Structure, chemistry and origins of gypsum crusts in southern Tunisia and the central Namib Desert



Gypsum crusts are broadly defined as accumulations at or within about 10 m of the land surface from 0.10m to 5.0 m thick containing more than 15% by weight gypsum (CaSO4·2H2O) and at least 5.0% by weight more gypsum than the underlying bedrock. The deposits are often, but not invariably, consolidated owing to cementation by gypsum. The crusts are found in many of the world's deserts where mean monthly potential evaporation exceeds mean monthly precipitation throughout the year.

Using structural, fabric and textural criteria, three main types of crust may be distinguished:(1) bedded crusts, found either at or beneath the land surface, which are made up of discrete horizontal strata up to 0.10 m thick, each showing a gradation in gypsum crystal size from less than 50 μm at the top to more than 0.50 mm at the base; (2) subsurface crusts, of which there are two forms, one made up of large, lenticular crystals (up to 0.50 m in diameter)—the desert rose crusts—and the other, a mesocrystalline form, with gypsum crystals up to about 1.0 mm in diameter; and (3) surface crusts, which are subdivided into columnar, powdery and cobble forms, all of which are made up of predominantly alabastrine gypsum (crystallites less than 50 μm in diameter).

In southern Tunisia and the central Namib Desert, bedded crusts are found around ephemeral lakes and lagoons. They are characterized by size-graded beds, gypsum contents of 50–80% by weight and comparatively high concentrations of sodium, potassium, magnesium and iron. They are interpreted as shallow-water evaporites which accumulate when saline pools evaporate to dryness. Desert rose crusts or croûtes de nappe generally contain 50–70% by weight gypsum, and have higher sodium concentrations than the second subsurface form. Texturally they are characterized by poikilitic inclusion of clastic material within large lenticular crystals. They are interpreted as hydromorphic accretions, which precipitate in host sediments at near-surface water tables through the evaporation of groundwater. The second form of subsurface crust—the mesocrystalline—often occurs in close association with the various surface forms. Unlike the hydromorphic crusts, they are not restricted to low-lying terrain. They are characterized by gypsum contents reaching 90% by weight, and have a close chemical and textural similarity to columnar surface crusts. This mesocrystalline form represents an illuvial accumulation; the surface forms—excluding the bedded crusts—are exhumed examples at various stages of solutional degradation. Subsurface precipitation of gypsum from meteoric waters containing salts leached from the surface, results in displacive gypsum accumulation in the soil zone. In southern Tunisia, the gypsum is derived from sand and dust deflated from evaporitic basins; in the central Namib, salts dissolved in fog water are the most likely source. Where other salts are present, differential leaching may form two-tiered crusts, calcrete—gypsum or gypsum—halite, if rainfall is sufficient to mobilize the less soluble salt yet insufficient to flush the more soluble. Gypsum crust genesis is restricted to arid environments, and if their susceptibility to post-depositional alteration is acknowledged, they can provide valuable palaeoclimatic indicators.