Fluids trapped in speleothems have an enormous potential in frontier fields of paleoclimate and paleohydrological research. This potential is, however, hampered by diverse scientific and technical limitations, among which the lack of a systematic methodology for genetically characterizing fluid inclusions is a major one, as these can have different origins, and thus, the trapped fluid (usually water), different meanings. In this work, we propose a systematic petrological classification of fluid inclusions, based on: 1) the temporal relation between fluid inclusions and the host calcite, 2) the spatial relation between fluid inclusions and the “crystallites” and crystals aggregates, and 3) the phases (water, air) trapped inside fluid inclusions. The first criterion allows dividing fluid inclusions in two main categories: primary and secondary, whose identification is critical in any research based on trapped fluids. The other two criteria allow the definition of eight types of primary and four types of secondary fluid inclusions.

Primary fluid inclusions contain the drip water that fed stalagmites at the time of crystal growth, and can be intercrystalline, i.e., located between adjacent crystallites, or intracrystalline, i.e., with the fluid trapped within crystallites. We differentiate six main types among the intercrystalline fluid inclusions (elongate, thorn-shaped, down-arrow, interbranch, macro-elongate, and bucket) and other two among intracrystalline inclusions (pyriform and boudin). In primary inclusions, water is the main phase, while gas is much less abundant. The presence of gas could be related to slow drip rates or degassing in the cave, but also to later leakage due to changes in temperature and humidity often occurring during inadequate handling of speleothem samples.

Secondary fluid inclusions were clearly related to younger water inlet through stratigraphic disruptions or unconformities. They are formed after water infiltration, but sealed before the renewed crystal growth. We differentiate four main types of secondary inclusions: interconnected, rounded, triangular, and vertical fluid inclusions. The identification of primary and secondary fluid inclusions in speleothems is a key for interpretation in paleoclimate studies.

Integration of petrological results allow establishment of three different genetic scenarios for the formation of fluid inclusions, whose identification can be relevant because of their predictive character.

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