Abstract

The Messinian Realmonte salt deposit consists of a 400-600 m-thick halite succession that can be divided into four main lithologic units (base to top); A) cumulates of plates settled out from a stratified water column; B) plate cumulates in a shallowing-upward sequence containing six kainite layers near the top of the unit; C) cumulates of skeletal hoppers with chevron overgrowths precipitated from a nonstratified water body; and D) skeletal halite and anhydrite. Spectacular vertical fissures cut through the upper part of unit B at its boundary with salt unit C. These fissures are spaced at intervals of up to 5 m apart, extend down to a depth of 6 m, and are filled by red mud. The salt beds affected by the fissures are commonly upturned (buckled) and are truncated and onlapped by the succeeding flat-lying halite beds of unit C. Additionally, the upturned layers are cut by vertical dissolution pipes that extend down to as much as a depth of 4 m below the fissured surface. To explain the observed superimposed structures we propose two mechanisms, both induced by the desiccation of the evaporite basin; (1) When the salt surface was exposed, the halite layers were buckled, broke into polygonal crusts, and formed tepee structures. The buckling was caused by a net volume increase due to thermal expansion, and what is more important, precipitation of new halite induced by evaporative pumping of brines moving up from the groundwater table. The buckled salt layers were then affected by meteoric dissolution, which created vertical pipes. (2) The tepee structures and the associated zone of dissolution pipes are further crosscut by a new network of large polygons. These new polygonal sets are outlined by deep fissures in which red silt collected, blown by the wind or carried by episodes of surface flooding. This type of deep contraction crack is known to be produced by volumetric changes induced by annual temperature fluctuations. The documentation of contraction polygons and other exposure features represents the first report of desiccation events during the deposition of the Sicilian salt. No geological data are yet available to settle the questions if the salt of Sicily is correlatable with the halite present beneath the floor of the Mediterranean and if the desiccation of the Realmonte salt basin could have been induced by; a) local tectonic causes (uplift of the basin floor by thrust activity, b) simple evaporitic drawdown, c) basinwide drop of the Mediterranean sea level, or d) complex interaction among these factors.

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