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Keywords:

  • Gypsum;
  • Nebraska;
  • Oligocene;
  • playa;
  • tephra;
  • volcanogenic sulphate

Abstract

Historic, sulphur-rich volcanic eruptions have altered global climate for as much as five years, and much larger events are known from the geologic record. At Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, Early Oligocene strata of the lower Arikaree Group contain a tephra bed with abundant calcite pseudomorphs after gypsum. Previous work has shown sulphate from the pseudomorphs in this tephra bears a high 17O anomaly indicative of oxidation of sulphur gases by ozone or hydrogen peroxide in the atmosphere. Possible sources of the tephra were caldera eruptions at about 28 Ma in the San Juan volcanic field of south-western Colorado (∼500 km SW of the study site) and the eastern Great Basin (∼1000 km WSW). The present sedimentological study shows that tephra and volcanogenic sulphate were deposited and preserved within a small, surface-discharging playa that developed on the irregular upper surface of aeolian siltstones of the subjacent White River Group. Sulphate solutions (including perhaps sulphuric acid) percolated downward within the vadose zone, dissolving early formed smectite cement within underlying volcaniclastic sandstones, reddening these rocks along an irregular alteration front. Preserved fine-scale stratification within the sandstones precludes the possibility that reddening took place during pedogenesis. Displacive growth of gypsum at the playa centre folded tephra beds and forced tephra into underlying sandstones, forming elongate cones. The large mass fraction of gypsum (now replaced by calcite) in the playa sediments suggests a huge, long-distance delivery of sulphate aerosols. Some of the sulphate and tephra may have come from the same eruption, or the fine-grained tephra may simply have aided preservation of dry-fog sulphate derived from an unrelated, effusive eruption of lava.