Freshwater diatomite deposits are present in all of the Western United States, including the Great Basin and surrounding
regions. These deposits are important domestic sources of diatomite, and a better understanding of their formation
and geologic settings may aid diatomite exploration and land-use management.
Diatomite deposits in the Great Basin are the products of two stages: (1) formation in Late Cenozoic lacustrine basins and (2) preservation after formation. Processes that favored long-lived diatom activity and diatomite formation range in decreasing scale from global to local. The most important
global process was climate, which became increasingly cool and dry from 15 Ma to the present. Regional processes included tectonic setting and volcanism, which varied considerably
both spatially and temporally in the Great Basin region. Local processes included basin formation, sedimentation,
hydrology, and rates of processes, including diatom growth and accumulation; basin morphology and nutrient and silica sources were important for robust activity of different
diatom genera. Only optimum combinations of these processes led to the formation of large diatomite deposits, and less than optimum combinations resulted in lakebeds that contained little to no diatomite.
Postdepositional processes can destroy, conceal, or preserve
a diatomite deposit. These processes, which most commonly are local in scale, include uplift, with related erosion
and changes in hydrology; burial beneath sedimentary deposits or volcanic flows and tuffs; and alteration during diagenesis
and hydrothermal activity. Some sedimentary basins that may have contained diatomite deposits have largely been destroyed or significantly modified, whereas others, such as those in western Nevada, have been sufficiently preserved along with their contained diatomite deposits.
Future research on freshwater diatomite deposits in the Western United States and Great Basin region should concentrate
on the regional and local processes that led to the formation and preservation of the deposits. Major questions that need to be answered include (1) why were some basins favorable for diatomite formation, whereas others were not; (2) what post-depositional conditions are needed for diatomite preservation; and (3) what were the optimum process combinations that led to the formation and preservation of economic diatomite deposits?
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Chapter B: Regional Geologic Setting of Late Cenozoic Lacustrine Diatomite Deposits, Great Basin and Surrounding Region: Overview and Plans for Investigation