Major radioactive mineral springs are probably related to deep zones of active metamorphism in areas of orogenic tectonism. The most common precipitate is travertine, a chemically precipitated rock composed chiefly of calcium carbonate, but also containing other minerals. The mineral springs are surface manifestations of hydrothermal conduit systems which extend downward many kilometers to hot source rocks. Conduits are kept open by fluid pressure exerted by carbon dioxide-charged waters rising to the surface propelled by heat and gas (CO2 and steam) pressure.
On reaching the surface, the dissolved carbon dioxide is released from solution, and calcium carbonate is precipitated. Springs also contain sulfur species (for example, H2S and HS-), and radon, helium and methane as entrained or dissolved gases. The HS- ion can react to form hydrogen sulfide gas, sulfate salts, and native sulfur. Chemical salts and native sulfur precipitate at the surface. The sulfur may partly oxidize to produce detectable sulfur dioxide gas.
Radioactivity is due to the presence of radium-226, radon-222, radium-228, and radon-220, and other daughter products of uranium-238 and thorium-232. Uranium and thorium are not present in economically significant amounts in most radioactive spring precipitates.
Most radium is coprecipitated at the surface with barite. Barite (barium sulfate) forms in the barium-containing spring water as a product of the oxidation of sulfur species to sulfate ions. The relatively insoluble barium sulfate precipitates and removes much of the radium from solution. Radium coprecipitates to a lesser extent with manganese-barium- and iron-oxy hydroxides.
R-mode factor analysis of abundances of elements suggests that 65 percent of the variance of the different elements is affected by seven factors interpreted as follows: (1) Silica and silicate contamination and precipitation; (2) Carbonate travertine precipitation; (3) Radium coprecipitation; (4) Evaporite precipitation; (5) Hydrous limonite precipitation and coprecipitated elements including uranium; (6) Rare earth elements deposited with detrital contamination (?); (7) Metal carbonate adsorption and precipitation.
Economically recoverable minerals occurring at some localities in spring precipitates are ores of iron, manganese, sulfur, tungsten and barium and ornamental travertine.
Continental radioactive mineral springs occur in areas of crustal thickening caused by overthrusting of crustal plates, and intrusion and metamorphism. Sedimentary rocks on the lower plate are trapped between the plates and form a zone of metamorphism. Connate waters, carbonate rocks and organic-carbon-bearing rocks react to extreme pressure and temperature to produce carbon dioxide, and steam. Fractures are forced open by gas and fluid pressures. Deep-circulating meteoric waters then come in contact with the reactive products, and a hydrothermal cell forms. When hot mineral-charged waters reach the surface they form the familiar hot mineral springs. Hot springs also occur in relation to igneous intrusive action or volcanism both of which may be products of the crustal plate overthrusting. Uranium and thorium in the sedimentary rocks undergoing metamorphism are sometimes mobilized, but mobilization is generally restricted to an acid hydrothermal environment; much is redeposited in favorable environments in the metamorphosed sediments. Radium and radon, which are highly mobile in both acid and alkaline aqueous media move upward into the hydrothermal cell and to the surface.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Radioactive mineral spring precipitates, their analytical and statistical data and the uranium connection