Chemistry, mineralogy and origin of the clay-hill nitrate deposits, Amargosa River valley, Death Valley region, California, U.S.A.

Chemical Geology

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DOI: 10.1016/0009-2541(88)90008-3



The clay-hill nitrate deposits of the Amargosa River valley, California, are caliche-type accumulations of water-soluble saline minerals in clay-rich soils on saline lake beds of Miocene, Pliocene(?) and Pleistocene age. The soils have a maximum thickness of ??? 50 cm, and commonly consist of three layers: (1) an upper 5-10 cm of saline-free soil; (2) an underlying 15-20 cm of rubbly saline soil; and (3) a hard nitrate-rich caliche, 10-20 cm thick, at the bottom of the soil profile. The saline constituents, which make up as much as 50% of the caliche, are chiefly Cl-, NO-3, SO2-4 and Na+. In addition are minor amounts of K+, Mg2+ and Ca2+, varying, though generally minor, amounts of B2O3 and CO2-3, and trace amounts of I (probably as IO-3), NO-2, CrO2-4 and Mo (probably as MoO2-4). The water-soluble saline materials have an I/Br ratio of ??? 1, which is much higher than nearly all other saline depostis. The principal saline minerals of the caliche are halite (NaCl), nitratite (NaNO3), darapskite (Na3(SO4)(NO3)??H2O), glauberite (Na2Ca(SO4)2), gypsum (CaSO4??2H2O) and anhydrite (CaSO4). Borax (Na2B4O5(OH)4??8H2O), tincalconite (Na2B4O5(OH)4??3H2O) and trona (Na3(CO3)(HCO3)??2H2O) are abundant locally. The clay-hill nitrate deposits are analogous to the well-known Chilean nitrate deposits, and probably are of similar origin. Whereas the Chilean deposits are in permeable soils of the nearly rainless Atacama Desert, the clay-hill deposits are in relatively impervious clay-rich soils that inhibited leaching by rain water. The annual rainfall in the Death Valley region of ??? 5 cm is sufficient to leach water-soluble minerals from the more permeable soils. The clay-hill deposits contain saline materials from the lake beds beneath the nitrate deposits are well as wind-transported materials from nearby clay-hill soils, playas and salt marshes. The nitrate is probably of organic origin, consisting of atmospheric nitrogen fixed as protein by photoautotrophic blue-green algae, which are thought to form crusts on soils at the sites of the deposits when moistened by rainfall. The protein is subsequently transformed to nitrate by autotophic bacteria. ?? 1988.

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Chemistry, mineralogy and origin of the clay-hill nitrate deposits, Amargosa River valley, Death Valley region, California, U.S.A.
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Chemical Geology
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