine near its southern boundary (Figure 6a; Yager et al., 2009). In response, the mine owner, AkzoNobel Salt Incorporated (ANSI), turned to an innovative “yielding pillar” mining technique that utilised many narrow (20 feet × 20 feet) pillars rather than few wide ones in the mined section (Figure 6b). Geotechnical analyses indicated that the resulting configuration would allow the salt pillars to slowly yield and create a “stress envelope” in the surrounding bedrock to support the entire mined room.

Closure monitoring was conducted in the yield-pillar test panels and the two full-scale panels during mining to measure panel behaviour and to see if the new design mitigated the floor and roof problems being experienced in the large pillar area of the mine (van Sambeek et al., 2000). Monitoring initially indicated that room closure rates were slightly greater than expected, but had an overall character (trend) of steadily decreasing rates, which is consistent with stable conditions. This trend changed dramatically to a rapid and unstable closure rates in the final weeks leading up to the inflow. The change in trend was initially obscured by fluctuating closure rates because salt extraction was occurring between the two yield-pillar panels as the monitored abutment pillar was isolated. Whereas the closure rates were expected to decrease after this mining was complete, they did not; in fact, they increased. This change in panel character later interpreted to indicate that a pressure surcharge existed or developed over two of the yield-pillar panels prior to the in- flow (Gowan et al., 1999).

 

Loss of roof stability and flooding

In November 1993, strain measurements in a yielding-pillar area within the mine indicated a larger than expected deformation of salt near the eastern wall of room 2 Yard South (Figure 6a, b). Mining in the area was halted as ceiling falls of salt continued during the next four months. On March 12, 1994, a magnitude 3.6 seismic event, caused by a large roof collapse, was detected by seismometers more than 300 miles away. Mine workers attempted to enter room 2 Yard South but found it was blocked by a pile of rock rubble within the formerly mined room and that saline water entering via fractures in the mine roof. Over the next several weeks, Akzo made concerted attempts to save the mine by pumping water out and drilling around the collapse area to inject cement grout so as to stabilise the collapsed room and prevent a further inflow of water. Meanwhile, unstable shale layers overlying room 2 Yard South sagged and collapsed to form a 300-foot-diameter zone of rock rubble that slowly propagated upward through overlying layers of shale (Figures 6b, 8a, b). This column of rock rubble is referred to as a rubble chimney.

The propagating rubble chimney eventually reached a layer of carbonate (limestone) rock that was strong enough to temporarily resist further collapse, stopping further the rubble chimney’s upward progression. At this point, the flow of water into the mine stabilised at about 5,500 gallons per minute. Water entering the mine was saline and probably a mixture of saline water from the shale and a prominent fracture zone aquifer within the Onondaga and Bertie Limestones (Figures 7c). By the end of March 1994, tons of cement grout had been injected into the mine and the rubble chimney through nearly 30 boreholes drilled in the collapse area, but these efforts failed to stem the rate of water flowing into the mine and the inflow was becoming increasingly less saline.


On April 6, 1994, the limestone rock layer collapsed, and 550 feet of unconsolidated sediments in the Genesee River valley quickly slumped downward into the resulting cavity, forming a sinkhole at the land surface, more than 15 feet deep and several hundred feet across (Figure 8, 9a b). The collapse of the limestone rock was like pulling the plug in a bathtub—it allowed groundwater from a fresh-water aquifer at the base of the unconsolidated glacial sediments (the lower confined aquifer (Figure10) to drain downwards through the rubble chimney and into the mine. By mid-April, a second collapse occurred in an adjacent room (11 Yard West; Figure 6b). On May 25, a drilling crew working above room 11 Yard West felt tremors and removed their drill rig, and themselves, just before this second sinkhole formed at the land surface. This one had a surface expression that was more than 50 feet deep and several hundred feet across (Figures 6a, 8a, 9a,b). The discharge from the aquifer through both rubble chimneys increased the flow of water into the mine to about 18,000 gallons per minute.

Water began to fill the southern end of the mine and then spread steadily northward, dissolving the bases of the salt pillars that supported the mine ceiling (Figure 6a). As the pillars gave way, the southern part of the mine began to collapse, causing the land surface above it to subside. The greatest subsidence (more than 15 feet) was beneath the two sinkholes, which altered the channel of Beards Creek, allowing surface water to fill the sinkholes. The surface water did not flow downward to the mine, however, because hundreds of feet of fine-grained sediments underlie the Genesee River valley. The instability also forced the closure of the U.S. Route 20A bridge over Beards Creek; the southern end of the bridge eventually subsided by 11 feet (Figure 9c, d). The bed of the Genesee River 1 mile north of the collapse areas subsided by as much as 5 feet and altered the pattern of sediment scour and deposition along a 1.5-mile reach downstream of Beards Creek.

Events indicating loss of mine

The eventual loss of the Retsof Salt Mine occurred in stages, driven first by “out of salt” roof breaches, followed by ongoing salt dissolution of the water-encased salt pillars in the flooded mine. It began in the early morning hours of March 12, 1994, with a magnitude 3.6 earthquake. The quake was caused by the catastrophic breakdown of a small mine pillar and panel section some 340 meters below the surface and was accompanied by the surface collapse of an area atop the mine that was some 180 by 180 meters across and 10 meters deep. This all occurred at the southern end of the mine near the town of Cuylerville. A month later, on April 18, an adjacent mine room collapsed to form a second collapse crater (Figure 6a, b) The initial March 12 collapse in the mine was accompanied by an inrush of brine and gas (methane) and by a sustained intense inflow of water at rates in excess of 70 m3/min, via the overlying now fractured limestone back (Gowan and Trader, 2000).

In a little more than a month, the two steep-sided circular collapse features, some 100 meters apart, had indented the landscape above the two collapsed mine rooms (Figures 6, 8, 9). The northernmost collapse feature, which was more than 200 meters across, included a central area that was about 60 meters wide and had subsided about 6 to 10 meters. The southernmost feature, which was about 270 meters in diameter, included a central area that was about 200 meters wide and had subsided about 20 meters (Figure 6b). Fractures extending up from the broken mine back created hydraulic connections between aquifers, which previously had been isolated from each and so provided new high volume flow routes for rapid migration of perched groundwaters into the mine level.

Water flooded the mine at rates that eventually exceeded 60,000 litres per minute and could not be controlled by pumping or in-mine grouting. By January 1996 the entire mine was flooded. Associated aquifer drawdown caused inadequate water supply to a number of local wells in the months following the collapse; the fall in the water table as ground waters drained into the mine in effect meant some water wells went dry (Figure 8c; Tepper et al., 1997).

Aside from the loss of the mine and its effect on the local economy, other immediate adverse effects included abandonment of four homes, damage to other homes (some as much as 1.5 kilometers from the sinkholes), the loss of a major highway and bridge, loss of water wells and prohibition of public access to the collapse area (Figure 9). Land subsidence, possibly related to compaction induced by aquifer drainage to the mine, even occurred near the town of Mt. Morris some 3 miles south-west of the collapse area. Longer term adverse effects are mostly related to increasing salinization of the lower parts of the Genessee Valley aquifer system in the vicinity of the mine (Figure 10; Yager, 2013).

 

What caused the loss of the mine?

Post-mortem examination of closure data from the two failed mine panels has been interpreted as indicating an anomalous buildup of fluid pressure above the panels in the period leading up to their collapse (Gowan et al., 1999). The initial influx of brine and gas following the first collapse coincided with the relief of this excess pressure.

Gowan and Trader (1999) argued for the existence of pre-collapse pressurised brine cavities and gas pools above the panels and related them to nineteenth-century solution mining operations. They document widespread natural gas and brine pools within Unit D of the Syracuse Formation approximately 160 ft above the mined horizon in the Retsof Mine. The satellite image also shows that collapse occurred in a pre-existing landscape low that defined the position of Beard Creek valley above the mine (Figure 6a). Brine accumulations likely formed in natural sinks, long before salt solution mining began in the valley. Salt in the shallow subsurface dissolved naturally, driven by the natural circulation and accumulation of meteoric waters along vertical discontinuities, which connected zones of dissolving salt to overlying fresh water aquifers (see Warren, 2016, Chapter 7 for a detailed documentation of this salt related hydrology and geomorphology).

Gowan and Trader (2003) argued that daylighting sinkholes had formed by the down-dropping of the bedrock and glacial sediments into pre-existing voids created by the dissolution of salt and the slaking of salt-bearing shale upon exposure to fresh water. It is likely that the extent of these brine filled voids was exacerbated by the “wild-brining” activities of salt solution miners in the 1800’s.

Nieto and Young (1998) argue that the transition to the yield pillar design was a contributing factor to the loss of mine roof integrity. Loss of mechanical integrity in the roof facilitated fracturing and the influx of water from anthropogenic “wild brine” cavities. The exact cause of the loss of roof integrity and subsequent mine flooding is still not clear. What is clear is that once the Retsof mine workings passed out of the salt mass, and into the adjacent non-salt strata, the likelihood of mine flooding greatly increased.

Even so, the loss of the Retsof salt mine to flooding was a total surprise to the operators (Van Sambeek et al., 2000). The mine had operated for 109 years with relatively minor and manageable incidents of structural instability, water inflow, and gas occurrences. A substantial database of geological information was also collected throughout the history of the mine. It was this relatively uneventful mine history and the rich technical database that provided support for pre-inflow opinions by mine staff that there was no significant potential for collapse and inundation of the mine. The Retsof collapse took place in a salt-glacial scour stratigraphy and hydrology near identical to that in the Cayuga Mine region.

 

Patience Lake Potash Mine flood

In the 1970s the Patience Lake potash mine operation, located on the eastern outskirts of Saskatoon, Canada, encountered open fractures tied to a natural collapse structure and was ultimately converted to a successful solution mining operation (Figure 11). Grouting managed to control the inflow and mining continued. Then, in January of 1986, the rate of water inflow began to increase dramatically from the same fractured interval (Figure 12; Gendzwill and Martin 1996).

At its worst, the fractures associated with the structure and cutting across the bedded ore zones were leaking 75 m3/min (680,000 bbl/day) of water into the mine. The water was traced back to the overlying Cretaceous Mannville and possibly the Duperow formations. Finally, in January 1987 the mine was abandoned. It took another six months for the mine to fill with water. Subsequent seismic shot over the offending structure suggested that the actual collapse wasn’t even penetrated; the mine had merely intersected a fracture within a marginal zone of partial collapse (Gendzwill and Martin 1996).

Part of the problem was that the water was undersaturated and quickly weakened pillars and supports, so compromising the structural integrity of the workings. The unexpected intersection of one simple fracture system resulted in the loss of a billion dollar conventional potash mine. Patience Lake mine now operates as a cryogenic solution mine by pumping warm KCl-rich brine from the flooded mine workings to the surface. Harvesting of the ponds takes place during winter after cryogenic precipitation of sylvite in at-surface potash ponds (Fig. 11).

 

Unlike the Patience Lake Mine flood, there was a similar episode of water inflow in the nearby Rocanville Potash Mine. But there a combination of grouting and bulkhead emplacement in succeeded in sealing off the inflow, thus saving the mine (see Warren 2016 for detail). Unlike Patience Lake, the brine from the breached structure in Rocanville was halite-saturated, so limiting the amount of dissolution damage in the mine walls. Different outcomes between the loss of the Patience Lake Mine and recovery from unexpected flooding in the Rocanville Mine likely reflects the difference between intersecting a natural brine-filled dissolution chimney that had made its way to the Cretaceous landsurface and is now overlain by a wide-draining set of aquifer sediments, versus crossing a blind dissolution chimney in a saline Devonian sediment surround that never broke out at the Cretaceous landsurface. Understanding the nature of the potential hydrological drainages and water source is a significant factor in controlling unexpected water during any salt mine expansion.


Lake Peigneur, Louisiana

Lake Peigneur is a natural water-filled solution doline that overlies the dissolving crest of the Jefferson Island Salt Dome Figure 13). The most recently risen part (salt spine) of the Jefferson Island stock crest, just west of the town of New Iberia, Louisiana, is now 250 m (800ft) higher than the adjacent flat-topped salt mass, which is also overlain by a cap rock. The boundary shear zone separating the spine from the less active portion of the crest contains a finer-grained “shale-rich” anomalous salt zone that had been penetrated in places by the former Jefferson Island mine workings. The known salt anomaly (BSZ) defined a limit to the extent of salt mining in the diapir, which was focused on extracting the purer salt within the Jefferson Island spine, in a mining scenario much like the fault shear anomaly, as mapped by Balk (1953), defined the extent of the workings at nearby Avery Island. The spine and its boundary “shear” zone are reflected in the topography of the Jefferson Island landscape, with a natural sub-circular solution lake, Lake Peigneur, created by the dissolving shallow crest of the most recently-active salt spine.

On November 20, 1980, one of the most spectacular sinkhole events associated with oilwell drilling occurred atop the Jefferson Island dome just west of New Iberia. Lake Peigneur disappeared as it drained into an underlying salt mine cavern and a collapse sinkhole, some 0.91 km2 in area, developed in the SE portion of the lake (Figure 13; Autin, 2002). In the 12 hours following the first intersection the underlying mine had flooded, and the lake was completely drained.

Drainage and collapse of the lake began when a Texaco oil rig, drilling from a pontoon in the lake, breached an unused section of the salt mine some 1000 feet (350 metres) below the lake floor (Figure 14a). Witnesses working below ground described how a wave of water instantly filled an old sump in the mine measuring some 200 ft across and 24 feet deep. The volume of floodwater engulfing the mine corridors couldn’t be drained by the available pumps. At the time of flooding the mine had four working levels and one projected future level. The shallowest was at 800 feet, it was the first mined level and had been exploited since 1922. The deepest part of the mine at the time of flooding was the approach rampways for a planned 1800 foot level. In 58 years of mine life, some 23-28 million m3 of salt had been extracted. Prompt reaction to the initial flood wave by mine staff allowed all 50 personnel, who were underground at the time, to escape without anything more than a few minor injuries.


The rapid flush of lake water into the mine, probably augmented by the drainage of natural solution cavities in the caprock below the lake floor, meant landslides and mudflows developed along the perimeter of the sinkhole, and that the lake was enlarged by 28 ha. The surface entry hole in the floor of Lake Peigneur quickly grew into a half-mile-wide crater. Eyewitnesses all agreed that the lake drained like a giant unplugged bathtub—taking with it trees, two oil rigs (worth more than $5 million), eleven barges, a tug boat and most of the Live Oak botanical gardens. It almost took local fisherman Leonce Viator Jr. as well. He was out fishing with his nephew Timmy on his fourteen-foot aluminium boat when the disaster struck. The water drained from the lake so quickly that the boat got stuck in the mud and they were able to walk away! The drained lake didn’t stay dry for long, within two days it was refilled to its normal level by Gulf of Mexico waters flowing backward into the lake depression through a connecting bayou (Delcambre Canal, aka Carline Bayou). But, since parts of the lake bottom had slumped into the sinkhole during the collapse, the final water level in some sections was higher than before relative to previous land features. It left one former lakefront house aslant under 12 feet of water.

Of course, an anthropogenically induced disaster like this attracted the lawyers like flies to a dead dingo. On 21 November 1980, the day after the disaster, Diamond Crystal Salt filed a suit against Texaco for an unspecified amount of damage. On 25 November, Texaco filed a countersuit against Diamond Crystal. The Live Oak Gardens sued both Diamond Crystal and Texaco. Months later, the State of Louisiana was brought into the suit since the incident occurred on state land. One woman sued Texaco and Wilson Brothers (the drillers) for $1.45 million for injuries (bruised ribs and an injured back) received while escaping from the salt mine. Less than a week before the scheduled trial, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the major players. Due to human error, related to a triangulation mistake when siting the drilling barge, Texaco and Wilson Brothers agreed to pay $32 million to Diamond Crystal and $12.1 million to the Live Oak Gardens.

An ongoing environmental catastrophe that was anticipated by environmental groups at the time of the accident never materialized. The lake quickly returned to its natural freshwater state, and with it the wildlife was largely un-affected. Nine of the barges eventually popped back up like corks (the drilling rigs and tug were never to be seen again). The torrent of water helped dredge Delcambre Canal so that it was two to four feet deeper. And of course, the former 1 metre deep Lake Peigneur was now 400 metres deep in the vicinity of the borehole!

Interestingly, the filling of the mine workings with water drastically slowed the rate of land subsidence atop the mine (Figure 14b). Measurements had been carried out between 1973 and 1983, some 7 years before the accident and continued for 2 years afterward (Thoms and Gerhle, 1994). Slowing reflects the post-accident reduction in the total pressure exerted on the roof of the mine to half its pre-accident levels. Prior to the accident, there was no hydrostatic pressure to alleviate some of the lithostatic pressure exerted by the weight of the overburden and so land subsidence above the mine workings was relatively rapid.

Although this incident is not directly related to any aspect of the salt mining operation and no human lives were lost (although three dogs perished), it clearly illustrates the speed of potential leakage following a breach in a cavern roof in any shallow storage facilities filled with low-density fluids. It also illustrates the usual cause of such disasters – human error in the form of a lack of due diligence, a lack of forward planning and a lack of communication between various private and government authorities. It also illustrates that filling a solution cavity with water slows the rate of subsidence atop a large salt cavity and that waters after the disturbance will return quietly to a state of density stratification.

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

Subsidence over the nearby Avery Island salt mine (operated by Cargill Salt) has been documented since 1986. This is oldest operating salt mine in the United States and has been in operation since the American Civil War, and after the Lake Peigneur disaster the mine underwent a major reconstruction and safety workover. Mine management and landowners did not publicly disclose the technical details of rates of subsidence, but field observations revealed the nature of the subsidence process. Subsidence along the mine edge coincided with a topographic saddle above an anomalous salt zone located inside the mined salt area, ground water had seeped into the mine, and there were a number of soil gas anomalies associated with the mine. Small bead-shaped sinkholes were initially noticed in the area in 1986, then over several years, a broad area of bowl-shaped subsidence and areas of gully erosion formed (Autin, 2002). Reconstruction has now stabilised this situation. Much of the subsidence on Avery Island was a natural process that occurs atop any shallow salt structure. Dating of middens and human artifacts around salt solution induced water-filled depressions atop the dome shows dissolution-induced subsidence is a natural process that extends back well beyond the 3,000 years of human occupation documented on the island.

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

Haoud Berkaoui oilfield, Algeria

Located in the Sahara, some 32 km southwest of Ouargla City, the Haoud Berkaoui oilfield is an area of subsidence where numerous exploration and development wells were completed in the 1970s. Of these, the OKN32 and OKN32BIS wells have collapsed into an expanding collapse doline. It surfaced in October 1986 when a crater, some 200 metres across and 75 metres deep, formed (Morisseau, 2000). Today the solution cavity continues to expand and is now some 230 by 600 metres across. Its outward progression is continuing at a rate around 1 metre per year. The collapse is centred on two oil wells drilled in the late 1970s. The problem began in 1978, when the OKN32 oil exploration well was abandoned because of stability problems in Triassic salt at a depth around 650 metres. The target was an Ordovician sandstone at a depth of 2500m. Because of the technical problems associated with significant caverns at the level of the salt, the well was abandoned without casing being set in the salt, probably facilitating the escape of artesian waters (Morisseau, 2000; Bouraoui et al., 2012).


When it reached the 600m level, the well had already passed through 50 metres of anhydrite (220-270m depth) along with interbedded anhydrite clay and dolomite 270m -450 m depth). These are evaporite sediments that, in their undisturbed state, can act as aquicludes or aquitards to any access by unconfined phreatic groundwaters, although at such shallow depths the evaporite beds are likely also to be variably overprinted by active-phreatic dissolution processes. Prior to drilling it was thought that the Senonian halite extended continuously to a depth of 600 m in the well and in turn was underlain by 50 m of anhydrite (600-650m depth). Below the halite-anhydrite is an artesian aquifer (Albian) with a natural hydraulic head that is larger than the surface aquifer head by 2.5 MPa (Morisseau, 2000)

In 1979 a second well, OKN32BIS, was drilled located some 80 metres from the previous well and it successfully obtained its Ordovician target. But in March 1981, the lining of this second well broke, probably because of cavity collapse at a level around 550 metres (once again the regional level of salt) and the well was lost. Five years later, on October 1 1986, a large surface crater formed, centred on these two wells. The initial at-surface diameter was 200 metres and it was 75 metres deep, today it is even larger (Figure 15). Cavern diameter below the stope breakout at that time was estimated to be 300m and water flows to be around 2000 m3/hour.

Since the initial stope breakout, leaching has become progressively less effective and expansion rates have slowed (Morisseau, 2000). This is because cavern growth and water outflow flow are thought to take place preferentially near the centre of the collapse, which is now far from the collapsing cavern walls Dissolving salt may be salinising the crossflowing groundwaters, leading to undocumented, but possible, ongoing degradation of freshwater oases in the region. Continuing expansion is evidenced by the development of fresh centripetal cracks about the expanding collapse margin. Using MT-InSAR analysis, Bouraoui et al. (2012) documented ongoing subsidence near the crater, with an average subsidence of 4 mm per year (between 1992 and 2002). The zone of current zone of subsidence is centred on the OKN32 location and is slowly migrating north east.

As in the USA (see Table 2 and Warren, 2016, Chapter 13 for examples), the loss of these wells, in this case during their active life, emphasizes the need for caution when planning well abandonment in a salt bed, especially when it is highly likely that the salt is acting as a seal, or at least an aquitard, to a regional artesian system. The fact that the first well (OKN32) was lost during drilling argues that a natural breach or cavity was already present in the salt bed and perhaps was already stoping its way to the surface. It is also possible that the inappropriate completion and cementation of casing levels, prior to the well’s abandonment, may have accelerated cavity expansion. In hindsight, the loss of the second well some 5 years later was highly likely as was catastrophic cavity collapse 5 years after that; the OKN32BIS wellhead was situated only 80 metres from OKN32 and was dealing with the same cavern-ridden salt geology.

Summary

Regarding anthropogenically-enhanced salt karst, it is important to note that a salt mass used for storage has never failed catastrophically. Weak points tend to occur wherever “the outside has access to the inside,” so problems tend to be mostly where mine expansion breaches a salt edge (Warren, 2017). Likewise, almost all the problems related to well and cavity failure are more a matter of human error, either by negligence, or a lack of understanding by on-the-ground personnel. There is the same general rule of thumb when it comes to salt cavities and salt mines, and that is, “keep it in the salt!” Most failures and breaches occur when mining or solution leaching operations allow the cavity to contact the edge of the salt. There undersaturated water crossflows can exaggerate any uncontrolled dissolution problems. Often the salt edge is irregular due to natural dissolution and assumptions of flat or gently curved shapes to a salt edge are oversimplifications.

References

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

Bouraoui, S., Z. Cakir, R. Bougdal, and M. Meghraoui, 2012, MT-InSAR monitoring of ground deformation around the Haoud Berkaoui sinkhole (SE Algeria): Geophysical Research Abstracts, EGU General Assembly 2012, held 22-27 April, 2012 in Vienna, Austria, v. 14, EGU2012-3344.

Buffet, A., 1998, The collapse of Compagnie des Salins SG4 and SG5 drilling: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting, Rome,, p. 79-105.

Gendzwill, D., and N. Martin, 1996, Flooding and loss of the Patience Lake potash mine: CIM Bulletin, v. 89, p. 62-73.

Goodman, W. M., D. B. Plumeau, J. O. Voigt, and D. J. Gnage, 2009, The History of Room and Pillar Salt Mines in New York State,” in S. Zuoliang, ed., Proceedings, 9th International Symposium on Salt, Beijing, China, September 4–6, 2009, v. 2, Gold Wall Press, Beijing, China, p. 1239–1248.

Gowan, S. W., and S. M. Trader, 1999, Mine failure associated with a pressurized brine horizon: Retsof Salt Mine, western New York: Environmental & Engineering Geoscience, v. 6, p. 57-70.

Gowan, S. W., and S. M. Trader, 2003, Mechanism of sinkhole formation in glacial sediments above Retsof Salt Mine, Western New York, in K. S. N. Johnson, J. T. , ed., Evaporite karst and engineering/environmental problems in the United States: Norman, Oklahoma Geological Survey Circular 109, p. 321-336.

Morisseau, J. M., 2000, Uncontrolled leaching of salt layer in an oil field in Algeria: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting Technical Session, San Antonio, p. 330-333.

Nieto, A., and R. A. Young, 1998, Retsof Salt Mine Collapse and Aquifer Dewatering, Genesee Valley , Livingston County , NY, in J. Borchers, ed., Poland Symposium Volume: Land Subsidence, Spec. Pub. 8, Assoc. Engineering Geologists, p. 309-325.

Payment, K. A., 2000, Loss of the Retsof salt mine: legal analysis of liability issues, in R. M. Geertmann, ed., Proc. 8th World Salt Symp., Salt 2000, The Hague, v. 1: Amsterdam, Elsevier, p. 399-404.

Tepper, D. H., W. H. Kappel, T. S. Miller, and J. H. WilliaMS, 1997, Hydrogeologic effects of flooding in the partially collapsed Retsof salt mine, Livingston County, New York: US Geol. Survey Open File Report, v. 97-47, p. 36-37.

Thoms, R. L., 2000, Subsidence and sinkhole development over salt caverns: An introduction to the technology of solution mining; Spring 2000 Technical Class, p. 127-141.

Thoms, R. L., and R. M. Gehle, 1994, Analysis of a Solidified Waste Disposal Cavern in Gulf Coast Salt Dome: SMRI Fall Mtg. (1994) 637.

Thoms, R. L., and R. M. Gehle, 2000b, Winnfield mine flooding and collapse event of 1965: Proc. S.M.R.I. Fall Meeting Technical Session, San Antonio, p. 262-274.

Van Sambeek, L. L., S. W. Gowan, and K. A. Payment, 2000, Loss of the Retsof Mine: Engineering Analysis: Proceedings, 8th World Salt Symposium, The Hague, The Netherlands, May 7–11, R. M. Geertman (ed.), Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 411–416.

Von Tryller, H., 2002, The Cavern Field No. 11 in Ocnele Mari - History, Present and Future: Solution Mining Research Institute Proceedings, Spring Meeting, 28 April 1 May, 2002, Banff, Canada, p. 10 pp.

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

Warren, J. K., 2017, Salt usually seals, but sometimes leaks: Implications for mine and cavern stabilities in the short and long term: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 165, p. 302-341.

Yager, R. M., 2013, Environmental Consequences of the Retsof Salt Mine Roof Collapse, US Geological survey Open File Report 2013–1174, 10 p.

Yager, R. M., T. S. Miller, and W. M. Kappel, 2001, Simulated effects of 1994 salt-mine collapse on ground-water flow and land subsidence in a glacial aquifer system, Livingston County, New York: US Geological Survey Professional Paper, p. 1-80.

Yager, R. M., P. E. Misut, C. D. Langevin, and D. L. Parkhurst, 2009, Brine Migration from a Flooded Salt Mine in the Genesee Valley, Livingston County, New York: Geochemical Modeling and Simulation of Variable-Density Flow, USGS Professional Paper 1767, 59 p.

Young, R. A., and G. S. Burr, 2006, Middle Wisconsin glaciation in the Genesee Valley, NY: A stratigraphic record contemporaneous with Heinrich Event, H4: Geomorphology, v. 75, p. 226-247.

Zamfirescu, F., M. Mocuta, T. Constantinecu, E. Medves, and A. Danchiv, 2003, The main causes of a geomechanical accident of brine caverns at field II of Ocnele Mari - Romania: RMZ - Materials and Geoenvironment, v. 50, p. 431-434.

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Salt Dissolution (3 of 5): Natural Geohazards

John Warren - Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Introduction

Surface constructions and other anthropogenic activities atop or within evaporite karst terranes is more problematic than in subcopping carbonate terranes due to inherently higher rates of dissolution and stoping (Yilmaz et al., 2011; Cooper and Gutiérrez, 2013; Gutiérrez et al., 2014). Overburden collapse into nearsurface gypsum caves can create stoping chimneys, which break out at the surface as steep-sided dolines, often surrounded by broader subsidence hollows. Such swallow-holes, up to 20 m deep and 40 m wide, continue to appear suddenly and naturally in gypsum areas throughout the world.

Unlike the relatively slow formation of limestone karst, gypsum/halite karst develops on a human/engineering time-scale and can be enhanced by human activities (Warren, 2016, 2017). For example, in 2006, the Nanjing Gypsum mine in China broke into a phreatic cavity in a region of gypsum karst, driving complete flooding of the mine in some three days. Associated groundwater drainage caused a sharp drop in the local piezometric level of up to 90 m in a well in nearby Huashu village. Resultant ground subsidence severely damaged nearby roads and buildings (Wang et al., 2008). In Ukraine, dewatering of gypsum karst to facilitate sulphur mining substantially increased the rate of gypsum dissolution and favoured the expansion of sinkholes within an area affected by the associated cones of water-table depression (Sprynskyy et al., 2009). Natural evaporite karst enhanced by intrastructure focusing of drainage creates the various scales of problem across the Gypsum Plain of West Texas and New Mexico (Stafford et al., 2017).

Although halite is even more susceptible to rapid dissolution than gypsum, it typically is not a major urban engineering problem; large numbers of people simply do not like to live in a climate that allows halite to make it to the surface. However, in the Dead Sea region, the ongoing lowering of the water level encouraged karstic collapse in newly exposed mudflats and has damaged roads and other man-made structures (Frumkin et al. 2011; Shviro et al., 2017). Catastrophic doline collapse atop poorly managed halite/potash mines and solution brine fields is an additional anthropogenically-induced or enhanced geohazard in developed regions is discussed in detail in Warren, 2016 (Figure 1).


Gypsum karst is a documented natural hazard in many parts of Europe (Figure 2), and similar areas of shallow subcropping gypsum are common in much of the rest of the world (Table 1). For example, areas surrounding the city of Zaragoza in northern Spain are affected, as is the town of Calatayud (Gutiérrez and Cooper, 2002; Gutiérrez, 2014). Gypsum dissolution is responsible for subsidence and collapse in many urban areas around northern Paris, France (Toulemont, 1984), in urban areas in and around Stuttgart and other towns peripheral to the Harz Mountains in Germany (Garleff et al., 1997), in Pasvalys and Birzai in Lithuania (Paukstys et al., 1999), in the Muttenz-Pratteln area in northwestern Switzerland (Zechner et al., 2011), in the Perm area of Russia (Trzhtsinsky, 2002), in the Sivaz region of Turkey (Karacan and Yilmez, 1997), in the region centred on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq (Jassim et al., 1997) and in a number of areas of rapid urban development in eastern Saudi Arabia (Amin and Bankher, 1997a, b). Large subsidence depressions caused by gypsum dissolution in China have opened up in the Taiyuan and Yangquan regions of Shanxi Coalfield and the adjacent Hebei Coalfield.


Variation in the watertable level, induced by groundwater pumping or uncontrolled brine extraction, can be an anthropogenic trigger for dolines surfacing. As the watertable declines it causes a loss of buoyant support to the ground, it also increases the flow gradient and water velocity, which facilitates higher rates of crossflow and deeper aquifer recharge in subsequent floods and so reduces the geomechanical strength of the cover and washes away roof span support (Figures 1, 3). Dolines can also be associated with groundwater quality issues. Collapse dolines or sinkholes are frequently used as areas or sumps for uncontrolled dumping industrial and domestic waste. Because of the direct connection between them and the regional aquifer, uncontrolled dumping can cause rapid dispersion of chemical and bacterial pollutants in the groundwater. In the case of Riyadh region Saudi Arabia, a lake of near-raw sewage has appeared in Hit Dahl (cave) and is likely related to the increased utilisation of desalinated water for sanitation and agriculture (Warren, 2016). In the Birzai region of Lithuania numerous sinkholes developed in Devonian gypsum subcrop are in direct connection across the regional hydrology. Accordingly, the amount of agricultural fertilizer use is limited to help protect groundwater quality.

One of the problems associated with rapid surfacing of evaporite collapse features is that any assignment of sinkhole cause will typically lead to an assignment of blame, particulary when anthropogenic infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed by the collapse, or lives may have been lost. Areas of natural evaporite karst are typically areas of relatively shallow evaporites. Shallow evaporites make such regions suitable for extraction via conventional or solution mining. When a collapse does occur in a mined area, one group (generally the miners) has a vested interest in arguing for natural collapse, the others, generally the lawyers and their litigants, will argue for an anthropogenic cause. The reality is usually a combination of natural process enhanced to varying degrees by human endeavours. In the examples in this section, much of the driving process for the collapse is natural, while the cause of any unexpected karst-related disaster is typically geological ignorance combined with political/community intransigence. See Chapter 13 for a further discussion of karst and stope examples that include collapses and explosions where the anthropogenic drivers can dominate.

Problems in the Ripon area, Yorkshire, UK

The town of Ripon, North Yorkshire, and town’s surrounds experiences the worst ongoing gypsum-karst related subsidence in England (Figures 3, 4; Cooper and Waltham, 1999). Some 43 events of subsidence or collapse in the caprock over the Ripon gypsum have occurred over the last 160 years, within an area of 7 km2 (Figures 4). This gives a mean rate of one new sinkhole every 26 years in each square kilometre. Worldwide, the highest documented event rate occurs in Ukraine, in an area of thin and weak clay caprocks above interstratal gypsum karst, where new sinkholes appear at a rate of 0.01 to 3.0 per year per km2 (Waltham et al., 2005). In the Ripon area, numerous sags and small collapses also typify surrounding farmlands. Subsidence features are typically 10-30m in diameter, reach up to 20m in depth and can appear at the surface in a matter of hours to days (Figure 3). To the east of the town, one collapse sinkhole in the Sherwood Sandstone is 80 m in diameter and 30 m deep, perhaps reflecting the stronger roof beam capacity of the Sherwood Sandstone.

When a chimney breaks through, the associated surface collapse is very rapid (Figure 3 b-e). For example, one such subsidence crater, which opened up in front of a house on Ure Bank terrace on 23rd and 24th April, 1997, is documented by Cooper (1998.) as follows (Figure 3b).

“...The hole grew in size and migrated towards the house, to measure 10m in diameter and 5.5m deep by the end of Thursday. Four garages have been destroyed by the subsidence. This collapse was the largest of one of a series that have affected this site for more than 30 years; an earlier collapse had demolished two garages on the same site, and a 1856 Ordnance Survey map shows a pond on the same site. The hole is cylindrical but will ultimately fail to become a larger, but conical, depression. As it does so, it may cause collapse of the house, which is already damaged, and the adjacent road. The house and several nearby properties have been evacuated and the nearby road has been closed. The gas and other services, which run close to the hole, have also been disconnected in case of further collapse.”

Cooper (1998) found the sites of most severe subsidence in the Ripon area (including the house at Ure Terrace and in the vicinity of Magdelen's Road) are located at the sides of the buried Ure Valley, an area where the significant volumes of water seeps from the gypsum karst levels into the river gravels (Figure 4). In 1999 the Ure Terrace sinkhole was filled using a long conveyor belt that was cantilevered over the hole so that no trucked needed to back up close to the sinkhole opening. The hole was surcharged to a height of 0.5m. The hole remains unstable, but the collapse of the fill is monitored to document fill performance and the fill is periodically topped up. After the sinkhole was filled, the road adjacent to the sinkhole was re-opened and the site of the sinkhole fenced. The severely damaged Field View house remains standing next to the sinkhole. The nearby Victorian Ure lodge was not directly damaged by the 1997 sinkhole, but its western corner fell within the council-designated damage zone, and was left unoccupied. It fell into disrepair and was subsequently demolished (Figure 3b). A similar fate befell houses damaged by the surfacing of collapse sinkholes in and around Magdelen's Road, which is located a few hundred metres from Ure Terrace (Figure 3c-e). Shallow subcropping Zechstein gypsum (rehydrated anhydrite) occurs in two subcropping bedded units in this area, one is in the Permian Edlington and the other is in the Roxby Formation (Figure 4b). Together they form a subcrop belt about a kilometre wide, bound to the west by the base of the lowest gypsum unit (at the bottom of the Edlington Formation) and to the east by a downdip transition from gypsum to anhydrite in the upper gypsum-bearing unit of the Roxby Formation. The spatial distribution of subsidence features within this belt relates to joint azimuths in the Permian bedrock, with gypsum maze caves and subsidence patterns following the joint trends (Cooper, 1986). Most of the subcropping gypsum is alabastrine in the area around Ripon, while farther to the east, where the unit is thicker and deeper, the calcium sulphate phase is still anhydrite.

Fluctuations in the watertable level tied to heavy rain or long drought are thought to be the most common triggering mechanism for subsidence transitioning to sinkhole collapse. Many of the more catastrophic collapses occur after river flooding and periods of prolonged rain, which tend to wash away cavern roof span support. Subsidence is also aggravated by groundwater pumping; first, it lowers the watertable and second, it induces considerable crossflow of water in enlarged joints in the gypsum. When recharged by a later flood, the replacement water is undersaturated with respect to gypsum.


Thomson et al. (1996) recognised four hydrogeological flow units driving karst collapse in the Ripon area (Figure 4):

1) Quaternary gravels in the buried valley of the proto-River Ure

2) Sherwood Sandstone Group

3) Magnesian Limestone of the Brotherton Fm. and the overlying/adjacent gypsum of the Roxby Fm.

4) Magnesian limestone of the Cadeby Fm. plus the overlying/adjacent gypsum of the Edlington Fm.

Local hydrological base level within this stratigraphy is controlled by the River Ure, especially where the buried Pleistocene valley (proto-Ure) is filled by permeable sands and gravels, as these unconsolidated sediments, when located atop a breached roof beam, are susceptible to catastrophic stoping to base level (Figure 4). In the area around Ripon the palaeovalley cuts down more than 30 m, reaching levels well into the Cadeby Formation, so providing the seepage connections or pathways between waters in all four units wherever they intersect the palaeovalley. There is considerable groundwater outflow along this route with artesian sulphate-rich springs issuing from Permian strata in contact with Quaternary gravels of the buried valley (Cooper, 1986, 1995, 1998).

The potentiometric head comes from precipitation falling on the high ground of the Cadeby formation to the west and the Sherwood Sandstone to the east. Groundwater becomes largely confined beneath glacial till as it seeps toward the Ure Valley depression, but ultimately finds an exit into the modern river via the deeply incised sand and gravel-filled palaeovalley of the proto-Ure. Waters recharging the Ure depression pass through and enlarge joints and caverns in the gypsum units of the Edlington and Roxby Formations, so the highest density of subsidence features are found atop the sides of the palaeovalley. This region has the greatest volume of artesian discharge from aquifers immediately beneath the dissolving gypsum bed. Although created as an active karst valley, the apparent density of subsidence hollows is lower on the present Ure River floodplain than the surrounding lands as floodplain depressions are constantly filled by overbank sediments (Figure 4b).

Cooper (1998) defined 16 sinkhole variations in the gypsum subsidence belt at Ripon, all are types of entrenched, subjacent and mantled karst. Changes in karst style are caused by; the type of gypsum, the nature and thickness of the overlying deposits, presence or absence of consolidated layers overlying the gypsum and the size of voids/caverns within the gypsum.

To the west of Ripon, the gypsum of the Edlington Formation lies directly beneath glacial drift. These unconsolidated drift deposits and the loose residual marl atop the dissolving gypsum gradually subside into a pinnacle or suffusion (mantled) karst. But between Ripon town and the River Ure, the limestone of the Brotherton Formation overlies the Edlington Formation. There the karst develops as large open caverns beneath strong roof spans (entrenched karst). Ultimate collapse of the roof span creates rapid upward-stoping caverns in loosely consolidated sediment. Stopes break though to the surface as steep-sided collapse dolines or chimneys with sometimes catastrophic results. A similar entrenched situation is found east of the Ure River but there karstified gypsum units of both the Edlington and the Roxby formations are involved.


There are also thick beds of gypsum in the Permian Zechstein sequence that forms the bedrock in the Darlington area. In this area, subsidence features attributed to gypsum dissolution are typically broad shallow depressions up to 100 m in diameter, and the ponds, known as Hell Kettles, are the only recognized examples of steep-sided subsidence hollows around Darlington (Figure 5). Historical records suggest that one of the ponds formed in dramatic fashion in AD 1179 (Cooper 1995). The southern pond appears to be the most likely one to have formed at that time because it is many metres deep and is fed from below by calcareous spring water that is rich in both carbonate and sulphate. The 2D profiles have revealed evidence of foundering in the limestone of the Seaham Formation at depths of c. 50 m (Figure 5; Sargent and Goulty, 2009). The foundering is interpreted to have resulted from dissolution of gypsum in the Hartlepool Anhydrite Formation at ≈ 70 m depth. The reflection images of the gypsum itself are discontinuous, suggesting that its top surface has karstic topography. The 3D survey also acquired and interpreted by Sargent and Goulty (2009) reveals subcircular hollows in the Seaham Formation up to 20 m across, which are again attributed to foundering caused by gypsum dissolution.


Problems with Miocene gypsum, Spain

Karstification has led to problems in areas of subcropping Miocene gypsum in the Ebro and Calatayud basins, northern Spain (Figure 6). Cliff sections and road cuts indicate the widespread nature of karstification in the gypsum outcrops and subcrops in Spain (Figure 7b) Areas affected are defined by subsidence or collapse in Quaternary alluvial overburden and include; urban areas, communication routes, roads, railways, irrigation channels and agricultural fields (Figure 7a; Soriano and Simon, 1995; Elorza and Santolalla, 1998; Guerrero et al., 2013; Gutiérrez et al., 2014). In the region there can be a reciprocal interaction between anthropic activities and sinkhole generation, whereby the ground disturbance engendered by human activity accelerates, enlarges and triggers the creation of new sinkholes. Subsidence is particularly harmful to linear constructions and buildings and numerous roads, motorways and railways have been damaged (Figure 7a, b). Catastrophic collapse and rapid karst chimneying into roads and buildings can have potentially fatal consequences. For example, several buildings have been damaged around the towns of Casetas and Utebo. In the Portazgo industrial estate some factories had to be pulled down due to collapse-induced instability (Castañeda et al., 2009). A nearby gas explosion was attributed to the breakage of a gas pipe caused by subsidence. The local water supply is also disrupted by subsidence and pipe breakage so that 20,000 inhabitants periodically lose their water supply. The most striking example of subsidence affecting development comes from the village of Puilatos, in the Gallego Valley. In the 1970's this town was severely damaged by subsidence and abandoned before it could be occupied (Cooper 1996).


Collapse affects irrigation channels in the countryside with substantial economic losses (Elorza and Santolalla, 1998). In 1996 a doline collapse surfaced and cut the important Canal Imperial at Gallur village. New dolines often form near unlined irrigation canals. The ongoing supply of fresh irrigation waters to field crops can also encourage sinkhole generation in the fields. Though not directly visible, natural sinkholes also form in the submerged beds of river channels cutting regions of subcropping gypsum.

On December 19th, 1971, a bus fell from a bridge into the Ebro River at Zaragoza, near where the ‘San Lazaro well’ (a submerged gypsum sinkhole) is located (Figure 8a). Ten people lost their lives in this accident , while the remainder of the passengers were rescued, after being stranded on the bus roof in the flowing river for some hours (Figure 8b). After survivors were rescued, river waters washed the bus from the foot of the bridge supports into the nearby 'San Lazaro well (collapse sinkhole) in the water-covered floor of the river. Nine of the ten bodies in the bus were never found, although the bus was later recovered from the sinkhole. Locals suggested that bodies were carried deeper into the various interconnect phreatic sinkhole caverns fed by this losing stream.


Karstification in the Zaragoza region is characterised by the preferential intrastatal dissolution of glauberite bed, which are more soluble than the gypsum interbeds, this leads to collapse and rotation of gypsum blocks and river capture (Guerrero et al., 2013).

Sometimes even well-intentioned attempts to remediate culturally significant buildings under threat of evaporite karst collapse can exacerbate collapse problems. Gutiérrez and Cooper (2002) cite examples from the city of Calatayud, Spain. Subsidence-induced differential loading across doline edges drives the tilting of the 25-metre high tower (mudéjar) of the San Pedro de Los Francos church, which leans towards and overhangs the street by about 1.5 metres. (Figure 9) In places, the brickwork of the church indents the pre-existing tower fabric, which probably dates from the 11th Century or the beginning of the 12th Century. This indentation and the non-alignment of the church and the tower walls indicates that most of the tower tilting occurred prior to the construction of the church. In 1840, the upper 5m of the tower was removed and the lower part buttressed for the safety of the Royal family, who visited the town and stayed in the palace opposite. On 3rd June 1931, San Pedro de Los Francos church was declared a “Monument of Historical and Artistic value.” Due to its ruinous condition, the church was closed to worship in 1979. Micropiling to improve the foundation was started in 1994, but this corrective measure was interrupted when only half of the building was underpinned. Very rapid differential settlement of the building took place in the following year, causing extensive damage and aggravating the subsidence problem.


Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor was constructed between the 13th and 18th centuries, it has an outstanding Mudéjar (a 72 m high tower) and numerous Renaissance features; it is considered the foremost monument in the city of Cataluyud. As with the San Pedro de los Francos Church, recent micropiling work, applied to only one part of the cloister, has been followed by alarming differential movements that have drastically accelerated the deterioration of the building. Large blocks have fallen from the vault of the “Capitular Hall” and cracks up to 150 mm wide have opened in the brickwork of the back (NW) elevation, which has now been shored up for safety. The dated plaster tell-tales placed in these cracks to monitor the displacement demonstrate the high speed of the deformation produced by subsidence in recent years. On the afternoon of 10 September 1996, the fracture of a water supply pipe flooded the cloisters and the church with 100 mm of muddy water. Ten years earlier a similar breakage and flood had occurred. These breaks in the water pipes are most likely related to karst-induced subsidence. Once they occur, the massive input of water to the subsurface may trigger further destruction via enhanced dissolution, piping and hydrocollapse (Gutiérrez and Cooper, 2002).


Gypsum karst in Mosul, Iraq

A similar quandary of multiple areas of structural damage from gypsum-induced subsidence affects large parts or the historic section of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq (Jassim et al., 1997). The main part of its old quarter is over a century old and some buildings are a few hundred years old. Mosul lies on the northeastern flank of the Abu Saif anticline and near to its northern plunge (Figure 10a). It was built on the western bank of the Tigris River on a dip slope of Middle Miocene Fatha limestone that is directly underlain by bedded gypsum and green marl (equivalent to Lower Fars Formation). Houses in the old city were built on what seemed to be at the time a very sound rock foundation.

Water distribution in the city was done on mule back in the early part of last century and the estimated water consumption did not exceed 10 litres per person per day (Jassim et al., 1997). Discharge from households was partly to surface drainage and partly to shallow and small septic tanks. The modern piped system of water distribution did not start until the 1940s, resulting in a sudden increase in water consumption (presently around 200 litres per person per day) and it was not associated with a complementary sewer system. Increased water consumption meant larger and deeper septic tanks were dug at the perimeter of buildings (which never seemed to fill) resulting in a dramatic increase in water percolating downwards, water that was also more corrosive than previously due to the increased use of detergents and chlorination. This water passes through the permeable and fractured limestone to the underlying gypsum. On its way through the limestone it enlarges and creates new dissolution cavities, but eventually finds its way into the older gypsum karst maze, which is then further widened as water drains back into the Tigris (Figure 10b). Caverns in the gypsum enlarge until the roof span collapses. Since the 1970s more and more buildings in the old city have fractured and many are subject to sudden collapse. The problem is further intensified due to the expansion of the city in the up-dip direction (west and southwest) including the construction of industrial, water-dependent centres with integrated drainage. Water seeping/draining from these newly developed up-dip areas eventually passes under the old city before discharging in the Tigris river. The process was slightly arrested in the 1980s by the completion of a drainage system for the city, but the degradation of the old city continues.

Coping: man-made structures atop salts

The towns of Ripon in the UK and Pasvales and Birzai in Lithuania house some 45,000 people, who currently live under the ongoing threat of catastrophic subsidence, caused by natural gypsum dissolution (Paukstys et al., 1999). Special measures for construction of houses, roads, bridges and railways are needed in these areas and should include: incorporating several layers of high tensile heavy duty reinforced plastic mesh geotextile into road embankments and car parks; using sacrificial supports on bridges so that the loss of support of any one upright will not cause the deck to collapse; extending the foundations of bridge piers laterally to an amount that could span the normal size of collapses; and using ground monitoring systems to predict areas of imminent collapse (Cooper 1995, 1998).


Dams to store urban water supplies are costly structures and failure can lead to disaster, large scale mortality and financial liability (for example, Cooper and Gutiérrez, 2013). For example, at two and a half minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam (California) failed catastrophically and the resulting flood killed more than 400 people (Figure 11). The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The collapse was partly attributed to dissolution of gypsum veins beneath the dam foundations. The Quail Creek Dam, Utah, constructed in 1984 failed in 1989, the underlying cause being an unappreciated existence of, and consequent enlargement of, cavities in the gypsum strata beneath its foundations.

Unexpected water leakage from reservoirs, via ponors, sinkholes and karst conduits, leads to costly inefficiency, or even project abandonment. Unnaturally high hydraulic gradients, induced by newly impounded water, may flush out of the sediment that previously blocked karst conduits. It can also produce rapid dissolutional enlargement of discontinuities, which can quickly reach break-through dimensions with turbulent flow. These processes may significantly increase the hydraulic permeability in the region of the dam foundation, on an engineering time scale.

Accordingly, numerous dams in regions of the USA underlain by shallow evaporites either have gypsum karst problems, or have encountered gypsum-related difficulties during construction (Johnson, 2008). Examples include; the San Fernando, Dry Canyon, Buena Vista, Olive Hills and Castaic dams in California; the Hondo, Macmillan and Avalon dams in New Mexico; Sandford Dam in Texas; Red Rock Dam in Iowa; Fontanelle Dam in Oklahoma; Horsetooth Dam and Carter Dam in Colorado and the Moses Saunders Tower Dam in New York State. Up to 13,000 tonnes of mainly gypsum and anhydrite were dissolved from beneath a dam in Iraq in only six months causing concerns about the dam stability (Figure 13). In China, leaking dams and reservoirs on gypsum include the Huoshipo Dam and others in the same area. The Bratsk Dam in eastern Siberia is leaking, and in Tajikistan the dam for the Nizhne-Kafirnigansk hydroelectric scheme was designed to cope with active gypsum dissolution occurring below the grout curtain. Gypsum karst in the foundation trenches of the Casa de Piedra Dam, Argentina and El Isiro Dam in Venezuela, caused difficult construction conditions and required design modifications.


Another illustration of the problems associated with water retaining structures and the ineptitude, or lack of oversight, by some city planners comes from the town of Spearfish, South Dakota (Davis and Rahn, 1997 ). As discussed earlier in this chapter, the Triassic Spearfish Formation contains numerous gypsum beds in which evaporite-focused karst landforms are widely documented across its extent in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Figure 12). The evaporite karst in the Spearfish Fm. has caused severe engineering problems for foundations and water retention facilities, including wastewater stabilization sites. One dramatic example of problems in water retention atop gypsum karst comes from the construction in the 1970s of now-abandoned sewage lagoons for the City of Spearfish.

Despite warnings from local ranchers, the Spearfish sewage lagoons were built in 1972 by city authorities on alluvium atop thick gypsum layers of Spearfish Formation. Ironically, at one point during lagoon construction, a scraper became stuck in a sinkhole and required four bulldozers to pull it out. Once filled with sewage, within a year the lagoons started leaking badly; the southern lagoon was abandoned after four years because of ongoing uncontrollable leaks, and the northern lagoon did not completely drain, but could not provide adequate retention time for effective sewage treatment. Attempts at repairs, including a bentonite liner, were ineffective, and poorly treated sewage discharged beneath the lagoon’s berm into a nearby surface drainage. The lagoons were abandoned completely in 1980. This was after a US $27-million lawsuit was filled in 1979 by ranchers whose land and homes were affected by leaking wastewater. A mechanical wastewater treatment plant was constructed nearby on an outcrop of the non-evaporitic Sundance Formation. The engineering firm that designed the facility without completing a knowledgeable geological site survey was reorganised following the lawsuit.

Likewise, the development of Chamshir Dam atop Gascharan Formation outcrop and subcrop in Iran is likely to create ongoing infrastructure cost and water storage problems (Torabi-Kaveh et al., 2012). The site is located in southwest of Iran, on Zuhreh River, 20 km southeast of Gachsaran city. The area is partially covered by evaporite formations of the Fars Group, especially the Gachsaran Formation. The dam axis is located on limestone beds of Mishan Formation, but nearly two-thirds of the dam reservoir is in direct contact with the evaporitic Gachsaran Formation. Strata in the vicinity of the reservoir and dam site have been brecciated and intersected by several faults, such as the Dezh Soleyman thrust and the Chamshir fault zone, which all act in concert to create karst entryways, including local zones of suffusion karst. A wide variety of karstic features typify the region surrounding the dam site and include; karrens, dissolution dolines, karstic springs and cavities. These karst features will compromise the ability of Chamshir Dam to store water, and possibly even cause breaching of the dam, via solution channels and cavities which could allow significant water flow downstream of the dam reservoir. As possible and likely partial short term solutions, Torabi-Kaveh et al. (2012) recommend the construction of a cutoff wall and/or a clay blanket floor to the reservoir

Difficulties in building hydraulic structures on soluble rocks are many, and dealing with them greatly increases project and maintenance costs. Gypsum dissolution at the Hessigheim Dam on the River Neckar in Germany has caused settlement problems in sinkholes nearby. Site investigation showed cavities up to several meters high and remedial grouting from 1986 to 1994 used 10,600 tonnes of cement. The expected life of the dam is only 30-40 years, with continuing grouting required to keep it serviceable.

Grouting costs in zones of evaporite karst can be very high and may approach 15 or 20% of the dam cost, currently reaching US$ 100 million in some cases. In karstified limestones grouting is difficult, yet in gypsum it is even more difficult due to the rapid dissolution rate of the gypsum. Karst expansion in limestone occurs on the scale of hundreds of years, in gypsum it can be on the order of a decade or less. Grouting may also alter the underground flow routes, so translating and focusing the problems to other nearby areas. In the Perm area of Russia, gypsum karst beneath the Karm hydroelectric power station dam has perhaps been successfully grouted, a least in the short term, using an oxaloaluminosilicate gel that hardens the grout, but also coats the gypsum, so slowing its dissolution. The Mont Cenis Dam, in the French Alps, is not itself affected by the dissolution of gypsum. However, the reservoir storage zone is leaking and photogrammetric study of the reservoir slopes showed ongoing doline activity over gypsum and subsidence in the adjacent land.


Probably the worst example tied to and evaporite karst hazard is the significant dam disaster waiting to happen that is the Mosul Dam in Iraq (Figure 13; Kelley et al., 2007; Sissakian and Knutsson, 2014; Milillo et al., 2016). It is ranked as the fourth largest dam in the Middle East, as measured by reserve capacity, capturing snowmelt from Turkey, some 70 miles (110 km) north. Built under the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein, completed in 1984 the Mosul Dam (formerly known as Saddam Dam) is located on the Tigris river, some 50 km NW of Mosul.

The design of the dam was done by a consortium of European consultants (Sissakian and Knutsson, 2014), namely, Swiss Consultants group, comprising: Motor Columbus; Electrowatt; Suiselectra; Societe Generale pour l’Industrie. The construction was carried out by a German-Italian consortium of international contractors, GIMOD joint venture, comprising: Hochtief; Impregilo; Zublin; Tropp; Italstrade; Cogefar. The consultants for project design and construction supervision comprised a joint venture of the above listed Swiss Consultants Group and Energo-Projekt of Yugoslavia, known as MODACON.

As originally constructed the dam is 113 m in height, 3.4 km in length, 10 m wide in its crest and has a storage capacity of 11.1 billion cubic meters (Figure 13b). It is an earth fill dam, constructed on evaporitic bedrock atop a karstified high created by an evaporite cored anticline in the Fat’ha Formation, which consists of gypsum beds alternating with marl and limestone (Figure 13a, 14). To the south, this is same formation with the same evaporite cored anticlinal association that created all the stability problems in the city of Mosul (Figures 10). The inappropriate nature of the Fat’ha Formation as a foundation for any significant engineering structure had been known for more than a half a century. Then again, absolute rulers do not need to heed scientific advice or knowledge. Or perhaps he didn’t get it from a well-paid group of Swiss-based engineering consultants. As Kelley et al. (2007) put it so succinctly....“The site was chosen for reasons other than geologic or engineering merit.”

The likely catastrophic failure of Mosul Dam will drive the following scenario (Sissakian and Knutsson, 2014); “... (dam) failure would produce a flood wave crest about 20 m deep in the City of Mosul. It is estimated that the leading edge of the failure flood wave would arrive in Mosul about 3 hours after failure of the dam, and the crest of the flood wave would arrive in Mosul about 9 hours after failure of the dam. The total population of the City of Mosul is about 3 million, and it is estimated that about 2 million people are in locations within the city that would be inundated by a 20 m deep flood wave. The City of Baghdad is located about 350 km downstream of Mosul Dam, and the dam failure flood wave will arrive after 72 hours in Baghdad and (by then) would be about 4 m deep.”



The heavily karsted Fat’ha Formation is up to 352 m thick at the dam and has an upper and lower member. The lower member is dominated by carbonate in its lower part (locally called “chalky series”) and is in turn underlain by an anhydrite bed known as the GBo. Gypsum beds typify its upper part,and the evaporite interval is capped by a limestone marker bed. The upper member, crops out as green and red claystone with gypsum relicts, around the Butmah Anticline. Thickness of individual gypsum beds below the dam foundations can attain 18 m; these upper member units are intensely karstified, even in foundation rocks, with cavities meters across documented during construction of the dam (Figure 14). Gypsum breccia layers are widespread within the Fatha Formation and have proven to be the most problematic rocks in the dam’s foundation zone. The main breccia body contains fragments or clasts of limestone, dolomite, or larger pieces of insoluble rocks of collapsed material. The upper portion of the accumulation grades upward from rubble to crackle mosaic breccia and then a virtually unaffected competent overburden. Breccia also may form without the intermediate step of an open cavity, by partial dissolution and direct formation of rubble. As groundwater moves through the rubble, soluble minerals are carried away, leaving insoluble residues of chert fragments, quartz grains, silt, and clay in a mineral matrix. These processes result in geologic layers with lateral and vertical heterogeneity on scales of micro-meters to meters.

High permeability zones in actively karsting gypsum regions can form rapidly, days to weeks, and quickly become transtratal. So predicting or controlling breakout zones via grouting and infill can be problematic (Kelley et al., 2007; Sissakian and Knutsson, 2014). For example, four sinkholes formed between 1992 and 1998 approximately 800 m downstream in the maintenance area of the dam (Figure 13a). The sinkholes appeared in a linear arrangement, approximately parallel to the dam axis. Another large sinkhole developed in February 2003, east of the emergency spillway when the pool elevation was at 325 m. The Mosul Dam staff filled the sinkhole the next day, with 1200 m3 of soil. Another sinkhole developed in July 2005 to the east of the saddle dam. Six borings were completed around the sinkhole and indicated that the sinkhole developed beneath overburden deposits and within layers of the Upper Marl Series. Another cause for concern at Mosul Dam in recent years is a potential slide area reported upstream of the dam on the west bank. The slide is most likely related to the movement of beds of the Chalky Series over the underlying GBo (anhydritic) layer.

To “cope” with ongoing active karst growth beneath and around the Mosul Dam, a continuous grouting programme was planned, even during dam construction, and continues today, on a six days per week basis. It pumps tens of thousands of tons of concrete into expanding karst features each year (Sissakian and Knutsson, 2014; Milillo et al., 2016). The dam was completed in June 1984, with a postulated operational life of 80 years. Due to insufficient grouting and sealing in and below the dam foundation, numerous karst features, as noted above, continue to enlarge in size and quantity, so causing serious problems for the ongoing stability of the dam. The increase in hydraulic gradient created by a wall of water behind the dam has accelerated the rate of karstification in the past 40 years.

Since the late 1980s, the status of the dam and its projected collapse sometime within the next few decades has created ongoing nervousness for the people of Mosul city and near surroundings. All reports on the dam since the mid 1980s have underlined the need for ongoing grouting and monitoring and effective planning of the broadcasting of a situation where collapse is imminent. For “Saddam’s dam” the question is not if, but when, the dam will collapse. To alleviate the effects of the dam collapse, Iraqi authorities have started to build another “Badush Dam” south of Mosul Dam so that it can stop or reduce the effects of the first flood wave. However this new dam has a projected cost in excess of US$ ten billion and so lies beyond the financial reach of the current Iraqi government. Problems related to the dam increased with the takeover of the region by the forces of ISIL.

Today, the Mosul dam is subsiding at a linear rate of ~15 mm/year compared to 12.5 mm/year subsidence rate in 2004–2010 (Milillo et al., 2016). Increased subsidence restarted at the end of 2013 after re-grouting operations slowed and at times stopped. The causes of the observed linear subsidence process of the dam wall can be found in the human activities that have promoted the evaporite–subsidence development, primarily in gypsum deposits and may enable, in case of continuous regrouting stop, unsaturated water to flow through or against evaporites deposits, allowing the development of small to large dissolution cavities.

Large vertical movements that typified the dam wall have resulted from the dissolution of extensive gypsum strata previously mapped beneath the Mosul dam. Increased subsidence rate over the past five years has been due to periods when there was little or no regrouting underlying the dam basement. Dam subsidence currently seems to follow a linear behavior but on can not exclude a future acceleration due to increased gypsum dissolution speed and associated catastrophic collapse of the dam (Milillo et al., 2016).

Given the existing geologic knowledge base in the 1980s, in my opinion, one must question the seeming lack of understanding in a group of well-paid consultant engineering firms as to the outcome of building such a major structure, atop what was known to be an active karstifying gypsum succession, sited in a location where failure will threaten multimillion populations in the downstream cities. The same formation that constituted the base to the Mosul dam was known at the time to be associated with ground stability problems atop similar gypsum-cored anticlines in the city of Mosul to the south. Even more concerning to the project rationale should have been the large karst cavities in highly soluble gypsum that were encountered a number of times during feasibility and construction of the dam foundations (Figure 14). Or, perhaps, as Lao Tzu observed many centuries ago, “ ...So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.”

Canals, like dams, that leak in gypsum karst areas can trigger subsidence, which can be severe enough to cause retainment failure. In Spain, the Imperial Canal in the Ebro valley, and several canals in the Cinca and Noguera Ribagorzana valleys, which irrigate parts of the Ebro basin, have on numerous occasions failed in this way. Similarly, canals in Syria have suffered from gypsum dissolution and collapse of soils into karstic cavities. Canals excavated in such ground may also alter the local groundwater flow (equivalent to losing streams) and so accelerate internal erosion, or the dissolution processes and associated collapse of cover materials. In the Lesina Lagoon, Italy, a canal was excavated to improve the water exchange between the sea and the lagoon. It was cut through loose sandy deposits and highly cavernous gypsum bedrock, but this created a new base level, so distorting the local groundwater flow. The canal has caused the rapid downward migration of the cover material into pre-existing groundwater conduits, producing a large number of sinkholes that now threaten an adjacent residential area.

Pipelines constructed across karst areas are potential pollution sources and some may pose possible explosion hazards. The utilization of geomorphological maps depicting the karst and subsidence features allied with GIS and karst databases help with the grouting and management of these structures. In some circumstances below-ground leakage {Zechner, 2011 #26} from water supply pipelines can trigger severe karstic collapse events. Where such hazards are identified, such as where a major oil and gas pipeline crosses the Sivas gypsum karst in Turkey, the maximum size of an anticipated collapse can be determined and the pipeline strength increased to cope with the possible problems.


Solving the problem?

Throughout the world, be it in the US, Canada, the UK, Spain, eastern Europe, or the Middle East, it is a fact that weathering of shallow gypsum forms rapidly expanding and stoping caverns, especially in areas of high water crossflow, unsupported roof beams, and unconsolidated overburden and in areas of artificially confined fresh water. Rapid karst formative processes and mechanism will always be commonplace and widespread (Table 2). Resultant karst-associated problems can be both natural and anthropogenically induced or enhanced. It is fact that natural solution in regions of subcropping evaporites is always rapid, and even more so in areas where it is encouraged by human activities, especially increased cycling of water via damming, groundwater pumping, burst pipes, septic systems, agricultural enhancement and uncontrolled storm and waste water runoffs to aquifers.

Typically, the best way to deal with a region of an evaporite karst hazard is to map the regional extent of the shallow evaporite solution front and avoid it (Table 3). In established areas with a karst problem the engineering solutions will need to be designed around hazards that will typically be characterised by short-term onsets, often tied to rapid ground stoping/subsidence events and quickly followed by ground collapse. If man-made buildings of historical significance are to be restored and stabilized in such settings, perhaps it is better to wait until funds are sufficient to complete the job rather than attempt partial stabilization of the worst-affected portions of the feature. Significant infrastructure (including roads, canals and dams) should be designed to avoid such areas when possible or engineered to cope with and/or survive episodes of ground collapse.

A piecemeal approach to dealing with evaporite karst can intensify and focus water crossflows rather than alleviate them. In the words of Nobel prizewinner, Shimon Peres; “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact - not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”


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Dissolving salt (1 of 5): Landforms

John Warren - Thursday, August 31, 2017

 

Introduction

This series of five articles discuss effects of nearsurface evaporite dissolution at various scales and times, in terms of; 1) landform expression, 2) evaporite-hosted caves and speleothems 3) natural evaporite karst geohazards 4)Anthropogenically enhanced karst features, 5) economic associations tied to evaporite paleokarst (hydrocarbon and metal).

As salt dissolves in the subsurface, it creates void spaces of various sizes and shapes into which overlying strata can drape or brecciate, so creating characteristic landforms at both local (m to km) and regional (km to tens of km) scales (Figure 1). Water sources producing these features can be shallow unconfined meteoric or marine, confined shallow or deeply circulating meteoric, or hypogene, basinal and hydrothermal. Solution-related evaporitic landforms can be either active karst or palaeokarst features. Paleokarst refers to ancient karstic features that are no longer active and tied to ancient basin flushing hydrologies and now buried land surfaces. Active karst is responding to the modern ambient hydrology and typifies landscape elements discussed in the following section.


Evaporite solution karst landforms overprint nearby carbonate or evaporite strata, with many descriptive features and terms are common to textures and geometries across both host lithologies. Evaporite-related karst includes many varieties of karren, sinkholes (dolines and caves), blind valleys, poljes and subsidence basins (Ford and Williams, 2007; Warren, 2016). Bedrock exposures of gypsum or salt at a finer scale are sculpted into irregular curved and grooved surfaces called rillenkarren or other varieties of gravity-oriented solution flutes (Macaluso and Sauro, 1996; Stenson and Ford, 1993).

Local-scale karst geometries that define evaporite-related subsidence range in lateral extent from the metre-scale cones of suffosion karst to collapse cones to kilometre-scale doline depressions (Figure 1). In regions of soil-mantled outcrops of bedded evaporites, these features tend to occur at higher densities, within or near broad subsidence valleys. In the context of the lateral extents of evaporite-related landforms, it is also useful to separate landforms associated with the dissolution of bedded evaporite versus dissolution landforms and namakier residues that occur above variably active salt diapir crests. Features related to dissolving diapirs and namakiers are discussed in an earlier article (Salty Matters, March 10, 2015).

The geometry of the karst set-up hydrology is distinct in sediments above diapiric versus bedded evaporite substrate, and this article focuses on landforms related to a dissolving substrate made up of shallow dipping salt beds. The next section outlines characteristics feature of evaporite karst at the metre to kilometre scale, as defined in Figure 1. Then we will compartmentalise these features using the classification of Gutiérrez et al., 2008, and finally look at three of the more distinctive regions responding to the dissolution of subcropping evaporite beds.

Evaporite solution dolines

Dolines are closed circular to elliptical hollows or depressions, often funnel shaped, with diameters ranging from a few metres to a few kilometres and depths from a metre or so, to hundreds of metres (Figure 1; Ford and Williams, 2007). They indicate subsidence and collapse in underlying salt or carbonate units. Valley sides in larger subsidence dolines can be steep and expose karstified gypsum, or can be gentler slopes covered by soil.

Larger dolines may enclose one or more smaller sinkholes and can be further subdivided into, suffusion, subsidence sag, and collapse dolines (Figure 1). A collapse sinkhole is initiated by collapse of a roof span into an underlying solution cavity. A subsidence sag doline indicates a more diffuse broader and gentler lowering of the ceiling above the dissolving bed. Suffosion dolines are small-width high-density karst features (1-2m diameter) covered and filled with soil and debris that has washed or fallen into closely-spaced fissures cutting into the evaporite bed. They typically indicate that a dissolving salt mass is very close to the landsurface.

Dissolution, collapse and suffosion processes are more active, more rapid, more frequent and more noticeable in regions of shallow evaporite units, compared to carbonate terranes at the same depths. For shallow weathering evaporites versus carbonates, at roughly the same depths in the Perm and Bashkir regions of Russia, Gorbunova (1979) reported doline densities of 32 and 10/km2 respectively.


Suffosion dolines

Suffosion in a karst terrane describes the downward migration of unconsolidated cover deposits through voids. High levels of dispersed impurities (mostly clays and muds, often dolomitic and other dissolution residues) in a rapidly dissolving evaporite mass, means a soil or carapace of insoluble residues quickly covers the subcropping top and edges of a dissolving salt mass (Figures 1a, 2). Downwash transport into growing fissures and voids in the shallow underlying evaporite is via downwashing of fine particles carried by percolating waters, cohesionless granular flows, viscous sediment gravity flows (non-Newtonian), freefall of particles, and sediment-laden water. The carapace is continually undermined by ongoing rapid solution, as residual debris is continually and rapidly washed into the doline crevices into the growing cavities in the evaporite. This creates a unique soil-covered dimpled landscape, which is typified by a high-density doline terrain where the dissolving evaporite is only a metre or so below the landsurface.


Densities of up to 1000 suffosion dolines/km2 occur in many evaporite-cored fold axes or at subcrop contacts of evaporites with other outcropping lithologies. Densities of 1100-1500/km2 have been documented in evaporite karst in the Italian Alps and in regions to the west of Sivas, Turkey (Figure 3; Belloni et al., 1972; Kacaroglu et al., 1997). The inherently high solubility of evaporite salts explains similar densely-packed schlotten depressions and large karren shafts seen in gypsum karst of Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, where extrapolated doline densities in the latter case range up to 10,000/km2 (Martinez and Boeher, 1997). Extrapolated, because such dense networks do not extend over any more than a square kilometre or two and are typically found near retreating escarpment edges underlain by shallow subcropping salts. Such high densities tend to occur in more humid rather than arid areas, with high hydraulic gradients so that the resulting suffosion dolines have diameters around 5 m or less.


Subsidence Dolines

Solution (subsidence) dolines, as described in much of the literature tend to be larger down-warped doline craters or bowl-like subsidence depressions (Figure 1c). In contrast to the numerous small steep-sided suffosion and collapse dolines formed atop shallow subcropping shallow evaporites, these larger, bowl-like dolines can have diameters of 100-500 m and depression depths of 10-20 m or more. Most subsidence sag dolines have a well-developed soil cover and a thick sediment fill, with dissolving salt units found depths measured in tens to hundreds of metres below the land surface (Figure 4). Compared to collapse and suffusion dolines, subsidence or sag dolines have lower angle to near flat slopes into the deeper parts of the doline hollow, the doline walls at the outcrop level are usually hosted in non-evaporites, with the dissolving salt bed lying some distance below the landsurface. Compared to suffusion karst, subsidence dolines occur in regions of more deeply buried evaporites (tens of metres) including; Italy (Belloni et at. 1972; Burri 1986; Ferrarase et al., 2002), Spain (Gutiérrez, 1996) and the Pecos Valley of West Texas and New Mexico (Gustavson et al., 1982; Davies, 1984a, b; Quinlan et al., 1986). At the larger end of the scale of subsidence doline development, a subsidence doline merges into a subsidence basin (Figure 1d). The latter is a large solution hollow that had created enough accommodation space to be considered a small sedimentary basin, generally filling with varying combinations of fluvial lacustrine and other continental sediments.


Collapse dolines

Collapse dolines are steep-sided sinkholes, often defined by cave entrances that contain large blocks of roof material (Figure 1c). They form when solution of an underlying evaporite bed creates a roof span that can no longer be supported by the overlying lithology. Collapse doline walls are frequently asymmetrical; one wall is steep, and the other one is gentle (Figure 5). Soil covered doline floors, when not water covered, tend to display either concave-up or flat geometries. Apart from blocks of the collapsed roof span, active doline floors can be veneered by thin collapse breccias in a matrix of insoluble residues. The high density of dolines in areas of evaporite subcrop and the ubiquity of the associated breccias indicates the inherently higher solubility of the evaporite salts compared with interbedded and overlying carbonates. Active collapse sinkholes atop shallow bedded evaporites typify terminations of dry arroyos in many deserts and may also line up along active or former river courses, as in Bottomless Lake State Park, New Mexico (Figure 6).


Sinkhole Classification

Following the definitions of Waltham et al. (2005), Gutiérrez et al. (2008) constructed a nongenetic classification of subsidence dolines or sinkholes (Figure 7). It is based on two observations that refer to the material affected by downward gravitational movements (cover, bedrock or caprock) and the primary type of process involved (collapse, suffosion or sagging). The classification also applies to both evaporite and carbonate karst. The term “cover” refers to allogenic unconsolidated deposits or residual soil material, bedrock to karst rocks and caprock to overlying non-karst rocks. Collapse indicates the brittle deformation of soil or rock material either by brecciation or the downward migration deposits through conduits and its progressive settling, while sagging is the ductile flexure (bending) of sediments caused by the lack of basal support. In practice, more than one material type and several processes can be involved in the generation of sinkholes. These more complex sinkholes can be described using combinations of the proposed terms with the dominant material and/or process followed by the secondary one (e.g. cover and bedrock collapse sinkhole, bedrock sagging and collapse sinkhole).


The cover material may be affected by any of three subsidence mechanisms. The progressive corrosional lowering of the rockhead may cause the gradual settling of the overlying deposits by sagging, producing cover sagging sinkholes. An important applied aspect is that the generation of these sinkholes does not require the formation of cavities These depressions arc commonly shallow, have poorly defined edges and may reach several hundred metres across.

Cover deposits may migrate downward into fissures and conduits developed in the rockhead by action of a wide range of processes collectively designated as suffusion: downwashing of particles by percolating waters, cohesion-less granular flows, viscous gravity flows (non-Newtonian), fall of particles, and sediment-laden water flows. The downward transport of the cover material through pipes and fissures may produce two main types of sinkholes depending on the rheological behaviour of the mantling deposits. Where the cover behaves as a ductile or loose granular material, it may settle gradually as undermining by suffosion progresses. This creates sags and slumps in the overburden materials. Where cover behaves in a more brittle manner, collapse breccias form.

Sinkholes that result from the combination of several subsidence processes and affect more than one type of material are described by combinations of the different terms with the dominant material or process followed by the secondary one (e.g. bedrock sagging and collapse sinkhole). The mechanism of collapse includes any brittle gravitational deformation of cover and bedrock material, such as upward stoping of cavities by roof failure, development of well-defined failure planes and rock brecciation. They define suffosion as the downward migration of cover deposits through dissolutional conduits accompanied by ductile settling. Sagging is the ductile flexure of sediments caused by differential corrosional lowering of the rockhead or interstratal karstification of the soluble bedrock. Sag plays a major role in the generation of sinkholes across broad areas underlain by shallow dissolving evaporites (not included in previous genetic classifications mostly based on carbonate karst). Likewise, collapse processes are more significant in extent and rate in areas underlain by evaporites than in carbonate karst, primarily due to the order of magnitude greater solubility of the evaporites and the lower mechanical strength and ductile rheology of gypsum and salt rocks (Warren, 2016).


Broader-scale evaporite landforms

There are some unique aspects to regional landform and doline density associations above dissolving evaporites because; 1) halite, and to a lesser extent anhydrite, units are many times more soluble than carbonate or siliciclastic strata, and 2) matrix in most salt units away from its retreating edges tends to remain impervious even as salt masses approach the landsurface (Figure 8; melting block of ice analogy, see Warren, 2016). Such features form at the basin-scale in regions where an ancient salt bed is moving from the mesogenetic to the telogenetic realm, especially in regions where mountains are growing adjacent to the uplifted evaporite basin. The broader-scale landscape features not seen in carbonate karst in similar regional settings are; 1) laterally migrating subsidence basins (Figure 8a) and 2) regions of breccia chimneys (Figure 8b).

Subsidence basins

A subsidence basin is a large (tens of kilometres width) solution hollow that creates enough accommodation space to be considered a small sedimentary basin with widths measured in tens of kilometres (Figure 8a). In a continental setting, the basin is filling with varying combinations of fluvial and lacustrine sediments.

Subsidence troughs are large-scale elongate depositional depressions created by interstratal solution along the dissolving edge of shallow dipping ancient uplifted salt bodies. The largest solution-induced depositional basins tend to occur along the margins of the great interstratal halite deposits, creating a solution form that may be represented by a shallow retreating salt slope at the surface, with a laterally migrating monoclinal drape of beds in the vicinity of a salt scarp, which is defined the dissolving edge of the underlying salt bed or beds. Subsidence basins are filled or partly filled by clastic sediments (Olive, 1957; Quinlan, 1978; Simpson, 1988). If the subsidence zones atop a retreating salt edge lack a significant volume of sediment fill, it called is a subsidence trough, as seen in the vicinity of the outcropping edge of the Jurassic Hith Anhydrite in Saudi Arabia (see part 2).

Salt-edge leaching of shallow dipping salt underscores a set of self-perpetuating processes. Fractures created by the collapse of overburden and intrasalt beds contribute to an expanding accommodation space generated by salt cavities and the lateral retreat of the salt scarp. The ongoing salt dissolution provides new fissures and sinks that act as additional conduits for further percolation of meteoric or upwelling of undersaturated basinal waters into the salt. This, in turn, instigates yet more salt solution in the vicinity of the collapse and typically, so creating an elongate corridor of subsidence at the surface, which can extend for many kilometres parallel to the dissolving salt edge

Hence, large solution-induced depositional basins and monoclines outline the edges of the great interstratal salt deposits of the world. Depression corridors some 5-500 km long, 5-250 km wide, with up to 100 to 500 m of subsidence induced relief and sediment fill define saline karst plains along the edges of bedded and dissolving saline giants in the Devonian evaporite subcrop of Canada (Figure 9b; De Mille et al., 1964; Tsui and Cruden 1984; Christiansen and Sauer, 2002; Tozer et al., 2014; Broughton et al., 2017), the Permian Basin of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas (Figure 9a; Anderson, 1981; Davies, 1984a, b; Bachman, 1984), the Perm region of Russia (Gorbunova, 1979) and the Jurassic Hith region of Saudi Arabia (Amin and Bankher, 1997a, b;). Associated regolith and sediment infill typically reduces the regional solution edge landscape to a few tens of metres of relief.

Salt Breccia Chimneys

Undersaturated waters not only influence the dissolving edges of a shallow-dipping salt bed, but can also cut up through the salt as a series of salt chimneys, located well out in the salt basin, with diameters between 20 and 250 m. Most are plumb vertical, with reported heights ranging from tens of metres to kilometers. Higher examples have usually stoped upward through one or more cover formations, which may include siliciclastics, coal measures, extrusive volcanics, etc. (Figure 9b). Breccia pipes in an evaporite mass may exhibit one of four possible states (Figure 8b): a) Active, and propagating upwards towards the surface, with fault and collapse bounded edges, but not yet expressed at the surface - a blind chimney; b) Active or inactive, expressed at the surface as a closed depression or a depression with a surface outflow channel; c) Inactive, and buried by later strata - paleokarst chimney; d) Inactive and standing up as a positive relief feature on the landsurface, because the breccia (generally cemented) is more resistant to weathering than the upper cover strata - so forming a residual pipe with positive relief. Some upstanding features are firmly cemented and resistant structure, such as the castiles above an erosional plain in the Delaware Basin of Texas (Hill, 1990)

Downward flexure in the uppermost strata atop a growing pipe tends to form a bowl of subsidence and a sag doline structure.

In some intrasalt pipes, the halite or gypsum is entirely removed, leaving only an accumulation of insolubles and collapsed breccia blocks. In others, portions of the less soluble salts can remain in the pipe at the level of the mother salt. Mature pipes are typically filled by a jumble of intrasalt and suprasalt breccia blocks. In some, a lower brecciated zone is succeeded by an upper zone in which the overlying strata failed as a coherent block, settling downwards via a cylindrical pattern of steep to vertical faults with downthrows of up to 200 m. Such variably filled and zoned salt breccia chimneys have created one type of barren zone in the potash ores of the Prairie Evaporite in Canada, and we shall discuss this in detail in part 5(economic associations).

Most breccia pipes originate via a point-source dissolution breakthrough of a halite bed (occasionally gypsum or anhydrite) and are located above a fracture junction, an anticlinal crest, or a buried reef that channels groundwater into a local area in the salt (Figure 8b). Hence, salt breccia chimneys and pipes form best where there is an artesian head to create subsalt pressures. In the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin the head comes from the adjacent uplifted Rocky Mountains, while the Delaware and Guadalupe Mountains play a similar role in the Delaware Basin. A pipe creates anomalous chemical interfaces with adjacent and overlying strata and so may be targets for the later precipitation of economic ores, including uranium and base metals (part 5).


Delaware Basin, West Texas

The Delaware Basin of West Texas and southeast New Mexico, in the southwest portion of the Permian Basin, contains bedded evaporites of the Late Permian Castile, Salado and Rustler Formations (Figure 9a). Outcrops and subcrops of these three formations constitute an area of widespread subsidence troughs, collapse sinks, dolines and breccia chimneys, all created by ongoing removal of underlying bedded Permian salts. The Delaware is an eastward-dipping basin, mainly surrounded by the Capitan Reef and its equivalents (Figure 9a). The original extent of the evaporites in the basin was much greater than today due to ongoing salt dissolution.

The area called the “Gypsum Plain” of Texas lies to the west of the Pecos River and comprises about 2,600 square kilometres of subcropping gypsum of the Castile Formation (Olive, 1957; Quinlan, 1978; Kirkland and Evans, 1980; Anderson, 1981; Stafford et al., 2008a,b; Holt and Powers, 2010). South of Carlsbad and Carlsbad Caverns, the plain exhibits many small examples of solution subsidence troughs, typically 0.7–15 km in length, 100–1500 m wide, but no more than 5–10 m deep (Figure 9a: Stafford et al., 2008a). The plain is also where the “Castile” landforms are found and indicate an overprint of bacterial and thermochemical sulphate reduction (Kirkland and Evans, 1976). Additional gypsum outcrops are present to the east in the Rustler Hills and to the north in Reeves County, Texas. Permian strata in region of the "Gypsum Plain" once contained significant volumes of halite that were dissolved well before the evaporite succession reached the landsurface.


In the centre of the Delaware Basin, the thick evaporites of the Castile and Salado Formations retain their halite beds as do the thinner evaporites of the overlying Rustler Formation. All are underlain by relatively permeable carbonates and siliciclastics, including some prolific hydrocarbon reservoirs in Permian backreef of the Central Basin Platform (Figure 10). Reef mounds, fractures and faults in these underlying sediments have provided focused conduits for upward stoping breccia chimneys through the buried evaporites as well as the subsurface formation of now-exhumed Castiles to the west. An eastward-flowing deeply-circulating regional artesian hydrology, in combination with centripetal escape of buoyant hydrocarbon-rich basinal waters, drives the formation of these chimneys, with their surface expressions occurring in areas such as the Wink Sink (chain of breached chimneys) and the Gypsum Plain (Castiles).

The upper sides of the shallow dipping salt beds are also affected by the hydrologies of the zone of active phreatic circulation. The Pecos River has migrated back and forth across the top of subcropping evaporites for much of the Tertiary. Its ancestral positions drove substantial salt dissolution, now evidenced by large sediment-filled subsidence basins and troughs in the centre of the Delaware Basin (Figures 9b, 10). The regional eastward dip of the Delaware basin sediments means first halite, and then gypsum has disappeared along the updip eastern edge of the basin. Relatively undisturbed salt remains along the more deeply buried western side of the basin that abuts and covers the Central Basin Platform. Bachman and Johnson (1973) estimate the horizontal migration rate of the dissolution front across the basin as high as 10-12 km per million years so that more than 50% of the original halite is gone. Multiple smaller examples of sediment-filled subsidence troughs occur at the edge of the gypsum plain of the Delaware Basin south of Carlsbad Caverns, where depositional troughs, 0.7 to 15 km in length, 100 to 1,500 m wide and no more than 5-10 m deep, are well documented, as are subsidence sinks within the subsidence swales, such as Bottomless Lake, which is a region where the watertable intersects a collapse chimney (Figure 10c; Quinlan et al. 1986).

The San Simon swale is a 25 km2 depression defining a residual karst feature atop the Capitan Reef on the northeastern margin of the Basin (Figures 9a, 10a, b). San Simon Sink sits atop a subsidence chimney within the San Simon swale; it is the lowest point in the depression and is some 30 m deep and 1 km2 in area. It, in turn, encloses a secondary collapse sink some a few hundred metres across and 10 metres deep (Figure 10b). During a storm in 1918, the San Simon sinkhole formed as a gaping hole about 25 metres across and 20 metres deep in the lower part of the sink. In one night, nearly 23,000 cubic metres of soil and bedrock disappeared into the collapse cavern. Annular rings that cut the surface around the San Simon sinkhole today suggest ongoing subsidence and readjustment of the sinkhole is still occurring in response to earlier collapses. The position of the San Simon sink over the Permian reef crest led Lambert (1983) and many others to suggest that the sinkhole originated as a groundwater cavity breakthrough, atop a series of stoping reef-focused breccia pipes or chimneys. Sinkhole breakouts, which can emerge in a matter of hours, continue to form across this dissolution basin, in some case aided by poorly-monitored brine extraction operations and improperly-cased water wells. But the majority of the sinkholes in the Delaware Basin are natural, not anthropogenically enhanced (Land, 2013).


Nash Draw is a southwesterly trending depression or swale, some 25 km long and 5-15 km wide, at the northern end of the Delaware Basin with its sump in a salt lake (Poker Lake) at the southern end of the draw (Figure 11). The underlying evaporitic Rustler Formation and parts of the Salado Formation have largely dissolved so that more than 100 caves, sinks, fractures, swallow-holes, and tunnels make up a complex local karst topography in the Draw, which is still active today (Figure 11b, c; Bachman, 1981, Powers et al., 2006; Goodbar and Goodbar, 2014).

An extensive drilling program conducted for the nearby WIPP site (now a low-level radioactive waste repository) showed that natural dissolution of halite in the Rustler and upper Salado formations is responsible for the subsidence and overall formation of Nash Draw (Lambert, 1983; Holt and Powers, 2010). To the immediate west of Nash Draw, the WIPP/DOE drilling program defined the formation of a solution trough in the Dewey Lake Redbed; it was created by preferential leaching of halite beds in the Rustler Formation, with interstratal anhydrite and breccia residuals (Figure 12). This dissolution occurred at a level some 400 metres above the salt-encased storage level of the WIPP waste isolation facility and so is not considered a significant risk factor in terms of longterm site stability (Holt and Powers, 2010). A heated scientific (and at times not so scientific!) debate of just how deep surface karst penetrates into the bedded halite of the Salado Formation in the vicinity of the WIPP site continues today.


Further north, near the subcropping western edge of the Northwest Permian Shelf, is Bottomless Lakes State Park, located some 20 kilometres southeast of Roswell. Encircling the lakes are the gypsum, halite and dolomitic redbeds of the Artesia Group and San Andres Formation. Away from the lakes are numerous other sinkholes and collapse dolines, most of which are circular, steep walled or vertical holes, 50-100 metres across and 30-60 metres deep, with the greatest density of features aligned along the eastern side of the Pecos River floodplain (Figure 6). Water in the various sinks that make up the Bottomless Lakes is crystal clear and brackish to saline (6,000-23,000 ppm), attesting to its passage through subsurface layers of gypsum and salt. Although the lakes are around 30 metres deep, dark-green moss and algae coat the bottoms giving the impression of great depth and hence the name of the park (Lea Lake; Figure 10d.). To the west, many of the playas in depressions near Amarillo in the High Plains of Texas have a similar genesis as solution depressions atop dissolving Permian salt, but most do not intersect the regional watertable and so do not hold permanent surface water (Paine, 1994). Further south, near Carlsbad Caverns, there are other subsidence chimneys that form lakes where they intersect the watertable and so are also locally known as “Bottomless” (Figure 9a).


Western Canadian karst

The distribution and timing of chimneys and subsidence troughs created by the subsurface dissolution of the Prairie evaporite are well known and tied to the distribution of oil sands and the quality of potash ores (part 5). Dissolution drape features are more pronounced nearer the retreating edges of the thick multilayered subsurface Devonian salt succession while breccia chimneys occur above the buried salt successions (Figure 9b). For example, the Rosetown Low and the Regina Hummingbird Trough accumulated more than 100 metres of depression trough and drape sediment during interstratal dissolution of the underlying Prairie salt (Devonian) in southern Saskatchewan, especially in Cretaceous time (Figure 13a,b; DeMille et al., 1964; Simpson, 1988). This evaporite-related Cretaceous subsidence is also the principal control on the distribution of the Athabasca oil sands in subsidence basins along the eastern side of the evaporite extent (Tozer et al., 2014). Uplift of the ancestral Rocky Mountains likely created the potentiometric head that drove much of the subsalt aquifer flow. As in the Delaware Basin, the positions of sub-salt reefs and pinnacles focused many of the upwells of deeply circulated meteoric water that ultimately created solution breccia layers and breccia chimneys (Figure 8b).

In various circum-salt subsidence troughs, now filled or partially filled with late Mesozoic and Tertiary sediment thicks, the concurrence of a supra-unconformity thick, adjacent to the sub-unconformity feather-edge of a bedded salt sequence, is at a scale that is easily recognised in seismic and constitutes one of the classic signatures of a salt collapse-induced hydrocarbon trap (Figure 8a). For now, we will focus on the influence of dissolving evaporites on the modern Canadian landscape in regions of active karst, but we will return to the topic of economic hydrocarbon associations with paleokarst in this basin in part 5.

Evaporite karst domes, and laterally extensive solution breccia units, tied to a waxing and waning cover of glacial ice and permafrost, were first documented in Canada in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories (e.g. De Mille et al., 1964). Karst domes remain as surface features of positive relief once the surrounding evaporite mass has completely dissolved and are outlined by megabreccia with caverns. Unlike breccia chimneys, the cores of evaporitic karst domes can expose blocks from below, as well as above the original bedded and folded evaporite level. The evaporitic karst domes in western Canada are related to the stratigraphic level of former bedded salts; elsewhere in the world others are the remains of now dissolved salt thrusts, diapirs and allochthons (see diapiric breccias and rauhwacke discussion in Warren, 2016). Hence, domes and residual units are dramatic landscape features in the gypsiferous terrain of northern Alberta, Canada (Wigley et al., 1973; Tsui and Cruden, 1984). Similar features, tied to the dissolution of bedded evaporites, typify the Arkhangelsk gypsum-residue karst region inland of the Barents Sea coast of Russia (Korotkov, 1974).

Canadian karst domes range from 10 to 1000 m or more in length or diameter, and can rise to 25 m above the surrounding land surface. Many domes are highly fractured, with individual overburden blocks displaced by heaving and sliding, with the residual gypsum showing well-developed flow foliation.

At the extreme end of disturbance and dissolution range, the domes breccias are megabreccias; positive relief features made up of collapsed or even upthrust jumbles of large blocks, some the size of houses. The largest reported Canadian megabreccia example is in a steep-limbed anticline that extends along the shore of Slave Lake for a distance of 30 km. It is up to 175m in height with a brecciated crestal zone that is marked by a ‘chaotic structure and trench-like lineaments’ (Aitken and Cook 1969).

These brecciated landforms develop upon a distinctive geological association in the central Mackenzie Valley region, NWT, at a stratigraphic level equivalent to anhydrites and halites in the deeper subsurface (Hamilton and Ford, 2002 ). In widespread outcrops the breccia unit is formally named the Bear Rock Formation, when covered by consolidated strata it is termed the Fort Norman Fm (Meijer Drees, 1993; Law, 1971). It is centred in Late Silurian-Early Devonian strata and defines an outcrop and subcrop belt more than 50,000 km2 in extent. In core, the Fort Norman Formation is 250-350 m or more in thickness. It consists of a thin upper limestone (Landry Member), a central Brecciated Member and, in some cores, undisturbed lower sequences of inter­bedded dolostones and anhydrite remnants. It is conformably overlain by 90-150 m of limestones and calcareous shales (Hume Formation-Eifelian). This evaporite dissolution breccia is possibly derived from the dissolution of not one, but several subcropping Devonian salt layers. That is, although not much discussed in the literature, the mother level may not be tied to a single stratigraphic layer.

Typical till-covered collapse and subsidence karst of the Bear Lake Formation can develop through the Hume and higher formations as a consequence of interstratal dissolution of the salt layers in the Fort Norman and equivalents, where meteoric groundwater circulation and sulphate dissolution have been recorded at core depths as great as 900 m (Figure, 14, 15).


In the NWT the Bear Rock Formation is considered to host to much of this widespread solution breccia, which up to 250 m thick. If present, the Landry Member is a brecciated limestone no more than 20 m thick. The main breccia level forms a visually set of outcrops made up of chaotic, vuggy mixtures of limestone, dolomite, and dedolomite clasts, variably cemented by later calcites, with small residual clasts and secondary encrustations of gypsum. Pack breccias in the Bear Creek and its equivalents displaying rubble fabric (predominant), crackle or mosaic fabric, are common and cliff-forming (Stanton, 1966; James & Choquette, 1988). Float breccias are rarer and tend to be recessive. Meijer Drees (1985) classifies the Bear Rock Formation as a late diagenetic solution breccia created by meteoric waters. Hamilton (1995) shows that calcite, dolomite and sulphate dissolution, plus dedolomitisation with calcite precipitation, are continuing today. They are re-working older breccia fabrics, creating new ones, as well as forming a suite of surficial karstic depressions and subsidence troughs ranging from metres to several km in scale.

The Canadian example constitutes an important set of observations that also relate to many other regions with widespread, basin-scale evaporite dissolution breccias, namely; evaporite solution breccias are multistage and can encompass significant time intervals. Similar-appearance evaporite solution breccias can form at different times in a basin's burial history, from different superimposed undersaturated hydrologies. Individual breccias in any single sample are typically responses to multistage, multi-time diagenetic-fluid overprints. This is also why potash ores in the Prairie evaporite preserve evidence of multiple times of potash mobilisation and mineralogy (part 5; Warren, 2016).

Detailed evaporite karst landform studies have focused on Bear Rock Mountain (type area) and the Mackay Range, which are outlying highlands on the east and west banks respectively of the Mackenzie River, and terrain between Carcajou Canyon and Dodo Canyon in the Mackenzie Mountains (Hamilton, 1995). These sites were covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet (Wisconsinan) but were close to its western, sluggish margin. They are at the boundary between widespread and continuous permafrost in the ground today and can display some year-round groundwater circulation via taliks. Thaw/freeze and solifluction processes compete with ongoing evaporite dissolution to mould the topography.


Regionally, the principal karst landforms hosted in and above the Bear Rock Formation are varieties of sinkholes, blind valleys, solution-subsidence troughs and fault-bounded depressions (e.g. Figures 14, 15). Sinkholes range from single colla­pse features a few metres in diameter to merged or compound dolines up to 1.5 km2 and 100 m deep. Smaller individual sinkholes and collapse dolines may retain seasonal meltwater ponds, and there are permanent lakes draining to marginal ponors in some of the larger subsidence troughs. Blind valleys have developed where modern surface streams flow for several km into the evaporite karst zone from adjoining rocks. There are many relict, wholly dry valleys that may have been created by glacial meltwaters. Subsidence troughs have developed at the surface along contacts between the Bear Rock breccias and underlying, massive dolostones that are typically gently dipping. In the centre of the Mackay Range and at Bear Rock itself are solution depressions formed where the breccias make-up hanging-wall strata on steeply inclined fault planes on the collapse or pipe edge. The Mackay example is 3.2 km long, 1.0 km wide and-160 m deep (Ford, 1998).

Where patches of the Landry Member survive above the main breccia level(s), they are often broken into large, separate slabs that tilt into adjoining depressions in sharply differing directions, creating a very distinctive topography of dissolution draping and block rotation (see also Dahl Hit in Warren, 2016). Some slabs are rotated through 80-90°. Ridges (inter-sinkhole divides) that are wholly within the main breccias often display stronger cementation, represented by pinnacles as much as 30 m high The many sinking streams pass through the permafrost via taliks and emerge as sub-permafrost springs at stratigraphic contacts or topographic low points.

According to Hamilton (1995), the variety and intensity of karst landform assemblages on the Bear Rock Formation are like no other in Canada, and he notes he had not seen or read of very similar intensive karst topographies elsewhere. He attributes their distinctiveness to repeated evaporite dissolution and brecciation, with dedolomitisation and local case hardening, throughout the Tertiary and Quaternary, with these processes occurring multiple times in mountainous terrains subject to episodes of glaciation, permafrost formation and decay, and to vigorous periglacial action.

The spectacular karst domes that typify dolines and glacially associated surfaces atop an evaporite subcrop and are particularly obvious in regions of anticlinal salt-cored structures within regions of widespread permafrost. The accumulation of ground ice in initial fractures in the evaporite layer probably contributes to the heaving, folding and other displacement of breccia fragments in the dome. Tsui and Cruden (1984) attributed the examples that they studied in the salt plains of Wood Buffalo National Park Canada (Lat. 59-60°N) to hydration processes operating on subcropping bedded gypsum during the postglacial period. Ford and Williams (2007) argued such features indicate local injection of gypsum residuals during times of rapidly changing glacial ice loading. Whether they are created by glacial unloading/reworking or are a type of gravitationally-displaced dissolution breccia in a permafrost region is debatable; that in Canada they are a widespread type of evaporite karst residue is not. They characterise those parts of the permafrost-influenced region defined by dissolution of shallow subcropping folded Devonian salts in Northern Alberta, where the evaporites are typically exposed in anticlinal crests are today still retain fractionated gypsum residuals.

And so, in addition to widespread breccias hoisting karst domes, there are numerous natural collapse dolines atop dissolving shallow salt beds. A classic example is the water filled doline some km NE of Norman Wells (Figure 15).


Holbrook Anticline, Arizona

Subsidence driven by natural salt solution at depth generates regional-scale drape or monoclinal folding in strata atop the retreating salt edge. This is the corollary of the formation of a subsidence trough (Figure 16a). The 70-km long dissolution front in the Permian Supai salt of Arizona is defined by more than 500 sinkholes, fissures, chimneys and subsiding depressions some 40-50m across and 20-30m deep (Neal, 1995; Johnson, 2005). Away from the main dissolution zone the northeasterly-dipping Schnebly Hill Formation (aka Supai Salt) is composed of up to 150 metres of bedded halite, with local areas of sylvite along its northern extent (Figure 16a). Atop the solution front, there are a number of topographic depressions with playa lakes that in total cover some 300 km2. Salt-dissolution induced features to include areas known as; The Sinks, Dry Lake Valley, and the McCauley Sinks (Neal et al. 1998; Martinez et al. 1998). The Sinks region includes more than 20 steep-sided caprock sinkholes, with some that are more than 100 metres across and up to 30 metres deep (Figure 16b). The McCauley Sinks are the likely surface expression of compound breccia pipes and chimneys (Neal and Johnson, 2002).

Regional expanses of Supai Salt removal produce a regional gravity depression, largely coincident with a surface topographic depression, where there is as much as 100 metres of collapse and topographic displacement. The solution front is essentially coincident with the updip end of the Holbrook Anticline, a flexure defined by dip reversal in an otherwise northeasterly dipping succession (Figure 16a).

Rather than orogenically driven, the Holbrook Anticline is a subsidence-induced monoclinal flexure created by the northeasterly migrating dissolution front (Figure 16a). It may be the largest single solution-collapse fold structure in the world (Neal, 1995). The reverse dip of the flexure directly overlies the salt-dissolution front and marks the location of two major collapse depressions known as The Sinks and Dry Lake Valley, both occur where salt is within 300 m of the surface (Peirce, 1981). Although it has periodically held surface water, reports of several hundred acre-feet of flood water in the Dry Lake Valley playa draining overnight supports the notion of active fissure and cavern formation related to salt removal at depth. Major surface drainage events took place in 1963, 1979, 1984 and 1995, with more than 50 new sinkholes forming in the valley during that period. The continuing rapid appearance of new sinkholes testifies to the ongoing nature of dissolution in the underlying evaporites. According to Neal (1995), dissolution front features began forming in the landscape in the Pliocene and continue to form today.

The caprock collapse sinkholes centre in the Coconino Sandstone bed that overlie the salt, which is located 200-300 metres below the at-surface features. These caprock sinkholes define regions of focused breccia pipe development and discreet upward cavity migration (chimney stoping). The underlying salt is bedded and there are no indications of halokinesis anywhere in the basin. Sinkhole regions lie just ahead of a dissolution front that is migrating downdip, driven by the widespread dissolution of halite.

Other karst features attributed to evaporite dissolution in the Holbrook basin are; pull-apart fissures, graben sinks (downward-dropped blocks), breccia pipes and plugs, and numerous small depressions with and without sinkholes (Neal et al., 1998, 2001). Interestingly, many of the “karst” features occur in sandstones, not limestones; such caprock collapse sinkholes can form wherever pervasive dissolution has removed the underlying salt, independent of caprock lithology. The presence of the more than 500 karst features in the Holbrook basin, some of which formed in days, evokes practical karst hazard and infrastructure concerns, even in such a sparsely populated region (Martinez et al., 1998).

Implications

Evaporite-related karst landforms are in many ways similar carbonate karst features. But, the much higher solubilities of halite and other evaporite salts compared to limestone and dolomite means there are additional features unique to regions of salt dissolution.

In the subsurface, a bedded evaporite can be composed of thick impervious halite with intrasalt beds composed of anhydrite dolomite and calcite. The edges of this halite bed can dissolve even in the deep mesogenetic (burial) realm, wherever the edge of the salt is in contact with undersaturated waters. Insoluble residues bands start to form and can take the form of a basal anhydrite or a fractionated caprock. If the rise of undersaturated water is focused, a breccia cavern can form, and once it breaches the salt, the cavity will contain collapse blocks of the less soluble intrasalt beds. The cavity can then stope to the surface, forming a breccia pipe. A transtratal breccia pipe can rise through kilometres of overburden before attaining the surface. There is no equivalent process-response in the carbonate realm.Subsidence basins, troughs and megabreccia plains are also features that owe their origins to the rapid dissolution rates inherent to salt bed-fresher water contacts

In a similar fashion, the rapid dissolution of halite in the shallower parts of a salt basin means the evaporite karst features will transition from mesogenetic or bathyphreatic cavern formation to meteoric phreatic to vadose effects. This is the emphasis of the second article in this series, which will discuss processes forming vadose and phreatic caves in evaporites.

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