Audio-magnetotelluric surveys to constrain the origin of a network of narrow synclines in Eocene limestone, Western Desert, Egypt

Elhamy A. Tarabees
Barbara J. Tewksbury
Charlotte J. Mehrtens


Recent work with high resolution satellite imagery has revealed a network of narrow synclines developed during the Oligocene or Miocene over tens of thousands of square kilometers in Eocene limestone of the Thebes Group in the Western Desert of Egypt. The synclines are non-tectonic, and their scale and geometry strongly resemble sag synclines in Qatar that were produced by dissolution of subsurface evaporites and resulting sag of overlying layers. Evaporite dissolution cannot explain the Egypt synclines, because subsurface evaporites of any significance have never been reported in this part of Egypt. In this study, we use audio-magnetotelluric surveys to illuminate the subsurface under the synclines in order to constrain possible models for their formation. We suspected karst dissolution at depth, and, given a modern water table depth of over 400 m, we expected that dry fracture networks and void spaces under the synclines might result in higher electrical resistivities than surrounding coherent limestone. We also anticipated a significant change from high to low resistivity at the contact between the Thebes Group and the underlying Esna Shale at depths of 400 m or more. Instead, we found localized low resistivity zones extending from about 50-100 m below the surface to depths of more than 400 m that are strongly correlated with synclines. We suggest that these localized low resistivity zones are filled with artesian groundwater that has insufficient hydraulic head to rise to the modern topographic surface and that is localized in subsurface voids and collapse breccias produced by dissolution. Sag of overlying limestone layers is a reasonable model for syncline formation but, given the Oligocene/Miocene age of the synclines, dissolution and sag would be unrelated to young groundwater processes.