Decoding tufa and travertine (fresh water carbonates) in the sedimentary record: The state of the art

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Abstract

Traditionally, fresh water carbonate research has focused on the sedimentology and palaeontology of ancient lacustrine deposits. Lithofacies in such low-energy deposits are typically fine-grained, developed uniformly in a generally concentric distribution (‘bulls-eye’ pattern) and are predictable even when preserved imperfectly. In contrast, because of their local lithofacies and palaeontological complexities, fluvial carbonates were either delegated to a status of ‘minor geomorphological features’ or barely considered prior to the 1970s. This viewpoint was based on the depositional record of fluvial and spring-fed fresh water carbonates, which were considered to be restricted generally to localized karstic areas. Such deposits are often preserved as scattered patches of ambient temperature tufa. Occasionally, however, in active tectonic areas, localized travertine deposits are also developed from deeply circulating hydrothermal waters. With a few exceptions (for example, basins with high subsidence rates or in arid climate zones), these fresh water carbonates are prone to erosion from continuing river incision and thus may not be preserved in the geological record. A partial record of fluvial and spring-deposited carbonates is often preserved in Quaternary deposits, but the record in older deposits is typically fragmentary and often diagenetically modified. Yet once their unique facies architecture (and specialized nomenclature) is understood, these carbonates provide an important record of past sedimentological cycles of great value in palaeoenvironmental landscape modelling. The emphasis of modern research is to acquire information that explains how active systems function. In this respect, tufas reveal much of how carbonate precipitation is a shared product of physico-chemical and microbiological biomediation processes. Likewise, travertines not only show an intimate interrelation with active tectonism but also hold great potential as monitors of past volcanic carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, both tufas and travertines contain palynological records that can be used as proxy indicators of climate change. Perhaps no other field of sedimentology has witnessed more developments and applications over such a brief period of study.

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