Origin and palaeoenvironmental significance of lamination in stalagmites from Katerloch Cave, Austria

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Abstract

The origin and environmental dependencies of lamination in stalagmites from Katerloch, common in speleothems from other cave sites, are examined in detail. Petrographic observations and chemical analyses (including isotopes) of stalagmites and modern calcite were combined with multi-annual cave monitoring. All investigated stalagmites are composed of low-Mg calcite and show white, porous laminae and typically thinner, translucent dense laminae. The binary lamination pattern results from changes in the calcite fabric: white, porous laminae are characterized by a high porosity and abundant fluid inclusions and also by enhanced vertical growth and thinning towards the flanks. Translucent, dense laminae exhibit a compact fabric and constant thickness of individual growth layers. U-Th dating supports an annual origin of the lamination and the seasonally changing intensity of cave ventilation provides a robust explanation for the observed relationships between lamination, stable C isotopic compositions and trace elements (Mg, Sr and Ba). The seasonally variable air exchange, driven by temperature contrasts between the cave interior and outside atmosphere, modulates the rate and amount of CO2 degassing from the drip water and affects the hydrochemistry and consequently the fabric of the precipitating calcite. Although cave air composition and drip rate are both major variables in controlling CO2 degassing from the drip water, the seasonally changing ventilation in Katerloch exerts the primary control and the results suggest a secondary (amplifying/attenuating) influence of the drip rate. Drip rate, however, might be the controlling parameter for lamina development at cave sites experiencing only small seasonal cave air exchange. Importantly, the seasonally variable composition of drip water does not reflect the seasonal cycle of processes in the soil zone, but results from exchange with the cave atmosphere. The alternating porous and dense calcite fabric is the expression of a variable degree of lateral coalescence of smaller crystallites forming large columnar crystals. The white, porous laminae represent partial coalescence and form during the warm season: low calcite δ13C values are linked to low δ13C values of cave air and drip water during that time. This observation corresponds to times of reduced cave ventilation, high pCO2 of cave air, low drip water pH, lower calcite supersaturation and typically high drip rates. In contrast, the translucent, dense laminae represent more or less complete lateral coalescence (inclusion-free) during the cold season (high calcite, drip water and cave air δ13C values), i.e. times of enhanced cave ventilation, low cave air pCO2, increased drip water pH, relatively high calcite supersaturation and typically low drip rates. In essence, the relative development of the two lamina types reflects changes in the seasonality of external air temperature and precipitation, with a strong control of the winter air temperature on the intensity of cave-air exchange. Thick translucent, dense laminae are favoured by long, cold and wet winters and such conditions may be related closely to the North Atlantic Oscillation mode (weak westerlies) and enhanced Mediterranean cyclone activity during the cold season. Studies of speleothem lamination can thus help to better understand (and quantify) the role of seasonality changes, for example, during rapid climate events.

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