Formation of phreatic caves in an eogenetic karst aquifer by CO2 enrichment at lower water tables and subsequent flooding by sea level rise


Correspondece to: J. D. Gulley, Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences; 630 Dow Environmental Sciences; 1400 Townsend DR; Houghton, MI 49931, USA. E-mail:


Formation of extensive phreatic caves in eogenetic karst aquifers is widely believed to require mixing of fresh and saltwater. Extensive phreatic caves also occur, however, in eogenetic karst aquifers where fresh and saltwater do not mix, for example in the upper Floridan aquifer. These caves are thought to have formed in their modern settings by dissolution from sinking streams or by convergence of groundwater flow paths on springs. Alternatively, these caves have been hypothesized to have formed at lower water tables during sea level low-stands. These hypotheses have not previously been tested against one another. Analyzing morphological data and water chemistry from caves in the Suwannee River Basin in north-central Florida and water chemistry from wells in the central Florida carbonate platform indicates that phreatic caves within the Suwannee River Basin most likely formed at lower water tables during lower sea levels. Consideration of the hydrological and geochemical constraints posed by the upper Floridan aquifer leads to the conclusion that cave formation was most likely driven by dissolution of vadose CO2 gas into the groundwater. Sea level rise and a wetter climate during the mid-Holocene lifted the water table above the elevation of the caves and placed the caves tens of meters below the modern water table. When rising water tables reached the land surface, surface streams formed. Incision of surface streams breached the pre-existing caves to form modern springs, which provide access to the phreatic caves. Phreatic caves in the Suwannee River Basin are thus relict and have no causal relationship with modern surficial drainage systems. Neither mixing dissolution nor sinking streams are necessary to form laterally extensive phreatic caves in eogenetic karst aquifers. Dissolution at water tables, potentially driven by vadose CO2 gas, offers an underappreciated mechanism to form cavernous porosity in eogenetic carbonate rocks. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.