Cave air and dripwater variability in Cathedral Caverns, Alabama

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Monthly monitoring of dripwater (δ18O, δD, [DIC], δ13CDIC, and pH) and air (pCO2 and δ13CCO2) chemistry from within Cathedral Caverns (Grant, AL) was conducted for 12 months (January 2015-December 2015) to better characterize the factors influencing deposition and δ18O chemistry of speleothems within the cave. Cave dripwater (δ18O and δD) isotope values for the Southeast, US are thought to be consistent with a yearly average. Cave monitoring of Cathedral Caverns, however, indicates that dripwater values are biased towards the winter season. This winter signal is emphasized through the study of the cave air pCO2, which shows a maximum during the month of October (7691 ppmV) and minimums during the colder, winter months. The max pCO2 value indicates that less CO2 is degassing from the dripwater during the hot summer months while during the colder winter months, more CO2 is degassed leaving less [DIC] to remain in the dripwater and more potential calcite deposition onto the stalagmite. The [DIC] and δ13CDIC which range from 0.6 to 6.0 mM and -4.7 to -14.7‰, respectively, show that [DIC] is at a maximum and δ13CDIC is 13C-depleted during summer months. These results indicate that the paleoclimate record in Cathedral Cavern’s speleothems and possibly most SE U.S. caves is biased towards a winter climatic signal. This conclusion is supported by: (i) a strong coupling between the timing of karst aquifer recharge (winter) and increased dripwater flow rates, (ii) cave dripwater δ18O (-5.7‰ (±0.2)) and δD (-32.1‰ (±2.6)) being similar to winter rainwater (-5.1‰ (±1.4) for δ18O and -27.8‰ (±15.1) for δD) collected at nearby Tuscaloosa, AL, and (iii) more favorable chemical conditions for calcite deposition to occur during winter months. These data illustrate that seasonal cave air exchange with the outside atmosphere is an important control on cave-specific periods of enhanced calcite deposition as well as the effect on the chemistry of dissolved inorganic carbon within the dripwater. This work demonstrates the utility of monitoring dripwater chemistry before conducting on paleoclimate reconstructions and furthermore, serves as a precursor for paleoclimate reconstruction of δ18O in speleothems from Cathedral Caverns.

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Geochemistry, Geology