Stratigraphic analysis of Pleistocene nonmarine bedded evaporites in northwest Argentina elucidates the effect that episodic saline lake expansion and contraction have on the stratigraphic completeness of units deposited and preserved in a continental saline environment. Stratigraphic successions in these rocks contain features that relate uniquely to fluctuations in saline lake level. Bounding the top of each succession is a surface with evidence for an abrupt increase in water depth. Because sediment accumulation and stratal preservation vary spatially as a function of lake level, the degree of stratigraphic completeness varies among locations. These results have implications for attempts to extract the record of continental climate change from saline lake strata.
Bedded evaporites in these strata accumulated in a saline lake characterized by a marginal zone of gypsum and ulexite with clastic interbeds and an accumulation of halite in the saline lake center. Four internally conformable successions of genetically related lithofacies assemblages are recognized. Each succession consists of a basal sandstone that is the initial accumulation of the lake-level rise and lake highstand. Overlying this sandstone are cyclic evaporite and fine-grained clastic deposits of the lake-level fall. These units are modified by desiccation-related processes resulting from lake contraction and desiccation around the lake margins. Subsequent lake-level rise resulted in subaqueous mechanical erosion of clastics and dissolution of interbedded evaporites. In more basinward regions, dissolution of evaporites occurred prior to accumulation of lake highstand units. In the saline lake center, the lake never dried up entirely, and evidence for partial lake desiccation is equivocal.