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Marine Sedimentation
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Factors Which Determine Accumulation and Deposition of Calcareous Material

Interest in geological problems concerning the conditions which led to the formation of limestones has greatly stimulated the study of the calcium carbonate content of marine deposits, because most calcareous formations were recognized as having a marine origin although in certain cases no fossil remains of marine organisms could be identified. Questions therefore arose regarding the environmental factors which determine the carbonate content of sediments laid down in different regions and regarding the possibility of inorganic precipitation of calcium carbonate in the sea. As the calcareous material in marine deposits is predominantly composed of skeletal structures of plants and animals, the marine biologist is directly concerned with the problem of the formation of such sediments. The precipitated carbonates are formed from materials in

solution and may again redissolve in the water (chapter VI). Although the problem has been under investigation for many years, no final conclusions as to the importance of inorganic precipitation and the carbonate cycle can yet be reached because the solubility of calcium carbonate in sea water is not accurately known. The factors which determine the percentage of calcareous material in the sediments are extremely complicated and will be considered before turning to the observed distribution of the calcium carbonate in marine sediments.

The terms “calcareous” and “calcium carbonate” are not strictly synonymous. According to analyses (p. 231 and p. 991), calcareous skeletal structures contain variable proportions of other substances, such as magnesium carbonate. However, the percentage of materials other than calcium carbonate is generally small and for this reason is commonly neglected. Most of the calcium carbonate found in marine deposits is in the crystalline form known as calcite, whereas the calcareous structures of live organisms apparently contain at least some in the form of aragonite. Whether or not there is a selective solution of the aragonite or whether there is a transformation of aragonite to calcite after the death of the organisms is not known. As was pointed out in the discussion of globigerina ooze, much of the fine material is composed of minute calcite crystals which apparently arise from the mechanical disintegration of the foraminiferal skeletons and are not due to any process of reprecipitation. Finely divided calcium carbonate is found on certain shallow banks in low latitudes, such as the Bahama Banks. This is in the form of aragonite and is thought to have been precipitated directly from sea water without the immediate participation of organic agencies (Vaughan, 1924, Smith, 1940). The presence of small amounts of authigenic dolomite, that is, the form of carbonate containing equal proportions of calcium and magnesium, has been reported by Correns (1937, 1939) for the pelagic deposits of the Equatorial Atlantic. No satisfactory explanation has yet been advanced to account for the existence of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite under one set of conditions and as calcite under another.

The precipitation or solution of calcium carbonate is controlled by the degree of saturation of the water under a given set of conditions. Although the conditions which favor either precipitation or solution of calcium carbonate are known, it is impossible to state definitely for a given set of conditions whether the water is saturated with calcium carbonate or whether precipitation or solution may take place. The supply of calcium carbonate by rivers is relatively large and therefore it is reasonable to assume that conditions closely approaching saturation must prevail.

In most discussions of calcareous sediments the emphasis is placed upon the percentage of calcium carbonate rather than upon the character

of the calcareous material. We are therefore immediately confronted by the problem of relative rates of deposition of calcareous and non calcareous materials, and there is not necessarily any correlation between the rate of accumulation of calcareous material and the percentage of calcium carbonate in a deposit. Under certain circumstances the burying effect of the noncalcareous material may tend to preserve calcareous material which otherwise might dissolve, hence it is necessary to consider not only the relative rates of accumulation but also the absolute rates of deposition. The noncalcareous material is generally of inorganic origin except in those localities where appreciable amounts of siliceous organic remains accumulate. The supply of inorganic material is greatest along continental coasts, off the mouths of rivers, and where volcanic material and air-borne dust are abundant. In general, the supply of noncalcareous material decreases with increasing distance from the land and, on an average, there is a tendency for the calcium carbonate content of the sediments to increase away from the coast. Even if the absolute rate of deposition of calcareous material were uniform over the entire sea bottom, there would be marked regional differences in the percentage of calcium carbonate found in different localities owing to the differences in the rates of supply of noncalcareous material. However, as will be shown in the following paragraphs, the rate of deposition of calcareous material is far from uniform. The calcareous remains are generally of relatively large size and may therefore accumulate in environments where transportation by currents can remove the fine-grained inorganic debris. Consequently, highly calcareous deposits may occur on topographic highs, whereas in deeper basins the more rapid deposition of inorganic material may dilute the calcium carbonate.

In chapter VI (p. 207) it was shown that conditions favorable for the precipitation of calcium carbonate are most likely to occur in water having high temperature and high salinity and where the activity of plants has reduced the carbon dioxide content of the water. Such conditions are found in low latitudes over shallow bottoms, but apparently in a few localities only does such precipitation occur. Smith (1940) has described the precipitation of aragonite that occurs on the Bahama Banks (see also Vaughan, 1924) and has pointed out that there the process is facilitated by seeding with the minute aragonite crystals stirred up from the bottom.

Precipitation through organic agencies does not require that the sea water be saturated with calcium carbonate. However, deposits high in calcareous skeletal structures are generally restricted to areas where the physical-chemical environment is such that the ionic product [Ca++] X [CO3] is large (see p. 205). The photosynthetic activity of plants, which removes carbon dioxide from solution and hence tends to increase the concentration of CO3ions, offers a simple mechanism for

development of calcareous structures in plants. In some cases algae are found with calcareous encrustations apparently formed by the more or less accidental precipitation of carbonate. The mechanism by which marine animals are able to secrete calcareous structures is as yet unknown.

Transportation is of less importance to the distribution of calcareous material than to that of certain other constituents of the sediments. The benthic forms are large and can be moved only by the action of waves or extremely strong currents. However, wave action, boring organisms, and organisms which feed on the bottom mud tend to break down the larger fragments and, in this way, coral sands and muds are formed. Such a breakdown may favor a certain amount of solution. Agencies of lateral transportation are not very important even for those pelagic forms which live in the upper layers, since their skeletons sink quite rapidly and are not transported far from the region of development.

The potential supply of calcareous material to the bottom is dependent upon the production of calcareous forms either in the plankton of the overlying water or among the benthic organisms. However, a certain amount of solution may take place after the death of the organism and may occur either while settling through the water or on the sea bottom. Whether or not solution will take place depends upon the physical-chemical conditions prevailing in the water but, as the exact value for the solubility product is as yet unknown, it is impossible to state whether or not the waters of the oceans are saturated with calcium carbonate. Earlier studies lay particular emphasis upon the solution which takes place while the calcareous material is settling through the water. Examinations of the vertical distribution of calcium and alkalinity in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans show that usually the lowest values are found in the surface layer where a certain amount of precipitation, probably through organic agencies, has taken place. Within this surface layer the concentrations are approximately the same in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, but at greater depths the existing data indicate that the waters of the Pacific contain somewhat more calcium and have a higher alkalinity: chlorosity ratio than those of the Atlantic. The larger values in the Pacific can probably be correlated with the lower oxygen content of the intermediate and deep water. The consumption of oxygen at subsurface levels is accompanied by an increase in the total carbon dioxide and therefore tends to favor the solution of any calcareous material which may settle through the water. However, it should be remembered that the consumption of oxygen, hence the production of carbon dioxide in deeper waters, is independent of the supply of calcium carbonate settling from above. Therefore we may expect that in certain localities the subsurface waters are undersaturated, whereas in other areas where there has been an adequate supply of calcareous material the deeper waters may be completely saturated with calcium carbonate.


Calcareous material on the sea bottom is exposed to the water, and if the water is undersaturated must pass into solution. In the presence of calcareous material there must be a zone within which the water is saturated with calcium carbonate and additional solution can take place only when this water is replaced by currents or by eddy diffusion. The rate at which calcium carbonate can be dissolved therefore depends upon the character of the flow and the gradients which are established and which for a given set of conditions cannot exceed a certain upper limit. If the rate of supply of calcium carbonate is greater than the rate at which the dissolved material can be carried away there will be a net gain in the amount of calcareous material and, consequently, accumulation will take place. If the supply is less than the rate at which it can be dissolved there will be no accumulation of calcareous material although considerable amounts may fall to the sea bottom in that locality. Besides the solution which may take place if the overlying waters are undersaturated, the production of carbon dioxide on the sea bottom, a result of the decomposition of organic matter, will favor the solution of calcareous material. Even if the overlying water is saturated with calcium carbonate this process will lead to a certain amount of solution. The number of benthic organisms is largely determined by the supply of decomposable organic matter and, in addition to the production of carbon dioxide, their activities in burrowing and as mud eaters will favor the breakdown of calcareous material. Extensive observations by Wattenberg in the Atlantic Ocean show a characteristic increase in the alkalinity: chlorosity ratio immediately over the bottom, which indicates a certain amount of solution of calcareous material. Furthermore, Wattenberg's data show a decrease in the dissolved oxygen content immediately adjacent to the bottom, indicating active production of carbon dioxide.

Calcium carbonate is most likely to dissolve in water which has come from high latitudes and in which the carbon dioxide content has been increased by oxidative processes. Water from high latitudes fills the great ocean basins below depths of a thousand meters or more. In some parts of the South Atlantic Ocean there is a fairly well-defined northward flow of water immediately over the bottom and, according to the results of the Meteor expedition, such areas are poor in calcium carbonate. As the water moves toward the Equator it undoubtedly takes up more calcium carbonate and can therefore dissolve less and less, for which reason alone we may expect to find calcareous sediments in low latitudes. In areas of large organic production where there is an abundant supply of organic matter to the sea floor, as along coasts where there is upwelling, and in areas of diverging currents and active winter mixing in high latitudes, we may expect to find sediments rather low in calcium carbonate because of the large amount of solution which can take place on the bottom.

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