Physical weathering of carbonate host-rock by precipitation of soluble salts in caves: A case study in El Orón-Arco Cave (Region of Murcia, SE Spain)

Año Publicación:  2019
Responsable: F. Gázquez et al.
Journal, Volumen y páginas:
Chemical Geology, vol. 521


F. Gázquez, J. M. Calaforra, N. P. Evans, A. V. Turchyn, F. Rull, et al.


The dissolution of carbonate host-rock by freshwater in phreatic or vadose conditions is the most common mechanism for the formation of caves; however, circulation of saline solutions through carbonate materials and precipitation of soluble salts may also play an important role. We studied the stable isotope composition (δ18O and δ34S of sulfate, δ18O and δD of structurally-bound gypsum hydration water and 87Sr/86Sr) and salinity of fluid inclusions in gypsum speleothems found in El Orón-Arco Cave (Cartagena, SE Spain). We suggest that physical weathering of carbonate host-rock was driven by precipitation of soluble sea-salts (mostly gypsum and halite), and this process controlled the recent geomorphological evolution of the cave. The Triassic carbonate host-rock shows clear evidence for salt weathering, including gypsum/halite infillings in cracks of the bedrock, mechanical spalling of the carbonate, and detachment of rock fragments that lead to the formation cave voids and in-situ accumulations of piles of unsorted rubble. Sulfur and oxygen isotopes of gypsum sulfate (3.0‰ < δ18O < 11.6‰ and 16.7‰ < δ34S < 20.7‰) are generally lower than modern seawater sulfate and suggest contributions from a 34S-depleted source (i.e. oxidation of pyrite). The δ18O and δD of gypsum hydration water are relatively low compared to expected values for the evaporation of pure seawater to gypsum saturation, suggesting that gypsum precipitation involved a secondary calcium-sulfate source or recycling of gypsum from previous stages, along with mixing of seawater and meteoric water seepage to the cave. The 87Sr/86Sr in gypsum shows intermediate values between modern seawater and Triassic carbonate values because of interaction between the solution and the bedrock. The salinities of the speleothem-forming solutions are relatively high (13.2 ± 3.2 wt% eq. NaCl) compared to gypsum formed from evaporated brackish solutions (i.e. ~4–8 wt% eq. NaCl) and indicate dissolution of earlier evaporites before secondary gypsum precipitation. This cave-forming mechanism, which is related to saline water circulation and precipitation of evaporitic minerals, may be common in other coastal caves.

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