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Sulfur geochemistry of hydrothermal waters in Yellowstone National Park: IV Acid-sulfate waters

January 1, 2009

Many waters sampled in Yellowstone National Park, both high-temperature (30-94 ??C) and low-temperature (0-30 ??C), are acid-sulfate type with pH values of 1-5. Sulfuric acid is the dominant component, especially as pH values decrease below 3, and it forms from the oxidation of elemental S whose origin is H2S in hot gases derived from boiling of hydrothermal waters at depth. Four determinations of pH were obtained: (1) field pH at field temperature, (2) laboratory pH at laboratory temperature, (3) pH based on acidity titration, and (4) pH based on charge imbalance (at both laboratory and field temperatures). Laboratory pH, charge imbalance pH (at laboratory temperature), and acidity pH were in close agreement for pH < 2.7. Field pH measurements were predominantly used because the charge imbalance was <??10%. When the charge imbalance was generally >??10%, a selection process was used to compare acidity, laboratory, and charge balance pH to arrive at the best estimate. Differences between laboratory and field pH can be explained based on Fe oxidation, H2S or S2O3 oxidation, CO2 degassing, and the temperature-dependence of pK2 for H2SO4. Charge imbalances are shown to be dependent on a speciation model for pH values <3. The highest SO4 concentrations, in the thousands of mg/L, result from evaporative concentration at elevated temperatures as shown by the consistently high ??18O values (-10??? to -3???) and a ??D vs. ??18O slope of 3, reflecting kinetic fractionation. Low SO4 concentrations (<100 mg/L) for thermal waters (>350 mg/L Cl) decrease as the Cl- concentration increases from boiling which appears inconsistent with the hypothesis of H2S oxidation as a source of hydrothermal SO4. This trend is consistent with the alternate hypothesis of anhydrite solubility equilibrium. Acid-sulfate water analyses are occasionally high in As, Hg, and NH3 concentrations but in contrast to acid mine waters they are low to below detection in Cu, Zn, Cd, and Pb concentrations. Even concentrations of SO4, Fe, and Al are much lower in thermal waters than acid mine waters of the same pH. This difference in water chemistry may explain why certain species of fly larvae live comfortably in Yellowstone's acid waters but have not been observed in acid rock drainage of the same pH.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2009
Title Sulfur geochemistry of hydrothermal waters in Yellowstone National Park: IV Acid-sulfate waters
DOI 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2008.11.019
Authors D. Kirk Nordstrom, R. Blaine McCleskey, J. W. Ball
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Applied Geochemistry
Index ID 70033039
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Toxic Substances Hydrology Program