Sunday, November 11, 2018

Stalactites And Other Calc Tufa Deposits Along Bageshwar Shama Road, Kumaon Himalaya

Traveling from Bageshwar to Shama, in Kumaon Uttarakhand, I came across a wondrous calc tufa deposit about a kilometer south of Kapkot village.

 The map below shows Bageshwar and Kapkot along Route 37. (Permanent Link).

Calc Tufa are calcium carbonate deposits which form on land in a subaerial environment. They are made up of the minerals calcite and, less commonly, aragonite. The most familiar of calcium carbonate deposits are sea floor and beach accumulations of shells and skeletons of marine organisms. Upon burial and hardening they turn into limestones. In the Proterozoic, before animals evolved the ability to biomineralize, vast thicknesses of limestones formed in the oceans by inorganic and bacterially mediated precipitation of calcium carbonate. Limestones that form in saline as well as fresh water lakes are also known.

Calc Tufa forms in the vicinity of springs, waterfalls, along river banks, caves and along hill slopes. They have a chalky texture, porous fabric and organic looking shapes. This is a result of calcium carbonate encrusting microbial, algal and moss colonies that inhabit these settings. Associated with these porous friable looking forms are more denser crystalline deposits. These are stalactites and various types of laminated and globular crusts. They are collectively called speleothems. They form generally in a cave setting by abiogenic precipitation from thin films of supersaturated water. This particular deposit containing both tufa and speleothems was along a steep hill slope with large cavities. The substrate rocks are the Mesoproterozoic age Deoban limestone and dolostones (made up of mineral dolomite). They are estimated to be around 1.5- 1.6 billion years old.

All along the exposure the rocks were shattered by prominent fracture zones. Rain water is weakly acidic. As it falls and moves through the cracks and fractures in these rocks it dissolves the minerals calcite and dolomite, becoming enriched in dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) and calcium.  The partial pressure of CO2 (a measure of dissolved CO2 concentration) in this groundwater is more than the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere. When groundwater enters a cave or emerges on a hill slope as a spring discharge, the lower partial pressure of CO2 in this open setting causes a degassing of CO2 from the groundwater. This results in the pH of the water to increase slightly, which in turn causes supersaturation of calcium carbonate in solution. Precipitation of calcium carbonate then begins on the cave walls and roof and on the hill slopes. It is possible that removal of CO2 by microbial photosynthesis may also be playing a role in triggering precipitation.

These tufa deposits occur at many places along the Bageshwar to Shama road. We finally stopped for a closer look at a largish looking deposit about a kilometer south of Kapkot. This was strictly road side geology on my part. We spent about half an hour at the deposit and so I am not presenting any detailed analysis or insights regarding this feature.

This is a complex deposit made up of varied types of tufa. We managed to photograph some beautiful calc tufa morphologies which I am posting below. My thanks to Pushkaraj Apte ( @pushkarajapte ) for contributing many of the photographs.

Lets get an idea of the size of the deposit. That's me, standing in front of the large cavern. You can see stalactites in the background.

 A peek inside the large cavity. It is about 3 meters in height and about 4 meters in width. I could have easily stood inside it. However, I did not enter it, fearing I would break some delicate mineral deposits which have formed on the floor of the cave.


Stalactites 1: The most striking of the formations are these stalactites. They range from thick columnar forms (1) which are more than a meter in length to smaller centimeter long thin delicate drips (2). The cave is damp. There is a thin film of water covering these columns suggesting ongoing mineral precipitation and growth of the stalactites. The floor of the cavern was also encrusted with deposits and partially covered with tufa debris.

 Stalactites 2: Along the hill slopes, exposed Deoban carbonate strata form ledges. Stalactites are growing on the undersides of these ledges. The bigger ones are about 1-2 feet in length.

 Botryoids:  At places botryoidal clusters (cave grapes) are seen. These hang from the roof (1) and accrete away from walls (2). They form by either radial or concentric growth of calcite (or aragonite) from a nucleation site. Each botryoid is about a centimeter or so in diameter.

Thin Platy Crusts: These thin (cm scale)delicate layers likely form in shallow films or pools of stagnant water on the floor of the cavity.

Flowstones?: These banded crusts  have formed on a slope from flowing water and likely represent abiogenic precipitation of calcite (flowstones). Alternatively they could be stromatolitic crusts formed by precipitation of calcite atop microbial sheaths and mats.

Calc Tufa:

Phytohermal Tufa: These are calcified moss deposits (a foot or so in height) which are formed on the floor of the cavity. They preserve the bushy morphology of the moss colonies. Calcite encrusted and eventually entirely replaced the moss colonies, turning them into fossilized organic structures.

Microhermal Tufa or Phytohermal Tufa: The thin tube like structures (few cm in length) of this calc tufa deposit suggests that it formed by mineral encrustation of filamentous algae or bacterial colonies. However, I cannot be sure. This too could be a moss colony.

Spongiform Tufa: Massive looking with dispersed holes. Such structures from by mineral encrusting organic matter (moss, microbial mats) draping the hillsides. The open spaces between the organic matter and decay of vegetation gives the deposit a sponge like texture. Some larger cavities (about 6 inches across) are lined with layered mineral deposits.

I found this broken piece along the road side next to the deposit. It is made up of small globular aggregates and columns which have accreted upon a substrate of spongiform tufa.

In this transverse section you can see clearly the calcium carbonate layers that have built up the column.

A cross section of the larger stalactites will also reveal its layered nature. Stalactites with such growth layers are of importance in reconstructing past climates. The oxygen in the calcite (CaCO3) provides the clue. Variations in the ratio of the two isotopes of oxygen (O18/O16) which are bound up in calcite are indicators of differences in the strength of rainfall. The lighter isotope (O16) is preferentially retained in the vapor phase. During phases of weak monsoons or drought, rain becomes enriched in the heavier isotope (O18). Calcite layers precipitated from this water will be enriched in the heavier isotope. In contrast, during strong monsoon phases, rain and groundwater becomes relatively enriched in the lighter isotope. As a result, calcite layers will inherit a 'lighter' oxygen isotope signal.

For the Indian subcontinent, reconstruction of the past variability of Asian monsoons going back hundreds to thousands of years, are based on precious few data points, spread rather sparsely across India. Recently, Gayatri Kathayat and colleagues published a study of Indian monsoon history over the past 5700 years based on the oxygen isotope record of cave stalactites from Sahiya in Uttarkhand, located about 200 km WNW of where we were. Judging by the size of some of the stalactites, I am guessing that deposition at this Kapkot site has been going on for a few hundred years at least. I wonder if this deposit can be a new paleo climate data source.

I did have another intriguing thought. Is the profusion of calc tufa deposits along road cuts in this region just a coincidence? Is it possible that blasting and cutting the hill side for building the road enhanced fractures and triggered collapse of blocks, resulting in the formation of caverns, and creating conditions favorable for calc tufa precipitation?   If so, then this deposit may be at most a hundred years old. Wild!


  1. Interesting post, and the tufa is beautiful! Thanks for the clear explanations. Tufa is something I'm not familiar with, and hope to see on my May trip, specifically tufa towers in Mono Lake, eastern California. I have no idea how much study has been done on them, but I will learn more before I go.

  2. thanks Hollis- I went through a steep learning curve too! :). Mono Lake should be interesting! do post pics!

  3. The photos suggest this is a well-ventilated cave (even if it appears moist). Such speleothems generally have a less reliable isotopic signature, due to evaporative conditions. So the chances that these particular speleothems could serve as a paleoclimate data source are slim.

    The speleothems also look too large and too many to have been deposited in the last hundred years or so. The caverns likely have more to do with the bedrock.