Field in-situ sinter growth studies have been carried out in five geochemically very different Icelandic geothermal areas with the aim to quantify the effects of water chemistry, (e.g. silica content (250 to 695 p.p.m. SiO2), salinity (meteoric to seawater), pH (7.5 to 10)), temperature (42–96 °C) and microbial abundance (prevalence, density) on the growth rates, textures and structures of sinters forming within and around geothermal waters. At each location, sinter growth was monitored over time periods between 30 min and 25 months using glass slides that acted as precipitation substrates from which sinter growth rates were derived.
In geothermal areas like Svartsengi and Reykjanes, subaqueous sinters developed rapidly with growth rates of 10 and 304 kg year−1 m−2, respectively, and this was attributed primarily to the near neutral pH, high salinity and medium to high silica content within these geothermal waters. The porous and homogeneous precipitates that formed at these sites were dominated by aggregates of amorphous silica and they contained few if any microorganisms. At Hveragerdi and Geysir, the geothermal waters were characterized by slightly alkaline pH, low salinity and moderate silica contents, resulting in substantially lower rates of sinter growth (0.2–1.4 kg year−1 m−2). At these sites sinter formation was restricted to the vicinity of the air–water interface (AWI) where evaporation and condensation processes predominated, with sinter textures being governed by the formation of dense and heterogeneous crusts with well-defined spicules and silica terraces. In contrast, the subaqueous sinters at these sites were characterized by extensive biofilms, which, with time, became fully silicified and thus well preserved within the sinter edifices. Finally, at Krafla, the geothermal waters exhibited high sinter growth rates (19.5 kg year−1 m−2) despite being considerably undersaturated with respect to amorphous silica. However, the bulk of the sinter textures and structure were made up of thick silicified biofilms and this indicated that silica precipitation, i.e. sinter growth, was aided by the surfaces provided by the thick biofilms. These results further suggest that the interplay between purely abiotic processes and the ubiquitous presence of mesophilic and thermophilic microorganisms in modern silica rich terrestrial hydrothermal settings provides an excellent analogue for processes in Earth's and possibly Mars's ancient past.