Evaporite karst and Engineering/Environmental Problems in the United States


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January 2003


Evaporites, including gypsum (or anhydrite) and salt (halite), are the most soluble of common rocks; they are dissolved readily to form caves, sinkholes, disappearing streams, and other karst features that typically are found in limestones and dolomites. The four basic requirements for evaporite karst to develop are (1) a deposit of gypsum or salt; (2) water, unsaturated with CaS04 or NaCl; (3) an outlet for escape of dissolving water; and (4) energy to cause water to flow through the system. Evaporites are present in 32 of the 48 contiguous states, and they underlie -35-40% of the land area; they are reported in rocks of every geologic system from the Precambrian through the Quaternary. Evaporite karst is known at least locally (and sometimes quite extensively) in almost all areas underlain by evaporites. The most widespread and pronounced examples of problems in both gypsum and salt karst are in the Permian Basin of the southwestern United States, but many other areas also have significant problems. Human activities have caused some evaporite-karst development, primarily in salt deposits. Boreholes may enable (either intentionally or inad­vertently) unsaturated water to flow through or against salt deposits, thus allowing devel­opment of small to large dissolution cavities. If the dissolution cavity is large enough and shallow enough, successive roof failures above the cavity can cause land subsidence or cata­strophic collapse.

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Unites States Geological Survey, Vol. 109 (2003).