A comparative study of marine evaporite deposits forming at the present time along the pacific coast of central Mexico and evaporite formations of Permian age in West Texas Basin was made in order to determine if the modern sediments provide a basis for understanding environmental conditions that existed during deposition of the older deposits. The field work was supplemented by investigations of artificial evaporite minerals precipitated in the laboratory and by study of the chemical composition of halite rock of different geologic ages.
The environment of deposition of contemporaneous marine salt deposits in Mexico is acidic, is strongly reducing a few centimeters below the surface, and teems with microscopic life. Deposition of salt, unlike that of many other sediments, is not wholly a constructional phenomenon. Permanent deposits result only if a favorable balance exists between deposition in the dry season and dissolution in the wet season.
Evaporite formations chosen for special study in the West Texas Basin are, in ascending order, the Castile, Salado, and Rustler formations, which have a combined thickness of 1200 meters. The Castile formation is largely composed of gypsum rock, the Salado, halite rock, and the Rustler, quartz and carbonate sandstone. The lower part of the Castile formation is bituminous and contains limestone laminae. The Castile and Rustler formations thicken to the south at the expense of salt of the intervening Salado formation.
The clastic rocks of the Rustler formation are interpreted as the deposits of a series of barrier islands north of which halite rock of the Salado was deposited. The salt is believed to have formed in shallow water of uniform density that was mixed by the wind. Where water depth exceeded the depth of the wind mixing, density stratification developed, and gypsum was deposited. Dense water of high salinity below the density discontinuity was overlain by less dense, more normally saline water which was derived from the sea to the south. Mixing of the two water layers at their interface diluted the lower layer so as to prevent halite formation, but at the same time the depressed solubility of calcium sulfate in the mixture at the interface caused precipitation of gypsum.
The upper water layer is believed to have supported a flourishing microscopic biota whose remains descended into semisterile brine below where reducing conditions prevailed. This environment generated the bituminous gypsum rock. At times, microcrystalline calcium carbonate of probable biochemical origin formed in the upper layer and settled below to form limestone laminae such as those of the lower part of the Castile formation.
Chemical analyses of Permian and present-day salt were compared with analyses of marine salt as old as Cambrian age to determine if evaporite deposits can contribute information on the geologic history of sea water. The results contain uncertainties that cannot be fully resolved, but they suggest that the ratio between ions in sea water has been approximately constant since Precambrian time. In addition, the abrupt initial appearance of rock salt deposits in Cambrian time suggests that the Precambrian ocean may have been rather dilute, but this apparent relationship also could have been caused by other factors.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Origin and chemical composition of evaporite deposits