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Intrinsic and extrinsic controls of spatial and temporal variations in modern fluvial tufa sedimentation: A thirteen-year record from a semi-arid environment



Sedimentological and hydrochemical parameters of the River Piedra (north-east Spain) were monitored every six months (from 1999 to 2012) at 24 sites, at which tablets were installed all along the river. The river water is of HCO3–SO4–Ca type and is notably influenced by inputs from upstream karstic springs. Tufa deposition was first detected 8 km downstream of these springs and greatly increased from there, primarily along the steeper stretch (i.e. within the Monasterio de Piedra Natural Park); then, deposition decreased through the most downstream stretch, with smaller ground water inputs. The spatial evolution of the tufa thickness, with parallel variations of PWP (Plummer, Wigley, Parkhurst) rates, was thus determined by the river water pCO2 which was controlled by ground water inputs and by the river bed slope. Five fluvial subenvironments and seven sedimentary facies were characterized. The water flow conditions are the primary factor responsible for the distinct deposition rates of facies, mainly through CO2-outgassing. Stromatolites and moss-tufa and alga-tufa had the highest rates, whereas loose tufa formed in slow-flowing water and tufa of spray areas had thinner deposition. A six-month pattern in the deposition rate was detected through thickness measurements. That pattern was parallel to the seasonal PWP rates. The increased deposition during warm periods (spring and summer; mean: 5·08 mm) compared with cool periods (autumn and winter; mean: 2·77 mm) is linked chiefly to temperature, which controlled the seasonal changes in the physico-chemical and biological processes; this finding is supported by a principal components analysis. Seasonal variations of insolation and day duration also contributed to such a deposition pattern. Large discharge events, which provoked erosion of tufa deposits and dilution of water, caused the reversal of the seasonal deposition rate pattern. Stromatolites are likely to preserve the most complete sedimentary record. Although tufas are a potentially sensitive record of climate-related parameters, erosion is an intrinsic process that may overwhelm the effects of such parameters. This issue should be considered in palaeoclimatic studies based on the tufa record, particularly in semi-arid conditions.