Sulfuric Acid Speleogenesis of Carlsbad Cavern and Its Relationship to Hydrocarbons, Delaware Basin, New Mexico and Texas (1)

Carol A. Hill


Sulfur-isotope data and pH-dependence of the mineral endellite support the hypothesis that Carlsbad Cavern and other caves in the Guadalupe Mountains were dissolved primarily by sulfuric acid rather than by carbonic acid. Floor gypsum deposits up to 10 m thick and native sulfur in the caves are significantly enriched in {32}S; (isotope){34}S values as low as -25.8 per mil (CDT) indicate that the cave sulfur and gypsum are the end products of microbial reactions associated with hydrocarbons. A model for a genetic connection between hydrocarbons in the basin and caves in the Guadalupe Mountains is proposed. As the Guadalupe Mountains were uplifted during the late Pliocene-Pleistocene, oil and gas moved updip in the basin. The gas reacted with sulfate anions derived from dissolution of the Castile anhydrite to form H[2]S, CO[2], and "castile" limestone. The hydrogen sulfide rose into the Capitan reef along joints, forereef carbonate beds, or Bell Canyon siliciclastic beds and there reacted with oxygenated groundwater to form sulfuric acid and Carlsbad Cavern. A sulfuric-acid mode of dissolution may be responsible for large-scale porosity of some Delaware basin reservoirs and for oil-field karst reservoirs in other petroleum basins of the world.