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Hypogenic karst of the Great Basin

September 24, 2021

Discoveries in the 1980s greatly expanded speleologists’ understanding of the role that hypogenic groundwater flow can play in developing caves at depth. Ascending groundwater charged with carbon dioxide and, especially, hydrogen sulfide can readily dissolve carbonate bedrock just below and above the water table. Sulfuric acid speleogenesis, in which anoxic, rising, sulfidic groundwater mixes with oxygenated cave atmosphere to form aggressive sulfuric acid (H2SO4) formed spectacular caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, USA. Cueva de Villa Luz in Mexico provides an aggressively active example of sulfuric acid speleogenesis processes, and the Frasassi Caves in Italy preserve the results of sulfuric acid speleogenesis in its upper levels while sulfidic groundwater currently enlarges cave passages in the lower levels.

Many caves in east-central Nevada and western Utah (USA) are products of hypogenic speleogenesis and formed before the current topography fully developed. Wet climate during the late Neogene and Pleistocene brought extensive meteoric infiltration into the caves, and calcite speleothems (e.g., stalactites, stalagmites, shields) coat the walls and floors of the caves, concealing evidence of the earlier hypogenic stage. However, by studying the speleogenetic features in well-established sulfuric acid speleogenesis caves, evidence of hypogenic, probably sulfidic, speleogenesis in many Great Basin caves can be teased out. Compelling evidence of hypogenic speleogenesis in these caves include folia, mammillaries, bubble trails, cupolas, and metatyuyamunite. Sulfuric acid speleogenesis signs include hollow coralloid stalagmites, trays, gypsum crust, pseudoscallops, rills, and acid pool notches. Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park is particularly informative because a low-permeability capstone protected about half of the cave from significant meteoric infiltration, preserving early speleogenetic features.

Publication Year 2021
Title Hypogenic karst of the Great Basin
DOI 10.1130/2020.0061(05)
Authors Louise D. Hose, Harvey R. DuChene, Daniel Jones, Gretchen M. Baker, Zoe Havlena, Donald S. Sweetkind, Doug Powell
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70226764
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center