The influence of hydrology and climate on the isotope geochemistry of playa carbonates: a study from Pilot Valley, NV, USA



Carbonates often accompany lake and lake-margin deposits in both modern and ancient geological settings. If these carbonates are formed in standing water, their stable isotope values reflect the aquatic chemistry at the time of precipitation and may provide a proxy for determining regional hydrologic conditions. Carbonate rhizoliths and water samples were collected from a playa lake in eastern Nevada. Pilot Valley (∼43°N) is a closed-basin, remnant playa from the Quaternary desiccation of palaeo-Lake Bonneville. Water is added to the playa margin by free convection of dense brines to the east and forced convection of freshwater off the alluvial fan to the west. Both freshwater and saline springs dot the playa margin at the base of an alluvial fan. Water samples collected from seven springs show a range from −16 to −0·2‰ (Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water), and are consistent with published values. The δ18Ocalcite values from rhizolith samples range from −18·3 to −6·7‰ (Vienna Pee Dee Belemnite), and the average is −12‰ V-PDB (1 − σ SD 2‰). With the exception of samples from Little Salt Spring, the range in the δ18Ocalcite values collected from the rhizoliths confirms that they form in equilibrium with ambient water conditions on the playa. The initial geochemical conditions for the spring waters are dictated by local hydrology: freshwater springs emerge in the northern part of the basin to the east of a broad alluvial fan, and more saline springs emerge to the south where the influence of the alluvial fan diminishes. Rhizoliths are only found near the southern saline springs and their δ13Ccalcite values, along with their morphology, indicate that they only form around saltgrass (Distichlis sp.). As the residence time of water on the playa increases, evaporation, temperature change and biological processes alter the aquatic chemistry and initiate calcite precipitation around the plant stems. The range in δ18Ocalcite values from each location reflects environmental controls (e.g. evaporation and temperature change). These rhizoliths faithfully record ambient aquatic conditions during formation (e.g. geochemistry and water depth), but only record a partial annual signal that is constrained by saltgrass growth and the presence of standing water on the playa margin.