Efflorescent salt crusts and associated sediments in Death Valley, California, were studied with remote-sensing data acquired by the NASA thermal infrared multispectral scanner (TIMS). Nine spectral classes that represent a variety of surface materials were distinguished, including several classes that reflect important aspects of the playa groundwater chemistry and hydrology. Evaporite crusts containing abundant thenardite (sodium sulfate) were mapped along the northern and eastern margins of the Cottonball Basin, areas where the inflow waters are rich in sodium. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) crusts were more common in the Badwater Basin, particularly near springs associated with calcic groundwaters along the western basin margin. Evaporite-rich crusts generally marked areas where groundwater is periodically near the surface and thus able to replenish the crusts though capillary evaporation. Detrital silicate minerals were prevalent in other parts of the salt pan where shallow groundwater does not affect the surface composition. The surface features in Death Valley change in response to climatic variations on several different timescales. For example, salt crusts on low-lying mudflats form and redissolve during seasonal-to-interannual cycles of wetting and desiccation. In contrast, recent flooding and erosion of rough-salt surfaces in Death Valley probably reflect increased regional precipitation spanning several decades. Remote-sensing observations of playas can provide a means for monitoring changes in evaporite facies and for better understanding the associated climatic processes. At present, such studies are limited by the availability of suitable airborne scanner data. However, with the launch of the Earth Observing System (EOS) AM-1 Platform in 1998, multispectral visible/near-infrared and thermal infrared remote-sensing data will become globally available. Copyright 1996 by the American Geophysical Union.
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Mapping playa evaporite minerals and associated sediments in Death Valley, California, with multispectral thermal infrared images