This paper reports a detailed study of the calcrete and silcrete profiles in the Miocene detrital deposits in the western area of Madrid, at the boundary of two main sedimentary units. The aims of this work were to better understand the pedogenic and diagenetic environments in which these profiles formed and to determine the cause(s) of their enrichment in uranium. Calcrete and silcrete duricrusts are characteristic features of closed continental basins in semiarid climates; this paper discusses the significance of duricrusts as indicators of important change in such basins.
The detailed macromorphological, micromorphological, and geochemical study of three duricrust profiles revealed the sequence of pedogenic, vadose, and groundwater processes responsible for their formation. During the first stage of their development, carbonate laminae formed a white “grill-like” structure within the detrital parent materials. The microstructure and macrostructure of the carbonate, which includes alveolar septal structures and needle-fiber calcite, indicates the important role of roots and their associated microorganisms in calcrete formation. Early silicification occurred in the pedogenic-vadose environment affecting the detrital parent material, roots, and calcretes, forming an early silcrete defined by opaline glaebules and silica rhizoliths. The detailed preservation of the cells in the silicified roots denotes the early replacement of root organic matter. The green or green-yellowish fluorescence of the silicified root structures under short-wavelength UV shows their preferential enrichment in uranium. Calcitization and silicification coexisted in the pedogenic vadose environment, leading to several reversible replacements of calcite and silica. Later, the rise of the water table promoted silicification under phreatic conditions, as indicated by the good preservation of the texture of the detrital host rocks and calcretes. Other silcrete textures, such as ovoidal opaline accumulations, intraclasts produced by autobrecchification, and vadose silica cements, indicate later vadose environments, and consequently variations in the water table.
The geochemical features of the calcretes and silcretes (major, minor, and rare earth elements) were inherited from their parent materials. The rare-earth-element patterns of some silcretes show them to have a positive Ce anomaly, suggesting that oxidizing conditions reigned during their formation. The good correlation between silica and uranium suggests that the silica phases acquired uranium through the direct silicification of roots that had fixed uranium from organic matter.
This study shows that calcrete–silcrete duricrusts provide detailed information regarding the processes occurring in semiarid continental basins. In the studied basin, roots played a key role in both the development of the duricrust profiles and their enrichment in uranium. These duricrusts provide important information for understanding the overall stratigraphy of the studied basin and its large-scale sequential evolution.