Salt and sediment: A brief history of ideas

Salty weirdness
Salt is a weird kind of rock. At first sight, it behaves like most other rocks: if you pick up a piece, it is hard, it is heavy, and it breaks if hit with a hammer. But put it under stress for thousands of years, and salt will behave like a fluid: relatively small forces can cause it to flow toward less stressful surroundings. This often means it will try to find its way to the surface.

When deposited, sand and mud have lots of pore space filled with water and have relatively low density. However, as they get buried by more sediment, much pore space is lost, both through compaction and cementation. Sediments turn into sedimentary rocks, become harder, and their density increases. In contrast, salt doesn’t have much pore space to begin with; its density will stay the same, regardless of depth of burial. As both salt and sediment are buried to greater depths, an unstable condition develops: lighter salt lying under denser material. In addition, the location of the salt layer in the sediment column is not entirely random: it is in the nature of sedimentary basins to initially place salt at the bottom of the sediment pile. Extensive salt layers usually form early in a basin’s lifetime, when seawaters invade for the first time shallow depressions on a continent that is about to split into two along a rift zone. The Dead Sea is an obvious example that comes to mind.

Layering salt and sediment in this unstable order is a recipe for a spectacular geological show. As salt is trying to find its way to the surface, it forms drop-shaped blobs called diapirs; but also ridges, walls, and salt sheets. Several sheets can connect laterally into a huge salt canopy, a new salt layer that is entirely out-of-place or allochtonous. Salt can also act as a lubricating layer at the base of a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks. But I am rushing ahead a little bit; salt tectonics is such a new – but rapidly growing – science that salt canopies, despite their widespread presence in the subsurface Gulf of Mexico, were not recognized and described until the 1980s.

Tectonics vs. buoyancy, Europe vs. America
Before the beginning of the twentieth century, even with the role that salt played in human history, little was known about how salt domes formed. This was an age of rampant speculation; surface data was scarce because salt does not last very long after exposed as it quickly gets dissolved and washed away by precipitation. Many geologists thought that formation of salt domes didn’t require any significant salt deformation or displacement. But things have changed dramatically in 1901, with the discovery of the Spindletop oil field on top of a salt dome in southeastern Texas. The recognition that oil is often found on top of and around salt domes created a much stronger interest in understanding how exactly salt formations are put in place.

European geologists thought that the main driving force was compression, the force that causes folding and thrusting and builds mountains. In Romania, where the Eastern Carpathians take a sharp turn toward the southwest, salt was found in the cores of oil-bearing anticlines. The contacts with the surrounding rocks were clearly discordant. These are the structures that prompted Ludovic Mrazec, professor of geology at University of Bucharest, to coin the term “diapir” in 1907.

Mrazec’s explanation of how salt diapirs form. From Barton (1925).

Salt in Germany and Poland also seemed to occur invariably in a compressional setting, in the cores of folds, next to folds that had no salt associated. It seemed obvious that salt was ‘pushed up’ by tectonic forces, and it appeared unlikely that the rise of salt itself was causing the folding.

But the discovery of a multitude of salt diapirs in the Gulf of Mexico made it clear that they can occur far away from any mountains and compressive tectonic forces. The much simpler setting and relative lack of deformation in the Gulf proved informative. “The Roumanian salt-dome geologist possibly may have more to learn from the American salt domes than the American salt-dome geologist has to learn from the Roumanian domes. The occurrence of the American domes in a region of tectonic quiescence suggests that tectonic thrust cannot have the importance postulated by Mrazec” – wrote Donald Barton in 1925.

This was also the time when the density difference between salt and sediment came into discussion. Gravity measurements in the Gulf of Mexico showed anomalies above salt domes that were due to the lower density of salt. It was increasingly recognized that density inversion must play an important role in diapirism, especially where compressive tectonic forces were absent. In addition, by the 1930s geologists have reached a consensus that salt diapirs must somehow punch through the overlying sediment. They seemed to ignore the fact that, as Wade (1931) put it, you cannot drive a putty nail through a wooden board. As mentioned before, salt does behave like a fluid over geological time scales. But how can it penetrate thick layers of hardened sedimentary rock?

A brilliant idea: downbuilding
The solution to this problem came in 1933, from the same Donald Barton who was discussing the differences between European and American salt domes in 1925. He suggested that diapirs can form without much piercement of the sediment above. Instead, once a small dome is initiated, it simply can stay in place, always at or close to the surface, while sediment is deposited around it and the source salt layer subsides: “it is the sediments which move, and not the salt core. The energy requirement (…) is very much less than if there were actual upward movement of the salt.”

The evolution of salt diapirs through ‘downbuilding’. Salt domes are always close to the surface and diapirism goes hand-in-hand with sedimentation. From Barton (1933).

This was a key insight: it got rid of the “room problem”, the need for moving huge volumes of hard rock out of the way of the rising salt. It also highlighted that salt movement can happen at the same time with sedimentation, a fact that became abundantly obvious later as high-quality seismic data became available. But the concept of ‘downbuilding’ was ignored for the next fifty years.

Animation showing how downbuilding works. Blue represents salt, yellow is sediment. To mimic mass balance for salt (-- what is lost from the source layer must go into the salt dome), the blue area is kept constant through the animation.

The beauty of instabilities

The main reason for conveniently forgetting Barton’s idea was that density inversion between two fluids could be nicely studied in the lab and described with elegant equations. In one of the papers that kicked off this fascination with Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities, Nettleton (1934) used corn syrup and less dense crude oil to visualize diapir-like blobs of fluid in a transparent cylinder and to show that gravity alone, without any help from contractional forces, was enough to generate structures similar to salt domes.

Less dense crude oil (black) forming diapir-like blobs as rising through higher-density corn syrup (yellow). Redrawn from Nettleton (1934).

One problem with this approach was that oil and syrup can be photographed during deformation, but the transient structures could not be carefully dissected and analyzed later. Materials of higher viscosity were needed for that; however, increasing the viscosity resulted in a density difference too small to get the fluids moving in the first place. The trick was to place the whole experiment in a centrifuge and use the centrifugal force to imitate a larger-than-normal gravitational force. This approach formed the basis of a productive line of research on gravity tectonics in the laboratory of the Norwegian-Swedish geologist Hans Ramberg. The results are probably more relevant to what is happening deeper in the Earth, at higher temperatures and pressures, where most rocks become more similar in behavior to salt.

Modern salt tectonics
By the late 1980s it has become quite obvious that kilometer-thick piles of sedimentary rock cannot be treated as fluids and salt-sediment interaction is more similar to placing and deforming slabs of brittle material on top of a viscous fluid. Seismic from salt-bearing sedimentary basins suggested that the history of salt movement and sedimentation were highly interconnected and Barton’s downbuilding concept was strongly relevant.

Three-dimensional seismic data also showed the variety and complexity of allochtonous salt bodies in salt-rich sedimentary basins. Sandbox experiments with more realistic material properties and ongoing sedimentation during deformation were performed and the results beautifully visualized. The behavior of turbidity currents flowing over complex salt-related submarine topography was investigated. Hundreds of scientific papers were written on salt tectonics, both by industry geoscientists and researchers in the academia.

N-S cross section in the Gulf of Mexico. Large volumes of the Jurassic Louann salt have been displaced and squeezed into a salt canopy surrounded by much younger sediments. From Pilcher et al., 2011

And there is quite a bit left to explore and understand.

References and further reading
Barton, D. C. (1926) The American Salt-Dome Problems in the Light of the Roumanian and German Salt Domes, AAPG Bulletin, v. 9, p. 1227–1268.

Barton, D. C. (1933) Mechanics of Formation of Salt Domes with Special Reference to Gulf Coast Salt Domes of Texas and Louisiana, AAPG Bulletin, v. 17, 1025–1083.

Hudec, M., & Jackson, M. (2007) Terra infirma: Understanding salt tectonics. Earth Science Reviews, 82(1-2), 1–28.

Jackson, M. (1996) Retrospective salt tectonics, in M.P.A. Jackson, D.G. Roberts, and S. Snelson, eds., Salt tectonics: a global perspective: AAPG Memoir 65, p. 1–28. [great summary of the history of salt tectonics]

Mrazec, L. (1907) Despre cute cu sȋmbure de străpungere [On folds with piercing cores]: Bul. Soc. Stiint., Romania, v. 16, p. 6–8.

Nettleton, L. L. (1934) Fluid Mechanics of Salt Domes, AAPG Bulletin, v. 18, p. 1–30.

Pilcher, R. S., Kilsdonk, B., & Trude, J. (2011) Primary basins and their boundaries in the deep-water northern Gulf of Mexico: Origin, trap types, and petroleum system implications. AAPG Bulletin, v. 95(2), p. 219–240.

Wade, A. (1931) Intrusive salt bodies in coastal Asir, south western Arabia: Institute of Petroleum Technologists Journal, v. 17, p. 321–330, 357–361.

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