Salty Matters

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

John Warren - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Introduction

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

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


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

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

Primary potash ore?

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Sea Potash (MOP operation in the Southern Basin)

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MOP brines and Quaternary climate

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

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

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


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

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

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Evaporites and climate: Part 1 of 2 - Are modern deserts the key?

John Warren - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Salt deposits and deserts

Much of the geological literature presumes that thick sequences of bedded Phanerozoic evaporites accumulated in hot arid zones tied to the distribution of the world’s deserts beneath regions of descending air within Hadley Cells in a latitudinal belt that is typically located 15 to 45 degrees north or south of the equator (Figure 1a: Gordon, 1975). As this sinking cool air mass approaches the landsurface beneath the descending arm of a Hadley Cell it warms, and so its moisture-carrying capacity increases. The next two articles will discuss the validity of this assumption of evaporites tying to hot arid desert belts in the trade wind belts, first, by a consideration of actual Quaternary evaporite distributions as plotted in a GIS database with modern climate overlays, then in the second article via a look at ancient salt/climate distributions.

Significant volumes of Quaternary evaporite salts are normally interpreted as being allied to the distribution of the world’s hot arid deserts (Figure 1b). In a general way this is true, but, as Warren (2010) shows, the correlation is an oversimplification. A hot arid desert does not necessarily equate to occurrences of laterally extensive bedded evaporites; there must also be a significant long-term brine inflow to the evaporative sump, incoming waters may be meteoric, marine, a hybrid and perhaps the sump is fed brines coming from dissolution of earlier formed salts in the drainage basin, including diapiric salt (Table 1; Warren, 2016).


Actually, there are different ways of defining a desert and by implication its associated evaporites. One accepted approach is to define desert as a terrestrial area receiving less that 250 mm (10 inches) of annual precipitation. Using this definition some 26.2% of the world’s landsurface is desert (Figure 1b). But, in terms of evaporite distribution and the economics of the associated salts, this climatic generalization related to annual rainfall conceals three significant hydrological truisms. All three need to be met in order to accumulate thick sequences of bedded salts (Warren, 2010): 1) For any substantial volume of evaporite to precipitate and be preserved, there must be a sufficient volume of cations and anions in the inflow waters to allow thick sequences of salts to form; 2) The depositional setting and its climate must be located within a longer term basin hydrology that favours preservation of the bedded salt, so the accumulating salt mass can pass into the burial realm; 3) There must be a negative water balance in the basin with the potential for more water to leave the local hydrological sump than enter. When using a rainfall (precipitation) based definition of desert, the significance of these three simple hydrological axioms and the consequences, as to where bedded evaporites accumulate, is lost in the generalization that “evaporites form in the world’s deserts.”


Continental-interior evaporites

In an evaporite context it is better to define and plot saline hydrologies within a climatic framework where deserts are given the same hydrological consideration that is required for evaporite salts to form. That is, a desert is an area of land where annual precipitation (inflow) is less than potential evapotranspiration (outflow). This definition of a desert is the one used by Köppen (1900). With slight modification, his climatological scheme is still in widespread use to breakout the various climatic zones across the world’s landsurface (Kottek et al., 2006). Using a Köppen climate base, figure 2 plots worldwide occurrences of modern saline depositional systems with areas greater than 250 km2. Table 1 compares characteristics of some of the larger Quaternary bedded evaporite settings in marine edge and continental interiors. These regions contain evaporite salts accumulating in saline soils, sabkhas, salinas, saline lakes, playas and salt flats, with textural forms ranging from; isolated crystals and nodules in a terrigenous matrix, to salt crusts, to stacked beds of salts that can be more than 10 metres thick. The majority of the plotted saline areas are in arid regions, as defined by Köppen (Zone B), but not all such areas of widespread salts are in deserts (as defined by Köppen) and not all are in hot climates.


The range of large (>250 km2) saline systems in the world’s arid landscape is more climatically diverse than just evaporite occurrences within a hot arid desert (BWh), although such associations do constitute some 38% of saline occurrences (Figure 3a; Warren, 2010; 2016). Cold arid deserts (BWk) host 23% of large saline occurrences, making a combined total of 61% for large evaporite accumulation (area >250 km2) occurrences in modern arid deserts (BW group), while the arid steppes (BSh and BSk) host another 22%. In total the world’s arid climatic zones host 83% of today’s larger evaporite occurrences (Figure 3b).


This leaves another substantial, but not widely recognized, climate zone where significant volumes of Quaternary evaporites can accumulate, this is the polar tundra (ET); an environment where some 11% of large evaporite areas occur. In terms of evaporite volumes, the polar tundra (ET) is typically an arid high altitude belt, mostly in the Horse Latitude (Trade Wind) belts, and not located in polar or near-polar higher latitudes. The lakes and saline pans of the high plateaus of the Andes (Altiplano) and the Himalayas (Tibetan Plateau) typify this style of tundra (ET) evaporite. Water may be commonplace in the ET zone, but is there mostly as ice, and cryogenic salts are commonplace (see Salty Matters, Feb 24, 2015). The remaining region where significant evaporite volumes are found, some 6% of the total of large saline occurrences is a group of deposits defined by continental interior snow climates (group D), some with hot dry summers with solar evaporites alternating with dry winters favouring the possible accumulation of cryogenic salts (e.g. Great Salt Lake, USA).


In the Northern Hemisphere the occurrence of large evaporite systems within arid deserts and steppe climates (BW and BS settings) extends much further south toward the equator and much further poleward (from 5-55°N) than the narrower range of large evaporite occurrences and associated climates in the southern hemisphere (Figure 4). This hemispheric asymmetry in evaporite occurrence is mostly a response to world-scale adiabatic effects associated with the collision of India with Eurasia and growth of the Himalayas. Today, a Cainozoic mountain range, centred on the Himalyas, diverts world-scale atmospheric air flows from the more north-south trajectory, usually associated with Hadley Cell circulation. For example, the Kunlun Mountains, first formed some 5.3 Ma, prevents moisture from the Indian Monsoon reaching much of the adjacent Tibet Plateau. Its adiabatic rain shadow creates the Taklamakan desert, the second largest active sand desert in the world (BWk).

The uplift of the Himalayas also creates a dry easterly jet stream, moving arid cool air across the Tibet Plateau, around the northern side of the Himalayas, and then equatorward across the Arabian Peninsula toward Somalia where it descends and gains heat. That is, this stream of cool southwesterly-flowing dry air warms as it moves across the Eastern Mediterranean land areas and so heightens existing aridity. This helps create an adiabatic desert zone that today ranges across Arabia and northern Africa almost to the Equator (Figures 5).


In the southern hemisphere, the uplift of the Andes has formed high intermontane depressions and the allied adiabatic aridity that are cooler with lower evaporation rates and higher relied in the immediate basin compared to groundwater depressions in flatter lower-elevation continental interior deserts like the Sahara. This higher stability hydrology favours salars over dry mudflats, as typified by Salar de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni. Atacama has a Quaternary saline sediment fill made up of a more than 900 m thickness of interlayered salt and clay, while Uyuni holds a more than 120 m thick interval of interbedded salt and clay infill, with areas of 3,064 km2 and 9,654 km2 and elevations of 2250 m and 3650 m, respectively (Figure 7a). These salars are the two largest known examples of Quaternary bedded halite accumulation, worldwide. Yet neither resides in hot arid desert settings (BWh); both are located in cold arid deserts (BWk) and in actively subsiding, high altitude (>2500m) intermontane (high relief) endorheic depressions.


Worldwide, distribution of most of the larger (>250 km2) Quaternary evaporite settings located in hot arid (BWh) desert settings, tie either to; 1) endorheic river terminations along desert margins, especially if adjacent to mountain belts (e.g. the various circum Saharan chotts, playas and sabkhas adjacent to Atlas Mountains), or 2) to ancient inherited paleodrainage depressions (as in the majority of the interior salt lakes of Australia or the southern Africa pans). Another hot arid desert (BWh) evaporite association is defined by termination outflow rims of deep artesian systems, as in Lake Eyre North, Australia (8,528 km2, with an ephemeral halite crust up to 2 m thick in its southern portion). Similar, deeply-circulating, meteoric artesian hydrologies help explain the distribution of chotts in the BWh zone of NE Africa. Unlike Atacama and Uyuni in the Andes, none of these modern BWh artesian systems preserve stacked decametre-thick salt beds, nor did they do so at any time in the Quaternary. Rather, the most extensive style of BWh salt in meteoric-fed artesian outflow zones is as dispersed crystals of gypsum and halite in a terrigenous redbed matrix (sabkha) or as visually impressive large ephemeral saline flats and pans covered by metre-scale salt crusts that dissolve and reform with the occasional decadal freshwater flood (Warren 2016; Chapter 3). Sediments of such continental groundwater outflow zones are typically reworked by eolian processes and, due to a lack of long term watertable stability, the longterm sediment fill is matrix-rich and evaporite-poor, with the Quaternary sediment column typified by episodes of deflation, driven by 10,000-100,000 year cycles of glacial-interglacial climate changes.

It seems that to form and preserve laterally-extensive decametre-thick stacked beds of halite in a Quaternary time-framework requires an actively subsiding tectonic depression in a cooler high-altitude continental desert, where temperatures and evaporation rates are somewhat lower than in BWh settings, allowing brine to pond and remain at or near the surface for longer periods (Figures 6, 7a). But perhaps more importantly, all of the larger regions of the Quaternary world, where thick stacked bedded (not dispersed) evaporites are accumulating, are located in continental regions with drainage hinterlands where dissolution of older halokinetic marine-fed salt masses are actively supplying substantial volumes of brine to the near surface hydrology. This halokinetic-supplied set of deposits includes, Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Atacama in the Andean Altiplano, the Kavir salt lakes of Iran, the Qaidam depression of China and the Dead Sea (Table 1).


Marine-edge evaporites

Thick sequences of stacked Quaternary evaporite beds with a marine-brine feed are far less common and far smaller than meteoric/halokinetic Quaternary continental evaporite occurrences. Relatively few marine-fed evaporite regions exist today with areas in excess of 250 km2 (Table 1; Figures 6, 7b). By definition, in order to be able to draw on significant volumes of seawater, these basins must operate with a subsealevel hydrology. This allows large volumes of seawater to seep into the depression and evaporate. It also means most of these deposits are located near the continental edge where a freestanding mass of seawater is not too distant

The largest known deposit of this group is Lake Macleod on the west coast of Australia, with an area of 2,067 km2 and containing a 10m-thick Holocene gypsum/halite bed (Figure 7b). It hosts a saltworks producing some 1,500,000 tonnes/year of halite from lake brines in a BWh setting (Warren, 2016). A smaller marine seepage example, with a similar Quaternary coastal carbonate dune-hosted seepage hydrology, is Lake MacDonnell near the head of the Great Australia Bight. It has an area of 451 km2, a 10m-thick fill of Holocene bedded gypsum and is located in a milder BSk setting, compared to Lake Macleod. Even so, annually, the Lake MacDonnell operation is quarrying more than 1.4 million tonnes of Holocene coarsely-crystalline near-pure gypsum and producing more that 35,000 tonnes of salt via by pan evaporation of lake brines.

Interestingly, when the climatic settings of Holocene coastal salinas of southern and western Australia are compared, all show similar interdunal sump seepage hydrologies with unconfined calcarenite aquifers, yet it is clear that gypsum evaporite beds dominate in BSk and lower precipitation levels, with more carbonate, in Csb coastal settings typified by hot dry summers. Halite dominates the marine-fed bedded fills in BWh coastal settings, while Coorong-style meteoric-fed carbonates dominate in similar interdunal coastal seepage depressions in the more the humid and somewhat cooler Csb settings of the Coorong region.


One of the most visually impressive marine seep systems in the world is Lake Asal, immediately inland of the coast of Djibouti, with an area of only 54 km2 it is much smaller than the 250 km2 cutoff used for this discussion. It is located in a BWh climate, similar to that of the Danakil depression, contains subaqueous textured gypsum and pan halites, and lies at the bottom of a hydrographically-isolated basalt-floored depression with a brine lake surface some 115m below sealevel (Figure 8; see Warren, 2016 Chapter 4 for geological detail). This difference in elevation between the nearby Red Sea and the lake floor drives a marine seep hydrology, so that seawater-derived groundwater escapes as springs along the basaltic lake margin. Most of the cations and anions in the seawater feed, that ultimately accumulate as salts in the subsealevel Asal sump, move lakeward via gravitational seepage along fractures in a basaltic ridge aquifer separating the Red Sea from the brine lake, in what is an actively extending continental rift that will shortly become and arm of the Red Sea.

That there are very few large marine-fed bedded Quaternary evaporite systems is illustrated by summing the total area of large active continental-fed evaporite areas (>250km2) listed in Figure 2, which gives a total surface area worldwide in excess of 360,000 km2. In contrast, the total area of large modern marine-fed bedded salt systems, at slightly less 10,000 km2, is more than an order of magnitude smaller. This low value for large coastal marine-fed evaporite occurrences is in part because many classic coastal sabkhas, with characteristic dispersed evaporites in their supratidal sediments and long considered to be archetypal marine-fed groundwater evaporite system, are now seen as mostly continental brine-fed hydrologies.

For example, the modern Abu Dhabi sabkha system (1,658 km2; BWh) has been shown by Wood (2010) to be a continental groundwater outflow area, where most of ions precipitating as salts in the supratidal zone are supplied by upwelling of deeply-circulated meteoric waters, not seawater flooding (Warren, 2016; Chapter 3). Similar continental hydrologies, resurging into the coastal zone. supply much of the salt accumulating in the suprasealevel sabkhas near Khobar in Saudi Arabia (BWh), Rann of Kutch in India (28,000 km2, BWh), Sabkha Matti (2,955km2, BWh) in the Emirates, and Sabkha de Ndrhamcha (634 km2, BWh) in Mauritania. And yet today all of these large sabkha occurrences are located just inland of modern coastal zones and so, without hydrological knowledge, are easily interpreted as marine. The distinction between a water budget and a salt supply budget emphasizes a general observation in Holocene evaporite systems that, in order to define the main fluid carrier for the salt volume found in any supratidal part of an evaporitic depression, it is important to understand and quantify the nature of the groundwater feed, be it by marine or nonmarine, in both continental-interior and marine-margin settings. It also means that surface runoff and seawater washovers, while at times visually impressive, typically do not supply the greater volume of preserved salts in most modern coastal sabkha systems.

Due to the highly impervious nature of muddy sabkha sediment, an occasional seawater storm flood into a coastal margin mudflat does not mean the pooled seawater ever penetrates the underlying sabkha. Most of its solute load is deposited as an ephemeral surface crust of halite that is a few centimetres thick atop the sabkha muds (Wood et al., 2005). Based on Wood’s and other hydrological studies of modern coastal sabkhas in BWh settings, centred on the Middle East, it seems that the salt supply to most modern coastal sabkha depressions is still not at hydrological equilibrium with the present sealevel, which was reached at the beginning of the Holocene some 6,000-8,000 years ago. That is, modern zones of continental groundwater outflow along an arid coast can have watertables that are up to a metre of two above sealevel and are strongly influenced by the resurgence of seaward-flowing deeply circulating, continental groundwaters (it is axiomatic that surface runoff and local meteoric recharge tend to be limited in BWh settings). In this situation resurging waters in the sabkha tend to have a dominantly continental ionic supply for their preserved salts.

Lastly, in terms of the climatic and hydrological pre-requisites for the accumulations of thick bedded Holocene salt deposits, one must recognize that marine-margin sabkha mudflats do not have the same geohydrology as a near-coastal, hydrographically-isolated seepage-fed sub-sealevel salina depression. A BWh or BSk near-coastal salina is slowly but continually resupplied ions via springs fed by the effusion of seawater, moving under a gravity drive (evaporative drawdown), through an aquifer that is the barrier separating the salina depression from the adjacent ocean. Until the depositional surface reaches hydrological equilibrium, it draws continually on the near limitless supply of ions in the adjacent salty reservoir that is the world’s ocean. Salts growing displacively in the supratidal parts of a sabkha cannot call on a drawdown hydrology and can only be supplied marine salts from salt spray as it is blown inland or from waters washed over the sabkha by the occasional storm driven wash-over and breakout (Figure 9; Warren and Kendall, 1985).


So what?

So, if we based our ideas of where ancient bedded evaporites formed on a strictly uniformitarian approach using Quaternary analogues, then the study of where bedded salts have formed best in the world over the last two million years leads to a conclusion that large bedded salt deposits are not marine fed. Rather, in the Quaternary, thick bedded salts form best in tectonically active, subsiding hypersaline groundwater sumps located in high-altitude high-relief cold-arid deserts. These depressions are hydrographically closed, with the purer, most voluminous, examples of 100m-thick evaporite successions located in tectonically active piggy-back depressions, with lake floors and hydrologies that are more than 2000 m above sea level. Their hydrologies are endorheic and strongly influenced by deeply circulating meteoric waters. In addition, the better examples of thick stacked bedded salts are supplied ions via the dissolution of older marine halokinetic salts in the surrounding drainage basin (Table 1).

Yet, anyone working in ancient (pre-Quaternary) evaporites knows from simple arguments of salt volumetrics versus brine sources, and the nature of the enclosing sediments, that they are part of a dominantly marine basin fill. This will be the focus

References

Gordon, W. A., 1975, Distribution by latitude of Phanerozoic evaporite deposits: Journal of Geology, v. 83, p. 671-684.

Köppen, W., 1900, Versuch einer Klassification der Klimate, vorzsugsweise nach ihren Beziehungen zur Pflanzenwelt: Geographraphische Zeitschrift, v. 6, p. 593-611.

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

Stieljes, L., 1973, Evolution tectonique récente du rift d'Asal: Review Geographie Physical Geologie Dynamique, v. 15, p. 425-436.

Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporitic source rocks: mesohaline responses to cycles of “famine or feast” in layered brines, Quaternary carbonate and evaporite sedimentary facies and their ancient analogues, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., p. 315-392.

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

Warren, J. K., and C. G. S. C. Kendall, 1985, Comparison of sequences formed in marine sabkha (subaerial) and salina (subaqueous) settings; modern and ancient: Bulletin American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 69, p. 1013-1023.

Wood, W. W., 2010, An historical odyssey: the origin of solutes in the coastal sabkha of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Quaternary carbonate and evaporite sedimentary facies and their ancient analogues, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., p. 243-254.

Wood, W. W., W. E. Sanford, and S. K. Frape, 2005, Chemical openness and potential for misinterpretation of the solute environment of coastal sabkhat: Chemical Geology, v. 215, p. 361-372.



[1] The word desert comes from the Latin dēsertum (originally "an abandoned place"), a participle of dēserere, "to abandon."

 

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

John Warren - Tuesday, August 11, 2015

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


A Phanerozoic dichotomy: evolving marine potash bitterns

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

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

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

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

Why the dichotomy?

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

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

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

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

 

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

Inclusion evidence

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


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


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

 

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


Mechanisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Changes in Phanerozoic ocean salinity

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


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

So what?

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

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

References

Ayora, C., J. Garciaveigas, and J. Pueyo, 1994, The chemical and hydrological evolution of an ancient potash-forming evaporite basin as constrained by mineral sequence, fluid inclusion composition, and numerical simulation: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 58, p. 3379-3394.

Blättler, C. L., and J. A. Higgins, 2014, Calcium isotopes in evaporites record variations in Phanerozoic seawater SO4 and Ca: Geology, v. 42, p. 711-714.

Borchert, H., 1977, On the formation of Lower Cretaceous potassium salts and tachyhydrite in the Sergipe Basin (Brazil) with some remarks on similar occurrences in West Africa (Gabon, Angola etc.), in D. D. Klemm, and H. J. Schneider, eds., Time and strata bound ore deposits.: Berlin, Germany, Springer-Verlag, p. 94-111.

Bots, P., L. G. Benning, R. E. M. Rickaby, and S. Shaw, 2011, The role of SO4 in the switch from calcite to aragonite seas: Geology, v. 39, p. 331-334.

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