Quartz sandstone of the Sarisariñama massif in Venezuela hosts the world biggest collapse dolines in quartz-rich lithologies, with volumes up to some millions of cubic meters. Due to extremely complex logistics required to reach the massif, the genesis of these depressions and of the underlying caves has never been studied in detail. The lack of field campaigns and extended data has fostered a decade-long scientific debate on whether their origin was due to epigenic or hypogenic processes. This study integrates petrological, structural and hydrochemical observations, including analyses of silica concentration, pH, conductivity of surface and cave waters (EC), to investigate the speleogenetic processes acting underground. Petrographic and compositional analyses of the host rock (Matauí Formation) show that in the Sarisariñama region quartz sandstones are regularly characterized by clay interlayers with significant content of pyrophyllite and kaolinite and minor amount of iron hydroxides. Compared to surface waters, subsurface infiltration along vertical fractures and fault planes show enrichment in silica, higher pH and lower EC, confirming that chemical weathering is effective underground provoking intergranular silica dissolution along structural discontinuities. The weathering of the clay and iron hydroxide interlayers guides the speleogenesis, weakening specific stratigraphic levels and causing the collapse and fragmentation of the more resistant quartz sandstone strata. The initial void, created by piping of the loose sand released by quartz sandstone weathering, can migrate upwards by means of roof and wall breakdown; this chain of events eventually triggers a collapse at the surface, which generates a circular or squared sinkhole. The weathering acts mainly along the dominant fracture networks, showing a clear guidance by regional tectonics. These speleogenetic controls rule out the hypothesis of a hypogenic origin of the simas, suggesting a primary role of long-term epigenic chemical weathering and mechanical erosion guided by joints, weak clay and iron hydroxide interlayers, followed by subsequent massive collapses.
Genesis of giant sinkholes and caves in the quartz sandstone of Sarisariñama tepui, Venezuela / Sauro, F.; Mecchia, M.; Piccini, L.; De Waele, J.; Carbone, C.; Columbu, A.; Pisani, L.; Vergara, F.. - In: GEOMORPHOLOGY. - ISSN 0169-555X. - 342(2019), pp. 223-238. [10.1016/j.geomorph.2019.06.017]
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