Deposits of calcite and opal are present as coatings on open fractures and lithophysal cavities in unsaturated-zone tuffs at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site of a potential high-level radioactive waste repository. Outermost layers of calcite and opal have radiocarbon ages of 16,000 to 44,000 years before present and thorium-230/uranium ages of 28,000 to more than 500,000 years before present. These ages are young relative to the 13-million-year age of the host rocks. Multiple subsamples from the same outer layer typically show a range of ages with youngest ages from the thinnest subsamples. Initial uranium-234/uranium-238 activity ratios between 1 and 9.5 show a distinct negative correlation with thorium-230/uranium age and are greater than 4 for all but one sample younger than 100,000 years before present. These data, along with micrometer-scale layering and distinctive crystal morphologies, are interpreted to indicate that deposits formed very slowly from water films migrating through open cavities. Exchanges of carbon dioxide and water vapor probably took place between downward-migrating liquids and upward-migrating gases at low rates, resulting in oversaturation of mineral constituents at crystal extremities and more or less continuous deposition of very thin layers. Therefore, subsamples represent mixtures of older and younger layers on a scale finer than sampling techniques can resolve. Slow, long-term rates of deposition (less than about 5 millimeters of mineral per million years) are inferred from subsamples of outermost calcite and opal. These growth rates are similar to those calculated assuming that total coating thicknesses of 10 to 40 millimeters accumulated over 12 million years.
Calcite has a wide range of delta carbon-13 values from about -8.2 to 8.5 per mil and delta oxygen-18 values from about 10 to 21 per mil. Systematic microsampling across individual mineral coatings indicates basal (older) calcite tends to have the largest delta carbon-13 values and smallest delta oxygen-18 values compared to calcite from intermediate and outer positions. Basal calcite has relatively small strontium-87/strontium-86 ratios, between 0.7105 and 0.7120, that are similar to the initial isotopic compositions of the strontium-rich tuff units, whereas outer calcite has more radiogenic strontium-87/strontium-86 ratios between 0.7115 and 0.7127. Isotopic compositions of strontium, oxygen, and carbon in the outer (youngest) unsaturated-zone calcite are coincident with those measured in Yucca Mountain calcrete, which formed by pedogenic processes.
The physical and isotopic data from calcite and opal indicate that they formed from solutions of meteoric origin percolating through a limited network of connected fracture pathways in the unsaturated zone rather than by inundation from ascending ground water originating in the saturated zone. Mineral assemblages, textures, and distributions within the unsaturated zone are distinctly different from those deposited below the water table at Yucca Mountain. The calcite and opal typically are present only on footwall surfaces of a small fraction of fractures and only on floors of a small fraction of lithophysal cavities. The similarities in the carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopic compositions between fracture calcite and soil-zone calcite, as well as the gradation of textures from detritus-rich micrite in the soil to detritus-free spar 10 to 30 meters below the surface, also support a genetic link between the two depositional environments. Older deposits contain oxygen isotope compositions that indicate elevated temperatures of mineral formation during the early stages of deposition; however, in the youngest deposits these values are consistent with deposition under geothermal gradients similar to modern conditions. Correlations between mineral ages and varying Pleistocene climate conditions are not apparent from the current data. Cumulative evidence from calcite and opal deposits indicate