Thermal history of the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, USA

Applied Geochemistry
By: , and 



Secondary calcite, silica and minor amounts of fluorite deposited in fractures and cavities record the chemistry, temperatures, and timing of past fluid movement in the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the proposed site of a high-level radioactive waste repository. The distribution and geochemistry of these deposits are consistent with low-temperature precipitation from meteoric waters that infiltrated at the surface and percolated down through the unsaturated zone. However, the discovery of fluid inclusions in calcite with homogenization temperatures (Th) up to ???80 ??C was construed by some scientists as strong evidence for hydrothermal deposition. This paper reports the results of investigations to test the hypothesis of hydrothermal deposition and to determine the temperature and timing of secondary mineral deposition. Mineral precipitation temperatures in the unsaturated zone are estimated from calcite- and fluorite-hosted fluid inclusions and calcite ??18O values, and depositional timing is constrained by the 207Pb/235U ages of chalcedony or opal in the deposits. Fluid inclusion Th from 50 samples of calcite and four samples of fluorite range from ???35 to ???90 ??C. Calcite ??18O values range from ???0 to ???22??? (SMOW) but most fall between 12 and 20???. The highest Th and the lowest ??18O values are found in the older calcite. Calcite Th and ??18O values indicate that most calcite precipitated from water with ??18O values between -13 and -7???, similar to modern meteoric waters. Twenty-two 207Pb/235U ages of chalcedony or opal that generally postdate elevated depositional temperatures range from ???9.5 to 1.9 Ma. New and published 207Pb/235U and 230Th/Uages coupled with the Th values and estimates of temperature from calcite ??18O values indicate that maximum unsaturated zone temperatures probably predate ???10 Ma and that the unsaturated zone had cooled to near-present-day temperatures (24-26 ??C at a depth of 250 m) by 2-4 Ma. The evidence of elevated temperatures persisting in ash flow tuffs adjacent to parent calderas for as much as ???8 Ma is a new finding, but consistent with thermal modeling. Simulations using the HEAT code demonstrate that prolonged cooling of the unsaturated zone is consistent with magmatic heat inputs and deep-seated (sub-water table) hydrothermal activity generated by the large magma body ???8 km to the north that produced the 15-11 Ma ash flows and ash falls that make up Yucca Mountain. The evidence discussed in this and preceding papers strongly supports unsaturated zone deposition of the secondary minerals from descending meteoric waters. Although depositional temperatures reflect conductive (and possibly vapor-phase convective) heating of the unsaturated zone related to regional magmatic sources until perhaps 6 Ma, depositional conditions similar to the present-day unsaturated zone have prevailed for at least the past 2-4 Ma.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Thermal history of the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, USA
Series title Applied Geochemistry
DOI 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2007.08.009
Volume 23
Issue 5
Year Published 2008
Language English
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Applied Geochemistry
First page 1041
Last page 1075
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