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Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview

Christiane Gold

Abstract. Varves are rhythmic sediments with an annual character, which can be formed in lacustrine and marine environments. The classic varve type consists of a silty, graded summer-layer and a winter-layer of clay and refers to laminated deposits in glacial lakes. Nevertheless, varves may be formed in different environments under the control of seasonally changing factors. Varve-forming material can be autochthonous or allochthonous. The different kinds of laminae are, depending on their main constituent, clastic, iron-rich, carbonatic, biologic or evaporitic. Varves are known from different ages in the earth`s history. Examples from the Late Palaeozoic and from the Cenozoic are revealed.

Under special circumstances sediments with fine distinctive laminae are formed. These could be referred to, in a very general way, as laminates. If the lamination provides a repetition, the sediment is called a rhythmite, no matter if it is cyclic or acyclic (Murawski and Meyer 2004). Concerning the rhythmites periodicity a more specific term can be used if an annual character of the sedimentary deposition can be proved. Such annual sedimentary deposits are defined as varves. Their rhythmicity is caused by seasonal fluctuations of physical, chemical or biological processes (Middleton 2005). The term varve was first used by de Geer (1912) to describe a relatively simple seasonally lamination of coarse (summer) and fine (winter) material deposited in glacial lakes. The original Swedish word varv just means a cyclic event or form regardless of periodicity (Middleton 2005). Varves are normally formed aquatic, including both lacustrine and marine environments. In this paper only the lacustrine formation will be discussed.

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Classic Varves
The classic use of the term varves describes a seasonal sedimentation in glacial lakes. De Geer (1912) determined their structure with a silty, graded base and as top clay with no more than 0.004 mm in median diameter. Each varve lamina only reaches a thickness of millimetres or less. Hs (1989) investigated the sedimentation in Swiss lakes (Fig. 1) to answer the question if there are true seasonal laminated sediments or if rather all varves might be formed by turbidity currents. He found out that classic varves are only formed in lakes which freeze in winter or thaw in summer, respectively, under the condition that the lake is deep enough to contain enough suspension. Hs (1989) explains that in summer grains from clay up to sand size are brought in by rivers and silt and clay are deposited from surface suspension. In winter, no further sediment can be brought into the frozen lake. After a certain time, depending on the lakes depth, particles with more than 0.004 mm all have settled down. Only the smallest particles remain in suspension and form a sediment layer with median grain diameter of 0.002 mm or less. Therefore, the winter deposit should mark the top of each varve in a lake that freezes every winter.

Fig. 1: X-ray photography of varves in Lake Zurich (Hs 1989).

Drewry (1986) dealt with the complex problem of glacial geologic processes and in this connection with glaci-lacustrine processes and sedimentation. He takes the influence of underflow activity and lake bottom topography on the lake floor sedimentation into consideration. Simple vertical settling of particles, that produces a weak grading of silt and clay, occurs when and where underflow activity

Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview

is diminished. He describes the resulting sediment as a few millimetres to centimetres thick units grading from silty-clay to fine clay often with a sharp contact on its top that is caused by a new underflow influx. Furthermore, he reveals that this alternation of fine sediments from settling and coarser ones from underflows at any location on the lake bottom might be determined by three factors: distance from the lake margin, turbidity currents and lake water stratification. The role of the latter one will be discussed in the part Types of lamination Clastic laminations. Drewry (1986) also remarks that the possible rhythmic sequences should be carefully tested for a seasonal origin by using several methods and not only the simple counting of couplets. Ashley (1989) proposed a classification of glaciolacustrine sediments. He distinguishes two kinds of lakes that are fed by meltwater of glaciers: ice-contact lakes, which need to have a contact to glacial ice, and distal lakes in a certain distance from the ice but still under the influence of its meltwater. Concerning the sedimentary processes he explains four lithofacies groups two for a proximal sedimentation and the other ones as an intermediate and a distal facies. In the distal facies Ashley (1989) illustrates a summer and a winter layer. The summer layer consists of silt and clay with weak lamination or even massive appearance. The winter layer is a fining-upward clay. The main agents of sediment transport are overflow and interflow. Ashley (1989) describes that all variations of sediment size or concentration of the inflowing stream decrease on its way through the epilimnion and the thermocline. Therefore, the lake stratification seems to play an important role. He expects that silt should settle during summer and clay is left in the winter month with no further sediment influx. Ashley (1989) discusses that this distal facies is mainly characteristic for distal lakes. Furthermore, he reveals that generally there is a wide range of rhythmic sedimentation and its causes in glacier-fed lakes (e.g. local weather variations or slump-generated surge currents) which can represent time scales from minutes or hours up to days. He proposes that real varves might be formed in a further distance from the glacier, so that the lake can buffer the input variations. Junge (1998) searched for the origin and spreading of rhythmically bedded sediments in Quaternary ice-dammed lakes in Central Europe. He defines their sedimentary structure as a fine rhythmic stratification of silt as summer layer and clay as winter deposit with a macroscopically sharp contact between them. While the clay is mainly homogeneous, the silty layers might be graded or contain so called secondary varves as very thin layers of clay (only a few m). The summer layer often passes directly into the winter layer, but the winter layer often provides an erosion discordance to the next silt deposit. Junge (1998) used macroscopic, microscopic, mineralogical, granulometric and geochemical properties of the sedimentary rhythmites from the area Dehlitz-Leipzig to proof their seasonal character. He developed the following model for the formation of these varves: the Pleistocene ice cover cut off the northward flowing rivers and formed an icemarginal lake that grew with time further to the South. The formation of varves in this lake was influenced by the distance to the sediment source, the length of the winter, weather events and ice melting. The silt sedimentation was strongly dominated by the topographic and paleogeographic situation (thresholds, inlets). It

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should provide a higher variability as the winter layer. The winter layer marks a longer quiet period. The thickness of varves formed by sedimentation from the glacier margin decreases with distance from the glacier and wedges in the border area of the lake.

Non-glacial varves
The seasonal sedimentation of fine laminated sediment came first into consideration with the investigation of glacial sediments. Nevertheless, the formation of varves is not limited to such environments. Environmental changes lead to variations in quality and quantity of sediments (OSullivan 1983) and thus also seasonal changes of climate are reflected, no matter where they originate from. However, varve formation seems not restricted to special climates as annually laminated sediments have been found in locations all over the world and through time. There are other factors which limit the formation and preservation of these sediments. OSullivan (1983) explains that the deposit should be nearly completely undisturbed which requires a flat-bottomed lake basin and weak or absent bioturbation, water movements and gas bubbling. Additionally, seasonal stratification of the lake water and low oxygen in the deeper parts to limit the activities of benthic organism favour the formation of varves. OSullivan (1983) considers the morphometry of the lake as the most important factor. He reveals that the ratio of surface area to depth needs to be in the right proportion so that the deep parts of the lake are undisturbed. Therefore, under the right conditions, seasonal changes lead to the formation of seasonally laminated sediments. The involved material might be autochthonous or allochthonous (Anderson and Dean 1988). The input of clastic sediments depends on annual and seasonal variations, the latter only if it is strong enough, on precipitation, runoff and ground cover (Anderson and Dean 1988). As a result, allochthonous material should not be used alone as a proof for varves. The sedimentation of autochthonous materials results from the remove of dissolved materials in the water column and includes precipitation of oxides, hydroxides, carbonates and evaporites and the growth and decay of organic matter. These processes are controlled by oxygen content, pH - value, salinity and water temperature, which vary with seasonal changes (Anderson and Dean 1988).

Types of lamination
As already mentioned, the laminae of varves may consist of different material, either autochthonous or allochthonous. The main constituent of such a layer provides its name.

Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview

Clastic laminations The influx of clastic material differs with the size of the lake. Small deep lakes in humid areas lack a greater content of clastic material, especially sediments coarser than clay size, because the sediment influx is very low (Anderson and Dean 1988). A dryer climate with less vegetative ground cover can increase the sediment yield (Anderson and Dean 1988). In contrast, sediments in large lakes are affected by the input of large rivers and by currents and circulation, so that the content of clastic material is more important. OSullivan (1983) distinguishes the clastic sedimentation in oligotrophic and eutrophic lakes. In an oligotrophic lake the allochthonous material may play a major role and the sedimentation is influenced by circulation patterns and seasonal sediment influx. However, rhythmic laminations can not be formed if the sediment influx is continuous. A second important factor is the lake stratification, which can be permanent (meromictic), temporary (mono- or dimictic) or even absent. Varves with the classic silt-clay-lamination might be formed in mono- or dimictic lakes (Fig. 2). Sediment is supplied during stratification and while finer material is kept in the epilimnion, coarser sediment settles down. After overturning of the lake a fine clay layer is deposited. If during non-stratification a further pulse of sediment input takes place, the fine layers are additionally divided by a coarse one. Therefore, one year can be represented by two or four laminae.

Fig. 2: Formation of classic varve laminations (modified after Sturm 1979).

In eutrophic lakes varve formation due to seasonal sediment influx and stratification is also possible, but will interact with a stronger production of autochthonous material and therefore get a more complex structure (OSullivan 1983). Iron-rich laminations If the content of dissolved iron in a lake is high enough, its oxidization and flocculation during non-stratification can form thick laminae that may be part of varve formation (Anderson and Dean 1988). In spring and autumn, with the mixing of the water column, Fe or Fe2+ is oxidised to Fe3+, which leads to the deposition of a light or pale brown layer. In contrast, during stagnation and stratification in the summer and the winter season a

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dark or even black layer is formed. This layer might either be the result of a higher organic production or of the reduction from Fe3+ to Fe2+ and the following precipitation of FeS (OSullivan 1983). Laminations formed by carbonates A high content of dissolved calcium carbonate leads to the formation of a carbonatic layer in the warmest months (Fig. 3). The precipitation of the carbonates can be inorganic or bio-induced. However, a certain degree of supersaturation is needed. With the rise of the water temperature or due to biogenic factors, such as photosynthesis, the dissolved CO2 decreases, so that CO3- relatively increases and might be saturated. Most common is a low-magnesium calcite, but with higher salinities a high-magnesium calcite or aragonite may precipitate primarily (OSullivan 1983; Anderson and Dean 1988).

Fig. 3: Varves from Elk Lake, Minnesota. Light laminae consist predominantly of CaCO3, dark laminae consist mainly of manganese-rich organic detritus, diatoms and clay (Anderson and Dean 1988).

Biologic laminations Strong accumulations of biogenic material might form distinctive layers (Table 1). Pure and light-coloured laminae made up of diatoms are common in varves. Other biogenic matter tends to form dark layers that may alternate with laminae of

Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview

carbonates, clastics or diatoms. These layers often originate from longer periods of productivity and are a mixture of e.g. diatoms and their fragments, chrysophycean cysts, chitinous fragments, sclerotic plant material and soft organic tissues. Calcareous biogenic material is not likely but not impossible to be found in varves (Anderson and Dean 1988).
Table 1: Formation of biologic laminations in Lovojrvi, South Finland (O'Sullivan 1983).

Laminations formed by evaporites This type of lamination may occur in saline lakes in arid regions when evaporation exceeds precipitation. Evaporite minerals that may precipitate are carbonates, gypsum and halite, depending on the grade of saturation. Gypsum possibly alternates to anhydrite. If seasonal changing controls an alternation between formation of evaporites and other sedimentation, varves are formed.

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Varves in the Late Palaeozoic

Most found varves from Permian and Carboniferous show typical structures for glaciolacustrine deposition. Nevertheless, also some non-glacial examples have been documented, which, in most cases, seem to be of marine origin (Anderson and Dean 1988). David (1922) wrote about the varved shales of Australia from the Early Carboniferous. He describes them as a laminated shale in which brick-red laminae alternate with thinner ones of pink to light grey colour. The shales are interstratified with tillites and associated with glacial conglomerates and glaciated pebbles. Therefore, they are thought to originate from glacial lakes. Another example for late Paleozoic varves is the Castile evaporites of Texas and New Mexico, which were formed in the Late Permian. The Castile Formation covered an original area of 25,000 km and an average thickness of 450 550 m (Kirkland 2003). Five varve types dominate the Castile evaporites: singlets, thin couplets, couplets, thick couplets and triplets (Fig. 4), which consist of precipitated carbonates, gypsum and halite (depending on the grade of saturation) and diagenetic anhydrite (Kirkland 2003). The varves formed in a usually stratified,

Fig. 4: Types of Castile varves. (A) Thin couplets. (B) Couplets. (C) Thick couplets. In all three cases, dark laminae are calcite and admixed organic matter, light laminae are anhydrite. (D) Triplets. Laminae are anhydrite, thin beds are halite (Kirkland 2003).

saline lake that was located near the western equatorial coast of the supercontinent Pangaea. The salts are assumed to come from the nearby ocean, when a subsurface current permanently flow through the reef that restricted the lake from the ocean. The reef acted as a highly porous and permeable aquifer, so that the inflow was limited but at a nearly constant rate. Due to its geographical location, the lake was affected by an extreme seasonal climate caused by the Late Permian monsoon (Fig. 5). With the alternation between several months of humid and several months of dry climate, the evaporation rate changed from low to high during each year. In the humid season, the lake was refreshed by sea water and algae bloomed.

Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview

Such algae extracted CO2 from the water and calcium carbonate precipitated. As a result, carbonatic layers with admixed organic matter were formed. During the dry season, evaporation exceeded water influx and the dissolved minerals precipitated. Depending on length and strength of the dry season, the different varve types were formed (Kirkland 2003).

Fig. 5: Approximate location of Castile evaporite basin. Also shown are concluded directions of prevailing monsoonal winds in central Pangaea (white arrow pointing north for southern winter, black arrow pointing south for southern summer) and over the Castile basin (white arrow pointing north-west for the dry season, black arrow pointing south-east for the humid season) (Kirkland 2003).

Varves in the Cenozoic

There are a few hundred examples of preserved Cenozoic varves, glacial as well as non-glacial. They are used for comparison and interpretation of findings from older ages, for correlation of modern events and for investigation of anthropogenic influence. With the end of the Mesozoic, pollen became a good indicator for annual sedimentation. In addition, by the Oligocene, diatoms have become well established in lacustrine systems and can be well used as a proof for varve nature (Anderson and Dean 1988). An example for modern varves is the formation in the maar lake Sihailongwan from north-eastern China, where it is situated in the Longgang Volcanic Field. The lakes surface is about 0.39 km and its maximum depth reaches 50 m. It was formed by alkali basaltic phreatomagmatic eruptions and its catchment is covered with broadleaf-conifer mixed forest (Chu et al. 2005). The East Asian monsoon regime determines the climate and causes a strong seasonality. The spring is characterized by increased surface winds and dust storms. The summer is warm and humid in contrast to the dry autumn and winter. From the middle of November until late April the lake is completely ice-covered (Chu et al. 2005). The annually


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lamination of the lakes sediments provides layers formed by diatoms, siliciclastic layers and mixed layers. During winter and early spring, mainly clastic material is deposited, while from August to November, biogenic silica contribute nearly 50% of the sediments components. A distinct dark-coloured and diatom-rich layer forms during summer and autumn and is followed by a light-coloured mixed layer. The formation of inserted siliciclastic layers is seen as an indicator for dust events (Chu et al. 2005).

The formation of varves is a complex problem. It requires an interaction of different conditions and is influenced by many factors. These principal basics are the same for classic, glacial varves and non-glacial ones, so the only reason for a special status of glacial varves is their pioneering character. Varves are good indicators for climate; however, they are not limited to special climates. Their composition and structure give information about e.g. seasonal events and annual changes and reflect the existing environmental circumstances. Therefore, any changes are well documented and preserved. Furthermore, complete varve sequences are excellent time scales, which are used for geochronology. Many varve deposits have been found until today. However, there are likely a great number of still unexplored varve sediments that may also contain unknown types of lamination or depositional sequences, respectively.

Ashley, G.M. (1989). Classification of glaciolacustrine sediments. In: Goldthwait, R.P., Matsch, C.L. (1989). Genetic classification of glacigenic deposits. A.A. Balkema/Rotterdam/Brookfield Anderson, R.Y., Dean, W.E. (1988). Lacustrine varve formation through time. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 62: 215-235 Chu, G., Liu, J., Schettler, G., Li, J., Sun, Q., Gu, Z., Lu, H., Liu,, Q., Liu, T. (2005). Sediment fluxes and varve formation in Sihailongwan, a maar lake from northeastern China. J. of Paleolimnology 34: 311-324 David, T.W.E. (1922). The varved shales of Australia. Am. J. Sci. 3: 115-116 Drewry, D. (1986). Glacial Geologic Processes. Edward Arnold Ltd. Hs, K.J. (1989). Physical Principles of Sedimentology. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg Junge, F.W. (1998). Die Bndertone Mitteldeutschlands und angrenzender Gebiete. Altenbg. nat. wiss. Forsch. 9: 1-210 Kirkland, D.W. (2003). An explanation for the varves of the Castile evaporites (Upper Permian), Texas and New Mexico, USA. Sedimentology 50: 899-920 Murawski, H., Meyer, W. (2004). Geologisches Wrterbuch. Elsevier GmbH Mnchen Middleton, G.V. (2005). Encyclopedia of sediments and sedimentary rocks. Repr. SpringerVerlag

Varves in lacustrine sediments an overview


OSullivan, P.E. (1983). Annually-laminated lake sediments and the study of Quaternary environmental changes a review. Quat. Sci. Rev. 1: 245-313