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Neogene evaporites in desert volcanic environments: Atacama Desert, northern Chile

Authors

  • Juan José Pueyo,

    1. *Facultat de Geologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Zona Universitaria de Pedralbes, 08071 Barcelona, Spain (E-mail: juanj@geo.ub.es), †Dept. Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Católica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile
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  • Guillermo Chong,

    1. *Facultat de Geologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Zona Universitaria de Pedralbes, 08071 Barcelona, Spain (E-mail: juanj@geo.ub.es), †Dept. Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Católica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile
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  • Arturo Jensen

    1. *Facultat de Geologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Zona Universitaria de Pedralbes, 08071 Barcelona, Spain (E-mail: juanj@geo.ub.es), †Dept. Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Católica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile
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Abstract

The Upper Miocene and Pliocene evaporite deposits of the Atacama Desert of northern Chile (Hilaricos and Soledad Formations) are among the few non-marine evaporites in which aridity not only formed the deposits, but has also preserved them almost unaltered under near-surface conditions. These deposits are largely composed of displacive Ca sulphate and halite together with minor amounts of glauberite, thenardite and polyhalite. However, at the base and top of these deposits, there are also beds of gypsum crystal pseudomorphs that originally formed as free-growth forms within shallow brine bodies, rather than as displacive sediments. The halite is present as interstitial cement, displacive cubes and shallow-water, bottom-growth chevron crusts. Most of the calcium sulphate is presently anhydrite, pseudomorphous after gypsum, that was the primary depositional sulphate mineral. The secondary anhydrite formed under early diagenetic conditions after slight burial (some metres) resulting from the effect of strongly evolved pore brines. The anhydrite has been preserved without rehydration during late diagenetic and exhumation stages on account of the arid environment of the Atacama Desert. Both the Hilaricos and the Soledad Formations contain geochemical markers indicating that these Neogene evaporites had a largely non-marine origin. Bromine content in the halite is very low (few p.p.m.), indicating neither a sedimentological relation with sea water nor the likelihood of direct recycling of prior marine halites. Moreover, the δ34S of sulphates (+4·5‰ to +9‰) also reflects a non-marine origin, with a strong volcanic influence, although some recycling of Mesozoic marine sulphates cannot be ruled out. δ34S of dissolved sulphate from hot springs and streams in the area commonly displays positive values (+2‰ to +10‰). Leaching of oxidized sulphur and chlorine compounds from volcanoes and epithermal ore bodies, very common in the associated drainage areas, have been the main contribution to the accumulation of evaporites. The sedimentary and diagenetic evolution of the Hilaricos and Soledad evaporites (based on lithofacies analysis) provides information about the palaeohydrological conditions in the Central Depression of northern Chile during the Neogene. In addition, the diagenesis and exhumation history of these evaporites confirms the persistence of strongly arid conditions from Late Miocene until the present. A final phase of tectonism took place permitting the internal drainage to change and open to the sea, resulting in dissolution and removal of a significant portion of these deposits. Despite the extensive dissolution, the remaining evaporites have undergone little late exhumational hydration.

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