A two-year automated dripwater chemistry study in a remote cave in the tropical south Pacific: Using [Cl-] as a conservative tracer for seasalt contribution of major cations

Darrel M. Tremaine, Daniel J. Sinclair, Heather M. Stoll, Maria Lagerström, Carlos P. Carvajal, Robert M. Sherrell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Stalagmite Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca ratios are commonly interpreted as proxies for past hydrologic conditions and are often used to supplement carbon and oxygen stable isotope records. While the processes that control these element ratios, including water-rock interaction, dripwater residence time, and upstream precipitation of calcite, are well understood in continental caves, there have been few investigations of dripwater Element/Ca (X/Ca) evolution in coastal marine caves where seasalt can have a strong influence on the incoming Mg/Ca ratio.We instrumented a marine cave on the remote South Pacific island of Niue to record daily cave microclimate, as well as weekly-integrated drip rates, dripwater oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, and dripwater chemistry over a period of twenty-two months. Using chloride as a conservative tracer for sea-spray, we calculate that seasalt input accounts for a large portion of dripwater Na, SO4, and Mg (89%, 93%, and 85% respectively) and a smaller portion of the Ca and Sr (19% and 17%). During the second year of this study a gradual decrease (by ~18%) in dripwater chlorinity was observed, suggesting that an epikarst-hosted seasalt aerosol inventory was being diluted over time. Minor element to calcium ratios for B, K, Cl, SO4, Mg, Na, Sr, and Fe all strongly covary over the observation period, suggesting that although sea-spray plays a significant role in modulating incoming drip chemistry, prior calcite precipitation (PCP) dominates chemical evolution within the epikarst. During a prolonged drought episode, evaporative enrichments in dripwater δD and δ18O (+4‰ and 0.5‰, respectively) were observed to coincide with increased cation and anion concentrations, strong Ca removal via PCP, and increases in Sr/Ca and Mg/Ca ratios (28% and 34%, respectively), suggesting that concomitant enrichment in speleothem δ18O and X/Ca ratios may be interpreted as multi-proxy evidence for dry climate conditions.We use modern dripwater chemistry and empirical water-calcite distribution coefficients to predict a range of stalagmite X/Ca ratios. We then forward model a number of scenarios that could modulate stalagmite chemistry, including increased/decreased seasalt input and changing dripwater flow path through calcite, dolomite, and aragonite bedrock. One major implication from this study is that even if PCP and flow path lithology remain constant over time, changing seasalt input can drive stalagmite Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca ratios away from PCP-controlled covariation, and lead to strongly varying Sr/Mg ratios. Thus in order to interpret coastal cave stalagmite X/Ca records accurately, it is necessary to estimate seasalt input and analyze parent drip and bedrock chemistry to quantify the influence of each contributing process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-310
Number of pages22
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


  • Chloride
  • Dripwater
  • Mg/Ca
  • Seasalt
  • Sr/Ca
  • Stalagmite


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